Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Grand Inflammation

It happened because I went to Colonial Williamsburg.

I was twenty-one and living in Atlanta with my fiance. My grandparents, my biological father's parents from Delaware, invited me to meet them in Williamsburg a few weeks before Christmas.

"You have to see it at Christmastime," my grandmother raved, "The Grand Illumination is a once in a lifetime event."

It actually wasn't, especially for anyone paternally related to me. My grandparents, aunt, uncles, cousins, the whole lot of that side of my family, all owned time shares in either Williamsburg or Orlando and the more affluent relatives had a timeshare in each. This made total sense because my family isn't all that adventurous and for as long as I could remember no one had ever vacationed anywhere other than Williamsburg or Orlando, and really, if you think about it, why would you go anywhere else? China? Mexico? Hell, you can go to EPCOT a lot cheaper and you can drink the water there. Shit, at EPCOT you can go to outer space. Beat that. And if you go to Williamsburg you can not only visit another condensed version of Europe at Busch Gardens, but you can also go back in time.  You get it now? Forget the rest of the world, or even the known Universe because you can get it all by visiting Orlando and Williamsburg.

My grandparents went to Colonial Williamsburg pretty much every Christmas, which is why I said the Grand Illumination wasn't really a once in a lifetime event, but I think what Mommom actually meant was that it's something you should see at least once in your life, or you know, 25 times in your life if you're one of my relatives.

I was game. I'm all for time travel and I hadn't been to Colonial Williamsburg in a couple of years and hey, I'll admit it, I have the same genes. I love me some Williamsburg action, so I hopped a plane to Norfolk, my grandparents picked me up in their Oldsmobile and off we headed to the 1700s where the first thing we did was watch a parade, from a Dunkin Donuts, of Newfoundland dogs dressed up in holiday themed costumes. I can't make things like that up. My grandparents were amazed. My grandmother is probably still talking about those dogs and how big they were and how cute they looked with antlers and Santa hats on plodding down the cobblestone streets.

After we'd had our fill of dressed up, giant dogs we headed on to the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, which is pretty much my idea of heaven. As a child I used to visit in costume and totally immerse myself in the fantasy and I must admit that as an adult, I still would. I once dreamed of growing up to work at Colonial Williamsburg so I could wear a mob cap and drive a flock of sheep across the village square every single day. The idea of cooking my lunch in a cauldron over an open fire is 100 percent appealing. What can I say? I am a human anachronism. Well, except that I like deodorant and tooth paste, and toilets and not getting tuberculosis, but whatever.

Colonial Williamsburg is absolutely magical at Christmas, just as my grandmother said. I was swept up in it instantly and the decorations there really are something to see and because I am nice, here is a link to many, many lovely pictures of them. Please take the time, at some point, to enjoy these photos. Now, what makes the Christmas decorations special is that they are all handmade out of natural materials and many of them are quite elaborately fashioned from winter fruits like oranges and apples, nuts, shells, dried wildflowers, herbs, branches from local trees, stones - all things you can find right there, except pineapples. There are no naturally occurring pineapples in Virginia, but they are freaking everywhere at Colonial Williamsburg. I know they are a symbol of hospitality, and I think back in Colonial times they were a big deal, but I haven't figured out how they got them to the colonies. I'm assuming on the ships from the Carribbean but still, that took months! How do you keep a pineapple fresh that long? Anyway, I guess that's why they were such a big deal. You were big pimping in your knickers and tri-cornered hat back in the day if you could score some pineapples and make Christmas decorations out of them.

The Grand Illumination was something to see (ok, here's pictures). Mainly it was a lot of colonial torch action followed by a massive fireworks display and lots of people shouting "Huzzah!" and then some carolers singing "The Holly and the Ivy" and afterwards we had hot cider and everything smelled like sulfur and pomanders and Christmas cheer. I loved every last second of it. It was a beautiful weekend with my grandparents that I will always remember fondly and one year I hope to recreate it with my own daughter, who I also hope will be down with the mob caps like I was.

What I will not remember fondly, however, is what happened next. I will not remember it fondly at all. Ever. 

I was inspired. This is usually a sign of bad things to come. When I get inspired, I tend to get a little obsessive. I can go overboard. That's what happened when I got back to Atlanta and decided I wanted to decorate my entire apartment, Colonial Williamsburg style for Christmas. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that, hey, you know what? A fiberglass wreath with some plastic holly is ok. Skip the evergreen boughs. Let the strands of ivy grow, and for the love of the little Baby Jesus away in his effing manger, LEAVE THE SPANISH MOSS ON THE GOD DAMNED TREE.

But no. I am not one to listen to good sense, especially in the name of tastefully fancy aesthetics. Plus, come on, they had lady apples and comice pears in the Kroger and who can resist teeny tiny fruit? I must have bought a case of kumquats to toothpick onto a collapsing styrofoam wreath form as the cedar branches kept falling off. And those I picked from the landscaping at the entrance to my complex.

I wasn't satisfied with my first attempts at natural wreath making. The little fruits kept falling off and the whole mess looked like the village idiot had put it together after imbibing a few too many hot toddies at the King's Arms Tavern. Did that stop me? Nope. It only added fuel to my fire. I wanted garlands of pine, topiaries, a sleigh made out of pinecones and acorns and maybe some rocks. I was going to do this and by God, I WOULD recreate Colonial Williamsburg in my apartment in Atlanta and yes, this was the apartment that had pink carpet and floral wallpaper that was more 1980s than 1750s but who cared? I spent a fortune at Pearl's Arts and Crafts on supplies and I made special trips outside of the city to scour the Georgia woods for exciting bits of flora. 

That's where I found the Spanish Moss sagging from the old oaks. It was natural, silver tinsel! It didn't get any better than that! So excited was I with my find that I gathered handfuls upon handfuls of Spanish Moss into grocery bags. I put it on everything that year and it really was kind of pretty against the flame of the wintergreen berries and clusters of orange firethorns. I thought it really enhanced those little comice pears too, and you wouldn't believe what a nice shag of Spanish Moss can do for a pineapple. Tuck a few magnolia leaves and couple spikes of holly under that sucker and you've got a centerpiece fit for the Governor's mansion. I was rather impressed with myself. I had kinda pulled it off after all.

I don't know what my boyfriend thought about this. His sister and her family were coming from Arkansas, along with his dad and his grandmother on his mother's side and her boyfriend. His mom, who lived in an Atlanta suburb, was hosting Christmas, and honestly, I'd say that he probably didn't notice my Colonial holiday decor because he was too worried about what bullshit his family was going to come up with that year. His parents were divorced and bitterly so, but they could never seem to stay apart and I often theorized that they were both so deeply, certifiably insane that no one else would have them but each other. As soon as they'd gotten divorced, they moved in next to one another and commenced fighting over fences and property lines until my boyfriend's mother hooked up with some dude named Chip and moved away. It was a classic can't live with and can't live without situation, so the parents would always spend the holidays together and then get into a rip-roaring scream fest about something that happened twenty years before. It was fun to be around them, especially when the grandmother, who hated her daughter's ex, would get involved, one false eyelash hanging off and half drunk, no, make that totally shit-faced, from vodka and tonics. Nana could be a real bitch. I stayed out of her way but she hated me anyway.

They all kind of hated me. I was never really sure why. I think they thought I pressured their son into a serious relationship he wasn't ready for at too young an age, and looking back, perhaps this is so. They didn't approve of my family either, so that was part of it, but come on. Pot calling kettle black? A little. My almost mother in law had no room to criticize anything my parents did. They were tame compared to her. This is a woman who was having two affairs with two different married men and who burglarized homes under construction, stealing expensive appliances, building materials and people's patio furniture. She also hoarded Beanie Babies. The woman could cook though. I'll give her that. She put out a decent Christmas spread. It could have been worse, I suppose.

And so it was. Worse, I mean.

I had a couple bug bites on the morning of Christmas Eve. I hoped the cat wasn't getting fleas in the winter, although it had been pretty warm for December. I hadn't seen any mosquitoes, but that didn't mean there weren't any. Whatever, I thought. Just a little itch.

We ran around like nutcases that afternoon. Last minute Christmas prep. The usual and of course I'd waited til the last minute for everything because I was too busy decking my halls with boughs of holly. And Spanish Moss. Loved the Spanish Moss. Wow, was it pretty.

By the time we got back and started getting ready to go up to my boyfriend's mother's house, I had a few more bites and they were pretty itchy. In the shower I noticed that there were some on my stomach and some in between my toes now too. My hands were on fire. 

We had lasagna for dinner. I couldn't hold still through the meal because I was itching so much. My hands were now covered in tiny, red blisters.

Everyone offered an opinion on what it was. Allergic reaction. Chicken pox. Leukemia.

I took some Benadryl and the next several hours of the story I can't remember because I took some Benadryl.

Christmas morning I awoke completely covered from head to toe in blisters. Painful, itching, burning, oozing, crusting blisters. I thought I was going to die, but I couldn't ruin Christmas. No, I didn't need to go to the ER. I'd manage.

I spent that Christmas on my boyfriend's mother's turquoise leather sofa, covered in ice packs and bags of frozen vegetables. I remember very little from that day, again with the Benadryl. I don't even remember the inevitable family blow up that I'm sure happened. All I remember is my boyfriend's sister keeping her kids away from me because she was sure I was contagious and my boyfriend's mom insisting I get into a chilly tub in her drafty bathroom while she poured packets of oatmeal into the water because she swore up and down that oatmeal was good for the skin, which it is, but I don't think that applies to Quaker instant strawberries and cream flavor. It took me an hour in the shower to get all the oatmeal paste off of me and I couldn't tell the strawberry pieces apart from the blisters, so afterwards the rottweilers were trying to lick me, while my boyfriend's mother shrieked at them to leave me alone because she was positive I was going to give her precious dogs something.

But all of this could very well be a hallucination brought on by Benadryl overdose. I can't be sure. 

The next morning I was at the urgent care clinic first thing. I was about ready to camp out like a Black Friday shopper I was so desperate.

"What have you been doing lately?" the doctor asked me.

I shrugged.

"Have you been in the woods?" he wanted to know.

"Yes!" I said and then I launched into a whole tale about my fabulous colonial decorations I'd made from hand.

"You have to see what I did with the Spanish Moss!" I gushed.

He looked at me with extreme disapproval.

"Spanish Moss? Hmm. Young lady, do you know what red bugs are?"

I did not.

"Have you ever heard of scabies?" he asked.

"EWW! Yes. Dirty people get them."

"They live in Spanish Moss. Did you collect the moss about two weeks ago?"

Come to think of it, I had.

"They take two weeks to colonize your skin," he told me.

"Colonize?" I gulped.

"Yes. There are thousands of microscopic insects burrowed into your skin feeding off of your flesh and blood."

Oh the irony. Trust me. It isn't lost on me at all.

I had to bathe in a highly toxic substance called Lindane solution for two nights and take showers as hot as I could stand. I had to pretty much bleach and boil everything I owned. My boyfriend had to coat himself in Lindane as a precaution and I had to tell his horrified family that I had bugs, contagious, disgusting bugs and that they had to sanitize everthing I'd come in contact with.

Years later when my boyfriend, who'd become my fiance, cheated on me and got another girl pregnant and then sued me and then married the girl he cheated on me with, I'm sure his family breathed a collective sigh of relief that he'd finally gotten rid of that girl who'd had scabies on Christmas.

The scabies disappeared, thank God, and I learned my lesson. Several lessons really but mostly, keep the moss on the tree or your Grand Illunimation will turn into your Grand Inflammation.             


JoeinVegas said...

I didn't know that about Spanish Moss. Thanks for the education. Doesn't matter much in Vegas, with our temps and humidity not much grows anyway.

Anonymous said...

If only you'd known to wash and boil it. Or to buy a box from a florist---it would have been so much cheaper than an urgent care clinic visit.


Headant said...

Now my skin is all itchy!

Melanie said...

That's got to be one of the funniest Christmas stories of all time!!!!

You are a GREAT WRITER!!!!

Jean_ Phx said...

the for a great story, as always

Vic said...

There is simply very little that has not happened to you. I just can't help but laugh, albeit empathetically.

Living in Muddy Waters said...

As soon as you said you gathered Spanish Moss I started yelling "NO NO NO!!!! CHIGGERS!" In my head. Blech.

ccm said...

I played with Spanish Moss as a kid and got red bugs too. Luckily I don't remember much only I warn everyone I know NOT to touch Spanish Moss!!!!!!

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