It’s a little past Hallowe’en. Images of “wicked witches” are fading from our consciousness for another year. Our recent understanding of witches has undergone something of a change, abetted by a modern Wiccan movement. Performances such as “Wicked,” a musical retelling of the Wizard of Oz story from the point of view of two witches, have also reminded us of the “good witch.” It’s been my good fortune to have become acquainted with three very good witches, three benign elders, since I moved to southern California in 2021.
The first good witch I encountered was Anne, a spritely octogenarian with a halo of blue-white curls. When I first met her, Anne was presiding over a large table of other elders at a summer neighborhood gathering of a “village,” a mutual help group for over-50’s who want to continue to live in their own homes for as long as possible, rather than moving to assisted living facilities. Anne was one of the original members of our local group a dozen years ago. Listening to some of Anne’s stories, I learned that she had spent time in China, a favorite travel destination earlier in my own life. I asked if I might meet with her one-on-one to trade stories and to learn more about her China experiences. She graciously acceded. As it turned out, Anne’s China stay had occurred mostly before I was born. She was a school girl in Shanghai and then in Chongqing from 1946 to 1948 while her naval officer father was an advisor to the Chinese military. Anne’s life experiences are quite different from mine—a Navy daughter, then a Navy wife to a commander who served during Vietnam, a conflict I had protested as a young woman. Anne raised a large family while moving from military post to post and adhering to her Roman Catholic faith. My guess is that her opinions on reproductive freedom are different from mine. However, she has never tried to proselytize or to foist her views on me. She has expressed that aspect of her faith mostly through work with charities and social service agencies in support of adoptive parents, support often badly needed.
My next good witch encounter was with Carolyn. As I oriented myself to our new environment by walking around, I was pleased that our “planned community” of about 700 houses had pleasant walkways and little traffic. A couple of small shopping strips bracketed the complex. A nearby public recreation area had both indoor and outdoor athletic facilities. Near the top of the closest hill was a cluster of churches. One morning as I explored the grounds of the local Lutheran church, I noticed a fenced garden behind the main building, with numbered raised plots and a small sign identifying it as a “nature friendly garden.” No one was around. I opened the garden gate and walked through the area. At one end were a small red shed and a small greenhouse. A couple of wrought iron lawn chairs were pulled up in front of the shed. The place looked well tended. I gradually made it a regular part of my walking routine. Several walks later, I came across Carolyn, who was tending some of the many plots she cares for. She’d opened the padlocked shed and was ferrying garden tools and containers back and forth as needed. She finished what she was doing, then took a break to chat.
“This garden has been my sanity refuge during covid,” she told me. “Outdoors, so less virus-prone, and still able to provide a service to the community.” She explained that most of “her” beds contained vegetables planted for use at T.A.C.O. (Third Avenue Charitable Organization), a downtown San Diego drop-in center for the area’s homeless and lower income residents. On Thursdays, Carolyn ferried fresh produce from the T.A.C.O. beds to the center to be included in the following day’s lunch. She’d been doing this since well before the pandemic. Given the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on those already struggling, she felt it was more needed during covid than ever.
“It’s amazing what the cooks can do with whatever I bring,” she said. “Sometimes we have mostly zucchini, other times it’s tomatoes, or carrots, or broccoli, or cabbage. Some of the other gardeners contribute their extra veggies as well.” Carolyn isn’t shy about her age—mid-80’s. She complains that she’s slowing down, but she can still heft a flat of squash or spade a garden plot with more energy than most of us, whatever our ages.
Ellen introduced herself to me by phone before I met her in person. She’s the doyenne of volunteers at our local public branch library. One of the restrictions of pandemic lockdowns that hit me hardest was the closure of area libraries. As soon as infection numbers waned enough so that libraries reopened, I visited our nearest branch, checked out as many books as I could carry, made a small donation, and signed up as a “Friend of the Tierrasanta Library.” Several months later, Ellen phoned to ask if I might be available to help cashier for a two-hour shift at the used book sale she and others arranged in the library’s conference room during the first weekend of every month.
“Sure,” I said. “Do I need to bring anything?”
“Just yourself. You’ll be working with an experienced volunteer who can show you what to do.” Ellen, too, complains that she is slowing down. Well into her 80’s, she’s had one hip replaced and is due to get the second one done next year. At the end of a day’s work, she has a noticeable limp. She doesn’t let it deter her much.
For over thirty years, it turns out, Ellen has been raising money for the library and spreading the love of books throughout the community. Over the years, she has refined a system that supplies extra children’s books at no charge to a nearby military housing complex.
Not long after arriving in California, I passed the midway point between 70 and 80. I’m slowing down a bit. Aging has brought different challenges than earlier life stages. One of the hardest for me is balancing self care with care for the wider community. Initially constrained by covid and by my general lack of knowledge of how this part of the country works, I’ve been inspired by the lives of my three good witches. Anne, Carolyn, and Ellen are not native Californians, either. They’ve all passed the 80 year milestone. Their adaptability and continuing active participation shine forth. Somewhere near here there are adoptive families with better coping skills thanks to Anne; someday a needy person is getting a more nutritious lunch thanks to Carolyn; in some child’s room someone is reading thanks to Ellen.
My skills are not exactly the same as theirs. Still, I can write about them, mimic them as much as I can, encourage others to follow their examples.
. Who are the good witches in your life?