Like her husband Lehman, who could talk warts off, Mary Grace never revealed the secrets of her magic. She would lose her powers, she said, if she revealed them to anyone except a male child of her own. The legatee was my cousin Buddy, who figures prominently in this story.
In writing all of this, I have hesitated to call any of it magic, for that might imply my belief in the inexplicable feats I’m telling you about. But I looked up the word “magic” not two minutes ago, and it is indeed the right word for what I’m describing. For, in part, the definition says: “any mysterious, seemingly inexplicable, or extraordinary power or influence.”
This, Mary Grace possessed in full and, like her father, my grandfather, she became well-known around Augusta for performing “inexplicable” feats, her reputation spreading first by word of mouth and later by newspaper stories about her and “her mysterious gifts.”
I used to tease her (she’s gone now; lung cancer. Lehman, too, soon after; grief): “If this were Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, you’d be toast by now.”
But in truth nothing about her, not even her magic, suggested witchcraft. On second thought, burning at the stake might have posed no threat to her, for her most mysterious power was the ability to talk fire out of burns. (She also could stop bleeding.)
Yep, you read me right: my Aunt Grace could talk fire out of burns. And maybe I’ve got a supernatural power, too, for I already know what you’re thinking. And I agree with you: Such things are impossible. But somebody forgot to tell that to Mary Grace and her supplicants.
I witnessed this ritual only once, but the memory of it has stayed with me in vivid detail all these years.
I must have been eight or nine years old. Aunt Grace used to keep me evenings while my mother worked. Anyhow, I’m sitting at the table one winter evening, having just washed up for supper after bringing in a bucket of coal for the kitchen stove, which was the main source of heat in Aunt Grace’s three-room shotgun house in one of Augusta’s mill villages. Across the table from me was Lehman Junior, Aunt Grace’s little boy, maybe a year and a half old, still in a high chair, the tray thrown back but the baby strapped in (with a diaper) for safety.
Busy putting food on the table, Aunt Grace takes a pot of boiling stewed potatoes from the stove and pours them into a bowl on the table, heat still bubbling up through the thick, lava-like sauce. She turns back to the stove and my eyes follow her – until we hear a blood-curdling scream from Lehman Junior. He has reached from his highchair and plunged a little fist into those steaming stewed potatoes.
Writhing in paroxysms of pain and bawling like a banshee, the baby is holding a trembling hand aloft, staring at it as the thick potato coating drips from it to reveal the lobster pink of burned baby-flesh underneath. Aunt Grace flies to his side, uses her apron to wipe the sticky coating off the burned hand, enfolds the injured hand in her own hands, and begins murmuring indistinguishable words.
It’s like watching somebody’s lips move in silent prayer, but she seems to be uttering an incantation rather than praying, maybe because her eyes are open the whole time.
Well, in no time at all, Lehman Junior’s four-alarm screams subside to soft cries and moans, and a few seconds later to sniffles that themselves are soon extinguished. I watch as Mary Grace examines the injured hand. It is no longer red. It looks, well, just like Lehman Junior’s other hand, a soft baby white.
So what’s to be made of all this – of Lehman and Mary Grace’s magic? Well, they wouldn’t be the first among us who had fashioned a reality built of incantations, enchantments, spells, and a belief in unseen powers. But my aunt and uncle’s delusional world strikes me as harmless, whereas the delusions of some – yesteryear’s Nazi Germany and today’s ISIS come to mind – subvert reason and undermine sanity.
Too, ostensibly Lehman and Mary Grace actually helped people who sought them out for help – and did it for free, never setting up shop as healers or, thank heaven, advertising their “powers” in any way.
As you can see, I have no ready answer. But, hey, I have my hands full in dealing with my own reality. So if I had anything at all to say, it would probably be: “Help!”