Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell



X-treme Santa: 11 Days of Christmas Blogs

Despite the fact that I am now an eligible member of AARP (I thought the application I received in the mail was a joke) anyone who knows me will attest that I’ve remained a child at heart. Even when I became a mother at age 30, there were not many things I enjoyed more than playing Santa Claus. What I believed to be innocent, spontaneous acts of joy and seasonal celebration caused numerous problems in my household. One issue was that since my husband never enjoyed the shopping and wrapping parts of Christmas as much as I did, he was rarely around to reign me in as he has most of our married life when I’d go overboard. Christmas morning often dawned to reveal surprises for everyone beneath the tree. The other and more serious problem was that while our son liked receiving presents, he was terrified of Santa Claus.

Oh yes, instead of the free-spirited  innocent mini-me I expected to raise, God had other ideas. He planted the soul of a suspicious, anxious old man inside our little boy’s body. Our son didn’t trust Santa Claus or anyone else for that matter prowling about our house at night.  Ever since a workman putting down a plywood subfloor in the attic had fallen through his ceiling, the idea of a huge sleigh and a team of hairy reindeer prancing atop the steep roof just above his second floor bedroom made him uncomfortable. When in late November we began reading “The Night Before Christmas” , Brennen would eye the visible patch in his sheetrock ceiling nervously.

benedrylAs Christmas Eve rolled around and our son was all worked up into a holiday fervor, even drugging him with Benadryl could hardly make him fall asleep. Like most parents my husband and I simply gave up on getting him to sleep in his own bed and allowed him to snuggle with us downstairs where he felt more secure. Once his breaths were deep and regular, I’d roll quietly out of bed and grope my way into the dark living room. As quietly as a mouse, I would pull bags and boxes out of closets and the trunk of the car, arranging the loot around the tree while my husband stayed in our warm and cozy bed on “lookout”. Since hubby was oblivious to most of the gifts being given, he was frequently as surprised as our son on Christmas morning. He was especially taken aback the year Santa brought a live bird. It was after midnight on Christmas Eve when I sneaked into my neighbor’s basement to retrieve the beautiful white cockatiel parrot I’d purchased the day prior. I slipped the birdcage under the tree and covered him with a tablecloth,  praying that he would not burst into song until he was revealed the next morning.

That was the year we learned that gifts from Santa are non-returnable, even with a father’s protest.

Like all parents we forced our son to get his picture made with Santa. We were only able to do this for one year because in subsequent years, he keenly remembered the event as traumatic and wouldn’t get within fifty feet of a man in a red suit.  There is a photograph of our son, arms outstretched, eyes terrified and shrieking “Mama-hold-you!” Long before Elf on the Shelf, the Santa of my generation was like a perverted Peeping Tom who gazed in the windows at night and lurked behind the trees by day. I frequently sang about it, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake…” I’d murmur. Like our own parents had done to us, we tried to bribe our children into being good by explaining that Santa was always watching and would bring a lump of coal if he misbehaved. Of course, the simple fact of having gas logs and a heat pump in our 2 level suburban tract home did little to enhance any positive or negative attributes of coal. Also, I staged phone calls with relatives and we wrote letters to Santa addressed to the North Pole. Without fail, we left cookies and milk on the side table near the Christmas tree and scattered reindeer food on the sidewalk on Christmas Eve. One year I tracked talcum powder all over our dark hardwoods so realistically that my husband awoke convinced that Santa himself had been stomping around the living room spreading someone else’ ashes.

In hindsight, I admit I went overboard. I’d like to think rather than being a horrible mother I may have simply done the wrong thing for the right reason? (I’m not sure if that’s any better than doing the right thing for the wrong reason but it sounds good…)We were so fortunate and it was easy to be carried away by it all. We had a beautiful healthy and slightly neurotic son. We had a warm home with dirty hardwood floors to call our own. We had good neighbors who left their basement door unlocked, plenty of food to share and enough money to buy Christmas presents. We had the hole in the ceiling patched. Most importantly, we had our family.

While those days when our son was young were precious, Christmas today in our near-empty nest has become more simple. As I debate the benefits of my submitting that AARP application, I have started to accept that simple is best. They say that when our Christmas list is short it is because the things we want cannot be bought. I’d have to agree.  A sound and discriminating mind, good health, freedom, the continued presence of those we love, safety and world peace… these are things which all human beings long for and cannot be bought at any price.

Today, our formerly terrified toddler is a grown man, working and in college and newly engaged to be married in September. I am so happy that he has chosen the best gift of all this year: a sassy, intelligent, compassionate woman just quirky enough to blend into our weird little family. A young lady who will hopefully be a mother to his children and a partner for life! While my husband and I hope they spend much of their early years simply loving and focusing on their marriage, I must admit I look forward to having grandchildren in and out of the house one day. There’s just something magical about children and Christmas. I need to start reading up about this Elf on the Shelf thing. I’ve got some ideas… 

The Piano Bench: 12 Days of Christmas Blogs

As a child, I grew up in the country just down the road from my Grandma Young on a small plot of land she carved off her 100 acre farm for my mama and daddy. After losing her husband to lung cancer near the end of the Great Depression, grandma’s only son moved his new wife from the city into his mama’s farmhouse where they worked and lived out the rest of their lives together. Although I didn’t know it at the time, we had a lively and eccentric family (even by Davidson County standards) and there was always an abundance of family members nearby, cousins, aunts and uncles.

Ironically Grandma Young never seemed “young”. For the nearly twenty years I knew her, she was ancient. She never learned to drive a car and walked nearly everywhere she went. When she left her house, she carried a black pocketbook over her arm. She wore a drab shapeless dresses with thick “stockings” rolled down to her ankles and ugly lace-up black leather shoes. If it was summer or if she was working in the fields, she donned an old-fashioned calico sun bonnet (as she had done since she was a girl) covering her head and her long narrow face. In my memories, I do not see grandma in color, rather she exists like a still-shot black and white photograph, sitting in an old straight-back wooden chair with her clouded bad eye staring out at the fields absent-mindedly.

Long before I came along as the baby in the family, our families had a tradition of getting together on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we’d gather in the basement of mom and dad’s brick ranch and sometimes in the small cramped living room of grandma’s farmhouse. It seems like we rotated houses depending on which family finished eating dinner first. Because my mama burned everything from cakes to iced tea, I preferred eating supper early and going to grandma’s house where my Aunt Johnnie was the hands down winner in the family dessert competition. She made all sorts of amazing cakes and pies, including her famous homemade Persimmon Pudding and fresh Coconut Cake.

aunt J   One of my favorite memories as a child is of sitting on the piano bench beside Aunt Johnnie singing Christmas Carols. Now if you made a list and told Santa all the characteristics that were needed to make the perfect aunt, they would have manifested themselves right there in that single stout and faithful woman. Aunt Johnnie was kind, patient, humble and generous of spirit. She was sweet and soft enough that I could nestle close beside her on the end of the piano bench without falling off. She never seemed in a hurry to go talk with the other adults or fix herself a piece of pie. I remember her swaying to the tempo of the music. Her fingers moved stealthily over the keyboard, her eyes focused on the pages of some old hymnal as her feet pumped the foot pedals.

My favorite pedal, even after I learned to play the piano myself, was the one on the right called the damper pedal. It makes the piano sound both loud and soft at the same time, allowing each note to remain suspended in the air a few seconds longer to meld with the others before falling silent.

I have often wondered if it was the fact that Aunt Johnnie lived out most of her adult life in her mother-in-law’s home that gave her an extra special dose of patience. It might have given her a special sensitivity for those of us that felt alone and needed some extra love at times. I always remember Aunt Johnnie fondly during the holiday season, but it is with a special tenderness this year. She passed away in February after a stroke and long illness and a mere five weeks after losing her grown son Bobby to cancer in the middle of January. I hold her and the family she loved so dearly in my thoughts and prayers on this first difficult Christmas with her gone.

Today I continue to feel Aunt Johnnie’s gentle loving spirit. In the bustle of the holidays, she reminds me not to hurry so. She says not to worry about the shopping and the decorating. I hear her voice in the old hymns like Silent Night and Joy to the World. Her single greatest gift to me was the gift of her just being there.

At the time, I doubt Aunt Johnnie felt she was doing anything special for me; she was just being herself and sharing her love with me. In the act of making enough room for me to sit beside her on that bench, it allowed me to feel truly special.

Susan dedicates this piece to the memory of her beloved aunt, Johnnie Mae Wallace Young (1933-2015). May you all feel the love and peace of the holiday season.

A Touch of Royalty

West Davidson High School Class of 1980: Susie Swicegood, Tracy Bauernfeind and Lisa Jacobs
West Davidson High School Class of 1980:
Susie Swicegood, Tracy Bauernfeind and Lisa Jacobs

Along with soft sweaters, pumpkins and the red tinged leaves of the dogwoods, I am certain that fall is in the air when my husband mentions going to the the county fair. When I was young, my family attended the Davidson County Fair but these days, it’s the larger Dixie Classic in Winston- Salem. At the fair, my husband, Perry’s goal is to eat his way around the midway in search of the perfect cheese steak sandwich, hamburger and bowl of chicken and dumplings while I look forward to the fried apple fritter that comes at the end in “Old Time Village”. In between, we pass the carnies hawking their games, listen to kids screaming above rock music on the Himalaya, stroll through the wilted flower, art and photography exhibits and of course visit the livestock barn. This is when the goading starts. Perry says, “Honey, don’t you want to get on stage? Doesn’t it bring back memories?” We are walking close together and he elbows me. He laughs and makes a sound like Dr. Evil.

Now, there’s no need for you to curtsy, No, no, save your knees. But lest you forget let me remind you from the comfort of my Birkenstocks and mom jeans that once I was a Beauty Queen.

For those of you who know me, you know I am not Beauty Queen material. I am not sure  how I earned this honor, but thirty-five years ago, I was somehow elected to be my high school’s representative in the Miss Davidson County Fair Pageant. I certainly felt inferior to the other queens. Our school’s “Miss West Davidson” was the beautiful Lisa Dawn Jacobs. Even Lisa’s name was pretty. Twenty years after we had said goodbye to our Candies and shoulder pads, she still had the same Farrah Fawcett hairstyle yet appeared ageless and completely in vogue. As part of her duties, Lisa rode atop a convertible wearing a beautiful dress and fur wrap for our town’s Christmas parade. She had long since mastered the queen’s wave. Lisa was stunning.

The next queen was our school’s Homecoming Queen. My best friend, Tracy Bauernfeind won this esteemed honor. As I recall, this queen was voted on by the football players; therefore this queen had to be a lot like Sandra Bullock: beautiful, well- liked by the guys and not a skank. Tracy was and is beautiful. Clean as a whistle. Because it was 1980, Tracy also wore her hair in the same Farrah Fawcett hairstyle as Lisa Dawn Jacobs.

The third Beauty Queen, Miss West Davidson County Fair was arguably not a beauty queen at all. As I recall, she simply had to be liked enough by her class-mates to be voted in, which of course means she could not be hated by most of them. This eliminated many of the beautiful and truly popular girls because many of them were not well- liked. I was too non-confrontational to have a beef with anyone and besides, I got bonus points since I grew up handling livestock and driving a tractor.

On the day I heard my name announced over the intercom, I could not believe my good fortune. What an honor! Yet, my thoughts quickly turned to dread when I began to wonder what I would wear. I was a tomboy and had not actually worn a dress since the fourth grade. My sister generously stepped in to assist in my transformation.

The single duty of our high school’s representative would be to compete against girls from the other area high schools at our county fair. The judging was held on a Thursday evening at the fair grounds in the same barn and on the same night as the semi-final judging of the cattle and other livestock. Every year my husband points out this was no coincidence.  “You know the fair organizers used the same judges for the Queens that they used for the Holsteins”, he says and I’ve no doubt he’s telling the truth. In the afternoon, Elsie the cow was led in wearing her new stiff black halter and in the evening, I wore the equivalent ensemble, courtesy of my sister and The Dress Barn. When nerves almost caused me to have an accident in my underpanties, I only needed to look offstage to the right and feel comforted that Elsie had already broken that ground for me!

Any bit of false confidence I might have felt vanished as I walked onto that stage. Hundreds of pairs of eyes in the audience and the distant mooing of Elsie and her friends made me feel as conspicuous as a cow headed for the slaughter house. I made it down the runway on my 4″ heels without falling on my face or tackling the other contestants, but whatever occurred at the end of the ramp I cannot recall. Anything could have happened. Were there questions about starving children in third world countries or feeding the homeless? Was there a swim suit competition? Did I yodel or play chopsticks on the piano for the talent competition?

This, I do not know for sure.

I do believe, however there is an inner mechanism that prevents us from processing too much trauma. Mine kicked in whenever I reached center stage that night. I froze. I am certain Elsie the Cow, chewing on a cud, looked more intelligent than I did that night. My husband still teases me that when I was asked a question by the emcee, I simply stomped my hoof two times for “yes”, and three times for “no”.

He’s merciless, really… 

Needless to say, I did not win. I apologize to my classmates with whom I most surely let down. I feel bad my sister worked so hard in giving me a beauty overhaul. Personally, I confess, any regret I have over my failure to bring home the blue ribbon sash stems  more from a personality flaw of competitiveness rather than vanity. Admittedly, I am a little sad I will never again be a Beauty Queen, but then again, a tiara just wouldn’t be appropriate for the rest of my wardrobe.



Special Day

Daddy in 1959, 3 years before I was born with my brother and sister.
Daddy in 1959, 3 years before I was born with my brother and sister.

I never remember the date but I always remember the day as the Monday after the first Sunday in October. Twenty three years ago, on this day, my father committed suicide.

What do I remember?

Our family had just celebrated a big family reunion with my mother’s family, the previous Sunday. This is how and why I associate my father’s death not with a certain date but as “the Monday after the first Sunday in October.” We scheduled the reunion that way so year after year, it would be easy for everyone to remember. In retrospect, everything seemed normal that day but I wonder if there was something I might have missed? If I could take a magnifying glass and review that day in detail, was there something that could have been seen that might have triggered this chain of events ? Or was the timing purely coincidental?

In 1992, I was already a grown woman, thirty years old and my still brand spanking new baby boy was just 6 months old. I’ll admit I was distracted by the baby. I had recently returned to work on a part-time basis. My husband received the phone call that day at his work and came to tell me where I worked in nearby Winston-Salem.  I remember seeing him walk in my office, smiling at the surprise and thinking “Why are you here?” Then, when he told me what happened, I screamed…  “Noooo!”  How can you possibly hear that kind of news without screaming? We left, me still shuffling my papers and tending to meaningless details. We stopped by our home before heading to my parent’s house about an hour away on Goat Pasture Road.  As we pulled in the driveway, my husband and I were talking about something. It was late afternoon and the sun was sitting low in the sky. For an instant, I “forgot” what had happened to my father; it simply left the forefront of my mind for an instant. I looked up, saw a figure standing in the driveway, silhouetted by the setting sun and I remember thinking “Oh, that’s daddy!” Then reality hit me with a snap. I knew it was the light, the coincidence of my uncle’s posture to my father’s and I knew that my eyes were playing tricks on me. It seemed like a cruel trick and it almost broke my heart for the second time.

The last thing I remember about that day was all the people coming in and out of the house. The food. The people. If you were there, most likely I do not remember seeing you. I was sitting on the sofa beside my cousin Patty and I suddenly dropped, I just passed out. This would happen again, several times over the following years and I would learn I have vasovagal syncope, a condition that caused me to faint under certain circumstances. For me, it was brought on by a bent or stooped posture, low blood pressure, dehydration and pain or stress, all of which were probably at work that evening.

People always ask this. No, daddy didn’t leave a note and in fact, I don’t recall having quizzed my mom afterwards on what had happened. Surely someone did but I didn’t need to because somehow I knew. My mom and dad did not have good relationship. I am certain they argued that morning before my mom drove off to run errands. I should preface that by clarifying that it was my mom who argued, berated and cursed as was her habit when she was “worked up” and my father had little to say in return which frustrated her even more. This was the script they followed for most of my life and the best reason I swore I would not have a marriage like that. When my mother returned home that day, she found my dad in the car port. He had rigged his shotgun with a straight wooden chair and shot himself in the chest on the exact spot in our two car garage where my mom parked her car. More than anything, the deliberate placement of that chair on that spot seemed out of character for my father. I’ve no doubt, it was a message meant for my mother. Like he had taken all he was going to take from her. She would have rounded the corner to pull the car into the garage and would have seen him, up close with no warning.

The depression that preceded my father’s death came without warning. Following his retirement a year or so prior, he began suffering to the extent that he told my sister and I about it; together we sought help. My mother did not believe that he was really sick and accused him of being a child, of simply trying to get our “attention”. I imagine she resented that it took a bit away from the “attention” she mandated. The depression seemed unusual because if my father had suffered from it at other times in his life, none of us had ever been aware of it. It seemed to hit him at a later onset than one might imagine someone becoming afflicted with an initial bout of such severe depression. Looking back, after daddy’s death I could see how clearly he’d been depressed and how he wasn’t really “there” most of that last year of his life. He came to visit at my house with mama to see the baby but he wasn’t really present. He was lost in his mind, already gone, had been gone for months. The suicide was the final act. It was closing the door after the lights had been turned off.  

Over twenty years have passed and I look back on this catastrophe with the perspective of time.

  • There are the “what if’s”… I cannot help but wonder if mental illness did not have such a stigma, might my father have sought help sooner or  taken his medications more regularly. I wonder if my parents had divorced like we urged them to do years before, might my dad have had a happier life? Ironically, neither of my parents was ever willing to try separation much less divorce.  They seemed to prefer being married to the misery they knew than they were willing to risk looking for the joy of a better life. That says so much about human nature, doesn’t it? About how willing we are to stay miserable before we are willing to assume risk of the unknown. In retrospect, I knew I had tried to help dad and I did not feel guilty about having abandoned him in any way but did I wish I could have done more? Yes, of course. Yet I know for certainty, I saw it first hand, how you cannot help someone who does not want to be helped.
  • Then, there was the simple need to survive. The going through the motions, the putting one foot in front of the other for days, weeks, years… I don’t think I took time to grieve. I told myself I didn’t have time for that. I was a young mother and I had a child to care for, a family, a job, a community and I dug my nails into all those things with as much ferocity as I could muster. On some level, it seemed like if I could be the good wife, the perfect mother, the exemplary employee I could keep the grief from crushing me. I could be and would be a survivor. Whatever got my daddy would not get me. Later, I read a book called The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon and it reminded me of that time, about the shock. You tell yourself these completely illogical things just to keep going.
  • And lastly, there was the collateral damage this kind of event does to a family that takes years to unfold and can only be accurately seen in a reverse perspective. I think we – my brother and sister, my mother- stayed in shock for years. We were each our own emotional islands, each of us locked in our own form of emotion: grief, shock, denial, anger. You hear about the stages of grief as if they come in an organized, predictable manner but they seemed to hit each of us differently and at random moments. I have a strong family; I am especially close to my sister but nothing really helped the grief but time.

Today, this day, the first Monday after the first Sunday, is a special day for me. It is no longer marked with an acute sadness but is a day that becomes more precious with each passing year as my grief has given way to acceptance and then peace. I wish the disease of depression had not blocked dad’s ability to sense the light and love that was coming to him through the darkness. I wish it had not prevented him from being able to see how much he was needed; yet I know firsthand that depression is a dangerous veil that separates us from the world and those we care about. I give thanks for my daddy who was a wonderful, funny, kind, supportive, hard-working and gentle man. I am so glad to have had him as a father and I hope he is proud of me as I am of him.

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.







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.

Treasures in the Attic

old attic

My husband is a treasure hunter. Our home is filled with all sorts of strange and unusual artifacts from his many trips junking. Among his numerous acquisitions include lamps and bottle openers made from the hooves and legs of deer (a little creepy), men’s hat stretchers and bowtie collections (precursors of upcoming fads I am sure) and a tiny scissor collection (certain to be used by our aging arthritic hands). Years ago, he brought home a dusty box filled with old letters and photographs that were pilfered from the remote third floor attic of an old house in Lexington awaiting demolition. “Another box of old stuff to clutter up my house,” I  muttered to myself, rolling my eyes.  “Why are you always bringing that stuff home?” I asked. The dust scattered and floated upward as he lifted off the lid and began to sort through the contents. “I just think it’s sad” he began, “for these things to be left behind. It’s like losing a piece of your soul”.

For years, the box sat all but forgotten in the book shelf in our living room. Occasionally, we would pull a letter or photograph from the box. Faces we didn’t recognize stared out at us across  a span of over 60 years, sepia colored images with withered edges. The folded letters were perfectly creased, with a drift of elegant script across paper as transparent as a butterfly’s wings. Eventually, the box became our little detective project as I began to type the letters and place the information chronologically into a notebook.

As we began to sort the contents of the box, a story began to emerge. It read like a Nicholas Sparks’  novel with most of the pages missing…

Most of the contents were love letters dated from the 1920’s and 30’s. Several photos captured a lively, bright-eyed young woman smiling seductively for the camera. One large 8’ x 10″ photo was labeled simply “The Doctor”. The terse writing from his corresponding letter hinted of a broken heart. Another photograph,  more recent than the others, showed a serious-faced little girl wearing coke bottle glasses. There was also a letter in sprawling childlike script which began, “Dear Daddy, I fell and broke my glasses…” We assumed the child in the letter and the photograph was one and the same.

The bright eyed young woman, Lyndal Denny was pursued by many arduous suitors including the illustrious Doctor but none professed his love more eloquently than the one who signed his letters, simply “Red.” Elmo “red” Leonard had already graduated from college and worked in Lexington North Carolina in the family mercantile business. Passionate and exuberant, his writing spoke of many things, but mostly of his adoration for Lyndal. Some letters began with “Girl of my Dreams.” Then “How good a sweet kiss from you would be!” declared love struck Elmo. The poor guy was passionately, hopelessly  and whole-heartedly in love with Lyndal.

Fast forward nearly ten years after my husband’s discovery of the lost letters to 1992. My husband, Perry and I were ecstatic, expecting our first child, however there was one problem. As a public school art teacher, Perry associated every popular name with an unruly middle school student. We finally settled on two uncommon names: “Brennen Scott” for a boy and “Lyndal Claire” after the young woman in the letters.

As my due date grew near, we decided on a whim to try to locate Lyndal’s former home by the address listed about an hour away in the town of Burlington. We found the street but no corresponding house number. A little ways down the street, an elderly gentleman was mowing his grass and we stopped to ask if he knew of the family. He hadlived in the town most of his life, he said, and while he was unsure of the whereabouts of Lyndal, he remembered her sister who still lived in town.

Imagine our surprise at learning Lyndal was alive and well, living with her daughter in nearby Durham. We were thrilled when months later we would actually meet her and return her letters. We felt like we knew her intimately; we had read so many of her thoughts and knew of her adventures yet we had so many questions. Did she marry Elmo? What was her life like? Was she happy?

We drove to the retirement community near Duke University where Lyndal and her daughter Harriet lived in a small townhouse. At eighty-nine years old, Lyndal was no longer the same beauty in the photographs but she was just as vivacious. The blue chiffon scarf tied neatly around her neck echoed the same azure of her merry eyes. Her silver-white hair and clear mind shined with the brilliant patina of old age. We were welcomed into her little home filled with books and fine antique furniture. She graciously accepted the return of her letters as Perry explained how he found them in the attic.

Then, she began to tell her story…

Lyndal was no child of privilege. Her parents and four siblings moved to Burlington from eastern North Carolina in the early 1900’s and her father died soon thereafter. Although her mother ran a boarding house and worked as a seamstress, she was unable to provide for her two oldest daughters. Ultimately, she had no choice but to send them to an orphanage. Both girls excelled in school. What could have been a horrific experience was made better by the girls having each other. Their mother sewed clothes for them and visited when she could. Lyndal was smart and ambitious. She worked in the school’s administrative offices and eventually earned a scholarship to Chowan College.

While she dated and undoubtably flirted with many young men, Lyndal was eventually wooed by Red, a man with bright auburn hair and a grand sense of humor. She was the love of his life and they were happily married until his passing some twenty years prior. Their only daughter Harriet was indeed the little girl in our photos. She eventually became the head reference librarian for the Duke Divinity School. Still wearing thick coke bottle glasses and a wan smile, Harriet sat quietly beside her mother. She had not changed much either over her sixty years.

I asked Lyndal about her unusual name and confided that if we had a baby girl, we planned to name her “Lyndal”. She clapped her hands in delight then inquired whether “Elmo” or “Red” was on our short list of boys’ names. “No,” I confessed and she chuckled at my reply. “My mother found the name Lyndal in a book she read before I was born but she could never remember the title. Elmo was named after the character in St. Elmo’s Fire. So you see…” her voice trailed off as her eyes twinkled with memories. “It was ALL very romantic!”

Weeks after we met her, I gave birth, not to a little Lyndal, but to a healthy baby boy. Our son, Brennen Scott turned twenty three last April. We formed a friendship with Harriet and Lyndal, sending cards at holidays and making the Sunday afternoon drive to the beautiful Duke campus, going out to eat and sharing stories. Lyndal Denny Leonard passed away just four years after we met face-to-face. She was just shy of celebrating her 100th birthday. Harriet followed her mother unexpectedly the following year.

It’s been over twenty years since we returned those letters to Lyndal. Except when there are old dusty boxes cluttering my living room , I am thankful for my husband’s penchant for rescuing lost antiquities. He reunited three souls that day in returning the letters and photographs to their rightful owner and gave us the gift of friendship of two wonderful ladies we would have likely never known. I am thankful “time” speaks to my husband in the way it does. I joke that he’s never met an antique he didn’t like.

Hopefully, he’ll still like me when I’m a hundred years old, too.

PS My husband Perry makes collages from old photographs and ephemera. His work can be seen at

I’ve Lost It

Groucho Mark At mid-life, it is generally accepted that for a woman to age gracefully, she must become accustomed to losing certain things. I realize I am not twenty any more. Loss is something for the most part I can deal with…

I have acknowledged the permanent loss of my waistline. This is karma paying me  back for making fun of my mother’s elastic waist polyester slacks she wore during most of her adult life. Now, it is I who look for pants with a bit of stretch and if they must have zippers, they must hit me above the muffin top in order to contain it. Perhaps I delude myself but these are not, I repeat NOT mom jeans.

I have lost my breasts. Well, they are still there for the most part and I am grateful for that but they have morphed into undistinguishable flesh which melts into stomach, back and underarms. Unfortunately, my bra only accommodates the breasts so this presents me with a problem of what to shove into the bra and what not to…

I have lost the ability to wear cute little high-heeled shoes. I am afraid I will break a leg and despite the drama of my life I am not an actress.

I have lost the ability to run. I entered a 10K a few weeks ago and my poor ankles are still aching. In the future, if you see me running, you’d better run too because you can be certain something is chasing me and it’s probably really big!

I have lost my vision, as testified by my 2.5 readers. Even my sister, 11 years my senior (sorry sis for pointing that out sis) can see better than I can.

Most likely, I have lost my mind but a have yet to realize it.

One of the most humiliating  things I have lost is my eyebrows. For years now, my eyebrows have been silently walking off the job even as they seemingly reattach themselves to other parts of my face like invited guests. There is the layer of peach fuzz that surfaces on my chin and sideburns like my Sheltie’s winter undercoat. There are strange, singularly long hairs that sprout from my jaw like Cousin Fester. There’s a long thin blonde one that morphs out of my forehead until one day I discover it lying sweetly in a 2” curl. I’m sure they will be moving to my ears and nose soon.

It looks like out of sheer loneliness all these little strange sproutings  could initiate a little social gathering and begin to congregate in the vicinity of my former brows!

For years, I have used a secret regimen of dark powder and a coat of clear liquid gel. Until recently, I thought I was doing a great job concealing “my condition.”  A few weeks ago, my husband burst my bubble. He happened to meet up with a friend whom we haven’t seen in years. Afterwards, I inquired innocently, “’How’d she look?”

“Oh, my,” he confessed. ”She looks JUST like her mother.”

This elicited a naturally sympathetic reaction from me…

“But the worst of it is… She has lost her eyebrows!”

“Oh NO!”, I exclaimed, my mind racing from my friend’s predicament to secretly count the number of individual hairs left hovering above my own eyes. I secretly smiled and thought somewhat smugly to myself that at least he hadn’t noticed MY problem…”

Then, he says, “Yes, honey…Hers are even thinner than yours!”


While commiserating with my friend Kim, she told me about her mother, Miss Edith, whose beauty regimen is eternally trapped in the 1950’s. Miss Edith uses a shiny brown Maybelline pencil to draw an exaggerated arch on her completely missing brows. One day, in the midst of “putting on her face”, the doorbell rang unexpectedly. Forgetting that she had one eyebrow on and one eyebrow off, she opened the door to greet her guest. Imagine the postman’s reaction when a one eye-browed ghoul welcomed him with a demure smile.

My girlfriends (most of whom are younger and have the brows of Brooke Shields) have given me lots of suggestions. There are products, not unlike Rogaine, that you can brush on; but I find myself doubting that if it hasn’t worked for Matt Lauer’s whole head, it’s probably NOT going to work for me. I’ve dismissed having them “permanently” tattooed. The thought of “getting inked” is more than this Southern Bell can stand. If I am going to get tattooed, I want something fun. Something that’s going to make me smile. A happy face on my buttock, perhaps? But then again, it could end up below my knees in a few years…

Perhaps the best advice is the lesson I’ve learned from Miss Edith. Simply slow down and avoid opening the door until I have them both (safely and securely) drawn on and in place!



$100 Dollar Hairspray


Recent unanticipated expenditures in the Boswell household including the purchase of a new car have caused my husband and I to take a closer look at our monthly budget. We’ve cut back on eating out and begun shopping the discount bread store. I’ve value-engineered our cable and cell phone packages including a (rather ingenious) intervention on my part which involves simply cutting off my son’s data and texting privileges when he somehow exceeds the “unlimited” plan I spend too much money on anyway.

One of the areas I am most reluctant to cut is the one marked  “Health and Beauty”. A recent review of my monthly expenditures confirm the “natural” look I have boasted for so many years is costing me an unnatural amount of cash. Hair color, styling products and make-up are expensive!

Having grown up in the shadows of  Farrah Fawcett, Cindy Lauper, and the Breakfast Club, I have never relinquished my love for big hair. As a Southern woman of a “certain age” I have lived years under the honor code of “the higher the hair, the closer to God”. It’s an expression nearly every woman in the South between the ages of 50 and 60 not only believes but  lives. Therefore when I recently ran out of my favorite salon style hairspray, I was thrilled to find a huge $9.99 can of something called “Big Sexy Hair” at my local TJ Maxx. With visions of St. Peter and ’80’s angelic icons dancing in my head, I knew this was the right hairspray for me! While I was at it, I also splurged for the $6.98 “Sexy Light” shampoo, which promised manageability and control, without weighing me down, attributes that would surely help my hair, if not my social life.

The next morning as I got dressed for work, my hair was initially light, manageable and gloriously big! I congratulated myself on my purchases and began to spray “Big Sexy” on my newly styled “do”. The first spray from the aerosol can sputtered out in a glob. Giving it a good shake, the second attempt came out in a fierce narrow stream.  Undaunted, I closed my eyes tightly and began to spray, my arm doing a series of rapid and elaborate figure eight’s as I tried to dispel the stream into a spray. I opened my eyes to find disaster!

I had been “flocked”!

Dear God, I looked like a cheap Big Lots Christmas tree, my uppermost branches adorned with heavy mounds of fake snow. I slipped on my reading glasses and squinted at the fine print. “Big Sexy” was not hairspray at all, but some sort of styling mousse. I tried to brush the snow from my hair but it was useless. My “Big Sexy” hair had taken a definite turn for the worse!

Later in the day, as I was recanting my “disast-hair”, one of my friend’s who I can always count on for sound advice suggested I visit Sally’s Beauty Supply where I could purchase professional products at a discounted price. After perusing their shelves over my lunch hour, I determined their hairspray was such a bargain, I would purchase 2 cans. The sales clerk at the checkout told me that for an additional $15.00, I could save 10% on all purchases for the next year. Since I use a lot of hairspray, this seemed a no- brainer.

The next few days did not go so well. The rain and humidity that saturated Greensboro over the next few days were not my fine hair’s best friend. The hair that held such heavenly promise had taken a harrowing turn, if not towards hell, certainly the flatlands.

“What happened to you?”, asked another friend noting my sagging locks. Realizing that my newest “bargain” hairspray offered no resistance to humidity, I conceded my latest purchase was no bargain at all!

By Sunday, I didn’t care what it cost. Desperately tired of looking like an abandoned pound pup, I was willing to pay anything. I drove thirty minutes to the mall to purchase my original hairspray from the expensive salon. Perusing the shelves, I was suddenly confused. My old trusty brand now came in two selections, both offering maximum control. I asked the young sales clerk to explain the difference.

She peered out at me dramatically from dark, side-swept bangs. “Uh, this one says “Platinum”” the eye said while the mouth smacked loudly on a wad of gum.

“Yes, I can read that”, I said testily, “but is one of these better for humidity?”

“Ummm, I guess I need to familiarize myself with this product”, the eye confessed. “I don’t really use hairspray.”


I roll my eyes , a gesture the clerk fails to notice. This person cannot help me.

At this point, only God and Farrah Fawcett can help me. “Give me one of each,” I say, handing the eye the last of my $100 bill.

“And a bottle of Elmer’s Glue, while you are at it!”

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