TRIGGER WARNING: This essay contains references to domestic violence and suicide that may be triggering to some.
Do You Forgive Our Mother?
It’s this line that cast the story of the Owens sisters in a more personal light, as Gilly asked Sally, and somehow me, if staring down the demons our mothers faced allows us to forgive them. More than anything Practical Magic is a meditation on single mothers raising children in the wake of personal heartbreak. Maria, pregnant and abandoned by her lover, casts a spell to ward off love which ripples through generations. Whether a fear of love is taught or inherent, I don’t know.
Shortly after sisters Sally and Gilly move in with their eclectic aunts, a woman appears at their door by nightfall, begging for a spell to make a man leave his wife. She lances the heart of a live bird, her face ravaged by sweat and tears. Sally hides her face in her sister’s lap, and Gilly looks on, transfixed. “I hope I never fall in love,” says Sally. “I can’t wait to fall in love,” answers Gilly. To protect herself from what haunts the women visiting their house at night, Sally casts a true love spell for a man who can’t possibly exist. I did the same, becoming obsessed with the leading men in movies and discovering that the guys I knew couldn’t compare.
Soon, Gilly is running away from home with a muscled blonde boy. Sally asks her sister if she loves this boy enough to marry him.
“C’mon, Sally, what’s enough?” asks Gilly. “I hate it here.” And it’s clear that love offers escape. Marriage as reprieve from childhood, your parents’ house, or a small town. Sally fears she’ll never see Gilly again.
Gilly says, “We’re gonna grow old together, it’s gonna be you and me living in a big house, these two old bitties with all these cats. I bet we even die on the same day.” Gilly borrows the unnamed man’s pocket knife, slides the blade across her palm, then her sister’s. She presses their hands together. They exchange I love yous, and it’s their love that’s defined by dreams of aging side by side, ‘til death do they part.
I was always more of a Sally than a Gilly. Despite being a hopeless romantic, I am guarded. It takes years for me to call an acquaintance friend, longer before I admit love. In high school, I planned the month I’d break up with my first boyfriend, reasoning that it was better to split over the summer and start the school year fresh. I hadn’t said I loved him. When my second boyfriend said he loved me, I thanked him, and though he laughed at my response, he became distant. When I felt I was losing him, I blurted the words. We both knew I was lying.
When I was eighteen, I stood in mother’s kitchen and declared I was ready to fall in love. I’d considered it carefully, and decided love was an experience I’d like to have. My mother laughed at this, but less than a year later, I found myself telling my boyfriend that I loved him, and meaning it. We met at community college. He was a math tutor, I was a first semester student struggling to pass algebra. He was a year older, two years ahead in school, and ten years ahead in cultural knowledge, having spent his childhood in Europe. When I realized I was truly, finally, in love, I was terrified. I didn’t want to lose control, so I bargained. I told myself we would date, but only for a few months. A year later, I promised myself we wouldn’t have sex. After sex, I told myself we’d never live together. We signed a lease and told each other it was only a year-long commitment. It is possible to be both deeply romantic and afraid of what love can do to people.
Practical Magic is a romance which unravels the notion of love in the telling, then strives to renew the viewer’s optimism by the end. A risky move, if you ask me. Aunt Jenny tells Sally, “See this couple here? He’s having an affair with the babysitter…” Though her gossip is meant to poke fun at normalcy as an ideal, its effect is twofold. Aunt Jenny shows us that the relationships we aspire to are shams. The narrative flips again as a man emerges from behind this couple and catches Sally’s eye. The aunts cast a secret love spell for Sally and the townsman. They wait anxiously, eyeing Sally the way cousins and acquaintances watch my relationship, asking in increasingly bold ways when I’ll marry. The spell activates, wind ripples through Sally’s hair, beckoning. Faith Hill’s “It’s the Way You Love Me” plays as Sally seeks the townsman. They walk then run toward one another, their bodies clash, and they kiss as the song blares “this kiss / this kiss” and it’s hard not to get swept up in the swell, his hands in Sally’s hair, the exhilaration of the moment.
Sally writes a letter to her sister. In a montage, Sally chases her husband and daughters in the yard, barefoot. “I wish you could see us, no more stones being thrown, no taunts cried out, everything is so blissfully normal.” She dances in her bedroom with her daughters and husband. Gilly dances next to an outdoor pool, surrounded by men. “I only have two words to say to you: Jimmy Angelo.” His name sounds like angel as his shadow spreads across a wall. He blindfolds Gilly, guides her backward into darkness. She smiles.
The veneer of felicity disappears when Sally hears the shrill cheep of the death watch beetle (an omen signaling the death of men loved by Owens women). The beetle’s tough armor shines as it surveys the life Sally has built with her husband. The beetle wanders through her home, skitters, slips between floorboards to where she cannot reach. Sally dismantles each plank of hardwood floor, plunging her arm into the gloom and grasping nothing. She rips the floor apart, on her hands and knees, and stops when she senses him. We see her husband stuck between passing bicyclists. He is delighted by the wind they create as they roll downhill. He closes his eyes, rejoicing in the sublime. When he comes face to face with the grill of a semi-truck, the beetle stops chirping.
Next, we find Sally pawing at the darkened window of her aunts’ house (recall the woman from years before). Sally demands they reanimate her dead husband. She pours over their spell book, searching for the page. The aunts refuse– the creature would be unnatural. She begs, ever more incoherent as she sobs, and collapses on the tome.
Sally and her daughters move in with the aunts. “I don’t want you filling their heads with any of your nonsense,” Sally warns. I wonder if she’s trying to save her daughters from magic or romantic love.
My mother admitted that some part of her is jealous of my boyfriend, jealous that I care for him, and him for me. “I never thought I’d let someone love you that much,” she said.
The aunts in Practical Magic remind me of my mother and her sisters. Aside from a single memory saturated in sunshine, we never see Sally and Gilly’s mother. When Sally and Gilly were young, they groped for answers. In the garden, the question surfaced, “Mommy died of a broken heart didn’t she?” When I was young, I thought this plausible. Lovesickness seemed as dangerous as any of the other things which threaten to kill us. I’d heard it said that people, especially elderly widowers, sometimes died from a broken heart.
This time, watching the movie six years after my mom’s attempt, I recognize what I hadn’t noticed before. The way the aunts, Sally, Gilly, and even Sally’s daughters talk about this death is the way people speak about suicide. No one blames the victim of a chronic illness. But when someone commits suicide questions of selfishness, of forgiveness, come to mind. Is it selfish to succumb to agony?
After her husband dies, Sally falls into a deep depression. For days, she stays in bed. Her girls try to rouse her. Out of bed, sleepy head, one daughter chirps in a sing song voice. Sally says she’s tired, and I’m reminded of my mother’s sleeping spells. She’d work two jobs during the week, then stay in her pajamas, sleep, eat, and nap on weekends. I’m reminded of when she’d cry, when she’d scream, how I tried to tell her that she’d be okay. I’d call my aunt, and my aunt would soothe my mom.
Is it selfish to crawl inside the shawl of depression and wrap it around yourself, rejoicing in the comfort of numbness? While watching Practical Magic I thought of my recent bouts of depression. Confronting a helplessness like whatever haunted my mother made my contempt for her instability more difficult to sustain. My circumstances and mental health were different from hers, but I knew anger, fear, and self-loathing intimately.
Sally wakes in Gilly’s arms, as my mother once woke in my aunt’s embrace. These women sharing a bed, sharing stories in their pajamas, makes me think of my mother and her sisters, how they’d talk about their parents, their husbands, or exes all night.
Lying in bed, Gilly asks Sally, “Do you forgive our mother?”
“Sometimes,” answers Sally.
Gilly stares at her sister. “You’ll never forgive yourself unless you get up, get dressed, brush your teeth because your goddamn breath stinks, and you take care of those little girls.”
How is mental illness complicated by parenting? By being a single parent? I was nineteen when my mother attempted suicide. I was still living at home, but I wasn’t a child. I wonder what my aunt said to pull my mom from the depths of her despair. Though my mother was married and divorced twice, her enduring heartbreak may not have anything to do with romance.
What does a mother’s pain do to her daughter? After she cast the true love spell Sally said, “If he doesn’t exist, I’ll never die of a broken heart,” echoing the diagnosis for her mother’s death and ensuring she wouldn’t meet the same fate.
Gilly runs toward love full tilt and finds lust and adoration. Sally spurns love, questioning the enterprise until her aunts dupe her into a relationship. She is not spared heartbreak, and now that she has experienced the heady thrill of love it’s all she can think about. In another letter, Sally writes to Gilly, “I have this dream of being whole, of not going to sleep each night wanting […] I just want someone to love me. I want to be seen.” Sally’s letter to her sister is endearing. The full moon is enchanting, but the narrative twists again as we’re swiftly reminded that there are worse things than loneliness.
Gilly calls, says she’s scared. Sally finds Gilly in a motel room, cowering on the floor inside the shadow of a bed. The TV in her room emits light, revealing her bruised face. Sometimes, to fear the one you love is to sit on the bedroom floor and cry. Sometimes, to be afraid of what your life has become is to stare at the TV in a darkened room.
Gilly’s boyfriend, Jimmy, abducts the sisters. He heats his ring with a cigarette lighter and tries to brand Gilly, but Sally stops him. She slips belladonna into his whiskey.
Gilly holds his face. “Jimmy, c’mon, please, baby. I love you, I want to be with you forever, you know that,” she pleads, her voice cracking. Tears drag her mascara like claw marks across her bruised and swollen face. It seems she might forgive, and will herself to forget. His hands slip up her neck toward her hairline, and it looks like they might kiss before his fingers snake around her neck and choke her. Sally pummels Jimmy until he collapses on Gilly and dies. Sally wants to go to the police to plead self-defense. Gilly doesn’t think they’ll be believed.
Their plight turns comic when the tempo changes. If Jimmy’s alive, they won’t go to jail. The women improvise a spell to revive Jimmy. In need of something white for the spell, they grab whipped cream from the fridge and spray a star on his corpse. For reasons that evade me, Sally dips a finger in the sugary star, scooping cream from Jimmy’s chest hair, and licks it, not seductively, but absentmindedly. I look away when they pierce his eyes with needles. The spell works. Jimmy jolts forward, chokes Gilly and growls, “Won’t you be my wife? Be my wife. Be my wife.” More than your average Frankenstein, there is something especially terrifying about a man strangling a woman while he proposes. First a question, then a command.
Sally hits his head with a frying pan and Jimmy is dead once more. The sisters bury him in the backyard. Overnight, red roses grow over his grave. Sally hacks at the vines, thorns piercing her skin.
A detective arrives. There’s a warrant for Jimmy’s arrest. Pictures of dead women splay across the kitchen table, each with the brand Jimmy tried to give Gilly. Is this necessary? Was the director, Griffin Dunne, worried we might not be convinced Jimmy was a bad guy, or that the sisters fought for their lives?
Gilly recruits her nieces to mix a potion to banish the detective. The girls realize the detective meets the specifications of their mother’s love spell, and they throw the potion over a cliff. I was angry when my mother left her boyfriend. I felt more responsible for her happiness with him gone. I wonder if it’s the same for Sally’s daughters.
When Sally tries to confess, the detective tells her to get a lawyer. Suddenly, they’re kissing. It’s a tense moment, and we’re not sure if it’s love, lust, or an appeal for Sally and Gilly to escape conviction. When Sally sees that the detective has one green eye and one blue, the same as the man she’d summoned in her love spell, she runs. She literally runs from love.
I have not heard a death watch beetle, but I’ve seen more marriages end in divorce than not. I’ve known women in unhappy marriages that tried to end their lives. I’ve known women beaten by their husbands. And I wonder if romance souring is as inevitable as the fate of a family curse. The detective tells Sally, “Curses only have power when you believe in them.” I wonder if it’s that simple.
Jimmy possesses Gilly. His dusty ghost lifts from Gilly’s manipulated, exhausted body. To exorcise her they’ll need a coven. Sally admits that she’s a witch, shirking the appearance of normalcy in the hope that this confession will save the love of her life. Commonality is found in being at the mercy of men, and the trappings of womanhood in this small town. A few of the uniting moments are lighthearted, like the observation that fumes from the boiling potion are great for your pores. The women stand in a circle, hands joined. Even those of us who haven’t been possessed by a ghost have felt beyond the reach of those who love us.
“Let him take me,” says Gilly weakly. “He wants me, just me. Everyone will be safe.” A tear slips from her cheek onto the floorboards. Sally slices their scars, and clasps her sister’s hand. We see their ancestor, Maria, freed from heartbreak, then a montage of all the times Sally and Gilly’s hands have joined. It’s their love that saved Gilly from an abusive partner, their love that saved Sally from becoming an absent mother. I still get chills when I watch this part. The women sweep the dust of Jimmy’s essence into the yard and pour the boiling potion over the grass. The investigation is closed, Jimmy’s death declared accidental.
In the end, the Owens women don witch hats and black dresses, and stand on the roof of their house. The detective smiles at Sally from a crowd on the front lawn. “Can love travel back in time and heal?” asks Sally. “Was it our joined hands that finally lifted Maria’s curse? I’d like to think so. There’s some things though, I know for certain. Always toss spilled salt over your shoulder,” something I learned from my mother long before I heard Sally say it. “Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Plant lavender for luck. And fall in love whenever you can.” And though the music swells and Sally smiles, I’m not convinced. After the credits roll, I wonder if Sally is no longer afraid of love, and if the fate of her mother no longer haunts her.
Brooke White is a Michigander with a penchant for prose and long conversations. Winner of the Hopwood Committee’s Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship for nonfiction, her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Swamp Ape Review, as Lunch Ticket’s “Amuse-Bouche” feature and the title piece in Z Publishing’s Confined Connections Anthology. She and her peers host the Arbwriters workshop. She’s an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota where she teaches creative writing. She’s currently at work on a book of literary nonfiction about women in film and television. Her latest ponderings and delights can be found online @brkthewriter