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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

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Holidays

7 Days of Christmas: Crazy Doesn’t Stop for Christmas

GrinchWhile the holidays are a stressful time for many of us, it is even more stressful for families of those suffering with addictions and mental illness. Many modern day Christmas stories feature certifiable crazy characters. Dr. Seuss’ Grinch suffers from bipolar mood swings, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders. In The Christmas Story, Scut Farkas is a narcissistic serial bully who gets joy out of tormenting Ralphie and his brother. Clark Griswold is manic and even loveable George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life has become so stressed and disillusioned with life he has become suicidal. The reality is that dealing with mental illness during the holidays is less than entertaining.

Christmas in itself brings a heightened level of expectations for a picture perfect holiday. There is so much pressure to be merry, bright and social during the holidays when often we are so fatigued from our holiday preparations we want to go home, pour ourselves a glass of wine and go to bed. Expectations arise which take us back to idealized Christmas’ of our own childhoods or the imagined perfect Christmas’ of others. Christmas gatherings often throw us together with family members we may not care for or see much of during the year, adding strain to already difficult relationships.

We are taught about the blessings of giving at Christmas. In the movies, the unselfish act of giving and its accompanying generosity often support the climactic turning point of the storyline. I would argue that in reality, rarely does a generous dose of Christmas spirit significantly and permanently improve one’s mental health. I do not believe mental illness is something most people choose to have; rather it is a disease of many variable symptoms and treatments that is just as measurable and real as cancer or heart disease. It is merely less socially acceptable.

Counter-intuitive to the season of giving, dealing with mentally ill family members may require us to behave in just the opposite manner. Especially when dealing with family members with violent tendencies, PTSD or anger management issues, we may need to withdraw ourselves from unhealthy interactions with them by creating boundaries to protect ourselves and other family members. Many types of mental illnesses are curable and treatable but only if its sufferers admit to having problems and needing help. While hitting bottom is often the turning point for many addicts and mental health sufferers, for many there is a long road ahead. We have to be careful to not unconsciously support the bad behaviors and continually rescue the mentally ill from the consequences of their actions. We must remember there are much worse things than spending Christmas in a jail cell or mental institution. How much worse would it be to lose someone you love due to the out-of-control behaviors of an addict or the mentally ill?

I would like to believe that love and a big plate of my homemade cookies could cure the world of its problems but that’s my own mental illness talking. What I do believe is that love and cookies can let people simply know they are cared for and can help alleviate a bit of the loneliness and social isolation that tragically runs rampant in our society.

9 Days of Christmas: The Christmas Tree

 

IMG_3010On a recent visit to see our college-aged son in the North Carolina mountains, half the vehicles on the road were packed with Christmas trees headed home to the Piedmont. Lots of folks go to the cut- your- own- tree farms. I could just imagine those young families traipsing along rippling rows of Frasier Firs. Little children sitting atop their father’s shoulders. And afterwards, steaming cups of hot cocoa to blast the winter chill.

I’m ashamed to admit this but I felt jealous at the thought of all that merriment. Like returning to my pre-pregnancy weight, cutting our own Christmas tree is one of those things in life I’ve completely given up on. It’s not simply that my husband and I no longer have little children at home to accompany us; it’s more that we would likely kill each other wandering among those acres of trees armed with an axe or a chain saw. Don’t get me wrong. My husband and I have a good marriage. We trust each other implicitly on most all matters except the selection of a Christmas tree.

Perry has a pragmatic approach. He believes the Christmas tree and all associated décor should be acquired, erected and disposed of with as little effort as possible. He has been known to bring home sensible six and a half footers, trees so slight they slip through the door and into the room without our rearranging a single piece of furniture. Every few years he will procure (without my permission) some new-fangled type of artificial tree, from “very lifelike” to the openly defiant white wire tree to be decorated in what he calls a “whimsical” manner.

My trees, on the other hand, are magnificent natural specimens which occupy a generous corner of the room, much like a baby grand piano or a full grown elephant. In addition to a little topping, mine often require a little bottoming as well.

This year, an unsuspecting neighbor offered us to join him in his pick-up to get trees at a $25 lot up Highway 220. I thought it would be more festive if we all rode together. We could hardly wedge our three middle aged bodies across the narrow bench seat; the first attempt to shut the door hit my husband’s hip with a dull thud. He glared at me in a foreshadowing of events to come. I rotated myself almost sideways and the door finally closed, however it was a bit awkward when Mike changed the gears with the stick shift.

The Christmas tree lot was bustling with burly young men lugging trees to and fro and starry eyed young couples whispering over their selection. “Little do they know”, I thought to myself. “Give them a few years.” Chainsaws buzzed as the scent of evergreen and wood pulp permeated the air. Hubby immediately spotted a tree on the front row. “I like this one” he said, ready to go within the first two minutes of our arrival. I would never consider buying the first tree I saw. I made a non-committal “hmm-mmm” and walked towards the back of the lot where I imagined the freshest of trees would be hidden. “You stand by that tree while I have a look around.” Ten minutes later I returned and in what I intended to be a gesture of goodwill, I conceded, “Ok, let’s gets that tree you picked out…”

“Well, it’s too late”, he remarked. Crossed arms and one eyebrow raised. He was perturbed.

“What? I asked you to hold it.” This was incredulous. Honestly, all he had to do was stand there and look remotely interested in that particular tree.

“Well, those people got it. It’s too late” he said.

The next day I went to get my hair done by my hairdresser, Jim Smith at Changes Salon. I lamented all the drama of the previous day. Hair dressers are a woman’s first line of marriage counseling, of course!

Jim does not make me feel better. He tells me about the numerous trees throughout his house, both live and artificial. He tells how he and his wife Starr carefully choose the tree and how Starr approves each decorating decision. He even has a beautiful tree decorated in gold, glass and crystal, much too breakable for my volatile household. He even pulled out his phone and showed me a picture. Impressive oohs and ahhs follow. “You don’t argue?” I ask. “Nope”, he says and keeps on snipping.

I am in awe of Starr Smith. I’ll bet she has a light blue convertible too.

10 Days of Christmas: Shine On…

IMG_1383I live in one of those neighborhoods where almost everyone decorates the outside of their home for Christmas. From late November to January, the tiny 1100 block of Hill Street in Greensboro puts on a resplendent show of Christmas festivity. Cars inch down the road gawking at the unique and colorful displays.

Last year I wrapped the big cherry tree in my front yard with several thousand twinkling white lights. Large old-fashioned red bulbs spill over the azaleas by the wrought iron railing while oversized Christmas balls float on fishing line above the canopy over my entryway.

The house across the street could rival the Griswold’s. With the help of a professional decorator and a newly added electrical circuit, Christmas lights transform this brick bungalow into an enchanted English cottage. The sloped roof hangs heavy with glistening icicles. Lights strewn on the ground create the illusion of a meandering stream. Dazzling illuminated spheres made from chicken wire are suspended from tree branches like rainbow colored fruit.

Another neighbor’s home resembles something out of Whoville. Trees are wrapped and their branches punctuated with illuminated exclamation marks of color. Columns are striped like crisp red and white peppermint sticks, which melt into pink as their tops spread wide like outstretched fingers over the front porch.

Two houses down, some fifty feet above the ground, a huge star is cradled like a heavenly body between the limbs of an old oak tree. The family who lives here tragically lost their teenage son several years ago. At random times throughout the year, the star is exchanged for a giant red heart. The light serves as a reminder to all of us of loss and love.

I was recently talking with a nurse in the Oncology unit of Cone Hospital. She said her patients often drive down our street following their chemo and radiation treatments. I imagine the sight of the brightly lit decorations lifts their spirits and for a moment, helps them to forget the seriousness of their condition.

On winter evenings, I walk my dogs down the street, pausing to admire decorations that are as colorful and diverse as the personalities who live in each home. I am thankful for the time and effort put forth by my neighbors in a gift that so many of us can enjoy.

From the ancient winter solstice festivals of the Druids to our modern day Christmas, celebrations of light have been observed for centuries by nearly every culture around the world. While many of us are familiar with Hanukkah and Ramadan festivals in the US, less familiar is the Japanese festival of Obon Matsuri. I’ve seen spectacular photographs of hundreds of floating lantern “boats” as they were released onto rivers where it is believed they float downstream to the spirits of their ancestors.

As human beings, I believe we are also meant to shine. By honoring others through acts of service and kindness, we are like candles whose flames are touched end-to-end. We share and amplify the glow of our individual lights, without our own light being diminished. We claim power over the darkness and cast warmth into an otherwise cold world. We shine to let others know they are not alone. We shine to bring comfort and to ease one another’s suffering. We shine in honor of the sacrifice that was paid to give spiritual meaning to our physical lives on earth. Through shining our light, we make manifest the glory of the divine spirit that is present in all living things.

From Hill Street to your street, may you all have a bright and shiny Christmas and a dazzling New Year!

11 Days of Christmas: Let God Take Care of Christmas

Gods handI have been sick for the past week with a terrible sinus infection. I’m usually healthy as a horse. Normally, I’d take a little Motrin or sinus medicine and plough through whatever is bothering me but this infection took me down. After being out of work several days and nearly overdosing on daytime television and chicken noodle soup, I returned to work on Friday where coworkers were sympathetic to my plight. “Oh that’s terrible to be sick during the holidays” they lamented. For the sake of conversation, I agreed but honestly, it’s not such a bad thing to be sick at Christmas. Let me explain…

Normally I would be feeling very stressed out right now. It’s a week and a half before Christmas and I’ve yet to finish putting the lights up on the shrubbery in the front yard and to purchase my husband’s Christmas present. I’ve yet to bake the first batch of Christmas cookies because I don’t want to infect anyone with my germs. There’s no chance of any Christmas Cards getting mailed with photos of the family. Being incapacitated for the past week forced me to slow down when I would have normally been in full hyper mode. I suppose being sick has given me a good excuse for why everything is not done.

It occurs to me that Christmas doesn’t really care if all the presents are bought and wrapped. It doesn’t mind if your refrigerator is still filled with the remainders of Thanksgiving. It won’t notice if the cupboards are empty or if you have a new holiday outfit or if you make it to church on Christmas Eve. We, you and I, are the only ones that feel we have to keep up with Christmas.

All Christmas asks is that you take the time to notice.

My mother passed away several years ago during the early hours of Christmas Day. We sat with her throughout Christmas Eve in the skilled care facility where she had spent the past three years of her life. When I share this with people, they are so genuinely distressed. Without fail, they will say something like “Oh, I’m so sorry.  How terrible to lose a family member at Christmastime.”

I usually smile back at them and nod in agreement because if I were to tell them the truth, they’d think I was crazy. The truth is, depending on the circumstances, Christmas can be a wonderful time to leave this earth. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, of course. In as much as possible, we were prepared for our mother’s death. My mother loved being the center of attention and on this day, she was. Friends, family and the folks that had helped care for her were able to stop by, drop off little Christmas presents to her and to say their goodbyes.  As a family, we were able to laugh and tell stories and sing her into this next life. It’s not like every subsequent Christmas has been marred by this memory; that memory of mother’s passing, like so many others, become woven into a tapestry of many Christmases and many special times. Being with my mother when she passed away was very peaceful and beautiful and something I will always remember.

Christmas is a terrible time to be hungry. It’s a terrible time to be in jail. A terrible time to be alone or in the hospital. It’s a terrible time for your house to catch on fire. It’s a terrible time to realize you can’t pay your bills, or file bankruptcy, or for your pet to die, or to discover you have cancer.

But these things would be just as terrible and difficult to face on any other day of the year.

I think it is sad what we have done to Christmas. It’s a mayhem of commercialism and perfectionism and materialism. Most of the things that stress us out have nothing to do with the real part of Christmas. I do not mean to undermine the good folks out there who work hard to bring Christmas to children and those who are less fortunate, but I find it ironic that all this goodwill takes center stage on one day and the next day, our compassion is gone. We make these folks get a permit to panhandle and take away sustaining benefits like mental health services and food subsidies. The next day, politicians will say the best way to help folks like this is to give a tax break to someone who can bring our area jobs, someone who can already afford a vacation home and luxury cars and health insurance and a pension plan. Try telling that to a little kid who hasn’t had anything to eat for breakfast. Tell him he can’t eat today because you’re going to give his breakfast to someone who can make ten breakfasts out of his one. Try telling him that. See if it appeases his hunger.

Let God take care of Christmas, I say. It’s the other 364 days when He needs our help.

 

12 Days of Christmas: The Gift of Real

 

Christmas 1995

Christmas  1995: My nephews Craig, Phillip and  Michael, son Brennen and their grandmother, my mom, the unforgettable Mary Louise

 

 

I was twelve years old when the first of my three nephews was born. Just old enough to command a little respect from them, I suppose, but not so much older that I seemed completely out of touch. In the early years of my adult life (post-college, newly married, pre-children), I recall feeling suddenly empty and unsatisfied giving them traditional Christmas gifts of Best Buy and Radio Shack gift certificates, model car sets and board games.  One year, I announced that I’d had enough, there would be no more traditional gift-giving from their Aunt Susie and instead, we’d share a memory, an evening or event spent together creating memories that I hoped would last a lifetime.

You’d think they’d be disappointed at their loss of material goods but they were ecstatic!

For nearly ten years, we did something different each year. There were sleepovers, laser tag, movies and roller skating. Occasionally, their young cousin Adrienne would go with us and in the later years, my own son joined us in our activities. One year we attended the Winston-Salem School of the Art’s production of the Nutcracker Ballet, where the youngest, Michael had to be repeatedly nudged awake. They still tease me about the year we bundled up in mittens and parkas for a winter hike in the mountains, only to arrive to find our destination closed. We ate our picnic in the car with the defrost set on high. There’s a photo somewhere of the four of us laughing and clinging on the park’s entry gate with the “CLOSED” sign prominently displayed.

Today, not a year goes by that we don’t reminisce about those good times.

Traditions change. Like many families, our Southern family has expanded into a cultural hybrid that extends to the nether regions across oceans and above the Mason- Dixon line. Eventually, these boys came to our family Christmas gathering with the young women who would become their wives. The girls, of course, having their own families and traditions, brought a new dynamic to the group. Suddenly, our new “family” extended from the country roads of Davidson County to Boston to Greek immigrants from Brooklyn, New York.

On this most memorable of Christmases, my country niece Melissa, an animal-lover and now a committed veterinary technician, happened to walk into the kitchen with a live squealing baby pig, right at the exact moment my Brooklyn- Greek niece was preparing Tzatziki and lamb skewers. The commotion almost caused Irene to severe her finger! The evening took another turn downhill when my Bostonian niece, Kate’s Irish Catholic father got into a heated disagreement with the Brooklyn contention over Red Socks vs. Yankees. As the sparring continued throughout the meal, Kate’s father, Fran (Side Note: Fran’s family was so extremely Irish Catholic, his parents  named their children after the Kennedy Clan. There was Robert, John, Joe and Rosemary, etc… When the baby came along, they were out of Kennedy names and had to call him Fran!) Caught up in the heat of the moment, Fran unfortunately called my Brooklyn niece an unfortunate “B’ word.  Although my Southern mother was slightly impaired with the early stages of dementia and did not always recognize the faces sitting around her table, she maintained enough composure to realize this action was highly inappropriate. Mother rose to the occasion by shaking a Parkinson’s ridden finger at Fran and telling him to stick it up his…

Well, you get the picture. Sometimes, it’s the years where everything seems to go wrong that are the most memorable, events seared onto your brain with the permanence and burn of a cattle brand.

Today, our Christmas traditions continue to evolve. Each of my nephews married the three young ladies they brought to Christmas that year. They are adult men now, with children and families of their own. Except for the year I thought it would be great fun to buy them Christmas underwear as a gag gift to embarrass them with their new brides, I never bought them traditional gifts again but rather began giving them generous bags of my homemade chocolate chips. I’m not sure if they tell me this just to make me feel good, but it seems to be their preferred gift of the holidays. Their new wives began to threaten me in the early years so they now get their own bag of cookies, exactly the same size as their husbands.

I struggle to keep the meaning of Christmas alive in the hustle and bustle of the holidays. I share my cookies with  neighbors and friends. I treasure the sounds of Christmas: the ringing of bells, change clanging into a Salvation Army pot, the singing of Christmas carols. I love the hugs and greetings of “Merry Christmas” that are exchanged among everyone from friends to strangers.

I especially love the quiet that settles upon my household like snow in the days of late December following Christmas when there’s nothing really left to do but watch a movie and take a nap. If you have a family like mine, you understand that’s really something to appreciate!

Misadventures in Turkeydom

ATT00040This is my 22nd year hosting our family’s Thanksgiving. Like most folks in the south, we’ll enjoy a traditional meal of turkey and ham, stuffing, sweet potatoe casserole, cranberry salad, green bean casserole, devilled eggs and pumpkin pie. Unlike the early years, I no longer feel compelled to make everything from scratch. Costco sells a terrific ham and if you don’t mind paying extra, the Honeybaked Ham Store’s smoked turkeys are hard to beat. yet I can still recall the excitement I felt nearly thirty years ago as I prepared to cook my first turkey. Although I’d never cooked one before, it never occurred to me that it could be all that difficult. Armed with  my 1980 edition of The Joy of Cooking, I encountered the first of many misadventures in turkeydom. This is what I learned…

1. If a grocery store is advertising its Thanksgiving turkeys for a ridulously low cost, the turkey will be so large, it will not defrost until Christmas.

If you are like me, you love a bargain and you will have visions of a Martha Stewart feast dancing in your head. You will not immediately realize that this is a really, really large bird. You will probably think “Wow! This is great deal!”

After purchasing a 25-30 lb. frozen turkey many years ago, I discovered it takes approximately six weeks to thaw a twenty seven pound turkey in the refrigerator which they define as the “preferred method”. Of course, your refrigerator is well-stocked with all the other ingredients you need for your holiday meal; the turkey instructions do not  say that unless you own a commercial size refrigerator, there will not be enough room in your refrigerator for the giant turkey. It also does not say you will need to buy a new larger roasting pan to hold the giant bird and perhaps a new commercial oven, as well.

Fresh turkeys are best but they cost ten times more than a frozen turkey. You will know you have finally “made it” when you skip the sales on the frozen turkeys and buy a fresh turkey.

Old people always insist on buying a turkey breast. In their thin patronizing old people’s voices, they they talk about how tender their turkey breast is and insinuate they wouldn’t want a whole turkey anyway. Personally, I do not think turkey breasts look anything like a turkey. A turkey breast could literally be any kind of meat: pork, ostrich, buzzard or an overweight chicken. Early on, I decided that when I served my Thanksgiving turkey, by golly it would look like a turkey.

Note to self: This year I am serving a turkey breast. I guess I never “made it” and now I am old. (You cannot hear me but my voice has become thin and patronizing…)

2: Most turkey recipes assume the chef knows a little about Turkey Biology.

When I began to prepare my first turkey, no where in the cookbook or the fine print on the package thought to clarify this very important question: how many holes are actually in the damn bird? That year, I discovered two of the three holes that I was searching for; unfortunately, I missed the third cavity that contained the little plastic bag of giblets. Now I know there are at least three cavities in a turkey although based on my previous experience, I live in fear that there is another one hidden out there like Pluto, just waiting to be discovered.

I discovered there is a neck hole which bears a resemblance to a hole at the opposite end. I believe the second hole is the poopy hole but honestly, it could be a little turkey vagina for all I know. Flip the turkey over and this will expose the largest hole, the “body cavity” which I know sounds very NCIS. The view from here is more than a little titillating. In fact, the shiny round butterball shape sits atop neatly tucked legs and thighs looking almost identical to the recently posted photographs of a naked Kim Kardashian.

3. Plump it up!

No, I am not still talking about Kim Kardashian! In recent years, it has become fashionable to treat your turkey to various treatments to enhance tenderness and flavor. In addition to the age old technique of basting, some people soak their turkeys in brine. I noticed my guests seemed uncomfortable when I mentioned the only container in my house large enough to soak my giant turkey was the bath tub. (At a recent neighborhood gathering, I learned that forty-some  years ago a man named Mannie Boren made hot sauce in my old porcelain tub and marketed it from the Greensboro Country Club. Honestly, could I make this stuff up???)

I have now begun injecting my turkeys with various solutions to plump up its skin. I am not sure if this makes it taste any better but it does minimize the fine lines and helps my turkey retain its youthful appearance.

4. A word on cooking thermometers…

The final challenge to preparing a wonderful and edible Thanksgiving turkey is to know when it is done. This sounds deceptively simple. The Butterball Turkey Hotline says the best way to determine this is to jab a cooking thermometer deep into the turkey skin until it reaches a temperature of 165-180 degrees, depending on exactly where you have inserted the thermometer. The variance of these mere fifteen degrees could be the difference in samonella and cardboard, or life and death. It occurs to me that novice cooks, like the novice sexual partner, may not have an inkling where they are sticking things. This one takes practice and that’s all I’m saying about it.

Oh, and another important word about thermometers. All thermometers are NOT created equal. Not all are meant for baking. In an oven. There are lesser quality thermometers out there whose thin Chinese metals will not survive being scorched in the oven for the half day or more required to roast a giant turkey. These thermometers are meant for use on top the stove for making candy, fudge and the like.

If it is Thanksgiving morning and you cannot find your meat thermometer…

If it is Thanksgiving morning and your neighbor is not awake for you to borrow his or her meat thermometer…

If it is Thanksgiving morning and your meat thermometer was broken in the drawer of 1000 unused utensils…

If any of these circumstances cause you to head to your local Food Lion to buy a new thermometer, do not buy the cheap thermometer like you bought the cheap turkey. This is not, I repeat, NOT a meat thermometer and it will melt, right there on top of your turkey for all of the world to see.

Ask me how I know this.

Happy Thanksgiving ya’ll!

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