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CATS ARE NOT JUST FOR HALLOWEEN

October 23, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I are doing what we can to help those in need. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider supporting one of the local nonprofit agencies that offer critical care in our community. This week, please volunteer for, or donate, as you are able, to the Spartanburg Humane Society, Animal shelter, 150 Dexter Road, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29303, (864) 583-4805.

Cats are a classic Halloween symbol, but how did their unique place in the October celebration originate? Black cats have long been regarded as objects of superstition. In Medieval France and Spain, black cats were considered bearers of bad luck and curses to any human they came near.  Later they were associated with witchcraft. 

A friend was taking me to a medical appointment last week. Along the way, a black cat ran across the street in front of us. “Did you see that?” my driver exclaimed.

“Yes,” I replied. “That is supposed to bring bad luck.”

“Not for me,” my friend said. “I love black cats.”

The world is filled with cat lovers. The animals have been revered from ancient Egypt, where they were first domesticated, to the exotic Persian cats. They are thought to be the most popular pets in the world. Many of our friends are cat people, and some have cats living in their homes – the very definition of a house cat.  

Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Broadway musical Cats opened on Broadway in 1982. The production won numerous awards, including a Tony as the best musical. As of this year, it is the fourth longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Suffice it to say, many people love and enjoy cats. Some do not.

I am fascinated by the big cats on the National Geographic television channel. I enjoy watching the Panthers, the Lions, the Bengals, and the Jaguars of the National Football League.  I can tolerate cats around the house as long as they stay outside, hunt rodents for their keep, and leave the birds alone.

Since we were married, Clare and I have pretty much agreed that cats were not our favorite pets, and Clare just downright does not like cats, inside or out.

I have learned that when Clare senses something is amiss, I need to pay attention to her. Years ago, while hunting for a house in Winston-Salem, we visited one picturesque abode. We got no further than the front door when Clare said, “Yuck! The previous family had cats! Many cats!”

We purchased a different home, further out in the country, near the old Moravian settlement of Pfafftown, North Carolina. We had no sooner moved into our new domicile than our first visitor appeared on our doorstep. He was an enormous cat, as white as Martha White’s self-rising flour and as wild as a March hare. Neighbors told us that the cat had belonged to the previous owners of the house.

I made the mistake of feeding leftovers to the feline, and he stayed around for the seven years we lived there. I named him the Kentucky Wildcat, though we resided in the heart of Atlantic Coast basketball territory. In the seven years we had Kentucky, I never laid a hand on him. I never could get close enough even to scratch his ears. He possessed the disconcerting habit of darting across my path when I went outside on dark nights. Though I halfway expected his surprise appearances, he never failed to startle me.

I saw Kentucky for the last time on the day we moved away. I thought of trying to take him with us, but he was simply not available. It seemed only fitting. We really had never owned him. I doubt he ever had an actual owner.

Clare often wears two pairs of glasses. Her prescription lenses are perched on her nose, and a pair of reading glasses is at the ready on top of her head. But her unaided eyesight is impressive. She can spot a dead bug on our basement floor at thirty paces. She can see a stain on my shirt and identify the source before I am even aware of the blemish. She carries a Tide laundry stick in her purse, just to keep me presentable.

My wife’s hearing is equally sensitive. Several years ago, on a rainy night during a booming thunderstorm, Clare thought she heard a baby crying. I, of course, heard nothing. But I have learned to pay attention when Clare senses something strange. As I listened, I heard only rumbling thunder, whistling wind, and pounding rain.

“I hear something that sounds like a baby crying,” Clare insisted. I listened more closely, and I heard what she had heard.

I went out into the storm to investigate. Sure enough, Clare was right! It was a baby crying – a baby kitten.

I reported my find. “Don’t bring that cat into this house!” she instructed.

I heeded her warning. Again, I have never regarded myself as a cat person. Dogs are more to my liking. At the same time, I felt compelled to provide some comfort for the black and white foundling. The little kitten had obviously become separated from her mother during the storm. I could not be sure how old the kitten was. She was so small I could hold her in the palm of one hand.

Placing an old towel in a garden basket, I made a bed for the tiny trembling stray. Cold, wet, hungry, and frightened, she continued to cry. She even tried to nurse my little finger in search of milk. That didn’t work.

 I called a good friend, a retired veterinarian, who gave me sound guidance.

“You found her, Kirk. She’s your responsibility. You’ll have to become her mother.”

At a local pet store, I purchased a formula substitute for feline mother’s milk. The little orphan lapped it up and promptly fell asleep in the crook of my arm. As I have said, I am not really a cat person, but I had become the unexpected caretaker of a kitten.

Our daughter named the cat. “She was delivered to your porch by a thunderstorm. You have to name her Stormy.” So, Stormy she is. Little did I know then that the name Stormy would later become associated with a national scandal, as in Stormy Daniels.

My veterinarian friend advised me on immunizations and on the proper time to have her spayed. Those health issues were taken care of by the good folks at our local animal shelter. Now, when I take Stormy to have her shots, my friend Roger goes with me. Believe it or not, it takes two grown men to corral the small cat into a crate to transport her to the vet.

My responsibilities are relatively few. I make sure Stormy has her regular ration of food, that her water bowl is freshly filled each day, and that she has a routine tick and flea treatment. I also take a little time to scratch her ears. When I sit down on a favorite bench in the yard near the tree of life, Stormy still enjoys climbing into my lap for a snooze. I, though not really a cat person, enjoy that, too.

Stormy has made herself at home in our garden. She quickly found the patch of catnip and enjoyed a daily tumble in the fragrant foliage. She has her favorite lookout posts and napping places. She has climbed most of the trees in our garden and knows how to descend as well as ascend each one.

Early in our relationship, Stormy and I reached an agreement. She is free to stalk and capture any varmint that crosses the estate. However, she is under strict orders to leave the birds alone. She does have to be reminded.

Stormy has gifted us with a variety of relics at our front door. These have included an assortment of deceased moles, voles, mice, chipmunks, and at least three gray squirrel tails. I don’t know what she did with the other end of the squirrels. Perhaps there are three tailless squirrels still bounding through our tree branches.

Late one night, I heard the sounds of a major catfight.  Actually, Stormy had cornered a possum. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with the critter. So, I ran it off with a pickax handle that I keep close by for just such occasions.

As far as I can tell, the bird casualties have been limited to one starling. Honestly, I wasn’t a bit upset by the demise of the pesky starling. Stormy is a discerning cat.

I have a cast-iron chiminea in one corner of our garden that I bought from a fellow in Commerce, Georgia. Sometimes on cool nights, I build a small fire in the rusty stove. Stormy ventures over to check me out. Then, just like she did when she was a tiny kitten, she will hop on my lap. I am not really a cat person, but I scratch her ears. Stormy purrs, and we enjoy watching the dying embers together.

By the way, Stormy is a black cat with attractive white markings.

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

BROOM TALES

October 16, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I are doing what we can to help those in need. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of the local nonprofit agencies that offers critical care in our community. This week, please volunteer for, or donate, as you are able, to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Spartanburg, Cherokee, and Union, an organization that provides services for children and families who have been affected by sexual or physical abuse. To make a gift to the Children’s Advocacy Center, or to learn more about this important work, visit cacsp.org.

            A few years ago, Clare and I enjoyed a meal at a local eatery in early October.  As we finished our meal, I noticed two ladies standing at the checkout. While waiting to pay their tab, they examined a display of brooms placed near the door by the local Lion’s Club. The available selections featured brooms of various sizes and prices.

            “You need a broom for Halloween,” one said to the other.

            “Are you saying I’m a witch?” her companion asked.

            “I’m just saying, you need a broom.”

            “I haven’t been called a witch lately, but I have been called something close to that.”

            “I’ve been called that too. Maybe we both need a broom.”

            I thought about witches I have known. When I was growing up there was an old woman who lived way down beyond my house where the pavement ended and the road turned to red dirt. She had a big, black cast-iron pot in her yard and several mean dogs. One day I walked down there by myself. I heard a shotgun blast. I was pretty sure she shot at me. I thought she might have been a witch.

When I was in high school English class, I encountered three witches as characters in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. I can still remember their chant. 

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

At Halloween, the image of witches riding across the sky on magical broomsticks is common. Where did the notion that witches ride brooms originate? It developed during the early 16th Century in Europe. Witchcraft hysteria erupted in the region and spread like wildfire, punctuated by brutal mass executions of women accused of being witches. Between 1580 and 1630, an estimated 50,000 people were burned at the stake, of whom 80% were women, most over the age of 40.

It was during this time that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth—originally published in 1606. At that time, throughout England, rye was the bread of the common folk. It was a staple in every home.  Rye bread that aged became host to a mold called ergot. In high doses, ergot could be lethal. In smaller doses, it became quite popular among herbalists as a cure. It’s mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare and in writings from the witchcraft age.

Medicinal preparations made from ergot helped to relieve migraine headaches by constricting the swollen blood vessels that caused the pain. One ergot derivative was also useful in preventing hemorrhaging following childbirth by causing uterine muscles to contract. It was also used to ease menstrual difficulties.

Some ancient herbalists applied ergot ointment to the female body using a smooth stick, as, for example, a broomstick. However, ergot is also a source of LSD and the hallucinogenic effects are powerful. Women given this treatment often experienced altered states of consciousness including fanciful flights. Some who observed women under the influence of the drug were convinced that the women were possessed by demons and therefore they were thought to be witches. So brooms, magical flights, and witches became connected in the public mind.

Novelist J. K. Rowling gave us the high-tech broomstick in her popular fantasies about Harry Potter. The first broomstick Harry owned was the Nimbus Two Thousand. The amazing transport allowed Harry to fly through the air, especially in Quidditch matches. But in a competition at Hogwarts in Harry’s third year, he was attacked by Dementors. Rendered unconscious, Harry fell off his broom. The errant Nimbus flew into the Whomping Willow. The tree objected to being hit and smashed Harry’s broom to bits. Later in the epic tale, Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, replaced the Nimbus with a Firebolt, a considerable upgrade in the broomstick world.

In our own house just this week, a young red-haired Ginny Weasley flew through our family room in a Hogwarts robe as she excitedly prepared her costume for Halloween. Our little witch—my nine-year-old granddaughter—rode a very old, very reliable fireplace broom.

Aside from Ginny Weasley, my most recent encounter with a witch was in a television commercial for GEICO insurance. A witch with a sinister laugh flies around a broom manufacturing plant. She stops to snag a fresh broom from one of the intimidated employees and continues her giddy flight. Two guys, one playing the mandolin, the second, a guitar, croon that those who choose GEICO insurance are happier than a witch in a broom factory.  

            Brooms have been used for centuries to sweep caves, campsites, cabins, and castles. In America, making brooms is considered a heritage craft. All American brooms were handmade prior to the eighteenth century.  They were unrefined round brooms made from fibrous materials such as grass, straw, hay, fine twigs, or corn husks.  The broom sweep was tied onto a handle made from a tree branch. Cordage used to tie the broom was woven from hemp and flax. Homemade brooms swept clean the floor and the hearth, but they fell apart easily.

In 1797 a Massachusetts farmer, Levi Dickenson, made a broom for his wife. He used the tassels left over from his harvested sorghum.  His version swept better than others. Dickson started making brooms for his neighbors.

After the invention of the foot-treadle broom machine in 1810, broom shops appeared in many communities. Like the Lion’s Club display at the restaurant, customers were offered a choice of buying a small handled broom for use in tight areas around the fireplace or a long-handled one to sweep the open wood or dirt floors in their homes.

The less ornate craftsmanship of the Shakers changed the design of the round broom in the mid-1820′s.  They eliminated the woven stems up the handle and introduced wire to bind their brooms to the handle.  Using a vise to press the broom flat, it was stitched with linen cord.

By1830, the United States was producing enough brooms to export to other countries in South America and in Europe. The American broom industry thrived until 1994 when foreign brooms were permitted to be imported into the United States, duty-free.

            Brooms play an important role in southern legend and lore. Jumping over the broom is a euphemism for marriage. The exact origin of the custom is uncertain. A commonly held belief is that the practice has roots in Africa. While the origins of this tradition are rooted in a tragic, forced act by enslavers—African slaves in the United States were not permitted legal marriage—centuries later, in some African-American communities, the act of jumping the broom is now a treasured tradition.

Some anthropologists believe that jumping over the broom at weddings was first known in Wales, originating either among the Welsh people themselves or among gypsies living in Wales. If so, the custom must have come to the colonies through Welsh settlers and then transferred to the slaves of the South. When a couple jumps over the broom together, their marriage is confirmed, and they will enjoy a good life together.

The Irish have a saying worth remembering. “A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners”

My grandmother used to say, “Never take an old broom to a new house.” This may explain the southern custom of giving a new broom as a housewarming gift.

Not too long ago, one of our grandsons was helping me sweep the back porch. I used a grandfather-size broom; he used a child’s broom. I was reminded of a couple of old broom superstitions. 

  • Always sweep dirt out the back door, or you will sweep away your best friend.
  • When a child takes a broom and begins to sweep, company is coming.

About that time my grandson’s parents showed up to take him home.

There must be at least a grain of truth in the old legends.

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

Mama’s Candy Apples

October 9, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I are doing what we can to help those in need. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of the local nonprofit agencies that offers critical care in our community. This week, please volunteer for, or donate, as you are able, to Angels Charge Ministry, an organization that helps women successfully re-enter society after periods of incarceration. Angels Charge provides transitional housing and other essential resources and training for women, young and old. To make a gift to Angels Charge Ministry, or to learn more about this important work, visit angelschargeministry.org

I went into a local store the other day to pick up a few groceries. I was amazed at the vast display of Halloween candy. Judging by the sheer volume and variety of the seasonal confections, many of the folks in our neck of the woods must certainly have a sweet tooth.  Seeing all that candy brought back memories of boyhood days when trick or treating was eagerly anticipated.

One of my favorite Halloween memories is the candy apples that Mama made for the many trick-or-treaters that came to our house. I shared the story in this column several years ago. Since then I have received a request for a repeat. Some want Mama’s recipe for the sugary fruit on a stick; others just enjoy the story.

  On Halloween night, our grandchildren, along with great-nieces and great-nephews, visit their great-aunt Beth’s house to trick-or-treat. My sister Beth follows the tradition started by our mother. She makes candy apples for the costumed little ones who come to her door seeking treats.

The bright red candy apple was an entirely new experience for our grandchildren. After a time of intense licking, they were a sugar-coated sight. Cheeks and lips were crimson, chins and hands were sticky. In their first encounter with a candy apple, they never did get down to the fruit beneath the candy coating. 

When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. All Hallow’s Eve was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting “Trick or treat!”

Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried plastic jack-o-lanterns or paper bags to collect their bounty.

My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase to stash his booty. He stuffed the second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.

We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar—Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers—merited a star.

I learned a lot from Rusty. His advice was to avoid large groups. Two beggars at a time were enough for any home. Five or six together usually got smaller gifts.

Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole. He never told about the houses with the whipped cream star. On the other hand, he gathered as much information as he could.

Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum for a Hershey’s Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball Cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside.

One dark night, at a roadside conference, an unlikely clown revealed that there was a “a guy on the other side of Duncan Park Lake giving away silver dollars.”

After the meeting broke up, Rusty said, “Let’s go!”

I knew he meant we were going to the other side of the lake, but the trip was beyond my range and would have taken me long past my curfew. We headed back toward my house.

Rusty stopped at a driveway with a whipped cream star. He took off his pirate’s eye patch, removed the bandana from his head, walked to the door, and collected a second Three Musketeers candy bar from the same house. He added a second whipped cream star to mark the driveway.   

“I’ll see you later,” he said as he left for the other side of Duncan Park Lake, and I continued toward my home.

Anyone who knew my mother, Louise—Memaw to most folks—knows she could really throw a party. She believed every holiday deserved to be celebrated to the fullest. St. Valentine and St. Patrick got almost as much attention as St. Nicholas.

Halloween was one of her favorite occasions. Orange pumpkins adorned the front porch. Inside our home, glowing jack-o-lanterns and gossamer ghosts were everywhere.

Mama’s contribution to trick-or-treaters was a candy apple, the treat everybody wanted most of all. Mama dipped apples, each fitted with a short, sharpened stick, into a hot candy coating. If you have ever burned your hands with a hot glue gun, you know how dipping a candy apple feels.

Every Halloween, Mama made hundreds. Children came trick-or-treating at our house from all over town.

Mama bought apples by the case from the old Community Cash grocery store at the end of our street. The family took turns at a hand-cranked pencil sharpener putting points on the dowel rods Dad had cut at the lumberyard. The apples were washed and the sticks inserted before Mama cooked the candy. She made many batches, hundreds of candy apples, every Halloween.

My sister Beth, now crowned Queen of the Candy Apples in our family, was willing to share Mama’s recipe, which makes 12-24 candy apples. She said the technique for making the treat can be tricky.

Ingredients:

2 cups sugar

1 package Red Hots (Mama stockpiled these.)

1 tablespoon red food coloring

1 cup water

1 teaspoon vinegar

Directions:

Cook all ingredients to 265 degrees – somewhere between soft and hard crack stage – on a candy thermometer.

Dip apples.

Place on a marble slab greased with real butter.

Wrap in plastic bags when cool.  

Several years ago, I conducted a funeral service for a man who grew up in our neighborhood. Following the funeral, the brother of the deceased fondly told me of coming to our house on Halloween. He said that Mama always invited the children into her kitchen so that she could see their costumes.

“We would get a candy apple, go home, change disguises, and come back for another one.” Then he made a confession. “One year, my brother and I came trick-or-treating at your house four times. We got four candy apples!” Then he added, “Your mother knew. She called us by name and said, ‘You boys have been here four times. I think that’s enough this year.’”

“What made you think you could get away with that?” I asked.

He grinned, “There were four whipped cream stars by your driveway.”

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com