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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

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12 Days of Christmas Blogs; family celebration; dysfunctional Christmas; multicultural Christmas celebration; family; real meaning of Christmas

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.

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!

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