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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

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family

Fortune Teller

angels1  When our old friends Kimberly and Chris decided to throw a big Halloween Party for their two boys a few years ago, I was their go- to person to portray the role of the fortune teller. Always up for a new adventure, I eagerly donned a long flowing skirt, ruffled blouse and layered all the bling I could find around my neck. I tied a colorful silk scarf, peasant style, around my forehead. Dramatic kohl black eyeliner and a long dark wig masked my blue- eyed blond. As I gazed into the mirror, I hardly recognized myself.

Miraculously, I found my old Ouija Board and its plastic controller. A relic from my teenaged years, the Ouija Board had been a big hit at slumber parties where giddy fourteen year olds boldly called forth the spirit of Elvis and other long lost celebrities during impromptu séances. I packed a deck of cards and the iridescent gazing ball from my garden. Voila! My outfit and props were complete.

After the hotdog dinner, I placed my wares inside the tent which had been set up in a dark and remote corner of their big backyard. The wind whispered through the tall pines and broad oaks as shadows danced like ghosts across the precision- cut lawn. We placed a candle in the middle of the table to illuminate my face and that of my young patrons. Miss Susannah was ready for her first customer.

One by one, Kimberly escorted the kids inside. They approached me tentatively, their eyes filled with excitement and apprehension. I played the role to the hilt. When I read the children’s’ palms, everyone had long life lines that showed happy marriages and beautiful children. With dramatic flair, I fanned the cards across the top of the table; a three of spades could foretell the same future as the Queen of Hearts. I sprinkled tea leaves into a cup of water where their black amorphous shapes revealed only to me, the shape of their future. I gazed into the crystal ball, pretending to see what they could not. I worked in tidbits of information that I had been told about the kids, details about sports or summer camps or their latest crush. It all went off without a hitch until Kimberly brought in my last customer.

At first, I did not recognize the boy. Even when Kimberly said his name, I could not recall anything significant about the boy. “This is Kyle’s friend Ryan,” she said. “He and his mom got here late. He’d like to talk to you.”

“Ah, come in Ryan” I said with a heavy accent and motioned for him to have a seat.

I read his palm. I sought his fortune in the tea leaves. Unlike the other boys, I could tell my words had failed to impress him. Ryan chewed on his lip; something else was obviously on his mind. “I wanted to ask you about my dad…” the boy whispered softly.

Suddenly, I remembered what Kimberly had told me about this boy.
Ryan’s father passed away a few weeks prior, suddenly and unexpectedly. Kimberly and Chris had not expected him or his mother to come to the party. My heart skipped a beat; for a moment, I did not know what to do. Across from me was a vulnerable real-life boy and I was a fake fortune teller. The boy’s eyes looked at me for some kind of reassurance; I have never felt so small or so embarrassed at perpetuating such a sham. I started to confess, to explain the truth. I wanted to tell him I was not really a fortune teller and that I didn’t know anything about his dad.

Then, I remembered my own experience. It wasn’t long ago that I, too had lost a father. In a chance and singular encounter with a fortune teller in Key West, I too had asked a stranger about my own father. I hadn’t cared so much about the number of children I would have or the length of my lifeline. All I wanted and needed to know in that instant was that my dad was ok. For a minute, I connected to this boy’s pain and told him what I thought he needed to hear. I told him what a kind person had told me almost ten years before.

“Oh Ryan,” I began, disregarding my props and my accent and speaking straight from my heart. I told him what I hoped someone would tell my own son, should the tables ever be turned. “You know, your father loves you so very much. He is so happy that you have asked about him! I know your heart is heavy and that you miss him so much. Always remember, that even though you don’t see him, his spirit is always with you, looking over you and your mom.”

I’m not sure if my answer was the right one or if it gave this boy any comfort. I’m not sure if I should have continued to act the part or if I should have come clean to the poor innocent and injured boy sitting across from me. I hadn’t meant to play a cruel joke. I guess I felt that it was important that Ryan believe in something at that moment of feeling so very lost and alone.

Ryan is a grown man now. I’ve lost track, forgotten to ask about him over the years. Still, I hope he has remembered my words and that he has known the loving and continued presence of his father in his life along the road to adulthood. I hope for his sake, that my prediction came true.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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