Witch Hazel

As told through the eyes of my daughter.

November is not a time for flowers, the days short and cold. Heavy clouds drag at my mood, and sleet like a muttered curse propels me indoors—I am reluctant to venture out again. So when the sun breaks through for that rare yellow day, maybe the last before the snow falls, I have to go. Because the woods are quiet this time of year without leaves or birds, the buzz of a bee seems inordinately loud. Intrigued, I follow her path—what could bring her out in November? She makes directly for bare branches, which, when I look more closely, are strewn with yellow flowers—Witch Hazel. The flowers are a ragged affair: five long petals, each like a scrap of fading yellow cloth that snagged on the branch, torn strips that wave in the breeze. But, oh are they welcome, a spot of color when months of gray lie ahead. A last hurrah before winter that suddenly reminds me of a November long ago. The house had stood empty since she left. The cardboard Santas she had pasted on the tall windows were faded from shafts of summer sun and plastic poinsettias on the table were draped in cobwebs. You could smell that the mice ransacked the pantry while the Christmas ham turned to mounds of mold in the icebox after the power was shut off. Outside on the porch a wren built its nest in the lunch box again, awaiting her return. Asters bloomed in profusion under the sagging clothesline, where a gray cardigan was still pinned. I first met Hazel Barnett when I was walking the fields in Kentucky, looking for wild blackberries with my mother. We were bent to our picking when I heard a high voice from the hedgerow call, “Howdy-do. Howdy-do.” There at the fence stood the oldest woman I’d ever seen. Slightly afraid, I took my mother’s hand as we walked over to greet her. She supported herself by leaning against the fence among the pink and burgundy hollyhocks. Her iron-gray hair was drawn into a bun at the back of her neck with a corona of white wisps standing out like sun rays around her toothless face. “I like to see yer light at night, ” she said. “It feels real neighborly. I seen y’all out walkin’ and come to say hi-dee.” My mother introduced herself, explained we’d moved in a few months ago. “And who is this lil’ bundle of joy?” she asked, leaning over the barbed wire to pinch my cheek. The fence pressed into the loose breast of her housedress, where pink and purple flowers like the hollyhocks were fading from many washings. She wore bedroom slippers outside in the garden, something my mother would never allow. She stuck her wrinkled old hand over the fence, veiny and crooked with a wire-thin band of gold loose on her ring finger. I’d never heard of a person named Hazel, but I’d heard of Witch Hazel and was quite certain that this must be the witch herself. I held my mother’s hand even tighter. I suppose, given the way she is with plants, there was a time when some might have called her “witch.” And there i s something eerie about a tree that flowers so far out of season and then spits its seeds—shiny pearls as black as midnight—twenty feet into the quiet fall woods, with a sound like an elfin footfall. She and my mother became unlikely friends, trading recipes and garden tips. By day my mother was a professor at the college in town, sitting at her microscope, writing scientific articles. But spring twilight found her barefoot in the garden, planting beans and helping me fill my pail with earthworms that were severed by her shovel. I thought I could nurse them back to health in the worm hospital I constructed beneath the irises. She encouraged me in this, always saying, “There is no hurt that can’t be healed by love.” Before dark many evenings, we would wander across the pasture to the fence and meet Hazel. “I do like to see your light in the window, ” she said. “There ain’t nothing better than a good neighbor.” I listened while they discussed putting stove ash at the base of tomato plants to keep off cutworms or Mama bragged on how fast I was learning to read. “Lord, she’s a quick study, ain’t you, my little honeybee?” Hazel said. Sometimes she had a wrapped peppermint in her dress pocket for me, the cellophane old and soft around it. The visits progressed from the fence line to the front porch. When we baked, we would take over a plate of cookies and sip lemonade on her sagging stoop. I never liked to go in the house, an overwhelming jumble of old junk, trash bags, cigarette smoke, and what I now know as the smell of poverty. Hazel lived in the little shotgun house with her son Sam and daughter Janie. Janie was, as her mother explained, “simple, ” on account of she came late in life, her mother’s last child. She was kind and loving and always wanting to smother my sister and me in her deep, soft arms. Sam was disabled, couldn’t work but received some veteran’s benefits and pension from the coal company that they all lived on. Barely. When he was well enough to go fishing, he would bring us big catfish from the river. He coughed like crazy but had twinkling blue eyes and a world of stories, having been overseas in the war. Once he brought us a whole bucket of blackberries he’d picked along the railroad track. My mom tried to refuse that big pail as too generous a gift. “Why, don’t talk nonsense, ” Hazel said. “They aren’t my berries. The Lord done made these things for us to share.” My mother loved to work. For her, a good time was building stone walls or clearing brush. On occasion, Hazel would come over and sit in a lawn chair under the oaks while Mama stacked stones or split kindling. They would just talk about this and that, Hazel telling about how she liked a good woodpile, especially when she used to take in washing to earn a little extra. She needed a goodly pile to fuel her washtubs. She had worked as a cook in a place down by the river and she shook her head at the number of platters she could carry at one time. Mama would tell about her students or a trip she had taken and Hazel would wonder at the very idea of flying in an airplane. And Hazel would tell about the time she was called out to deliver a baby in a snowstorm, or how people would come to her door for healing herbs. She said how some other lady professor had once come with a tape recorder to talk to her and was going to put her in a book, on account of all the old ways she knew. But the professor had never come back and Hazel had never seen the book. I half listened to talk about gathering hickory nuts under the big trees or carrying a lunch pail to her daddy, who worked making barrels at the distillery down by the river, but my mother was charmed by Hazel’s stories. I know my mother loved being a scientist, but she always said that she was born too late. Her real calling, she was sure, was to be a nineteenthcentury farmwife. She sang while she canned tomatoes, stewed peaches, punched down the dough for bread, and was insistent that I learn how, too. When I think back on her friendship with Hazel, I suppose that the deep respect they had for each other was rooted in such things: both were women with feet planted deep in the earth who took pride in a back strong enough to carry a load for others. Mostly I heard their talk as a drone of grown-up chatter, but one time, when my mother was coming across the yard with a big armload of wood, I saw Hazel drop her head in her hands and cry. “When I lived at home, ” she said, “I could carry a load like that. Why, I could carry a bushel of peaches on one hip and a baby on the other without hardly trying. But now it’s all gone, gone with the wind.” Hazel was born and raised over in Jessamine County, Kentucky, just down the road. To hear her talk, though, it might have been hundreds of miles away. She couldn’t drive, nor could Janie or Sam, so her old house was as lost to her as if it lay across the Great Divide. She had come here to live with Sam when he had a heart attack on Christmas Eve. She loved Christmas—all the folks coming by, cooking a big dinner—but she dropped everything that Christmas, locked her door, and came to live with her son and look after him. She hadn’t been back home since, but you could see that her heart ached for the place—she would get a faraway look in her eyes when she spoke of it. My mother understood this, the longing for home. She was a northern girl, born in the shadow of the Adirondacks. She had lived lots of places for graduate school and research, but always thought she’d go back home. I remember the fall she cried for missing the blaze of red maple. She was transplanted to Kentucky by dint of a good job and my father’s career, but I know she missed her own folks and the woods of home. The taste of exile was as much in her mouth as it was in Hazel’s. As Hazel grew older, she got sadder and would talk more and more about the old times, the things she would never see again: how tall and handsome her husband, Rowley, had been, how beautiful her gardens were. My mother once offered to take her back to see her old place, but she shook her head. “That’s mighty nice of you, but I couldn’t be beholden like that. Anyway, it’s gone with the wind, ” she would say, “all gone.” But one fall afternoon when the light was long and gold, she phoned up. “Now, honey, I know yer hands and heart are full, but if there was any way you could see fit to drive me back to the old place, I’d be right thankful. I need to see to that roof before the snow flies.” My mother and I picked her up and drove up the Nicholasville Road toward the river. It’s all four-lane now, with a big span across the Kentucky River, so high you hardly know it’s flowing, muddy, below you. At the old distillery, boarded up and empty now, we left the highway and drove down a little dirt road that angles back away from the river. Hazel began to cry in the backseat the minute we made the turn. “Oh, my dear old road, ” she cried, and I patted her hand. I knew what to do, for I’d seen my mother cry just like this when she took me past the house where she had grown up. Hazel directed Mama past the ramshackle little houses, a few stove-in trailers, and remnants of barns. We stopped before a grassy swale under a thick grove of black locust trees. “Here it is, ” she said, “my home sweet home.” She talked like that, like it was right out of a book. Before us was an old schoolhouse with long chapel windows set all around and two doors at the front, one for boys and one for girls. It was silvery gray with just a few swipes of whitewash blurred across the clapboard. Hazel was eager to get out and I had to hurry to get her walker to her before she stumbled in the tall grass. Pointing all the way at the spring house, the old chicken coop, she led Mama and me to the side door and up onto the porch. She fumbled in her big purse for the keys, but her hands were shaking so badly she asked me if I would unlock the door. I opened the tattered old screen door and the key slid easily into the padlock. I held the door back for her and she clumped inside and stopped. Just stopped and looked. It was quiet as a church. The air was cold inside and flowed out past me into the warm November afternoon. I started to go in, but my mother’s hand on my arm stopped me. “Just let her be, ” her look said. The room before us was like a picture book about the olden days. A big old woodstove sat along the back wall, cast iron frying pans hung alongside. Dishtowels were neatly hung on dowels over the dry sink, and once-white curtains framed the view of the grove outside. The ceilings were high, as befits an old schoolhouse, and festooned with garlands of tinsel, blue and silver, flickering in the breeze from the open door. Christmas cards outlined the doorframes, fixed with yellowing tape. The whole kitchen was decked out for Christmas, an oilcloth of a holiday print covered the table and plastic poinsettias swathed in cobwebs sat in jam jars as a centerpiece. The table was set for six places and there was still food on the plates, the chairs pushed back just as they were when dinner had been interrupted by the call from the hospital. “What a sight, ” she said. “Let’s put this all to rights.” Suddenly Hazel became as businesslike as if she’d just walked into her house after supper and found it below her housewifely standards. She set her walker aside and began gathering up the dishes from the long kitchen table and carrying them over to the sink. My mother tried to slow her down by asking for a tour of the place and saying we could get to tidying another time. Hazel took us into the parlor, where the skeleton of a Christmas tree stood with a pile of needles on the floor below. The ornaments hung like orphans on the bare branches. There was a little red drum and silver plastic birds with paint worn off and stubs where their tails should be. It had been a cozy room; there were rocking chairs and a couch, a little spindleleg table and gas lamps. An old oak sideboard held a china pitcher and basin painted with roses. A hand-embroidered scarf, crossstitched in pink and blue, ran the length of the sideboard. “My goodness, ” she said, wiping the corner of her housedress over the thick layer of dust. “I’ve got to get after my dustin’ in here.” While she and Mama looked at the pretty dishes in the sideboard, I wandered off to explore. I pushed one door open to a big unmade bed heaped with blankets thrown back. Beside it was what looked like a potty chair, only grown-up size. It didn’t smell very good in there and I quickly retreated, not wanting to be caught snooping around. Another door gave way to a bedroom with a beautiful patchwork quilt and more tinsel garlands draped over the mirror above the dresser where a hurricane lamp sat, all caked in soot. Hazel leaned on my mother’s arm as we circled around the clearing outside, pointing out trees she had planted and flowerbeds long overgrown. At the back of the house, under the oaks, was a clump of bare gray branches erupting with a froth of stringy yellow blossoms. “Why lookee here, it’s my old medicine come to greet me, ” she said and reached out to take the branch as if she was going to shake its hand. “I made me many a batch of this old witch hazel and folks would come to me for it, special. I’d cook up that bark in the fall and have it all winter to rub on aches and pains, burns and rashes—everybody wanted it. There ain’t hardly no hurt the woods don’t have medicine for.” “That witch hazel, ” she said, “it’s not just good for you outside, but inside too. Land sakes, flowers in November. The good Lord gave us witch hazel to remind us that there’s always somethin’ good even when it seems like there ain’t. It just lightens your heavy heart, is what it does.” After that first visit, Hazel would often call on a Sunday afternoon and ask, “Would y’all like to go for a ride?” My mother thought it important that we girls go along. It was like her insistence that we learn to bake bread and plant beans—things that didn’t seem important then, but now I know differently. We got to pick hickory nuts from behind the old house, wrinkle our noses at the tilting outhouse, and root around in the barn for treasures while Mama and Hazel sat on the porch and talked. Hung on a nail right beside her door was an old, black metal lunch box, open and lined with what looked like shelf paper. There were remnants of a bird’s nest within. Hazel had brought along a small plastic bag filled with cracker crumbs, which she scattered on the porch rail. “This little Jenny Wren has made her home here every year since Rowley passed on. This here was his lunch pail. Now she counts on me for house and home and I cain’t let her down.” A lot of people must have counted on Hazel when she was young and strong. She took us driving down her road and we stopped at nearly every house but one. “Them are no count folks, ” she said, and looked away. The others seemed overjoyed to see Hazel again. My sister and I would follow the chickens around or pet the hound dogs while Mama and Hazel would visit with the neighbors. These folks were very different from the ones we met at school or at parties at the college. One lady reached out to tap my teeth. “Those are mighty purty teeth you got, ” she said. I’d never thought that teeth were worthy of a compliment, but then I hadn’t met people before who had so few. I mostly remember their kindness, though. They were ladies Hazel had sung with in the choir of the little white church under the pines. Ladies she had known since girlhood, and they cackled together about dances by the river and shook their heads sadly over the fate of kids who up and moved away. We’d go home in the afternoon with a basket of fresh eggs or a slice of cake for each of us and Hazel just beaming. When winter began, our visits were fewer and the light seemed to go out of Hazel’s eyes. She sat at our kitchen table one day and said, “I know I shouldn’t ask the good Lord for nuthin more’n what I already got, but how I wish I could have just one more Christmas in my dear old home. But those days are gone. Gone with the wind.” This was an ache for which the woods had no medicine. We were not going north to my grandma and grandpa’s for Christmas that year and my mother was taking it hard. It was still weeks until Christmas but already she was baking up a fury while we girls strung popcorn and cranberries for the tree. She talked about how she would miss the snow, the smell of balsam, and her family. And then she got an idea. It was to be a complete surprise. She got the house key from Sam and went to the old schoolhouse to see what she could do. She got on the phone to the Rural Electric Co-op and arranged to have Hazel’s power reconnected, just for those few days. As soon as the lights came on, it became clear how dirty it all was. There was no running water, so we had to bring jugs of water from home to sponge things down. The job was bigger than us, so Mama enlisted the help of some fraternity boys from her classes at the college who needed a community service project. They sure got one: cleaning out that refrigerator rivaled any microbiology experiment. We drove up and down Hazel’s road, where I ran in to houses with handmade invitations for all her old friends. There weren’t too many, so Mama invited the college boys and her friends, too. The house still had its Christmas decorations, but we made more, paper chains and candles, out of paper towel tubes. My dad cut a tree and set it up in the parlor with a box of lights stripped from the skeleton tree that had stood there before. We brought armloads of prickly red cedar boughs to decorate the tables and hung candy canes on the tree. The smell of cedar and peppermint filled the place where mold and mice had been only days ago. My mom and her friends baked plates of cookies. The morning of the party, the heat was on, the tree lights lit, and one by one people started to arrive, clumping up the steps of the front porch. My sister and I played hostess while Mama drove off to get the guest of honor. “Hey, any of y’all feel like going for a ride?” Mama said, and bundled Hazel into her warm coat. “Why, where we goin’?” Hazel asked. Her face gleamed like a candle when she stepped into her “home sweet home” filled with light and friends. My mother pinned a Christmas corsage—a plastic bell with golden glitter that she had found on the dresser—to Hazel’s dress. Hazel moved through her house like a queen that day. My father and my sister played their violins in the parlor, “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World, ” while I ladled out sweet red punch. I don’t remember much more about the party, except Hazel falling asleep on the way home. Just a few years later, we left Kentucky to move back north. My mom was glad to be going home, to have her maples instead of oaks, but saying good-bye to Hazel was hard. She saved it for last. Hazel gave her a going-away present, a rocking chair and a little box with a couple of her old-time Christmas ornaments inside. A celluloid drum and a silver plastic bird, missing its tail feathers. My mother still hangs them on her tree every year and tells the story of that party as if it were the best Christmas she ever had. We got word that Hazel had died a couple of years after we moved. “Gone, all gone with the wind, ” she would have said. There are some aches witch hazel can’t assuage; for those, we need each other. My mother and Hazel Barnett, unlikely sisters, I suppose, learned well from the plants they both loved—they made a balm for loneliness together, a strengthening tea for the pain of longing. Now, when the red leaves are all down and the geese are gone, I go looking for witch hazel. It never lets me down, always carrying the memory of that Christmas and how their friendship was medicine for each other. I cherish a witch hazel kind of day, a scrap of color, a light in the window when winter is closing all around.


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