Three-Minute Memoir

October 9, 2017

Witchcraft

By Florence Newman

(Click image to enlarge.)

One Halloween night, when my friend Ellie and I were about eight or nine, we went trick-or-treating door to door around our neighborhood. This was in those dangerous days before parents hovered protectively behind their costumed children to make sure that they didn’t get snatched by predators posing as genial homeowners or receive apples lanced with razor blades. Back then, we two girls were alone as we approached a stranger’s house where a glowing porch light beckoned. I recall the house being set back among some trees, with a long, serpentine brick walk leading to an old-fashioned gabled portico, but such “memories” are no doubt later embellishments conjured up to match the eeriness of what happened there.

Ellie rang the doorbell. We were dressed as society ladies in our mothers’ long gloves and pearl necklaces (we loved playing dress-up), or maybe I was Peter Pan and Ellie was Wendy, as we were one year for a class play called “Midnight in the Library,” in which characters escaped from their books and frolicked on the stage. The light from the doorway must have fallen over a charming picture of childish expectation as we stood there with our innocent, upturned faces and outstretched paper bags. “Trick or treat!” But the woman who had opened the door didn’t offer us candy. Was she short and silver-haired or young, willowy, and brunette? I guess I’ve forgotten. Or else it was hard to make out the details of her figure, back lit in the frame of the door. Certainly we were dazzled when she leaned over and told us, conspiratorially, that she was a witch.

“And I have a gift for each of you. Hold out your hand.”

Of course we did. Into my palm she pressed two copper pennies, then two more into Ellie’s.

“These are magic pennies. Promise you won’t lose them.”

We nodded solemnly, conscious of the awesome power with which we were being entrusted. As we left, Ellie and I looked at each other: she was grinning and her eyes had a mischievous twinkle. Did we believe the pennies were really magic? I, at least, believed they might be. After all, we had read about magic in the Narnia stories and in The Hobbit and The Time Garden and The Enchanted Castle. And before those, there had been fairy tales, like Jack and the Beanstalk, which taught us that the world was filled with magic that one could stumble across at any time and that only grown-ups foolishly rejected. Now here was a grown-up who not only believed in magic but was herself a witch, proving what every child secretly wishes to be true.

I never put the pennies to the test: what if they failed, shattering my fragile faith, already under assault by life’s steady barrage of the banal and ordinary? But neither did I lose them. Every now and then, 55-odd years on, when I’m looking for something else, I come across a battered leather box in a bureau drawer and discover inside it an ornate, antique key, badly tarnished; several unmatched buttons; and a square plastic container, about one inch by one inch, through whose top I can see two copper pennies. All thoughts of my original purpose are crowded out by recollections of that night, my friend Ellie (does she still have her pennies?), and the remarkable woman who claimed to be a witch. I am old enough now to be such a witch—a short, silver-haired one—though, as I mentioned, it’s hard to catch children alone on Halloween anymore. Witches were probably scarce even in those long-ago days. Still, I can aspire to be the rare woman who passes along that truly magical gift.

Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years.  A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers.  She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden.  She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.

Copyright © 2017, Florence Newman
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Lunch In Lyon

March 11, 2009

By Shirley Lupton

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My son, Robert, and I were having an argument on the train platform in Avignon. He wanted to stop in Lyon to have a look around and have lunch and I wanted to go straight back to Paris where we had rented an apartment for a few weeks. Robert is a travel writer and I do not see him much except the rare times we can travel together. “Mom,” he said, Lyon is the food capital of France. I guarantee that after two hours in Lyon you will not want to leave.” “You win,” I told him but I held in my head the impression that Lyon would be a city of damp unadorned buildings with menus that featured Lyonnaise potatoes.

So, after the warm October sun and the infinite yellows of southern France we stepped into a chilly plaza coated with light rain. As we walked along its streets even he agreed that Lyon’s buildings were stolid and Germanic. It will be better by the river, Robert said, and so it was. The River Saone flowed with a grand sweep under stone arched bridges and a seducing sun came out as we walked along. img_0284_3He was eying a white cathedral high on a hill on the opposite bank. I could imagine the thousand steps up to it and suggested it was time for lunch. Because part of Robert’s job is eating he has acquired a sixth sense about restaurants. He needs only to walk by the entrance, and sniff the air. “This is it, Mom.” His choice, Le Bistrot de Lyon, was no different from dozens of others along the cobblestones of Rue Merciere, which, with its beat and bustle, seemed to be the food heart of Lyon. It felt right to me too.

Le Bistrot opened itself to us. The maitre de was brisk but welcoming in that nuanced way the French have to be OK with Americans. We were seated at a small table with a white tablecloth and a pot of fresh flowers in the non-smoking section where smoking was still done without guilt or irony. Nearby a table of businessmen, six or eight of them in dark suits, were finishing up a platter of pork roast and sausages. A waiter poured from several bottles of wine set about and discussed their desserts. Good humor flowed between the waiter and the men in their rumble of conversation.

The décor was all polished brass and Persian carpets of faded reds, oranges and blues, The sconces on the walls were converted gaslights. In the mirror behind the men I could see our heads; Robert’s curling black hair, and mine, graying, had developed that “certain age” sway. Had I worn a cloche it could have been 1944. The waiter turned from the men and at once became our waiter as he placed a basket of bread on the table. When Robert spoke to him in fluent French his surprise showed in two dots of red on his cheeks. He wore a white shirt and a bold cerise tie and an apron with a casual hitch up the front. We ordered the specials and a half carafe of local red wine. The bread had deep crust and yielded dough that was thick and nutty, the color of caramel. Two small salads arrived –arugula with herbs and a garlic mustard dressing. The wine, hearty and fruity, tasted of grapes laced with primroses or cherries. And then the entrée, mine a slice of medium rare beef lightly covered with a sauce of orange cognac and butter and potatoes cut with edges crisped by caramelized onions. Another waiter joined up with ours, a dark skinned younger man, an apprentice perhaps. He observed our pleasure in the food and gave us two desserts instead of the one with the special. A small cheese plate, and an apple crisp that was so good I wanted to stand and scream. It crunched with the light, buttery shell and sugar and the freshness of the apples.

The check was modest and correct for such a simple lunch. But the confluence of care in the cooking, the colors, the way it was served by waiters who enjoyed the work, their reserved humanity and the happy hum of the businessmen, all this did something to us. It opened our feelings, which is a rare thing for a restaurant to do. In the past Robert and I had wounded each other after the divorce from his father. That day my faith in his judgment, his willingness to take me in hand and the mysterious magic of the Bistrot softened some of what had been hardened from all that. Outside the streets of Lyon looked entirely different. img_0283_2Robert went on to the white Cathedral and I walked about the shops and plazas in a daze. Later, on the train Robert wrote the following in his Journal.

The city had seemed sober and northern and monochromatic –completely without spark—when we arrived, hungry, into a gray noon, with apparently a fine mist between us and any color the city might have had. By the time we headed back to the train station at 4 PM, the invisible mist had lifted, my belly had been satisfied, I had sweated my way up to the city’s heights, my intellect, or rather my vision, had been braced by an extra post lunch coffee, the sun had grown stronger behind the clouds. So that now the martial rows of houses along the river revealed previously unseen blues, pinks, and yellows–still all very restrained. Gradually too, more direct rays had penetrated the weather and produced their shadows, and with them the facades and the very bend in the River Soane with its curving heights were revealing the nuance of a third dimension.

In Paris we had many fine meals but never one like the lunch in Lyon.

Copyright © 2009 Shirley Lupton.

I met Shirley Lupton in a writing class and was impressed by her cool, sardonic (is “sardonic” a combination of “sarcastic” and “ironic?”) Dorothy Parker-ish take on life, at least as expressed in her manuscripts. The first story by Shirley I read had the wonderful title “Nicole Kidman’s Bathrobe,” and was every bit as funny as the title suggests, but it also contained some very interesting insights into human relationships. Later, as I got to know her as a friend, I concluded that my initial impression held up. Shirley proved to be as witty and as insightful in real life as she was on the page.