It was so memorable, in fact, that I incorporated my experience into a scene in my first book, Song of the Ancients.
Samantha Danroe, the main character, is just dipping her toe into witchcraft, so she is experiencing all of this for the first time. Enjoy! Maybe you’ll want to hold your own Dumb Supper this year for your ancestors--
When Samhain night arrived, I was ready. I had a picture of my mother when she was about my age. She was photographed from behind, walking on the ties of a railroad track, her hands reaching out to the sides for balance. Just as the picture was snapped, she had turned her head to smile at the photographer – my father, I assumed. It was my favorite picture of her. When she died, I framed it and placed it by her casket at the funeral. Tonight I had also selected one of her sable hair paint brushes and a charcoal pencil, to represent her artistic talents, and tied together with a black ribbon.
The ramada was already half-full when we arrived, and several dishes of food lined the center of the feast table. Rumor and I added our tureen of spicy pumpkin and squash soup and homemade bread, placing it next to a platter of ham and roasted turkey.
The next table was labeled “Ancestor Altar,” and held offerings brought to honor loved ones. I excused myself and walked over to add Mom's picture and art supplies to the altar. A book open in the center said "Ledger of the Dead." Several names were already listed on the open page. I added 'Nancy Campbell, beloved mother' below the other names, surprised to notice my hand trembled. Is it possible she will actually show up? And what does one say to a ghost? Should I tell her what's been going on in my life, or can she see my day-to-day activities through the veil? Mom had been polite, but cool, to my husband. I had a feeling, if she'd been alive, she would have supported my decision to get divorced. Actually, she probably would have seen the signs of his infidelity, and urged me to file sooner. Mothers are preternaturally wise when it comes to their children.
The back of the altar was lined with unlit votive candles. I lit one for Mom and turned around to look for Rumor. She was standing in the clearing, talking with Nuin, so I walked along the feast table to see the unusual decorations and calm my jittery mind.
At the head of the table was the spirit chair, shrouded in black satin. The side chairs were empty, each with a place setting of black dishes and goblets. A glowing black candle and a vase of black roses and bittersweet sat in the middle of the empty seating arrangement. Further down, a length of shimmering black fabric hung suspended from the ceiling of the ramada, puddling on the table and dividing it in half.
Past the veil, the other side of the table was set with white china, white candles and white flowers. I looked down the table and mentally reviewed what I knew about the dumb supper. We were to sit on the white side, our ancestors on the dark end. The entire meal was to be conducted in silence, in respect for our ancestors who could no longer speak.
Someone pulled a chair out beside me. Startled, I looked up into Nicholas' dark eyes. He motioned for me to sit. I began a comment, but he touched his finger to his lips and gave me a stern frown. Oh, right, I corrected myself.
He took the chair to my right and handed me a slip of parchment. Thankfully, Rumor had reviewed this part of the ceremony with me, so I knew what to do. I wrote a simple prayer for Mom and handed the paper back to Nicholas. He rose, walked around the hanging veil, and slipped each of our prayers under a black plate.
As we passed the serving dishes around the long table family style, and ate our silent meal, I stared at the luminous half-moon just rising above the tree line, and thought about my mother. She had been blessed with a unique connection to nature. Neighbors marveled at her green thumb. Her garden grew vigorous and lush each year, producing enough vegetables to feed the families up and down our street.
Unfortunately, she was less comfortable with people than with plants. She hated going to Dad's office parties; small talk was painful for her, even among friends. But her artwork was mesmerizing and always accepted into the city's juried art show. People would stand in front of her watercolors with happy, glazed expressions. Afterwards, they reminisced with her about a particular location in a painting, although I never heard her tell them where she had painted the scene.
By the end of our meal, my impressions of Mother had shifted. Before tonight I had thought of her as kind but shy, never one to shine. Now I wondered if my opinion was superficial. When she wanted, she could fold and knead a person's perception like warm dough between her hands. Was the quiet, solemn-eyed woman just the façade she wore for this world? Were there other faces I had simply never noticed? She dressed as a gypsy every Halloween, and the neighbor children gathered around her for stories, not candy. She had the odd habit of fanning playing cards out on the table, studying them one by one, when she had to make an important decision. What else had my childish eyes missed? Did she practice witchcraft without me knowing? What would Mother think of this bizarre dinner in her honor? My eyes filled with tears. Yes. She would approve.
After eating, we joined hands in silence. Nicholas squeezed my fingers. I studied his profile, wondering who he'd thought about during our silent meal. Who had he loved and lost?
Maya gathered the prayers from under the plates and burned them in the flame of the candle, catching the ashes in a container. While the Priestess finished our memorial, I closed my eyes, blinking away tears. Of all the strange things I had been asked to do in these last weeks, communing with my mother's spirit in silence for an evening was the easiest. I had dropped my guard completely, suspended my rigid, rational beliefs, and allowed myself to be comforted by the thought of her spirit joining me at the table.
I fingered my tears away and looked down the candle-lit table. Most of the diners had their heads bowed, and a few were dabbing at their eyes or sniffing quietly as they composed themselves.
Except for Nicholas. He was watching me. When I met his eyes, he squeezed my hand again and nodded, his eyes bright with unshed tears.
When we left, stopping by our ancestor's plate on the way out to nod goodbye, I wondered if such a ritual would be comforting for families who had lost loved ones in recent tragedies around the world. So many dead, so violently and abruptly ripped from the land of the living. What of their souls? Are they still staggering, lost between the worlds? Have they found rest? Did they have a chance to say goodbye?
I kissed my fingertips and caressed the back of an empty black chair. "Blessed be all," I whispered to those souls as we silently filed past the row of vacant seats.
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Have a magical Samhain, Halloween, All Souls. May the spirits be gentle and abundant.