Last August, as my twelve-year marriage was falling apart, I went looking for the Little Witch books by Deborah Hautzig. I’d had witches on the brain lately. In her summer camp, my elder daughter was building a diorama of the Wizard of Oz, complete with tornado (wire operated by a crank), yellow brick road, poppy field, and ruby slippers. After my younger daughter and I dropped her off each morning, we’d cross a covered bridge to the wooded trails that backed Hamden’s Eli Whitney museum. There sat a tiny house used to store wood for projects such as the Oz operation. But Stella and I pretended that a little witch — a child witch, a nice witch — lived inside. We would knock on the door and wait, and then look up at the boarded windows.
“Maybe she’s sleeping,” Stella would whisper.
“Or maybe she’s out,” I’d say, and hold Stella’s small hand. “Flying. Having adventures.”
I pulled into the bookstore on my way to Target. I searched, then asked a clerk. I couldn’t remember the author or even the exact titles. These were books I’d loved as a child, and all I recalled was their charm and something about a little girl witch. We searched the database under witch. “Little Witch?” She turned the screen to display an image of the cover. “Little Witch Goes to School; Little Witch Learns to Read; Happy Birthday, Little Witch?”
The books were out of stock but still in print. I ordered them all and picked them up a week later.
I sought them partly in anticipation of Halloween, my most cherished holiday, and partly, I believe, in reaction to my collapsing marriage. My husband wanted a divorce — something I’d never ever imagined either of us would actually insist on, though we’d certainly experienced our share of strife. We’d been going through what I saw as one of our rough patches, but he saw it differently. He’d had it with me — he wanted out.
I struggled against the idea, kicking and screaming all summer and into the fall. At age thirteen, I’d come across my mother’s journal and read that my father was not the Prince Charming she’d thought he was; that her happily ever after wasn’t going to happen after all. I’d been a straight A student, but on the heels of my discovery and their subsequent separation, I got myself expelled from school. Their divorce, I came to believe, had installed in me almost immediately a profound sense of inadequacy, an inarticulate melancholy, and an irresistible urge to mess with my own happiness and talents.
I didn’t want this for my girls. I wanted them to feel safe and secure beyond question — I wanted them to live their lives with joy and confidence and enthusiasm. I wanted the happy apple-picking nuclear family that we’d had, I believed, up till now. I couldn’t imagine an alternative. But I needed to — for myself and for my little girls.
Anya, 7, and Stella, 4, took to Little Witch immediately. Little Witch lives in a narrow peaked house with Mother Witch, Aunts Grouchy and Nasty, and Cousin Dippy. Little Witch is good, but mother and aunts want her to be bad. “You cleaned your room again!” they cry. “Little Witch, when will you learn to be bad?”
This I read as the subjective nature of standards — a concept I’d long struggled to get on the table of my marriage and apply to our own considerable differences.
All fall, John and I shared the house — miserably, grudgingly — and I escaped on the weekends to my mother’s, taking the girls with me. On the way, we’d pass a slender, peaked, funny-looking little house, painted a whimsical green, with a For Sale sign in front. “Look,” I’d say, “a witch house.”
I could see Little Witch there — I could see us there, the three of us. I would pack the girls’ rock collection, my books and photos, and move them out of my big married-couple house and life.
Witches, it seemed, didn’t need or even want men. They maintained all-female households, made up of witch girls, witch mothers, and eccentric witch aunts. There was the Little Witch herself, Patricia Coombs’ Dorrie series, and Practical Magic — at least until Aidan Quinn comes along. And witches were bitches, in general. Of my ex-boyfriend’s snide sister, my brother once said, “Jennifer? I just saw her fly past the window on a broomstick.” My husband, I believed, had come to see me as sharp, bitter, ill-intentioned, malicious and manipulative — a bitch, a witch, possessed of paranormal destructive power. His recent partnership breakup? The real estate market? All, insidiously, my fault — yes, I’d come along and cursed him, darkly enchanted him, and he wasn’t having it anymore.
Finally, Little Witch learns to read. “Go to school if you want,” Mother Witch has told her, “but remember, don’t learn anything!” Afraid the big witches will find her out, Little Witch hides her library books and stays up reading late into the night. The witches notice her fatigue — and they worry, as good caregivers should. They search her room and find Snow White. When Little Witch returns, the big witches confront her. She confesses: “‘I learned to read at school,’ she says. “‘I love hearing stories. But nobody will read them to me! So I read them to myself.’ ‘But this book is terrible!’ wails Mother Witch. ‘It’s all about a lovely princess who lives happily ever after!'”
My daughters leaned heavy and intent against me. When I stopped for a breath they demanded, “Read!”
I read on, delighted. “‘But, Mother Witch, didn’t you read about the poison apple? And the evil queen? And the ugly old witch?’ ‘Oooooh,’ gasp Aunt Nasty and Aunt Grouchy. ‘Evil! Witches! Poison! Yum!’ ‘Really?’ asks Mother Witch. ‘Really,’ says Little Witch.”
So the witches sit together in the family room to read. They enjoy the evil queen and her crimes against Snow White. Aunts Nasty and Grouchy nod off. Mother Witch puts her girl, Little Witch, to bed. “‘That book has a very stupid ending!'” Mother Witch says. “‘Nobody lives happily ever after! But the middle parts were good.'”
I found this remark reassuring on several fronts.
What grieved me about my divorce was not only the girls’ loss of us — as precious to them, their most precious possession — or my own loss of John, my constant companion for twelve years — but that our family would now no longer resemble everyone else’s — that the girls would feel we were less than we’d been, would perceive us as flawed, defective, broken. I feared that they’d feel excluded from the canon of intact families and develop the same angry sense of themselves as outsiders that I had. And even greater was my fear that at this early stage they’d become depressed about their prospects — and feel, as I had, that they and theirs were doomed and forever banished from the world’s cheerful structures. Little Witch and her clan offered not only an alternative to society’s preferred template, but an alternate vision of a fulfilling and connected future.
We got through Halloween — dressed, of course, as witches. Thanksgiving passed, as did Hanukah and Christmas. In January John served me papers. The girls and I took up baking and ice-skating. “We’ll have fun,” I kept telling them. “Us girls.”
I talked to my friend Shannon. She lives in Tucson with her longtime girlfriend and her daughter — who, at thirteen, still snuggles with her. Shannon and her daughter’s father divorced ten years ago — now the girl splits her time between her father’s home, where she enjoys her two baby half-sisters, and Shannon’s, where she’s the center of Shannon’s and Karen’s attention. “It’s not a tragedy,” Shannon told me, “it doesn’t mean your family is broken, or shattered, or whatever. Forget that. It’s just different. You’ll be a different kind of family.”
I found a house — a little yellow house with a porch and a peaked roof. Through a neighbor’s window, Anya and I spied the same Oz project she’d completed the previous summer. I began to pack: clothes, CD’s, toys, and, of course, the Little Witch books. They had put a different and welcome spin on my situation and allowed me to see us — the three of us — as a unit. They had introduced a redemptive and liberating idea. We were outsiders, still, but a particular and delightful sort — not fragmented, not a failure — but, as Shannon had said, a different kind of family.
Kind of like magic.