Once upon a time, I was a little girl surrounded by eccentric single women. My paternal grandmother got divorced before I was born, and two of her sisters were spinsters as well. I lost my mother quite young, and so my extended relatives raised me and my younger sister. I loved and appreciated all of their efforts, but now—as a grown woman reflecting—I miss those kooky single aunts most of all.
Together, we got into trouble. They encouraged dessert eating at odd hours, loud outerwear, and pranks played on unsuspecting bystanders. (We once put whoopee cushions under seats at a movie theater and cackled at the chorus of toots as the lights went down.) Halloween was holier than Christmas. One aunt taught me the trick to her vitality: She wore a mask and went trick-or-treating every October 31st. She was in her 50s.
They are all long gone, but I am reminded of them every time I revisit Practical Magic, one of my favorite movies. (Based on the novel of the same name by Alice Hoffman.) My trick-or-treating Aunt Nancy showed me the film at a young age, and it left an indelible mark. The beautiful East Coast home near the water. Black cats slinking through ankles. That gorgeous kitchen and adjoining greenhouse where potions bubbled to life and midnight margaritas overflowed. As a kid, I loved the story of Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman), two orphaned sisters who move in with their aunts and reconcile with the fact that they’re witches. It was the ultimate fantasy. I, too, was lacking my real parents. And I, too, dreamed of secret generational promises. I wanted so desperately to be a witch.
But these days, I watch Practical Magic through a different set of eyes. These days, I see myself in the aunts most of all. Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing) take the girls into their home, that aforementioned East Coast home that is alive with imagination. It is light and majestic and surrounded by nature. The aunts live out an idyllic life in their home, casting spells for local women, making potions in the greenhouse, drinking wine, and eating cake on the lawn. And best of all, there are no men in sight.
I never had “normal” aspirations as a child. Never dreamed of my wedding day. Had no interest in being a mother. As I grow older, I’m at times insecure that I’m in my 30s and single and childless. But it’s not that I haven’t met “the one” or that I’m awkward and uncomfortable in romantic situations. On the contrary, I’ve had many relationships and romances. But I never felt compelled to make them last. I’m simply uninterested in that, and always have been. I prefer my own company and schedule. And that shouldn’t be “odd” or “bad” or “abnormal.” It’s simply who I am and what I like, and I’d like to be respected for my choices the same way I respect and love my married friends.
Still, I feel insecure when I explain my age and living situation to strangers. I wish I didn’t, but it’s the reality of navigating life as a single woman of a certain age in this society. That’s why I love Practical Magic a little extra. Because it provides a solid example of older single women living a fabulous and fulfilling life. Jet and Frances have family and love all around them. They travel with their coven and dance naked under the full moon. The townspeople fear them and judge them, but they don’t mind at all. In fact, they delight in it. After all, as Frances tells Sally: “My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.”
There’s so much to love about Practical Magic. And there’s a reason it has found a new audience in recent years. It’s a movie about female empowerment and connectedness. It’s cozy and inviting, and also spooky and a bit sinister. Sally learns to accept her power, Gillian learns to stop chasing hers, and the two find freedom in their sisterhood. Something they learned and upheld from their beloved aunts.
I have my own kooky single aunts to thank for some of my favorite parts about myself. My love of antiques and old houses. The boxes of jewelry I inherited from them; bulbous stone rings and droopy earrings and beaded necklaces. The desire to prank snotty children in public spaces. A devious sense of humor that finds the funny in every grim situation. But most of all, the strength and self-fulfillment that come from moving through life on my own and in my own way. And for showing me Practical Magic, which comforts me in their absence as I continue down my path.