My grandmother relaxes in her ancient rocking chair; her head bent over the hand-sized fabric doll she has just sewn. She reaches over and pinches a small tuft of cotton from the giant ball resting on the rickety table beside her. Her movements are languid, yet methodical as she stuffs the doll. It’s the latest of a countless number that she has made, and her clients love her for it. The basket beside her is filled with them, made from fabrics of every shade of the human rainbow. I am Antoinette and I have traveled here from Manhattan to ask my grandmother for advice. At the moment, I am pacing in frustration, annoyed that Meme does not understand the severity of my problem. “Sit down child,” she scolded in her soft, hypnotic Louisiana drawl. “You’re going to fall through one of those loose planks. Then where will you be?”
“Under the porch I guess,” I sassed her.
Meme laughed under her breath as she glanced up at me. “Now Annie don’t get peeved with me. I am not your problem.” She threaded her needle to finish off the newly stuffed doll. “Besides, you’re missing the obvious.”
“Then enlighten me Meme,” I said, the harshness of anxiety in my tone.
My grandmother, the voodoo doctor, remains unperturbed. She is far from the backwards old lady she may seem to be, having earned doctoral degrees in both psychology and botanical medicine. Her several acre botanical garden sprawls behind her tiny, picturesque cottage; all that is left of the plantation that once spread for a few hundred acres along the marshy bank of Bayou Saint LaCroix. Many are curious about my grandmother’s garden, as it is filled with the same plants that are in the factory gardens of many pharmaceutical companies. However, snakes slithering in and out of the nearby bayou are a more than sufficient deterrent. The medicines Meme derives from her plants differ from mass produced ones only in that she uses undiluted plant extracts – making them far more potent. It’s not that my grandmother pretends to be backward; it’s that her clients see what they want to see and she allows it.
“So you come to me as Mama Leveaux – to take away your problems?” she teased, paying me back for my sass. By an unknown – to me at least – consensus, clients reward the best voodoo doctor of the generation with the honorary title of Mama Leveaux, paying homage to the greatest voodoo queen of them all. My grandmother wears the title proudly.
“Meme, you know that’s not true. I hate for you to think that of me,” I answered as I went to her and knelt anxiously by her side. So much for sass. “But I do need your help. I’m… I’m caught between two realities is the best I know how to describe it. One that is just beyond my reach and the other that won’t let me go.”
It’s as if Meme hasn’t heard me. She attaches the long sticking pin to the doll, latticing it through the gris-gris pocket on its back. Then she wraps the completed doll in a plastic gift bag and ties the bag off with a bow. Still seeming to ignore me, she places the doll in the basket and picks up the fabric for the next one. “Strange thing,” Meme muses. “I always offer a client the basket and they invariably choose a doll closest to their own complexion. As if the color of the doll helps their healing.”
Meme practices voodoo blanc, where clients sometimes use dolls as a kind of acupuncture stand-in. They use the pin to pierce the doll in the problem area before they take my grandmother’s potions. This is different from voodoo rouge (sometimes noir) – which isn’t really voodoo at all – where the doll is used to try to cast pain on someone else. I again attempt to capture her attention. “Meme, there is no potion that can help me with my problem. I’m asking for your advice – as my grande mere.” I lay my head on her knee. “All my life I’ve watched you move through different realities – sometimes several at the same time. Please – tell me what to do.”
Meme stopped rocking and placed her hand gently along the side of my face, lightly stroking my cheek with her fingertips. The gentleness of her touch eases my anxiety. “The reality that won’t let you go hangs onto you because you are too good at what you do. But you already know that.”
Now that I had her complete attention, I could wait patiently while she gathered her words and mentally translated them into her second language. In a few moments, she continued. “You’re overlooking the ingredient that will help you to push against that reality and use the momentum of the push to stretch out and grasp your new reality with both hands.”
In disbelief, I exclaimed, “Meme! A physics lesson?”
Meme laughed out loud this time. “Call it what you will. Truth is truth.”
“But you make it sound like I already have what I need,” I objected. “What ingredient am I overlooking?”
“Silly child.” Meme bent and kissed my cheek, softening her rebuke. “It’s the same thing my clients use with my dolls and potions to heal themselves. The same thing that makes Voodoo such a powerful, spiritual magic,” she answered. Her eyes deepened, becoming as tranquil as the bayou that nourishes her garden. “Quite simply… Faith. You already have it – all you need to do is use it.”