Lilac season was a sacred thing in my house. There was a good bush of lilacs about seven houses down and my Nana and I would walk barefoot to go stand under the bush and breathe and breathe and not talk. Twilight was important too, and sitting on the porch in the one good wicker chair when it rained with our feet on the railing. And hours of playing chip rummy. And trout pate on melba toast. And gossip with the aunts and my mom and my Nana, in the bathroom or the kitchen or sitting cross-legged on someone’s bed.
We left tea steeping on the stove all day. We did not do the dishes right away unless we wanted to eat more food. More dessert forks for more chocolate cake. Small plates for leftover turkey sandwiches. If laundry needed ironing it was done in the living room so no one had to miss being together. This was I guess the most important thing: The women in our house, they always had to be together.
We did not worry about matching socks. Or brushing our teeth and homework or bedtimes. That was for the neighbors. Skipping school to watch Days Of Our Lives and sit with our feet up, faces slathered with cold mint facials. That was for me and my cousins and my aunts and my mom and my grandmother.
I guess you could say we lived in the Practical Magic house when I was a kid. Magic and wild women and no rules anywhere. And maybe I think this should be the way of all things.
Cast your minds back to the Owens’ women of the 1998 classic Practical Magic. For the uninitiated, these women are doomed to a curse where the men they love keep dropping dead so they go about the business of being fabulous instead. Gillian and Sally Owens, played by Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, moved in with their two aunts, Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) after the death of their parents. The first thing they learn about living with their eccentric aunts is that there are no rules.
The women, our mothers, were the main characters and their love was the real love story. They all had their own love stories, cursed and otherwise — men who were good and men who were bad and men who were a shadowy presence on the periphery. I am sorry to tell them, but they were not the point.
As Aunt Frances tells them right away, “In this house we have chocolate cake for breakfast, and never bother with silly little things like bedtimes, or brushing our teeth." Instead the little girls end up living a life that is a bit wild, walking around in nightgowns, wearing angel wings and casting spells with their faces covered in chocolate. They grow up and rebel and want other things but, the bewitching pull of their house calls them back stronger than any other love ever could.
And this is me and this is us.
My mother left her husband when I was about 4 years old, and the first thing she did was go on back home to her sisters and her mother. She brought me and my brothers too, but mostly she went back to them. If Practical Magic was our lives she was Sally Owens, always wanting to get things a little bit right but always pulled back to her history in this group of women: Closets full of dress-up clothes, Laura Secord chocolates under the bed. Historical romances stacked up crooked in the living room and the kitchen and the bedrooms.
If Practical Magic was our lives, my cousins and I were extras. Also-rans. The women, our mothers, were the main characters and their love was the real love story. They all had their own love stories, cursed and otherwise — men who were good and men who were bad and men who were a shadowy presence on the periphery. I am sorry to tell them, but they were not the point. Just like we, their children, were not always the point.
This love for each other, that was the point. In the kitchen hip to hip, laughing. Slapping each other with a tea towel and yelling “Stop, stop, you’re going to make me pee my pants.” Pulling on coats and boots to walk in the snow without us their children. Going to the market for cinnamon rolls and egg sandwiches before we woke up. Just so they could be alone together.
This was the lesson I learned best from them. To love the women in your life like they mattered always.
We knew as kids that we were not the center of the universe and it was okay. We got enough love. We got lots of it. But there was something sort of holy about seeing the women in my life love each other like that.
My favorite scenee in Practical Magic is where Gillian is possessed and Sally has to call the women of the town to the house to help save her.. Every woman wants to be there more than anywhere. They want to cast their spells and commune. They want to be together. I have no idea who is watching the kids but that doesn’t matter much. What matters are these sisters. And it’s an important lesson really. To model love for other women so your kids can see it and know it.
We were loved in my own Practical Magic mess of a house, but more important we saw love. We knew as kids that we were not the center of the universe and it was okay. We got enough love. We got lots of it. But it was okay to see so much of that love reserved for each other. There was something sort of holy about it, seeing the women in my life love each other like that.
Just like the aunts in Practical Magic, my aunts and my mom and my Nana taught us to love just everything. To nap on a summer afternoon with a fan blowing right on our faces. To eat. To be. To gossip and be naughty and celebrate each other.
It wasn’t perfect parenting. But it sure was magical.
Jen McGuire's book NEST, about raising her four sons and learning to live alone, is available now.