Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell


January 2015



It’s a matter of public record that my brother has been in and out  jail recently on numerous offenses. Beyond the occasional speeding ticket, my brother’s run-ins with the law and his subsequent incarcerations are a first for our mostly law-abiding family.

It’s a few hours drive for me to visit him in the small county jail where he is locked up. Beyond the drab municipal buildings and razor wire fencing surrounding the courthouse, it’s a sad depraved little town whose people seem to have not enough to do and not enough resources to do it with.

Jail visits are surreal for those of us not behind the bars. It’s difficult to know what to say or do. The thoughts that pass through my mind do not seem so appropriate or helpful. I wonder what does one wear in order to look like the little sister of a man who would not break the law? I have never been a fashionista, but it seems important for me to make a good impression, like I am a reflection of my brother’s guilt or innocence. I thumb through my assortment of formless sweaters, omitting the black and white striped one for the obvious reason. I gravitate instead towards neutrals, colorless putty tones that will not show soil or make me stand out too much as a visitor. A scarf adds some cheer and hides my ample bosom from lewd gazes. Then, my mind shifts from my wardrobe to that old familiar comfort of food. Shouldn’t I bake a cake for the occasion? Folks always did that on the old television shows, right? I think how I would not hide  a weapon inside, honest I wouldn’t. I just think it would be so very nice to take him a cake and share it with the guards. Maybe that would earn him some television time or a walk outside for fresh air.

I ride down with my nephews, my brother’s grown children. We all lead busy lives with family and work in our places of too much to do and not enough time to do it in. I enjoy catching up on their lives. We stop to eat, of course, either lunch or breakfast at a local diner or barbecue restaurant. My nephew says “Aunt Susie, this would be fun if we didn’t have to …” His voice trails. He doesn’t have to finish the sentence; I know what he means.

I am angry at my brother, angry at his choices and actions. At times I can barely contain it; at times I do not. There is a feeling that like a contagious disease, he has brought an undesirable element to our lives. I want it to go away. I do not want our family poisoned.

At the jail, my nephews and I huddle around one of three small windows just off the lobby, attempting to talk to my brother via a menacing telephone that appears left over from the 1960’s. I regret not bringing antiseptic wipes, but my mind was on other senseless matters like the outfit and the cake. The telephone line is filled with static. My brother somehow sounds miles away instead of two feet behind the glass. What cannot be heard or spoken in words is evident in the setting of the jaw, the cold dullness of blue eyes, everyone’s aching to get out of there.

Later, I make small talk with the guards.  Some of the female guards remind me of that old character “Pat” on Saturday Night Live; I am left questioning much about their sexuality. They laugh good-naturedly about my brother, who can be humorous and quite charming when he is not armed or drunk. These are traits I share with most everyone in my family, the humor and charm, that is, not the drunkenness, although many folks back home are armed to the hilt. I finally succeed in endearing the guards to please pass my brother a pair of my old reading glasses and a pen with which he can read and write. Along with a few dollars in his canteen, it is all I can offer, this weak but real connection to the outside world.

I miss the brother that I knew, my brother who is all but lost from his family and is now starring in a tragi-comedy of his own doing. His role is both antagonist and victim. The numerous charges against him include assault, making threats, discharging a firearm in the city limits, however the real crime is a life gone missing outside this jail cell.

My brother has always been a fighter but rarely, until his old age, did it get him in serious trouble. One of my earliest memories of my brother is when I was three or four and I insisted on staying up past nine o’clock to watch the I Love Lucy Show. Daddy would put me in bed and I would immediately crawl out. When my patient father finally threatened to give me a spanking, my older brother met him in the hall, one fist repeatedly slamming into the other. “Don’t hit her daddy. Don’t hit her, ” he said. I still remember him saying that. I never did get a spanking that night  although I probably should have. I hold fast to this memory of my protective older brother. I would like to return the favor now but I cannot and he will not listen. There is little I or anyone can do to protect him now against himself.

It occurs to me that whereas my brother is a fighter, I am a flyer. Over the years, this behavior has imprinted itself on me as sense of  worthlessness, of being a secret self-loather, a weakling unable to take charge of her own destiny. A woman whose very wonderful and blessed life can feel as sparse and distant as breadcrumbs dropped on a path through the woods. Most days I know the crumbs are simply the negatives of life that for years I swallowed and swallowed and swallowed. These things sit and ferment in ones stomach, then eat you from the inside out. The truth is I fear loosening the lid on my own Pandora’s box. I fear what might emerge. I fear it could be the madness and rage that has taken over my brother. I realize then that beyond charm and the same color blue eyes, I share something else with my brother. I too am both antagonist and victim in my own life. There are many crimes I commit, but what gnaws on me most is the same, that of leading a life of unrealized potential.

It is the hardest thing in the world to do, isn’t it? To free ourselves from whatever it is that imprisons us. It is so difficult to walk away from behaviors that are self-destructive and no longer serve us well, even when we know we should. We are all incarcerated, each in our own little cell, searching for a means of escape.

Happy Birthday, Mama Afrika

“Excuse me? How does one celebrate a birthday in Africa?”

Toasted almond eyes smiled at me from behind the sales counter. The girl was the color of coffee with a single drop of cream. Curls cascaded in ringlets around her broad forehead. Her name tag said “Hosanna”.

“How perfect”, I thought.

“We are traveling on safari tomorrow morning to Serengeti with Zablon Sunday’s group.” I explained. “One of my travel mates will be celebrating her birthday while we are there. I’d like to know if you have any suggestions for how we might celebrate her birthday. I believe she turns 73.”

The girl’s expression remained unchanged. Whether she was processing my words, a strange gibberish of simultaneous rapid-fire slow-syllabled Southern drawl or was simply contemplating the answer, I was not sure. I have a terrible habit, a tendency to fill in any silences in a conversation with mindless chatter; it’s a trait I share with my sister. “She is such a nice lady.” I continued. “Well, I really don’t know her that well, but she is soo-oo-o interesting. She is a writer, a journalist actually named Sonya. She was a war correspondent in Poland during the Communist uprising, back when there were hardly any women doing that job. She’s traveling single with two friends from the states.”

I had to pause to breathe sometime…

“You could have a birthday cake, maybe some champagne. Your guide can arrange it for you, ” the girl interjected.

“Gee, that is exactly how we would celebrate it in the US. Can you think of something that is more… ugh African?”

“Ah!”, she brightened. “You could do Mama Afrika.”

I didn’t know what she meant and said as much, but I was definitely intrigued.

“You get some fabric and wrap it around your head like a scarf, ” she explained. “Wrap it around your waist for a skirt and around your shoulders. Oh, and you could dance!” The staff at the lodge where we were staying and where Hosanna worked was always trying to get us to stay up and dance with them after dinner. We never did; we were too tired.

Mama Afrika! I liked this idea but where could I find an African wardrobe before we left for Serengeti the next morning? So far, I had not seen a single Wal-Mart or Joanne’s Fabrics since arriving in Africa. Hosanna offered to bring me her tribe’s fabrics; she would even bring them by my room the next morning and show me how to wear them.

Hosanna appeared promptly at 7 AM with three fabrics, none of which seemed to match. In Africa, there seems to be no rules about mixing patterns or colors. She wound me up like a spool, round and round from head to waist. I looked in the mirror at her completed creation. I looked like a colorful chicken, nothing like the elegant African ladies who strolled the villages.

My sister giggled.

The next few days were busy with our travel cross-country to and subsequent set-up at Serengeti. Safaris, hot air balloon rides, learning to live in a tent. I was thankful to be sharing my tent with my sister; several others like Sonya slept alone. Sonya was deathly afraid of encountering a Black Mamba and we teased her about it mercilessly. At the time, I must admit I had no idea the second most venomous snake in the world was the Black Mamba and that it made its home in our new back yard. Capable of moving at very high speeds, its bite can kill a human being in as little as twenty minutes.

No one suspects a nice southern girl to be theif!

As Sonya’s birthday drew near, I realized the drive into Serengeti had been so thrilling, I had completely forgot to remind Zablon to get champagne. Fortunately, I was able to embezzle a bottle from the champagne breakfast that followed our balloon ride. My sister and I befriended two nice couples from Colombia. When they heard about Sonya’s upcoming birthday celebration and how I had procured her authentic African garb, they became our accomplices by helping me smuggle an unopened bottle off the table and into my jacket. They even insisted on taking a picture of it!

Sonya’s birthday came off in true Africa style, which means it was perfect but not quite as planned. Zablon had mistakenly told the chef her birthday was one day early. Since having the scent of a freshly baked  cake and a delicious dinner wafting around the tent was a likely invitation to have our food stolen by the baboons, we celebrated her birthday the first time with a dinner, birthday cake and a special surprise. We were lost in the quiet of after dinner conversation when from the darkness all the crew  from the Serengeti camp sprung into our tent beating drums and banging on pots. Enough hooping and hollering, my mama would have said to beat the band! Two men including our handsome young chef who by day was the quiet and consummate professional  now danced around us with wild eyes, faces painted with vanilla cake icing and pregnant, protruding bellies stuffed with pillows. “I have no idea what they are doing,” I said to my friend Jenny who stared in amazement. “Maybe it’s the word “birthday? Maybe they take the word literally…”


It was one of the most remarkable things I had ever seen before. Round and round they went, chanting and beating their way into the night. Sonya laughed and danced. Suddenly I realized something so pervasive to African culture that I had never understood before. The singing, the fires, the drumming, the celebration. This was the survival of man, and woman of course, in Africa. It flows in their African blood. Rituals surrounding birth and death. Like the lions we heard roaring in the stillness of late night, the monkeys who carefully stalked lost morsels of food, this noisy celebration was our claim to our brief time with Africa.

The next day was Sonya’s actual birthday. Unfortunately, she did not feel well enough to go with us on our safari that afternoon. While driving back to camp, Zablon spotted a large egg laying in the grass beside the road. He brought it back to the jeep to show us. It was a perfect ostrich egg. He explained how sometimes the female ostrich will simply drop an egg wherever she happens to be. If the egg is not deposited safely into the nest, it cannot be transported by the mother ostrich and thus, would never hatch. Zablon would bring it back to camp to show the others and give the camp staff a treat for breakfast the next day. One ostrich egg equals about sixteen regular chicken eggs, he explained.

That night, despite not really understanding what it meant, we dressed  Sonya up as Mama Afrika. Zablon helped me tie the cloth around her head and waist. Just like me, she resembled a chicken. On African soil, we popped the cork from the stolen French champagne and shared it with everyone. We gave Sonya one of her most memorable birthdays. A great night for a great lady, for our new friend.

In the meantime, when we arrived back at camp from our afternoon safari. Zablon presented Sonya the egg as a birthday present telling her “We have brought you a Black Mambo egg!”

Sonya screamed.

Sonya with her one-of-a-kind birthday present, an egg from the Black Mamba! A special birthday for a special lady! Happy Birthday, Mama Afrika!

Dust to Dust

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????? My older dogs, ages eleven and eighteen, have begun waking me up in the wee hours of the morning to go outside. It is only with this new and recent habit of finding myself awake and already called out from my warm bed so much earlier than I would have preferred that I realize the ideas swirling from my dream state, itching my finger tips. Although I love writing in the evenings, I am beginning to think I should write in the mornings when I’ve only to put it all on paper.  How grateful I am that most nights I go to bed feeling frazzled and during my dreams I am somehow, miraculously knit back together.

It’s the second day after the New Year. Following a respiratory infection a month ago, I went to the Urgent Care Center yesterday for my wheezy and persistent cough; I was diagnosed with something akin to asthma, an overly reactive inflammation of my bronchial tubes. “Do you have allergies?” the doctor asked.

So perhaps that is why I woke up this morning thinking about dust. My visit to the Serengeti a few months ago was remarkable in many ways, not the least of which was the amount and consistency of dust. It was dry season; the dust was light as a feather. It coated the surface of my photographic lens and sifted into the corners of my camera bag. As our Land Cruiser flew over the rough terrain of the Serengeti, we were masked men with mouths and noses covered by scarves and bandanas. After days spent exploring the savannahs, in the evenings kind black men hauled buckets of steaming water to the back of our tents, raised the bucket overhead by pulley to create a small degree of water pressure onto the water hose and shower head. This was the best and shortest shower in the world. With the grit rinsed from my body, I felt renewed and excited, ready to go back, back into the dust.

This same dust still coats the tennis shoes and sandals I brought home and am hesitant to wash them. Just the other day, I pushed them again to the back of the laundry. It is irrational, I know, but I find myself thinking, “If I wash the shoes, might I wash away Africa?”

Until this morning as I plodded to the back door in my dream state, I had also not made the mental connection with the dust I remember from my childhood home on Goat Pasture Road. Our road was unpaved; its gravel and red clay soil provided a surface better than Africa but  far worse that I am accustomed to travelling today. For most of my childhood, we did not have air conditioning so that in the summer’s, we left the windows open, often with a fan inserted into the open window to circulate the air. On Saturday’s, along with cleaning the bathrooms, my other job was to dust the furniture. I could never get rid of that dust. It resettled immediately on the surfaces seconds after I wiped it away.

I think of this new day. This new year. Begin again. Funny how our journeys in life take us forward but they also take us back. A new year inspires resolutions, the naming of behaviors we hope to improve upon and to influence our year. these are often based on our bad behaviors the previous year. A trip may start with packing a suitcase or getting on a plane. All of these are journeys of one sort or another; journeys start in our head with a story. I am not sure if journeys ever really end. Journeys change us, less into something new but more into better versions of what we already are.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” These words with which we will leave this world are not from the Bible but rather from the 1500’s Book of Common Prayer. Still, who can doubt it is not biblically inspired? I wonder where does the dust come from? Are we not all the same? Are all places not the same?

I imagine during the rainy season, another remarkable thing in Africa might be the mud. The say the roads completely wash away. But the Africa of mud is not the Africa I know. That must be someone else’s story; I only know it through the dust.

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