There are several reasons why the women in my family are considered to be witches. Firstly, they have a tendency to live for an exceptionally long time. Great-Great-Granny-Norma is 112 and still going strong. If I'm honest with you, she seems to be more all there in the head than the Mothers, Erica (35) and Zara (31). She runs up the stairs in her poky little cottage like a twenty year old. I expect she'll outlive me. Maybe she'll just keep on going forever.
Secondly, they follow some beliefs and traditions that some may consider a kind of witchcraft. They speak with the deceased (although I have never heard the deceased speaking back) and they use cards, stones and the palms of their hands to predict the future, with varying levels of accuracy. Great-great-granny-Norma is quite good at this, Nana-Sally is not too bad either. Erica is a mess, Zara too. But they regularly meet to speak with, and about, the 'ancestors', and to light candles and leave offerings in their memories.
Thirdly, every woman in the family inherits a very loud and abrasive sounding laugh. Just the women, but everyone has it. Great-Great-Grandpa-Joseph and Great-Grandad-Ralph used to joke that when they all got together and started gossiping, they cackled like a coven of old witches.
Every Halloween the women of the family meet here. It's a long held tradition. There is some kind of ceremony to remember the deceased, followed by a feast; and then several hours of gossiping. It seems to be more about the gossiping than anything else.
This year is going to be different, though. Because of the social distancing, they're not meeting in person. They've decided to have their celebration over Zoom instead, and without Raven here it'll be especially lonely.
Maude has never used Zoom. She doesn't really use the computer much, only to occasionally look at her emails or to play on a strange bingo site which I think is a scam.
“It's easy Mum,” I hear Sally's voice from the other end of the phone. “I'll send you a link to the meeting, and on Saturday at 7 you just click on it and the window will open up, and then you'll be able to see us all. I've been going to yoga classes on there every week. It's great and really straightforward. Any problems just call me on the mobile.”
Maude looks nervous. I think about Great-Great-Granny-Norma, about how she'll be able to manage. I don't think she's ever used a computer before. Last year Becky had her phone out and Great-Great-Granny-Norma was looking at it quite suspiciously, as if she couldn't quite place it into her World. Great-Great-Granny-Norma just uses the landline for phone calls. The others wouldn't have a meeting without her though, would they?
Halloween afternoon. Maude buys a pumpkin and carves it to look like me. She does a very good job. I sit and pose for her.. Her phone buzzes on the table and I peer over at the message: Sally Grove is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting. Topic: Halloween Family Meetup. Time Oct 31st 2020, 19:00pm. Followed by a long string of letters and numbers that I don't understand.
The phone buzzes again, a voice clip.
“Hi Grandma, it's Zara. Just to let you know, Maya really wants us to include Raven in the ceremony later. Hope that's okay. See you soon”
Maude slowly types the same response to both messages, her finger shaking hesitantly over each letter. Thank you see you tonight xx
They've agreed to set the altars next to the computer so that everyone can see each others'. Maude spends some time arranging candles, crystals, and framed photos of our departed relatives. I bring her some gifts to include. Something for Great-Great-Grandpa-Joseph, something for Great-Grandad-Ralph, something for Raven; and one more gift for all of the ancestors, with a prayer that the night will run smoothly, without too many technical issues.
One thing I really love about Maude is how much she lets me be included even though I'm not one of the women. She tears up when I present the gifts and proudly places them at the very front. Maude understands me, and I puff up my chest, proud to have pleased her.
7pm, Maude is on the phone to Sally.
“But I can't see it anywhere, dear” she says. She switches the phone to video mode to show Sally the desktop screen.
“Did you install it, Mum?
“What does that mean?”
Sally, very slowly and patiently, talks Maude through a long set of instructions. Maude follows with a vacant face.
“I don't understand any of this” she says several times, clicking wherever Sally tells her.
Minutes later, a blue icon with a picture of a camera appears on the screen.
“That's it, Mum!” Says Sally excitedly. Maude clicks on the picture and, as if by some kind of magic, the screen is suddenly filled with five boxes, each one containing a different person: Nana-Sally; Zara with Maya on her lap; Erica and Becky, in the same room but each with their own box; and Maude herself.
I jump onto the desk to take a closer look. This is fascinating. Smiles and waves everywhere.
“Sphinxy!” Maya screams. “Sphinx, Sphinx, Sphinx!” her hand reaches out as if she is trying to stroke me through the computer screen.
“What do I do now?” asks Maude, distressed.
“Just push it off, Mum” says Sally, rolling her eyes.
“I can't push him off...”
“It's okay Grandma” says Erica, “You don't need the keyboard. We just need to be able to see you. Sphinx can stay there.”
Maude softly touches my back, a cross between a very weak nudge and an affectionate stroke. I stay put. This is far too interesting.
“What about Great-Great-Granny-Norma?” asks Becky. “Is she going to come?”
“Yes! I've sorted it!” Zara squeals with delight. “Ben the Delivery Man is going to call through on his mobile. They should be here at any minute.”
Another box pops up on the screen. Great-Great-Granny-Norma, her face simultaneously pleased, wary and confused. She smiles and waves, clearly not really sure what's going on. Next to her sits a mop of brown hair, a wide pair of blue eyes and a surgical mask.
“This is so great that we're all here!” Beams Erica.
“Lets do our ceremony first, shall we,” Says Sally, “I see we all have our lovely.... OH MY GOD MUM ARE THOSE RATS?! Jesus! Turn the screen away!”
Erica and Zara's abrasive laughs boom through the speaker.
“Sphinx brought them in” Maude says, petting my head. “There's one each for the Grandfathers, one for Raven, and one for all of the ancestors. He really is an incredible cat. So clever!”
I jump from the keyboard into her lap and snuggle against her. She understands me so well.
“Ugh, now I'm glad we're in separate houses!” Says Sally, rolling her eyes. Erica and Zara are still in stitches.
Each woman begins to light her candles, except Maude.
“I'll have to stay sitting now,” she says. “The cat's on me.”
“Just push it off, Mum!”
“I can't push him off! Look, I'll see if I can light my candles from here.”
I jump to the floor as a sign of respect to the departed, and Maude lights her four candles.
Great-Great-Grandpa-Joseph lived to 100, and Great-Grandad-Ralph to 94. A good innings for both of them but no rival for the females of the family.
Raven lived 27, an incredible age for a cat. I hoped she was watching us. I hope she'd seen that I'd caught four rats in one day!
A candle for all of the ancestors. Just for a moment it goes very quiet. And surprisingly no magic is lost despite the computer and the distance, each flickering candle glimmering with love, thanks and respect.
I wonder if this is the first time that five generations of the same family have met in a Zoom meeting.
Next it's time for the food and everyone has made something special for themselves. Maude made a fish pie so that we can share it. Sally turns away when she sees us eating from the same plate.
Content and full, I move to the sofa. The gossiping begins. This could go on for hours. I wonder if Ben the Delivery Man knows what he's signed up for. I hope Great-Great-Grandpa-Joseph and Great-Grandad-Ralph have been watching, I hope they're proud of how modern their Wives have become. I really hope Raven saw me catching those rats!
The sound of my own purring sends me to sleep. This Halloween was different; but actually, it wasn't so bad.