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What the Chariot Carries




“You’re going on a trip,” Great-Gramma Jennie told my mother.


Mom was a child then, in the prewar years of the Great Depression. Grampa and my uncles left during the day for work and school, and Mom stayed home with her mother and her mother’s mother, my Great-Gramma Jennie. Every afternoon these three generations—maiden, mother, and crone—paused their work of garden weeding, jam canning, laundry hanging, butter churning, and pie baking to gather at the table for tea.


Loose-leaf green tea it was, brewed in an enameled pot tinted the same pale green as pistachio ice cream. Steam shot from the kettle like destiny, impatient to hear itself discussed, as Gramma poured hot water over the leaves. Then, to Mom’s child-sized cup, Gramma added warmed milk from the family cow and a spoonful of sugar. The woody perfume of Grampa’s pipe smoke lingered in the very floorboards of that kitchen, blending with the aroma of whatever simmered on the stove for supper. As Gramma and Great-Gramma Jennie drank their warm, grassy tea, they chatted about news and neighbors, and when they finished, Jennie completed the ritual by examining the remaining leaves that flecked the bottom of Mom’s cup.


“You’re going on a trip,” Jennie told her granddaughter every day, peering seriously into the cup as though it were a tiny Holy Grail. “Yes, you’re going on a trip.” 


That was always Mom’s future: you’re going on a trip. If Jennie used tarot for divination instead of tea leaves, she might have kept the Chariot card on top of the deck. Portending travel and adventure, the Rider-Waite version of the card shows a rider standing in a chariot harnessed to two full-bosomed sphinxes. But instead of reins, the rider holds a scepter. 


In The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, Joseph Campbell relates the story of the Arthurian knight Parzival, who, at one point in his quest for the Grail, rides with the reins slack, letting his horse lead the way. “The horse represents nature power and the rider represents the controlling mind,” Campbell says. “The slack reins mean that he’s riding nature. His own nature. It’s a noble horse who has the same heart as he” (p. 128). Perhaps the Chariot rider, too, has learned to share the same noble heart as the wise-woman sphinxes who give the Chariot its energy and wisdom. The rider exerts the soul’s sovereignty, symbolized by the scepter, to let other powers lead, relying on faith and instinct more than control.


You’re going on a trip. I can imagine Mom’s big green little-girl eyes shining at this thrilling oracle from her adored Gramma. Jennie’s prediction was a blessing, a benison bestowed on a beloved granddaughter. For me, this family story underscores how similar in meaning the words godmother and grandmother are: wise older women who cherish and gladly work magic on behalf of the youngling.


In 1892, when she was eighteen years old, Jennie herself spent ten weeks traveling alone by stagecoach-chariot from upstate New York to Boston and then to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Her cousin invited her, Jennie later wrote, telling Jennie that “if I came they would take me around and I would see things to think of and tell of in ‘future’ years and it has proved so. For every night … after I go to bed—it all comes back to me in the quiet hours—of the night—like a moving picture.” Jennie’s adventure became a lifelong stream of mythic memories. She carried her tales of travel in the chariot of her heart as she moved from maidenhood to motherhood and then into cronedom. When she read Mom’s tea leaves, maybe she wished a similar gift for her young granddaughter. That same—or greater—opportunity.


Soon after Jennie’s trip, she earned a teacher’s certificate and got a job at a school for the children of homesteaders who raised sheep and cows far up a hillside riddled with gullies and streams. To deliver Jennie to that remote village, where she lodged with the families of her students, a school trustee gave her a ride up the hill in his wagon-chariot at the beginning of the term, and back down again at the end. That steep, forested, rock-pocked trail would have been a bumpy ride indeed, but something about the company must have proved agreeable, because before long Jennie married the trustee and gave birth to my grandmother. 


The Chariot carried Jennie to adventure, to her work in the world, to her future family. That’s what the Chariot does: It carries. It conveys. The Chariot moves the soul from Point A to Point B faster than that soul could have traveled on its own power.


I imagine Jennie as the rider on the card, standing tall with a twinkle in her eye, holding that scepter of sovereignty, propelled by wisdom. I see Gramma as the rider too. I see Mom as the rider. Myself. My whole family. You, if you like. Myth is not only the province of princes and queens. Quiet lives are mythic too. 


“You’re going on a trip,” the Chariot says, and that’s how many stories begin—stories of adventure, quest, healing, discovery. “The trip is called your life, and I will carry you anytime you like.”


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