I was ten the first time I stayed over at my grandmother’s house. Since I was a fearful child, everything new caused me to hide behind my mama’s back, and I did the same when I first saw her.
Maybe I was petrified by her round glasses that made her eyes five times bigger and gave me the impression that she could look down right into my heart. Or maybe her bony fingers reminded me of the witch from Hansel and Gretel, an old German fairy tale.
Of course, I soon learned that I had nothing to fear from her. In fact, she was one of the kindest persons I have ever met. Even though she never spoiled me with sweets, and I had to go to bed early, I was convinced that I had the best grandmother ever, as she gave me the feeling of being special.
My favourite activity at my grandmother’s house was cooking and baking. She lured me out behind my mamas’ legs that very first meeting with the promise of baking cookies together. To this day, I swear, those were the best cookies I have ever tasted.
We cooked many more recipes over the years, mostly with fresh ingredients out of her garden. Granny was truly knowledgeable of the various herbs and vegetables growing in unruly patches in the backyard, and she taught me everything she knew.
“Rub the leaf.”, she demanded. “What do you smell?”
“Yes, dear. That’s lemon balm. We use it to help relax and calm down. It helps with cold sores, too.”
The information she bestowed on me fell on fruitful soil. I soaked them up, stored them in every available crevice of my brain, and wrote them down in thin notebooks. My classmates did neither share my passion for muddy details of plant growing nor the simple art of cooking. That was alright, though. I wouldn’t have wanted to share my grandmothers’ secrets anyway.
I was twelve the first time I saw granny cooking up … something. It was dark - I had stayed up past my bedtime, reading the book I had just got for my birthday. Only when my eyes were starting to drop, I decided to put the book away. But I couldn’t sleep. I was parched, my throat dryer than the desert. As I began to descend the stairs, carefully minding the creaking steps, I heard a sound, hazy and gentle.
My grandmother stood at the kitchen table, her eyes rolled up, her voice a breathy whisper barely louder than the clock ticking away. I was spellbound. The words she implored didn’t make sense, and yet I could understand their deep, tremendous meaning.
Blurred colours danced around her slender hands, bathing the room in soft, mellow light. Her fine white hair was flowing around her head as if moved by a non-existing wind, giving her an ethereal semblance. The light cast shadows over the leaves, crystals, and balms on the kitchen table and the pot in their centre. Fumes were rising from the liquid inside it. The smell wasn’t like anything I had ever perceived, though not unpleasant.
When I think back to this very moment, I am filled with wonder about how such a delicate woman could hold so much raw power. At that time, however, I was terrified and yet, enchanted all the same.
At the sight of my grandmother, I noticed something deep inside me stir. A force as old as time itself and as extensive as the sea. I felt — for the first time in my life — deeply connected to myself and everything around me. There was a calling in me to reach out and to reach inside me and embrace the power the universe provided for me. I didn’t reach out, that very first time, too great the fear of destroying the normality I had built for myself.
Minutes passed until I noticed the complete and utter silence now surrounding me. The lights dancing around the kitchen ceiling moments ago were now a dull colour, fading, dwindling by the light of the streetlamp outside the window.
And just like that, the spell was released. I ran — as quietly as I could — up the stairs and hid under my duvet. I was in turmoil as of what I had witnessed, and sleep’s gentle hand came as a surprise.
As morning came, and I descended the stairs once again, I saw my grandmother at the exact same place as last night, bent over a plate of pancakes, humming a soft melody. For a moment I wondered if what I had witnessed had happened at all or if it had been nothing more than a strange dream. So, I kept quiet and sat down.
Of course, granny immediately noticed something was very wrong. And over pancakes and cocoa, she asked. I spilled everything: That I had seen her, the feelings inside me. She was quiet for a little while, then she stood up and brought a heavy tome.
After that, she let me watch her cook. And she explained every step of the recipes.
I was fourteen the first time we cooked something together. I had scraped my knee quite badly while training, and I knew I would not be healed up by the time of the next race. At that point in time, I was spending a lot of time with my grandmother because my mama was working a lot of overtime two towns over. Naturally, I complained to my grandmother about my bad luck. As always, she listened intently, humming at the right places while dusting. After I had finished my rant, a few minutes passed while I was sulking over a cold can of coke. Outside, the cicadas were chirping, and it seemed to me as if they tried to support my bad mood.
When my grandmother had finished dusting, she pulled out the great pot, that she kept next to her delicate ceramic tea caddies. My mood lifted. I knew what was about to come, and I loved watching her cook.
“Alright dear. Let’s fix your knee.”
She sent me into the garden to collect plantain and yarrow. However, instead of telling me to take a seat and watch closely, she instructed me how to cut up the leaves, in which order to add the ingredients and the words I needed to say.
“You cannot learn everything at once.”, she stated, as I bent over the tome, trying to decipher the meaning behind the words written in an elegant, yet scrawly hand.
“Knowledge comes with time, and you are going to have enough time to learn everything your heart desires. For now, however, trust your intuition.”
Then she took my hand.
“Take deep breaths, now, dear. And sink down into the width of your mind.”
The power didn’t scare me as much with my grandmother by my side. So, I felt within and followed the calling echoing back.
When I opened my eyes again, the kitchen was gone. Instead, I found myself in an endless nothingness. No. That wasn’t quite right. Under my feet was the sea, vast and dark, restless in its movement and yet calming. And over my head extended the universe itself. As dark as the sea, infinite and powerful. In between there was nothing, just me.
I felt someone squeeze my hand and as I looked down, looked up again, I saw my grandmother. She was just as terrifyingly beautiful as I remembered. Her hair dancing, colours extending between her fingertips. But her eyes… her eyes remained the same. And she watched me with kindness and pride.
When I tried to speak, the air turned my words into mist. Made them sound like nothing I had intended. Yet, my grandmother seemed to understand my confusion and my wonder.
She opened her mouth, and I expected the same misty result, but instead I could hear her voice in my head with a new otherworldly ring to it.
“Remember, my dearest.”, she said: “There is no ingredient as important as your own feelings. If you are to make a healing potion, you must focus on your feeling of compassion and caring for the person you try to heal. If you are to make a protection spell, you must focus on your feeling of power, of protectiveness.”
She made it sound easy and yet, I found myself overwhelmed.
“How can I have compassion, when the person I am trying to heal, is me?”, I asked. “That seems like a contradiction.”
“On the opposite, my dear. The most important person you must feel compassion for, is yourself. For your own shortcomings, your tiny flaws, your utmost imperfection.”
At that point in time, my grandmother’s words didn’t make much sense. I was upset at myself for failing in training, for ruining my chances at the race. And now I was angry that I couldn’t understand my grandmother’s instructions. Another squeeze of my hand.
“When I look at you, I look at you with love. Try to watch yourself through my eyes.”
That was even harder. Of course, I knew my grandmother loved me, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. What made my worthy of her love? I could, however, feel my love for her. And I imagined that her love for me was just as unconditional.
I squeezed her hand back. An “I love you”. “An “I am ready”.
“Move everything else aside. Your questions and your ego. But most importantly, your feelings. Your confusion. Your excitement. Your anger. Focus on the emotion you want to encompass. Caring, compassion, sympathy.”
And with my grandmother by my side, my focus on the love filling my very being, the words came naturally to me. They left my mouth but not as mist but as colours as rich and vibrant as the feelings accompanying them.
I was sixteen the first time I was ashamed of my grandmother. My mama had quit her old job and tried to mend the broken relationship between us. Therefore, I did not spend as much time with granny anymore. However, I visited her often, seeking her advice and company.
On that particular day, nothing seemed to go well for me. My best friend had told me that they would move to another town, and they would leave the school. In addition, I had failed an important physics test.
The neighbour next door waved for me to come over as soon as I was moving my bike into the front yard of my grandmother’s house. I strolled over, not looking forward to the conversation. I expected him to complain about the garbage cans that hadn’t been put out or the hedge which hadn’t been cut down and that was surly sprawling onto his property.
“I wanted to talk to you.” I had figured as much and kept silent.
“Your grandmother, she was quite odd today. I could hear her talking to the plants... Wasn’t a language I understand, however.”
When I still didn’t answer, he asked: “Is there a history of dementia in your family?”
“No.” I mumbled. “Thank you for telling me.”
Without waiting for him to speak up again, I turned around and went inside. The familiar smell of medicinal plants hit me, slightly spicy but mostly soothing. The smell that clung to all of my grandmother’s garments and wouldn’t leave me for hours once I left her house. I followed her soft humming into the kitchen, where she was bustling over the counter, engrossed in whatever concoction she was brewing.
She didn’t react immediately, too focused on her work. And I knew better than to disturb her. But with every passing moment, my inner turmoil grew. When she finished, she turned around, drying her hands on a dish towel. She fondly smiled.
“Hello dear. Did you have a good day?”
Ignoring her question, I instead asked one myself: “Grandma, do you have to talk to the plants when you are gardening? The neighbour heard; he thinks it’s weird, unhealthy even.”
My tone had an irritated edge; my grandmother, however, stayed calm, only a fine line between her eyebrows indicating her bewilderment.
“My dear. You know it helps the plants grow. What are you upset for?”
“It’s just…” I rang with my words. “I just don’t understand, why you have to hide what you do. Why I have to hide. We help people. Heal and protect. We are no crazy outsiders.”
She kept silent for a short while, mulling my words over in her head.
“We are important, even if no one knows about us.”
“I know!” My voice was rising. “But why does no one else?”
“Our place in society is a hidden one, for people do not understand that our purpose is to mend and help. To defend and make our community thrive. They would fear the power the universe endowed us with.”
Deep down I knew of course. And I was glad to have my grandmother by my side. Yet, the injustice riled me.
“At least, my dear. We have each other.”
My grandmother’s eyes became doleful as she spoke. I realized how lonely she must have been without someone to talk about her gift. My mother neither shared our power nor the openness of mind to understand. I was glad to have my grandmother by my side. And I didn’t have the strength to fight any longer.
I was eighteen the first-time my grandmother became mad at me for cooking something. I had taken her cookbook, not the one she was teaching me from, but the one she kept hidden in a drawer right beside her bed.
She had come home earlier than I had expected, dropping the groceries as soon as she realized the potion by smell. Then she had snatched away the pot, dumping its content into the sink. Whispering words of protection. Her motions were a flurry of irritation and worry. I had never seen her angrier, never more aggravated than at that moment. I knew I had screwed up. Panic rising with every second passing.
When my grandmother finished, she whirled around, facing me, pinning me down with a piercing glance.
“The love you use for a love potion.”, granny whispered, after she had scolded me: “Is a selfish love. You do not want the person to love you because you love them, rather because you are nothing without them. I made a love potion, once. The short moment of happiness, your grandfather and I, paid with years of pain.”
I cried, and she hugged me, pressing me tight against her chest. I could hear her shuddering breath. The spiled groceries in my view seemed like an accusation, and the smell of the failed potion was still lingering in the air.
Our hearts beat in unison and my grandmother held me even tighter.
“It’s alright.” She whispered, pressing a kiss into the crown of my hair. “We all make mistakes. Sometimes, however, the mistakes last.”
I never learned how to make a love potion. Instead, I learned how to make a protection spell.
I was twenty-one the first time I had to cook all alone. The tears dropping into the potion made it bubble all the wrong ways. I had to toss it. Make a new batch.
I decided to make cookies instead. The ones my grandmother and I had made together when I was small and had little idea of the world and the things yet to come. The dough didn’t look like I remembered, and neither did the finished cookies. But I swear, they tasted just like they did the first time we made them together.
And I grieved. Because I loved.