Though both of my parents are deceased — Walter Johnson in 1993 and Helen Johnson in 2013 — I think of one or both of them on most days. Today they are especially on my mind, because Walter and Helen were married in St. Louis on September 4, 1948. Seventy years ago.
Like most couples, my mom and dad lived ordinary lives and endured moments that were far from idyllic. But all lives, even unspectacular ones spent far beneath the radar, are meaningful and worth remembering.
As newlyweds, Walter and Helen lived in Texas, where Dad made a living as a dry goods salesman with the Ely-Walker Company. Mom took a secretarial job at the Fifth Army Headquarters in San Antonio. To be closer to Dad’s family, in the fall of 1951 they returned to St. Louis, where they rented a flat on the south side of town. Within the next six years, my sister and I were born. In 1959, Walter and Helen bought a three-bedroom brick home in south suburban St. Louis to accommodate our growing family.
Three years later, on September 13, 1962, Dad suffered a heart attack. I saw the arc of my parents’ lives and our family’s sense of well-being change forever that day. Fortunately, Dad survived the ordeal and Mom’s resourcefulness kicked into high gear. She found a government job and went back to work to sustain us. From that point forward, Walter and Helen led lives with vastly different trajectories. Walter’s health, earning power and confidence declined; Helen’s resiliency, frustration and success soared. In spite of their constant conflicts, they managed to stay together.
In September 1988, my sister and I hosted a small gathering in the basement of the church my parents attended to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. I remember thinking that their relationship seemed sweeter and quieter that day than it had for a long time. I believe that continued for the next five years until Dad died of a second heart attack on November 26, 1993.
Despite the personal difficulties and challenges my parents faced, they were good citizens and kind human beings. As I age, I see physical reminders of Walter and Helen looking back at me in the mirror. My father’s vulnerability and crooked smile. My mother’s fight and fading blue eyes. Occasionally, I observe a personality trait or gesture in my adult sons that reminds me of something Helen would have said or Walter would have done. It’s evidence that my parents live on in their grandsons. Those moments make me smile.
All three of my memoirs include stories about both of my parents and their impact on my life. This week — as a tribute to Walter and Helen and their frailties and triumphs — I’m discounting the price of the Kindle version of my first book, From Fertile Ground, on Amazon. Much of this memoir is about the grief that consumed me after Mom died in 2013 and my journey to make sense of the past, once both Helen and Walter were gone. It’s a universal story of love, loss and finding your way.
This photo — taken in 1949 at Club Seven Oaks somewhere off the highway between San Antonio and Austin, Texas — is now my favorite image of my parents together. I keep a framed copy on my desk for comfort and inspiration. Ironically, when I wrote and published From Fertile Ground in early 2016, I didn’t include this photo. At that time, I wasn’t quite as ready to embrace this apparently contented version of Helen and Walter seated side by side, holding hands on my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday eight years before I was born.
But the passage of time has brought me new insights. It and the experience of surviving my own health scare have given me greater understanding and compassion for my parents: two ordinary people I loved, two ordinary people I will never forget.