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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

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July 2015

Steel Mags

magnolia   For years, we kept in touch through Christmas cards. Those were the years when life cruised by slowly enough. We scribbled our own handwritten notes inside and included the occasional photograph. We lived secure in the cocoons of our mostly untested faith, smug that our lives were on some straight, invisible track. It seemed easy then to have faith, because hadn’t our lives turned out so “fair?” Family photos showed us as attractive young women in our prime, radiant with good health, flanked by the innocent faces of our precious children and our still, supportive husbands.

Our children grew up. We moved to bigger houses and advanced in our careers. In a blink, 20 years passed. Enough time for illness to strike, for marriages to dissolve, for families to be broken, for hope to be lost. We didn’t know it then, but individually, a kind of had shame had set in. Our lives were not what they appeared. No one’s dreams had come true and stayed. We wondered, each of us from our comfortable middle class homes with plenty of food in the refrigerator and a lady who cleaned for us every few weeks, what had gone wrong and if maybe (our secret shame) it wasn’t our own fault?

Two summers ago, we reunited for our first girl’s weekend in historic Charleston. During those few precious days, we discovered that in friendship time, 20 years pass like nothin’. I looked into those faces I once knew as well as my own, faces with whom I’d shared countless sleepovers, teenaged pranks, broken hearts and midnight snacks. We confided about the challenges and humiliations we had privately (and sometimes publically) faced during those years without each other’s knowing. We gave thanks to God for dreaming bigger dreams for us than we could have ever dreamed ourselves and for giving us the strength to go on. We deemed ourselves “Steel Magnolias”, an ode to our “Southern-ness” and our ability to persevere.

That weekend, we remembered how to be silly again. God, how I’d forgotten to be silly! We splashed in fountains, made mischief, sang, danced and closed that bar down! We meandered along Charleston’s magnificent cobblestone streets, beneath fringed canopies of Spanish moss. We peeked through wrought iron gates into private courtyards, intoxicated by scents of Confederate Jasmine, boxwood and oleander. On the way to their wedding, an elegant couple passed us in a white horse-drawn carriage. Clip clop, clip clop… They were so beautiful and the moment held such hope and promise. Spontaneously, we burst into an a cappella version of “Goin’ to the Chapel.”The couple laughed and clapped in delight.

Can you believe, they invited us to their reception???

Oh, and we went skinny dippin’… (Shhhhh, yes again!) Fifty year old bare asses shiny and wrinkled like newborns. Breasts floating on water like jellyfish in the moonlight.

“Oh puh-leaze, don’t let me lose my clothes!!!” And laughter. Always laughter, even with the tears.

Before heading home, we took a final walk along those pristine streets and happened across a patch of freshly poured concrete in the sidewalk. Who cared if someone else had already written on it? I smoothed away that writing as best as I could with a Kleenex and wrote with a stick…

“S-T-E-E-L  M-A-G-S”, because there just wasn’t room for magnolias!

Steel mags       A more appropriate name, I suppose, for girls (I mean women) who skinny dip in the moonlight and crash other people’s weddings.

In a friendship spanning nearly forty years, we stand as the guardians of each other’s innocence and protect that fragile girliness that is too easily lost in this world. Today, we are disproportionately the same as we were then, Older, but wiser. Beautiful, but not young.

Time has taught us not to judge. We rediscovered the beauty of friendship. We view each other’s skewed lives and tragic missteps with the compassion given to a baby bird fallen out of a nest. We lift each other up with a grace and tenderness that can be difficult to bestow on ourselves. Later, we will head back to our separate lives. Before departing, we pause to take refuge from the sweltering heat for a brief libation in one of the city’s swanky hotels. From the rooftop garden, we grasp the stems of our champagne flutes and raise them high, bubbles dancing to the top like laughter. “To the Steel Magnolias!” we say in unison, then someone giggles and we correct ourselves.

“To the Mags!”  The Steel Mags

This re-post is dedicated to my Aunt Betty Jo, who is hospitalized and very ill. She is the original “Steel Magnolia”. There will never be another. I love you Aunt BJ! xxooxxoo  

The Etiquette of Dying

Aunt Betty Jo (left) and my mom (right) dancing barefoot in the sand.
Aunt Betty Jo (left) and my mom (right) dancing barefoot in the sand.

“What can we say or do for someone who is dying? How do we navigate the delicate terrain between life and death? How can we hold on to those we love and simultaneously let them go?” 

Having lost both my parents, my father in very unexpected and shocking circumstances (suicide) and my mother to the slow death of Alzheimer’s Disease, I have learned that saying goodbye to our loved ones is a gift. It is a sacred and rich expression to have the opportunity to share with our loved ones how much they mean to us and to acknowledge and reassure them that while death may temporarily separate us, our love and memories will forever keep us connected. Often as someone approaches death, they cannot speak for themselves. I have found it is important in those precious moments to speak honestly, even if it makes us uncomfortable, as often one is speaking for the two.

I have struggled with these questions over the last few weeks as my Aunt Betty Jo’s health deteriorated. (Always I must explain, how Aunt BJ is my first cousin but I grew up thinking she was my aunt; her children called my parents “Aunt” and “Uncle”. Over the years, especially since our own mother died, Aunt BJ has become someone between a sister, a best friend and a mother.) For my sister Janie and I, it is better said that Aunt Betty Jo is the compass which points North, a source of such stability and fierce family love that the thought of losing her causes us to feel set adrift at sea without an anchor. She is our Steel Magnolia. Elegant. Beautiful. Independent. Strong as hell.

In the week before what would be her passing, I stepped into her room. I had come to comfort her and cheer her up, bearing a 4th of July flower arrangement and freshly applied lipstick so I wouldn’t look my end-of-the-day haggard. Unable to act in opposition to my emotions, I immediately let us both down. Between sobs, I offer up my excuses. I say that I am angry. That her being sick sucks. That I am so very sorry. There is, of course, this elephant in the room: my aunt/ cousin/ sister/ mother is dying. Probably soon. I wonder if I should speak of it? How does one begin to speak of it?

I am totally unprepared for the etiquette of dying. I hold her hand with one of mine; it is cool to the touch. I stroke her forehead with the other. I smooth her soft blond hair like she’s my most favorite and most beautiful doll (and that is true.) Then, if only because honesty is something I express out of sheer default, I share with her my heart. “There’s so many more things I wanted us to do together…” I say which is such a selfish and lame thing to say amidst all her suffering, then I add (because I know she is strong and her strength flows into me) “but we will be together again” and she nods her head yes, that is true. There is a faint setting of her mouth and I am unsure if it is a faint smile or an expression of determination.

I assure her that all the ladies of the family, my sister, my cousins Patty and Elizabeth, her daughter-in-law Julia, all of us- will keep the family strong and together by following the example she had set for us. Over the years she has done the hard work by building us a path. “You have taught us so well,” I say and that is true. “You will be with us every step of the way” and she reaches out into the air those hands for mine, fragile and translucent as a bird’s wings and what more is there to say?

I have always admired my beloved Aunt BJ’s nails. These are her real nails, even on this day and in her failing health they are polished a beautiful mauve colored rose, long and tapered. I hold her delicate hand inside my own and can’t help but notice my own ragged nails. “I’ll remember to push the skin back from my cuticles” which I immediately think sounds like a stupid thing to mention at such a sacred moment but it’s one of the many practical things she was always telling me to do.

Aunt BJ is happy for me to rub some lotion on her hands and I rub the excess into my own. All that is so very wrong in this moment and this simple act feels like the only thing I can do to help. The elephant is still in the room but he’s sitting over in the corner, still huge but not as threatening as he was when I first entered the room. I realize in that moment that love, LOVE has no need for words. Love speaks for itself. It shows up, a spark of light that becomes the brightest thing in the room if you will let it. Love is all-powerful and I know in that moment with the kind of certainty I’ve rarely known about anything that it cannot be extinguished.

At Aunt BJ’s memorial service, her family planned a “Celebration of Life” party in the fellowship hall of the church I grew up in. Aunt BJ had requested a menu of Stamey’s Barbeque and sweet tea. Friends and cousins helped by bringing a spread of fabulous desserts. I helped decorate a table with photos and news clippings from her life and those of he children and grand-children. Hundreds joined us in seeing her off on her journey. Our families’ good friend George Washington Smith brought his band and played an assortment of beach and soul music. In those moments surrounded by family and friends it was difficult to be sad as Aunt BJ’s spirit was so prevalent.

For the past few years (and her service is no exception), my relatives have been lamenting our shrinking family. How many times have we paused to say “We’ve got to stop meeting at funerals” and it’s true. My sister and older cousins fidget nervously, wondering if they are next in line.

The truth is none of us are ready to die. We have children to marry, weddings to pay for, mortgages to pay, retirements to experience, grandchildren to be born and raised and stories to tell. I figure I need to get my husband good and mad at me at least one more time when I announce I am going on another of my harebrained adventures. I am thinking about walking the 150 or so miles across England or perhaps I will visit New Zealand or Tibet.

It is amazing how even after all the suffering and loss, there is this fierce call to life. During one of George’s songs, my cousin Patty, who has suffered extensively the last years losing both parents and only brother, began tapping her feet to the music. Patty loves to dance; she knows all the line dances. We hold each other’s hands, swaying to the music before running up to George and becoming his “doo-wops” in the song he was singing.

Later I would wonder if our actions were inappropriate; I mean how could we be so joyous in such grim circumstances. We danced at our cousin’s funeral, for heaven’s sake! And in a Baptist Church, albeit a pretty liberal one by most standards. All I can say is that we were overcome by spirit at that moment to the expression of joy. I believe there is something powerful and primitive in our human condition that drives us towards the life force. We sing; we beat our drums; we move our bodies in harmony to spirit. Destiny comes at us full on, even as the hands of time spin faster and faster.

“I did that for BJ” my cousin confides later (a bit mischievously I might add) and I understand what she means. I am, after all, her co- conspirator.

There is no etiquette for the dying. It’s not important what we say or don’t say as it is that we treat the dying with the dignity of the living. Let them know they are loved and that they are not alone. Life is not about being correct or happy or wearing the right kind of clothes or being any kind of way. The simple essence of life is about learning to dance in the rain.

I hold the hands of my cousin. Time stops for a moment and I follow her lead. We share a secret smile and for a while, we twirl.

 

 

 

 

 

TRUTH

angel Lately I’ve wanted to grab the world by its axis and give it a good shake. In the South, there is an old expression I remember my mama saying, “I would like to shake some sense into so-in-so”. Yet as much as I’d like to, I cannot shake sense into anyone without a likely assault charge. No, if we are to live in this world, we must take the world as it is. And the world is a hard and difficult place.

How do we cope with life’s frustrations and difficulties? If we live our lives in pursuit of the truth, we can survive anything, even death. But what is Truth? As human beings, is it possible for any of us to gain the perspective needed to discern what the truth actually is? I think not. I believe Truth is simply too elusive and too big a concept for us to comprehend. I believe Truth is the part of us where God lives. I believe we exemplify Truth by saying ” I hear you” and “I accept you” even when I don’t understand you. Truth is compassion, not only for ourselves but for every single person in the world, even our enemies. Without the pursuit of Truth, our whole lives are a struggle.

I grew up in a family who never had this type of conversation. In my family, there were many sides to truth but only one side professed to be right. My family was not “bad people”, only flawed like the rest of us and too wrapped up in the drama of their individual struggles to pause to be philosophical. It recently occurred to me that I never remember hearing my mother saying she was sorry to anyone. I recall my father saying it to my mother over and over, but it seemed less like the profession of any truth as it was a mantra of appeasement. I fit into that world through adaptation, changing myself like silly putty into whatever person I thought they needed me to be in order for me to survive. I told myself stories which might or might not have been true to explain their dysfunction and to find a way to function in a world where so much seemed broken and so little made sense. I never imagined having enough power to “shake some sense into it”; I only wanted to be very small and plan my escape.

In the wisdom of my older years, I became thankful because I came to realize how this difficult experience opened a new door for me. A crack of light came into a scared and dark place and it gave me a glimpse of Truth. I experience it in fleeting moments. It often sits close with me when I am writing. It is nearly impossible to practice every day or to summon when needed. My heart is not nearly so light as I would like for it to be and yet I am grateful for the little shaft of Truth, which may not always provide great illumination but casts very good shadows.

Of course it is not only through trials that we find the illumination to help us along the path towards wisdom and truth. If we are fortunate, we find people as well. They are there like angels at all places and stages of life. They are sometimes our spouses, best friends, aunts and uncles, our children, grandparents and beloved pets. They love us sometimes unconditionally and sometimes only just as much as they are able.

What a surprise it is to discover that WE are the illumination for others. There we, in all of our perfect imperfection, somehow manage to help others on their paths. That’s when things really come full circle and when life becomes so rich and so beautiful. That’s when we realize that all our experiences, the good, bad, hateful and loving, all come together to form such a blessing. All such a complex and often difficult means to a good end.

Tonight, I am so sad. A person I love so much is very ill. I can only imagine the world without her as a much darker place for myself and most especially, her family. It pains me to tears when I think about how to live my life forward from the point she is no longer here on this earth. She has taught me and helped me and loved me. She has encouraged me as a woman and as a writer and artist. She has reinforced the importance of family. Helped me find strength to stand up when I’ve needed to. How she has seen so deep inside me into my very Truth and did not find me so unsatisfactory, even as she saw my heart that is deeply flawed and not so brightly illuminated and said ” I want to be like you.”

While death is the end, it is also the beginning for everyone touched by that death as they must learn to live anew in a world that for a while will make no sense. I feel very inept at keeping up my arc of the circle of life. But I am blessed to know that Love wins and life has a way of moving gloriously forward, even as I limp along in my flawed and wobbly gait.

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