When I knew her, her hair was dyed a deep auburn that formed wispy waves about her face and made her black eyes seem darker. She wore brown dresses that showed her solidarity with the earth and its ancient rumblings. She never wore blue, the color of the sky—for her greatest fear was to accidentally view the clouds, the sun, or the stars—for who knew what mischief lurked in the heavens? She had a crystal ball, a propensity for making predictions, and a dramatic, low-pitched voice that demanded attention. She was my great grandmother, a self-proclaimed mystic with enough accuracy and consistency that we, her family, regarded her otherworldly realm as commonplace. For instance, my father, a practical, pragmatic man, remembered coming home from school and seeing his grandmother deep in a trance, her crystal ball on the table in front of her. Later, she would explain that she had had a wonderful visit with Uncle Danny. “I hope you told him I said hello,” my dad would say matter of factly, no matter that Uncle Danny had been dead for twenty years and my father had never met him.
During my childhood, my family and I would visit my great grandmother each week. A typical exchange would go like this. “Tell me about your new car,” my great grandmother would say to my mother. “I wouldn’t have chosen yellow for myself, but it is lovely.” My mother had indeed just bought a new used car that day, and though I wouldn’t say it was a lovely yellow, it was yellow.
Or she’d say to my dad. “Bruce, dear.” (Everybody was “dear.”) “There’s a man at work you need to stay away from. He’s trouble.”
“There are a lot of people where I work who are trouble,” my Dad would joke.
“But this one is worse,” my great grandmother warned. “And I see an R. His name begins with an R.”
We’d all nod our heads knowingly, for Dad had been complaining about a man named Roy all that week.
One night when I was in eighth grade she turned her attention to me. “Jane Elizabeth, dear. There’s a boy who likes you very much. He’s quite nice looking—tall and blond. And I have a strong feeling that by this time tomorrow, he will be your sweetheart.”
I could not wait to go to school the next day. Every time I saw a tall, blond haired boy I’d be sure to smile at him. Or maybe give a little wave. Or even smile and wave and say hello. By the end of the school day, I did have a tall, blond haired boyfriend! My great grandmother was the psychic phenomenon!
It wasn’t until two years later when I sat in my high school English class reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth that I understood the power of suggestion and self-fulfilling prophesies. You know that part when the three weird sisters tell Macbeth that he will be king, and he and his wife go about making sure the prophesy comes true? Well, I pictured my great-grandmother as a brown-clad fourth witch, proclaiming, “All hail, Jane Elizabeth dear! Thou shalt have a blond haired beloved before nightfall!” I realized then that I had gotten a boyfriend in the same manner that Macbeth had become king!
Don’t think, however, I put away all my great-grandmother’s influences. I still read my horoscope, I dabbled in palmistry, I analyzed my dreams, and I played the numbers—numerology, that is. Though I fully understand that psychic readings may have their fill of drama and play-acting and that coincidences occur simply due the law of mathematics—there are also times that defy explanation.
My great grandmother used to ask—as all grandparents probably do—“What do you want to be when you grow up, Jane Elizabeth, dear?”
My response was always the same: A mother and a teacher. And always in that order. “You know you can be anything you choose!” My great grandmother would add. I always suspected that my life’s goals were a little too mundane for her taste. But that’s what I wanted, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all, that that is exactly what happened—in that order.
I became a mother at the age of twenty-three when my son, Sam, was born. Those years of young motherhood were as happy and fulfilling as I had imagined. Seeing life through the eyes of my child was wonderment itself, and life’s mysteries seemed clarified and explained without the benefit of clairvoyance. I still had another dream to fulfill, however, and that was to become a teacher. When Sam was a toddler I began taking night classes at a local college, one class at a time. Money was tight. If there were doctors’ bills to pay, I waited until the next quarter. Christmas gifts to buy? Another class would have to wait. I was thirty-two years old by the time I finally had a teaching certificate and a contract to teach eighth grade English. In my excitement I had hung a giant poster of William Shakespeare on my classroom door to welcome the students I was sure were going to love literature as much as I.
The day before classes were to begin, my principal came to me and said, “There’s been a change. You’re going to need to teach eighth grade science.”
I knew my horoscope had said there were going to be great challenges afoot, but I thought it meant that I was going to finally be a teacher. I had no preparation or background in science. I didn’t need to be teaching science! Plus, I relied on my horoscope to guide me. I really didn’t need to be teaching science!
I tried. In those days before the Internet and You Tube videos, I struggled. I had no teaching manual, no science lab, no materials, and class after class after class of sociopathic fourteen year olds who knew I didn’t know what I was doing. Day after day, I dodged spitballs from my students and condescending remarks about my poor classroom management from other teachers. I was miserable, and at the end of nine weeks, I broke the first law of teacher conduct: I walked out. I quit, knowing that I would unlikely find another teaching job again. Teaching positions had already been filled—and no one would hire a teacher who broke a contract anyway.
In the weeks that followed, I could barely get up in the morning, so demoralized that something I had worked so long and so hard for was not to be. I really needed a job, but the prospect of applying anywhere immobilized me even further. Such is the work of depression. However, one Thursday morning, October 31 or Halloween, to be exact, I awoke, strangely energized and filled with a feeling that the little private Christian school in a nearby town had an opening. Without thinking how unlikely this would be or even calling beforehand, I dressed quickly and headed to the little school thirty minutes away.
I walked into the school’s office to see a flustered secretary who before I could explain the reason for my visit said, “Please tell me that you can teach English!”
“I can,” I answered.
“Really?” she asked. “Because we are desperate!”
What a coincidence, I thought. I’m desperate too!
The headmaster of the school came out of his office and explained that they had had to fire one of the English teachers the evening before, and that it was imperative that they fill this position immediately. In less time that it took me to get to the school, I was writing my signature on one form after another. Just before I signed my name on the last piece of paper, the actual contract, I stopped. “Can you tell me why the teacher I’m replacing was fired?” I asked the secretary.
She looked around, making sure no one was listening and responded in a low voice. “She was a witch, “ she said. “She was actually teaching our students witchcraft. And this is a Christian school.”
I paused, my pen poised inches from my contract. This seemed an inappropriate time to mention that the teacher who was a witch was being replaced by a woman who snapped out of a depression on Halloween morning and drove twenty-five miles because of a premonition that their school needed an English teacher that very day. Besides, I could hear my great grandmother’s voice saying, “Jane Elizabeth dear, you can be whatever you want to be.” And that’s exactly what I did.