When I was a kid we did a couple of road trips to western Ontario to visit my stepfather’s maternal relations. His family were evangelical, and that’s how I was raised. I went to Sunday school, weekly Bible club, and a hardcore Christian camp down in New York State a couple of times. We did sleepovers at the church, and at The Buffalo Christian Center, a religious recreational facility that featured both Christian roller skating AND a Pilgrim’s Progress mini putt in the basement. All of this was confusing given that my parents were hard partiers who listened to heavy metal. My mother had a large pink and black mohawk that was both phenomenal and frightening when she wore it up, and he did a short stint in prison for dealing weed. My hatred for hypocrisy has a very clear root.
When we went out west to visit the extended relations, we always stayed at our great grandmother’s in a tiny, one-street town called Merlin. She lived in a 50s or 60s ranch style bungalow. There were shelves full of mushy old peaches in the basement and her well water was often discoloured by rust. We ate a lot of toasted white bread there. The living room, which was kept impeccably clean and perfectly appointed was for looking at—nobody ever sat in that room and god forbid you should eat in there. It was just not done. My brother and I found a rifle in the kids bedroom closet, a discovery that was so shocking to us city-dwellers that we still marvel about it to this day.
The older folk of this western branch of the family were Pentecostal (I believe), which is even more intense than the gospel church we attended. Sternness and a stiff, pursed lip that is always at the ready to scold and judge is their default. They do not dance or wear jewelry. They do not abide by frivolity of any type. They had religion on another level and their cold, passionless affect unnerved me.
While visiting out west, we would do a handful of day trips to far flung towns to visit my stepfather’s distant relatives. The highlight was always a visit to Boblo Island, an old amusement park that was shut down in the 90s. I think it’s condos now. Back then you took a short ferry ride from the mainland, and there was another larger one that brought people in all the way from Detroit.
The singular, most unforgettable thing about Boblo was the Devil’s Hole, a ride that was essentially a large cylinder of sorts. You entered through a door and stood flat against the wall. The door would close and the ride would start spinning, moving faster and faster until the floor dropped and you found yourself held against the wall by nothing but centrifugal force. It was wild to look down and see the floor several feet below. I was fearless back then, or at least eager to prove it, and went on that ride many times. They had a replica at Fantasy Island in Grand Island, New York and I went on it there too. The worst part about the ride was that you could climb up a staircase to a viewing platform and look down into the barrel, so there were always spectators heckling your decent into hell. Inversely, you could watch the riders and catch a glimpse of your own future hell ride.
I remember one time a girl a bit older than me started screaming as soon as the ride began to spin. She screamed louder and louder as the spinning increased, which turned into a wailing, frantic, begging to be let out.
“I want off! Please let me offfffff!”
Around the point where the floor should have begun to drop, they slowed down and stopped the ride. She got out, her eyes full of tears and her face frozen in abject fear. And then we had to go through the whole build up AGAIN. All of this strikes me as somehow ironic now between the religion and the name of the ride and the fact that I’ve suffered from vertigo on and off since I was 16. With chronic illness I am dizzy often, for days, months, and whole years, so it’s hard to imagine that I once enjoyed spinning at a high speed ON PURPOSE.
One of the extended relatives we visited on the trip was an elderly great aunt who lived alone in an old farmhouse in tobacco and tomato country. She was old, the house was old, and so were its contents. Everything was from around the 1940s, if not older. The furniture, the radio, the telephone. Everything. I’d never seen anything like it except in horror movies about witches and the supernatural. The visit made me uneasy, like being inside an M. Night Shyamalan film with a surprise ending wherein it is revealed that the main character was really a ghost all along.
A memory I will never forget is going into the kitchen alone to get a drink of water. As I stood with a glass under the tap, I looked out and saw a big fat spider on a massive web. In my child mind, this old lady, living in a creepy, old house surrounded by old stuff with a gigantic spider web in the kitchen window met all the hallmarks of a witch. I couldn’t wait to get out of that house.
Years later, I found myself living in an old house with spiders in the window. I grew plants and foraged for ingredients to make strange brews and herbal medicines. I filled the house with old things. I named the spiders that lived in the window and fed them during the winter to help them live as long as possible. If anyone was a witch it was me. And that’s a good thing.
Now I’m living in another house in a small town that is countryside adjacent. I have long greying, baby crone hair. The last few years have aged me considerably. I’ve been here over a year now and there are still moments when I look around and say out loud, Really, I live here now? How did that happen?
Tonight, as I stood at the kitchen sink washing my hands, I looked out at the yard that looks like the countryside, but isn’t. Not exactly. But close. Dangling in the window was a big fat orb weaver spider and I was instantly reminded of great aunt what’s-her-name of the old house with the old stuff and the kitchen spider. It felt like a sign. I don’t know what it means exactly. She and I were not related by blood. We have almost nothing in common. She would be horrified to be thought of as a witch because that’s devil business. Still, something felt full circle about it all. Like this is home. This is where I am supposed to be.