Mortal peril and bluebirds

Julie Walters as the magnificent Molly Weasley. "Harry watched with terror and elation as Molly Weasley's wand slashed and twirled, and Bellatrix Lestrange's smile faltered, and became a snarl. Jets of light flew from both wands, the floor around the witches' feet became hot and cracked; both women were fighting to kill."

Sadly, we finished Harry last week. Seven books in seven months, devoured the year N was seven. I have to say I didn’t expect to like the books as much as I did. They are wonderfully rich stories, but I think I loved them even more for the way they brought the three of us together, so excited to see what would happen next, and talking over each other to squeeze our predictions in. The term “reading ahead” became a common accusation in our house — “Mom! I saw Dad reading ahead!” — so much so that it extended into other areas of our life. One day N’s dad phoned to say he would be home late, and N said, “Okay, Dad, we’ll eat ahead.”

There was plenty of sobbing over this final book. For me, the most intense part came towards the end of the story, when Hermione, Luna, and Ginny, all teenage girls, were battling the evil Bellatrix Lestrange. She was much more powerful than they were, and had very nearly cursed Ginny to death when Mrs. Weasley, the frumpy, doting, fretting mother figure throughout all of the Harry books, ordered the girls “OUT OF MY WAY!” and flew at Bellatrix, her witch’s power infused with maternal love. I could hardly get the words out I was crying so hard. Later N’s dad suggested, “I think you relate to Mrs. Weasley a little more than you realized!” And yes, I have to admit, I do.

Like me, Mrs. Weasley is the one who rushes everyone to readiness for their various activities, and gives annoying reminders of what needs to be done when and what will happen if it isn’t accomplished. She bustles around the ramshackle Burrow doing the chores and keeping her eye on a magical clock that was “completely useless if you wanted to know the time, but otherwise very informative. It had nine golden hands, and each of them was engraved with one of the Weasley family’s names. There were no numerals around the face, but descriptions of where each family member might be. ‘Home,’ ‘school,’ and ‘work’ were there, but there was also ‘traveling,’ ‘lost,’ ‘hospital,’ ‘prison,’ and, in the position where the number twelve would be on a normal clock, ‘mortal peril.'” Later in the series, with the return of the Dark Lord, all nine hands point to “mortal peril,” and Mrs. Weasley has taken to carrying the clock around the house with her, so she can keep her eye on it (and her family) at all times.

I remember when N was a baby how anxious I felt when the three of us were separated. As long as we were all three together, it seemed that everything would be all right, but as soon as one of us was removed from that scenario (N’s dad off at work, or the two of us on a date, with N’s grandma babysitting), the anxiety would return in a flood. Luckily, that passed, but I well recall the feeling that we were somehow protected simply by being together.

N’s dad was away this weekend, and I had no worries whatsoever. N crawled in with me two nights in a row, and we watched movies and read books together, side by side. She’s working her way through a little gem I discovered, Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling, translated from the ancient runes by Hermione Granger. It’s beyond N’s reading level, but I love the fact that she wants to work her way through it alone, and to read while I’m reading. It didn’t really work out that way, of course, because she interrupted me every few minutes to ask about a word, and then glanced over when I’d put my book aside and asked “Mom, why aren’t you reading?”

A publicity still from The Wizard of Oz, 1939

Our movie this weekend was The Wizard of Oz, which we hadn’t seen for some time, and on this viewing N was quite curious about Dorothy — or rather Judy Garland. Who plays Dorothy, she wanted to know, and how old was she then and how old would she be now, and was she rich, as rich as J.K. Rowling?

I told her what I knew: that Judy Garland had become famous for her singing and acting at a very young age, after the phenomenal success of The Wizard of Oz, and that sometimes fame muddles up your life in the worst ways possible. And then — curious myself —  we looked her up to find out more.

Frances Ethel Gumm, flanked by her older sisters, in 1933

She was born Frances Ethel Gumm, and her parents were vaudevillians who ran a movie theatre. She and her sisters — The Gumm Sisters! — performed at the theatre from an early age, accompanied by their mom on piano, but it was Frances/Judy who went on to fame and fortune. She was just 16 when she was cast as Dorothy, belting out “Over the Rainbow” (which, like Supercali, N can pick out on the piano) and surely unaware how the song would follow her through her life from then on. In later years she wrote, “‘Over the Rainbow’ has become part of my life. It’s so symbolic of everybody’s dreams and wishes that I’m sure that’s why some people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I’ve sung it thousands of times and it’s still the song that’s closest to my heart.”

It’s no surprise. From the sounds of it, Judy Garland was certainly no happy little bluebird. And she didn’t have Molly Weasley for a mother. They were estranged for years, and Judy once told Ladies’ Home Journal that her mother was “no good for anything except to create chaos and fear.” Even without her mother, Garland’s life seemed full of chaos and fear. Of one of her suicide attempts, she said, “All I could see ahead was more confusion.”

As I pondered all of this and the hefty price of fame, N sat pondering too. I wondered what she was thinking about so intently, and if there was a weighty question coming my way, perhaps about life and death, mortal peril, maybe, or sadness. But after a while she looked up at me with the sparkle of an idea showing in her eye and she asked, “Mom, can anyone change their name? I mean … can I?”


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6 responses to “Mortal peril and bluebirds

  1. jim

    Like good books, full of interesting twists and turns and always a surprise ending (-:

    Loved it

  2. Marilyn

    Why, N, what name would you choose? I remember thinking about doing that too as a kid. Reading all those Harry Potter books as a family is a real accomplishment. Reading them one after the other in such a short time too! Well, what’s next Mrs. Weasley?

    • kristendenhartog

      This morning we began Coraline, and the back cover tells us it is “splendidly strange and frightening.”
      PS One of the names N is considering is Ethel!

  3. Lenny

    A beautiful post. Judy Garland – you just have the feeling that she understood loss and pain and did her best to keep going until she couldn’t. That melancholy is expressed so beautifully in this song, a favourite ( from the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Note the words at the end of the scene…we can be happy anywhere as long as we are together.

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