Colson: From a corner, maybe, she’ll wink her farewell
As the band Canned Heat once sang, here we are “on the road again,” hanging out in Madison, Wisc., to stage a celebration of the life of my late sister, Ruth, appropriately enough on the day after Halloween, which was her favorite holiday of the year.
Just as appropriate is the fact that Nov. 1 is the day the Welsh observe their version of All Hallows Ee’en, to celebrate the end of the harvest season on what is known as Calan Graef.
This is fitting because one of the most interesting years of her life was 1971-72, when Ruth lived in Wales while our father put in a year teaching as a library sciences professor at the University College of Wales in the village of Aberystwyth, and because our family lore has it that we are partially of Welsh descent.
Aber, as the locals call Aberystwyth, is on the western coast of Wales, just little south of the Snowdonia national park, which is where Merlin the Wizard met the future King Arthur, according to the legends.
The weekend also happens to mark the Gaelic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which is a lot like Calan Graef, only different, and which in Ireland and Scotland was celebrated from sunset on Oct. 31 through sunset on Nov. 1.
Both of these celebratory dates, historically speaking, were in honor of the end of harvest times and of friends gone by; were pagan in nature; and thus preceded the Roman invasion of Britain by a considerable length of time.
Now that our historical bona fides are firmly set, we can move on.
We opted for the day after the holiday for the simple reason that nobody wants to leave their house dark and unguarded on that night of spooks and goblins, as you never know what might happen in the absence of adult supervision.
And it will be mostly adults at the celebration — we’ve been calling it a “wake” even though it’s not, strictly speaking, as there will be no body to hearken to our farewell toasts — though there undoubtedly will be a smattering of tykes running around and through the legs of their elders.
The celebration is to be held at a joint called Alt ‘n’ Bachs Town Tap on the south side of town (2602 Whalen Lane, if you’d like to drop by), a sports bar today but which once was a prime example of the old-fashioned Wisconsin supper club.
The venue was chosen by Ruth not long before she died, largely because of its past association with a storied tradition in the state where she was born.
I Googled the phrase, “Wisconsin’s supper club tradition,” and the first hit was a place called the HobNob in Racine, south of Milwaukee, an image of which graced the Harley-Davidson parts catalogue of 2011 in homage to the once-proud reign of supper clubs throughout the state.
Supper clubs, for the uninitiated, were open only for supper, often featured a local band playing dance music for the patrons, and typically offering entrees that would more than satisfy even the stoutest, hungriest appetite, nearly naked iceburg lettuce for the salad, and a sip of Old Fashioned (a favorite of Ruth’s) either before supper, afterward, or both.
I have to say that Wisconsin is a place where appetites achieve legendary status, and where supper clubs vied for dominance in meeting the gastronomical needs of their clientele. For instance, the menu at HobNob’s boasts a 24-ounce New York strip sirloin, which in other places would be sufficient to feed a family of four.
Anyways, Ruth was a manic history buff, and she told me about Alt ‘n’ Bach’s during a long conversation last summer, as she waited for the end to come. We spoke of how the world once was not so hurried and harried, back when supper clubs gave families a home away from home where grandparents and grandkids could get goofy and then get sleepy together.
It’s a cultural thing, to be sure, and one that sadly has all but disappeared.
It’s appropriate that we meet on Samhain, or Calan Graef, to celebrate Ruth’s time with us.
They say that in ancient times the celebrants would light ritual fires and offer up kind thoughts to the spirits, whom were believed to be closer to the physical world on those special nights, even visiting their former homes and haunts for a last look around.
Maybe, that night, I’ll catch a glimpse of Ruth’s spirit, her Aos Si or fairy persona, out of the corner of my eye as I raise my glass to the fine times we had when she was here and hum a tune she loved.
If it could be so, I hope beyond hope her ghostly eye will wink at me one last time, to let me know that she’s OK.
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