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ON DRINKING VINEGAR

March 7, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Spartanburg Science Center and Science Museum 200 East Saint John Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina  29306, (864) 583-2777, https://www.spartanburgsciencecenter.org.

From the time I was twelve years old until I graduated from high school, I worked at the family lumberyard every summer.  Dad and I would go to work at 6:00 in the morning and stay until 6:00 at night.  Those twelve-hour days were interrupted by a one-half hour at noon for a meal that we never called lunch.  It was always dinner, and we always went home to Mama’s cooking.

One sweltering hot day, Dad and I came home to a meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, English peas, and turnip greens.  We washed our hands at the kitchen sink and sat down to our plates which were already served.  My dad offered his usual table grace.

“Lord, make us thankful for these and all our many blessings. Amen”

Before he got to Amen, I was reaching for a large jar of amber liquid, pouring it over a tall glass of ice.  Hardly anything was better in the summertime than Mama’s sweet tea.  I put the glass to my lips and took a big swig.  The liquid was not iced tea, and it was certainly not sweet.  It was apple cider vinegar, intended for the turnip greens.  Mama came to the rescue with a large pitcher of freshly brewed sweet iced tea.  From that day to this, I have never enjoyed drinking vinegar. In fact, apple cider vinegar seems like a waste of good apples to me.

My grandmother, Mammy, knew what to do with apples. I grew up on apple sauce, apple juice, apple cobbler, and apple butter. Mammy could take the ugliest, knottiest apples and make the best lattice-crust pies ever. For a long time after Mammy’s death, my Aunt Ann made sugar-free apple pies for me using apple juice as the sweetener. I contend that apples were meant to be sweet. That’s why they are associated with love.

According to Irish folklore, an apple peel, pared into one long continuous ribbon and thrown behind a woman’s shoulder, will land in the shape of her future husband’s initials. Both my grandfather and Clare’s grandfather could peel an apple in this way. The long strip of apple peel was presented as a gift to a grandchild.  I now find myself doing this for our grandchildren.

When I was a boy, an old apple tree in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse was down a dirt road beyond our home. In the autumn of the year, the ground was littered with rotten apples. Apple fights, spontaneous frays, were great fun. Late one September afternoon, beneath the old apple tree, the battle was joined. All went well until a buddy of mine threw a rotten apple at me. I ducked.

The apple sailed over my head and toward his girlfriend. The rotten apple hit her in the face! He was no longer the apple of her eye! She ditched him.

Beyond romance, apples have also been linked to good health. An old proverb attests to the fruit’s health benefits: an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Research suggests that apples may reduce the risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer. Like many fruits, apples contain vitamin C, as well as a host of other antioxidant compounds. They may also assist with heart health, weight loss, and cholesterol control. The chemicals in apples may protect us from the brain damage that results in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Clare and I enjoy driving to the mountains in the fall to buy fresh apples from our favorite roadside stand. The display features more than thirty varieties of the fruit and other apple products – bread, jellies, and beverages. Juice made from sweet apples is filtered and pasteurized. Apple cider is unfiltered, unpasteurized juice. Apple wine is fermented sweet apple juice. Apple brandy is a distilled derivative.

Many old apple cultivars have excellent flavor and are still grown by home gardeners and farmers whose conservation efforts continue in John Chapman’s tradition. An American pioneer, he roamed the Midwest for more than fifty years. He earned his nickname, Johnny Appleseed, by planting apple trees across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

The apples planted by Johnny Appleseed were the bitter variety. Henry David Thoreau wrote that the apples were “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” John Chapman provided a source for the most easily produced alcoholic beverage of early American times. Hard cider is fermented sour juice. Apple Jack is concentrated hard cider. President John Adams held that a tankard of cider a day kept the doctor away.

Our good friend, Jean Crossley, is the longtime owner of the New Method Laundry and Dry Cleaning business in Spartanburg,  One day we took clothes by to be laundered and pressed. In the course of the conversation, Clare said, “Whenever I do my own ironing, my shoulder hurts.”

Jean asked, “Do you take cider vinegar?”

Clare said, “No! I tried it, but I stopped.”

Jean explained that she takes cider vinegar every day. Jean is so energetic, even given her strenuous job and her long work hours, that Clare became a convert. She mixes a generous splash of cider vinegar in a tall glass of water and sips on it all day long.

 Unfiltered apple cider vinegar has long been regarded as a home remedy. Check the label. The vinegar must be unfiltered! Two tablespoons of the sour elixir in a glass of water, taken as a daily tonic, are said to relieve or cure many ailments. The long list includes allergies, sinus infections, acne, high cholesterol, flu, chronic fatigue, acid reflux, sore throats, contact dermatitis, arthritis, and gout. Apple cider vinegar breaks down fat and promotes weight loss.  A daily dose is said to reduce high blood pressure and help control diabetes.

Clare’s aunt and uncle were true believers in the powers of apple cider vinegar. Mitch and Helen imbibed the remedy every day. They were traveling on a nostalgic steam locomotive trip. Box lunches were served to all the passengers. Every person aboard the train developed food poisoning except for Mitch and Helen. To this day, family lore holds that the apple cider vinegar protected them.

Members of Clare’s family are so enamored with the medicinal effects of drinking sour cider vinegar that it frequently becomes the topic of conversation at family gatherings. Clare is convinced that we, too, should drink our daily ration of acidic unfiltered apple cider vinegar.

The wisdom of Hebrew Scripture says that vinegar sets a person’s teeth on edge. Through bitter experience – and I do mean bitter – I have found that to be true. I have not acquired a taste for sour apple cider. Still, Clare encourages me.  Sometimes, I pour a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar into a glass. I mix mine with vegetable juice and chug it as fast as I can.

“I am drinking it because I love you,” I say.

So, I guess it does have something to do with love and maybe with good health. It certainly has something to do with family lore.

“You know,” Clare will say, “Mitch and Helen drank cider vinegar every day.”

“Yes, I know, and Mitch and Helen are dead.”

For Christians observing the season of Lent, drinking vinegar can have a deeper meaning. All four of the Biblical Gospels record that while dying on the cross, Jesus of Nazareth requested something to drink. The Apostle John wrote, “Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Reflecting on this passage, I ask, Was the offering of vinegar an act of mocking or an act of mercy? Was it insult added to unimaginable injury? Or was it compassion prompted by unmitigated suffering?

I have never been quite sure. Some Gospel writers make it seem one way, some the other. Either way, it may be something to ponder and pray about for Lenten observance. If you choose to do that, take a sip of apple cider vinegar before you decide.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

DAFFODILS: FLOWERS OF HOPE

February 27, 2021

Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what, as you are able, to globalbike, a nonprofit organization supporting women-owned bike rental and repair programs in rural communities with concentrated poverty where women have not traditionally had the opportunity to work outside the home. Founded in Spartanburg and based in Tanzania, globalbike gives women the tools they need to grow their communities through entrepreneurship. Hillcrest Market Place, 1855 East Main Street #14, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29307, 301-920-0408, http://www.globalbike.org.

Last Sunday, I was pleased to see in the Spartanburg Magazine’s latest issue a fascinating article on daffodils for the Southern garden. These reliable bulbs deserve a place in every garden. They are low maintenance and add an artistic touch to the early spring landscape. Perfect timing! The daffodils in my garden are beginning to bloom, strutting and dancing in the cool breeze.

The daffodil symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings. It became associated with the arrival of spring because it is one of the first perennials to bloom after the winter frost. Though daffodils do grow in shades of white and orange, they are best known for brightening up the garden with their yellow hues.

The Latin name for daffodil is Narcissus. It is believed to be named after the son of the river god. The story of Narcissus comes to us from ancient Greek mythology.  Narcissus was a sixteen-year-old young man who became infatuated with his own reflection.  He spurned the affection of the beautiful maiden, Echo, until she was finally reduced to nothing more than her sad, pleading voice.

Narcissus was celebrated for his beauty, but he was arrogant. The goddess Nemesis noticed this and lured him to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection.

Some sources say while he was staring at his reflection, nymphs transformed him into a narcissus flower to get revenge for how he treated them. Others think he drowned trying to capture his reflection, and the flowers growing along the riverbed were named after him. The blooming plant that bears his name is commonly known as the daffodil.

Some even liken the nodding heads of daffodil flowers to Narcissus, bending down and gazing at his reflection.

In England, daffodils are also known as Lenten lilies. They typically bloom between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

A.E. Housman, an English scholar and poet, wrote a poem entitled “The Lent Lily” in tribute to the flower.

And there’s the windflower chilly

With all the winds at play,

And there’s the Lenten lily

That has not long to stay

And dies on Easter day.

A dear lady, Helen Babb, lived in the South Carolina countryside between Greer and Gowansville. Mrs. Babb loved beautiful flowers. In the late summer, old-fashioned rose companions with soft silver foliage and deep red blossoms covered an area near the old barn. They reseeded each year, multiplying in number and in beauty.

In the early spring, Helen Babb’s yard featured bright yellow jonquils, the petite relatives of daffodils. They, too, spread each year, flowing like a graceful yellow ribbon down a gentle slope.

After Mrs. Babb’s death several years ago, her daughter knew that she would have to sell her mother’s home place. She wanted to save some of the heirloom flowers for her own yard in Spartanburg. In the fall, she dug up a box full of the jonquil bulbs, many more than she needed. She shared some with me.

On a rainy, cold November afternoon, I planted the bulbs on an embankment near the waterfall in my garden. Every February, the tiny flowers put on a magnificent display.

This is the season of the garden narcissus, the family of flowering bulbs that includes jonquils and daffodils. These cheerful blooms are harbingers of spring and symbols of hope.

Daffodils and their smaller Spanish cousins, jonquils, are the promise that spring is drawing near. Other flowering bulbs, like crocus and Dutch iris, along with pansies and Lenten roses, are welcome sights even in the snow. But once the daffodils bloom, there can be no doubt that seasons are changing. It is as if the nodding trumpet-shaped flowers herald the arrival of spring.

Some time ago, when I was younger and more agile, two of our sons and I took a backpacking trip during spring break along the Foothills Trail in the Dark Corner, the northwestern section of South Carolina. Somewhere between the Keowee and the Whitewater Rivers, we crested a hill and were greeted with the stunning sight of hundreds of yellow daffodils. An old homestead had long since disappeared and was now marked only by a crumbling fieldstone foundation and a collapsed chimney. The flowers that graced the mountainside each spring had survived and naturalized, spreading through a meadow and across the forest floor.

The English poet, William Wordsworth, immortalized the daffodil in lines penned in 1804.

I wander’d lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Gene was a dear friend who grew up on a farm in Cherokee County, South Carolina. His success with the family business enabled him to build a home on the family farm within a stone’s throw of the old home place.  The beautiful house had a wrap-around porch with big rocking chairs. Visitors approached by a long driveway, flanked on the left by with horse pasture and a weathered barn. Up a hill to the right is the foundation of the former home.  In the early spring, this hill is covered with bright yellow daffodils. Originally planted by Gene’s mother around the old farmhouse, the daffodils have naturalized, spreading helter-skelter down the hillside.  Each year the flowers bloom from late February through March. The yellow-splotched hill is a sight to behold.

A few years ago, after several months of increasingly severe health problems, it became clear that Gene was quite ill.  The diagnosis was a rapidly growing, rare form of cancer.  His death came quickly, far sooner than most of us had expected.  While his death was anticipated, it was also sudden, making the grief experience jagged and confused. 

In mid-March, Gene went home from the hospital. On a bright, warm Sunday afternoon, Gene asked if he could see the daffodils.  Surrounded by his loving wife, children, and several grandchildren, Gene was transported by wheelchair down the driveway near the barn.  He sat quietly for a few moments, taking in the sight of the hillside covered in delicate yellow blooms dancing in the breeze. 

Three days later, Gene died.

At the graveside in a country churchyard, the children and grandchildren each placed a daffodil, picked from the hillside, on the polished wooden casket.  Even though yellow daffodils bring to mind bittersweet memories, they will be a perennial symbol of hope for Gene’s family.

In his concluding lines in the poem, “Daffodils,” Wordsworth captures the wonder of these spring flowers for all who find in them a signal of hope.

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Jesus taught his followers how to deal with worry and anxiety. His counsel was to pay attention to birds and flowers.  For Gene’s family, as well as for many others, those flowers will always be daffodils.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

THE PRICE OF A HAIRCUT

February 20, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Piedmont Care, Inc., a nonprofit organization serving the Spartanburg, Cherokee, and Union communities by providing HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and advocacy. International Center, 101 North Pine Street, Suite 200, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 582-7773.

Last week Clare said, “You are past due for a haircut and a beard trim.”

I looked in the bathroom mirror. I did have a distinct Neanderthal look about me. The COVID-19 lockdown had definitely taken its toll on my appearance. I called the fellow who cuts my hair. He gave me an appointment late last week.

Just walking into the shop brought back a memory from twenty years earlier. I recalled a time when former President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara came to Spartanburg to lead a fund-raising event for the Regional Hospital Foundation.

Back to that in just a moment.  Stay with me here. This is a good story.

When Clare and I lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I won a drawing at a Boy Scout fund-raiser. The door prize was styling at a local hair salon, Delilah’s Den. Though I had always gone to a regular barbershop, I decided to try it out since it was free.  The resulting haircut was just fine, but Clare quickly informed me that Delilah’s Den was forevermore on the blacklist of places to get a haircut. Delilah, the stylist, struck her as matching too closely the description of the Biblical Delilah, the one responsible for the downfall of Samson.

Samson had the most expensive haircut on record!

Contrary to the familiar refrain, “Shave and a haircut, two bits,” I have never paid less than fifty cents for a haircut.

When I was a freshman at Furman in 1962, one of the seniors worked as a barber out of his dormitory room. He charged half a dollar per customer for a haircut that conformed to Army Reserved Officer Training Corps standards.

 My dad used to give similar haircuts to my three brothers and me.  In our garage, using neither comb nor scissors, his only tool was an electric trimmer with a buzz attachment. The resulting hairstyle was just short of bald, allowing our mother to spot a black-legged deer tick at twenty paces.

My first flattop came from Bob Martin when I was in junior high. I used a product called Butch Hair Wax to make the unnatural arrangement stand up. Its effect didn’t last long. A flattop and a baseball cap are incompatible.

Nowadays, barbershops are diminishing in number.  Salons are replacing many. The folks who actually cut hair are no longer named Bubba or Sarge.  They refer to themselves as stylists rather than barbers. They may be people who speak with a foreign accent or women named Delilah. 

            I remember the barbershop as a house of mirrors. Opposing mirrors in front of and behind the row of chairs created a series of reflections extending to infinity. The barbershop was a place filled with clouds of cigar smoke mingling with the fragrance of talcum powder and shaving lotion. A barber from my teenage years chewed Brown Mule Tobacco. His brass spittoon would now be considered an antique, a tarnished relic from a bygone era.   

The local barbershop is among the last of the all-male institutions to fade from the American scene. A barber pole and the cigar store Indian were, for years, symbols of welcome refuge for the American male. No more.

The first time I remember a woman entering a barbershop, the intrusion brought a pall of silence settling over the establishment. It was as if we had experienced a close encounter of the third kind.

She was a mama who wanted to be sure the barber treated her none-too-happy son gently and, at the same time, cut the child’s hair to suit her.

While she was in the shop, there were no jokes and no fishing stories. There was no banter and no barbershop quarterbacking. The lady did most of the talking.

After the mother and her child departed, a whole lot was said!

Now, if I enter a barbershop where I am known, I am often greeted with, “Hey, Preacher!” followed by the same awkward silence.

After fifty-five years as a pastor, I recognize the alarm when it is sounded. Barbers and patrons alike are immediately on guard. Language is sanitized. The best barbershop jokes are censored. It is too high a price to pay for a haircut!

Once I decided to dash into an unfamiliar barbershop for a quick trim while Clare did some shopping.

When I next saw her, she was horrified. “What happened to your hair? It looks like a lawn mower ran across your head!”

That was the day I finally lost the privilege of choosing my own barber.

I used to get a haircut at least once every three months, whether I needed it or not.

Since Clare started making the decisions about where I am allowed to get my trim, I have a standing appointment with the same stylist who does her hair. Jeff is a great friend. He gives an excellent haircut. His price is more than fair. Best of all, Jeff is a Green Bay Packers fan who enjoys talking football.

He comes from a long line of Georgia barbers. His fine heritage is evidenced by a pair of his great uncle’s straight razors framed in a shadowbox on the wall of his shop. When I visit his place of business, the magazines are Vogue and Cosmopolitan. There is not a Field and Stream or Sports Illustrated in sight. That is a high price to pay while waiting for a haircut.

Several years ago, while Clare was shopping in historic downtown Inman, I strolled into a barbershop around the corner. The customer in the only barber chair had an Elvis-sized head of hair. The barber worked on the shiny black ducktail while exchanging turkey-hunting stories with the next fellow in line, a man who was almost entirely bald.

As the first man paid the usual amount for his haircut, the bald man took his seat in the chair. “Surely, you’re not going to charge me the same thing you charged him?  I should get a discount!”

The barber responded with a line he must have used many times before. “Yes, you’ll get a discount for the haircut, but I’ll have to charge you a finder’s fee.”

Sometimes the price of a haircut is just too high!

The truth is, nobody wants a bad hair day.

The salon where I get my hair cut and where Clare has her hair styled, are one and the same. Their telephones ring constantly. Making appointments, changing appointments, doing whatever must be done to accommodate the clientele is the nature of the business.

Here is the story about George and Barbara Bush.

            One October day in 1997, Pam returned a phone call. A regular customer wanted to make an appointment, but this time it was not for herself.

            “Pam, former President, and First Lady, George and Barbara Bush, are in Spartanburg. Could you do Barbara Bush’s hair tomorrow?”

            Pam agreed. After the call, she blurted out to everyone in the shop, “Y’all, I’m doing Barbara Bush’s hair tomorrow!”

            For the rest of the day, the shop was buzzing. Everyone who came in had a comment about the former First Lady.

            “I just loved her book about her dog, Millie’s Book.”

            “You know, she’s a grandmother. In fact, she’s everybody’s grandmother.”

            “The thing I like about her is she speaks her mind. She’s just a plain person like all of us.”

            Later in the day, the telephone rang. Pam heard the same voice again. This time she answered immediately.

            “Pam, since you’re coming to fix Barbara Bush’s hair, would you have time to give the former President a trim, too?”

            No chance that Pam would be speechless!  “Oh my gosh! I would be honored!”

            When Pam arrived at the Milliken Guest House, she was nervous. The Secret Service Agents didn’t ease her trepidation.

            Pam had on a new outfit. Barbara Bush wore a terrycloth bathrobe.  As Pam styled Mrs. Bush’s lovely snow-white hair, they talked about their children, just as any two mothers would do.

            Pam had almost completed Barbara’s hairdo when the former President came to the door wearing a matching white terrycloth robe.

Pam said the former President put her at ease. “As I cut his hair, I remember thinking, these are just ordinary people.  There was no air of superiority about them.”

George Bush reached to pay Pam. Pam declined, saying it was her honor. The former President insisted, paying the usual fee for both Barbara’s styling and for his haircut.

In that case, the price of a haircut was just right.

Pam asked if I would write her story. I am always open to a good story, so I agreed. I entitled her story “Trimming the Bushes.”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com