Category: ancestry

I’ll Be Seeing You

Like many of you, I know grief. It is that clumsy, unwelcome house guest we imagine will never leave.

When it arrives, grief dominates our lives. It keeps us awake at night, saturates our sensibilities, zaps our strength, and slows the progression of time.

At its onset, grief feels like a heavy stone we must carry in our pocket. A character in the 2010 dramatic film Rabbit Hole describes it that way. With time, we grow accustom to the stone. We become grateful for the stone, because we realize it is all that remains of the person we loved and lost.

One day, without expecting it, grief is less heavy, less present. The achiness has packed its bags and moved on. We aren’t sure why or where it has gone–maybe down the hall, across the street, or into the next zip code. But grief is never far away. It returns to comfort us on milestone days: birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.

Grief appears on regular days too. It leaves little reminders to certify our humanity and frailty. It lingers in the cool air and warm sunshine of a spring day. It hangs in the lyrics of an old nostalgic tune, I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Peggy Lee. It grows on the window sill in the perennial bloom of an African violet.

It’s been eight years since my mother died at age eighty-nine. January 26, 2013 was a bitter morning in the Chicago suburbs, meteorologically and personally. About 2 a.m., my sister Diane called with the news.

Immediately, Tom and I bundled up and drove twenty miles south (from our home in Mount Prospect to Mom’s third-floor apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois).

That morning I kissed my mother’s forehead and patted her hand one final time. As my husband and I left the building, a full moon dominated the frozen sky.

Grief moved in with us that day. At the time, I didn’t know it would repurpose itself and transform from a stone to a familiar fog to a blanket of possibilities.

But grief is cagy. It can be an enemy or an ally. It became my muse, the catalyst for my creativity. With grief by my side, between 2014 and 2016, I wrote and published From Fertile Ground.

Over the past five years, friends, acquaintances, and readers I will never meet in person have posted heartfelt reviews. They have told me how the story of my grief–and my grandfather’s and mother’s written legacies–helped them examine their lives, process their sadness, and restore some semblance of hope.

Writing the book was my catharsis too. Like the final line from the Peggy Lee tune which describes my feelings of loss perfectly–“I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”–the pages of my book are permanent evidence of the grief I felt, which diffused with the passing of eight years. On days when I need confirmation of what 2013 to 2016 felt like, I can pick up my book and remember.

After our wise, nature-loving mother died, Diane did a kind thing. She divided up Mom’s African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom in 2004 when she moved north to be closer to us in her final years.

In July 2017, when Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, we wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. Ultimately, we deposited them on our southern-facing window sill in Scottsdale.

In 2019, the pink African violet died, but the lone one is a survivor. It captures the warm rays of the Sonoran Desert sun. It blooms every winter and has chosen this week–eight years after Helen Johnson left the world–to dazzle us once again.

When I examine the vibrant blues and greens the plant offers, it eases my mind. It reminds me that memories of the mother I loved and her lasting impact are never far away. That the mind-numbing initial waves of tears and grief led me to a softer reality, which is bearable, tender, and life affirming.

Even as we wander in the dark through the depths of this global pandemic, there is strange comfort knowing grief will always be there in some form or another to acknowledge our past, present and future losses. Because if grief never appeared, we would discover a harsher reality … that we never loved at all.

Thank you, grief, for filling the void. I’ll be seeing you.

A Gift to Ease Your Grief

As COVID-19 cases climb and shadows of worry and anxiety cast doubts, we stew in our numbness. We attempt to process the depth of our grief. It has no bounds.

Here in the United States, we prepare for a thankless Thanksgiving Day 2020 minus more than a quarter of a million Americans–gone, but not forgotten–who sat at tables beside us a year ago. Our hearts ache for them and their families.

Seven years ago grief consumed me as the first Thanksgiving after my mother’s death approached. Tom and I decided we needed a holiday getaway from our then suburban Chicago home. We needed to shake things up. To begin a new tradition in a place that wouldn’t spark the rawness of Midwestern memories.

Both of my sons loved the idea. They decided to join us for an extended Thanksgiving weekend in the Arizona desert. It felt as if the odds were against us when Tom developed pneumonia after raking leaves on a frosty early-November Illinois morning. But, remarkably, he rebounded quickly. We kept our plans to fly west.

On Thanksgiving Day, Kirk, Nick, his friend Stephanie, Tom and I dined outside at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. We enjoyed turkey and stuffing, seated around a courtyard patio table shaded by an orange tree.

Three months after that November 2013 trip, I retired from corporate life and began to feel a calling to write about my grief. I soon discovered that by honoring and answering my creative impulses, I could ride through the waves of tears and numbness and emerge whole on the other side.

As strange as it sounds, grief became the fertile ground for my writing journey. In 2016, I published my first book, From Fertile Ground. It tells the story of three writers–my grandfather, mother and me–and our desires to leave behind a legacy of our own distinctive observations of our family, our loves, our losses, our worlds.

In honor of Thanksgiving and those we’ve loved and lost, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from November 21 through November 25.

I hope reading it will inspire you (or a friend who is grieving) to find your fertile ground. To discover your voice. To channel your creativity. To emerge from the numbness. To tell your unvarnished story. Perhaps even to leave behind a brief review of my book online.

Pondering the Puzzle Pieces of Past Lives

AlbertJohnson_August1932

The dusty attics, dog-eared scrapbooks, and forgotten files of our past don’t always provide answers about mysterious deceased family members. But often they are all we have, once those who remembered them are gone too.

I have no memories of Albert Edward Johnson, my paternal grandfather. Just second-hand stories about the man with slicked-back blonde hair who died when I was three. Random photos and puzzle pieces that, when connected, leave me with an unsubstantiated picture of Albert. Tales of who he was, where he lived, what he believed and what he aspired to do.

Based on a patchwork of anecdotes, passed down from my parents, aunts and uncles, apparently this is the man I never knew.

***

Albert, an idealistic boy, was born in Duluth, Minnesota on January 10, 1884.

His mother Sophia Amelia Danielson and her family immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden when she was a teenager. They lived in Quebec, Canada for a few years before traveling to Minnesota. His father Bernt Franklin Johnson was born in Breen, Norway. Sophia and Bernt met and married in Duluth and had six children (Dan, Ben, Josie, Jenny, Albert and Carl).

When Albert was ten years old, he and his family moved to Anniston, Alabama where his father operated a grocery store on a Native American reservation. I don’t know what prompted them to move more than eleven-hundred miles south in 1894. Perhaps they simply needed gainful employment or were tired of the cold.

Subsequently, around 1900, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Johnson men worked in the meat packing houses. Evidently, the job didn’t suit Albert’s sensitivity. Helen, Albert’s daughter-in-law and my mother, told me the shrieks of the slaughtered animals were too much for him to bear.

Albert was a health-conscious and  athletic young man: an amateur wrestler; Mississippi River rower; and cross-country racer. According to family members, he competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon in St. Louis. I have no proof he participated, but I choose to believe it.

In 1907 or 1908, Albert met and married Anna Louise Sendke in St. Louis. They raised three children: Thelma and twins, Violet and Walter (my father). Albert wasn’t home much during Walter’s childhood years (1913 to 1925). I’ve always wondered where his travels took him and who he met along the way.

According to my dad, Albert valued intellectual stimulation, political discourse and philosophical conversations. At some point (in the 1930s perhaps), Albert–a lifelong Democrat–pursued a career in local politics. He ran for state representative twice, but lost both times.

During that same period, Albert tried his hand at motivational speaking and received an honorary doctor of divinity degree. The public speaker you see here (standing on a stool in an athletic shirt in the foreground of a Depression-era, Milwaukee, Wisconsin gathering eighty-eight years ago on August 3, 1932) believed one should choose a career or path that maximized his or her greatest innate skills.

In his own words from a stained 1943 “Biodynamics: The Science of Power” handout he must have used in one of his lectures, “we will not be happy, healthy or successful unless we choose as our life work some line of endeavor towards which we have a strong biological tendency.”

In the 1940s, Albert, the man who earlier in his life only rarely brought his son with him on trips north from St. Louis to Chicago or Milwaukee, wrote and sent encouraging letters to Walter overseas to bolster his spirit as he fought in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II in Europe.

During the last several years of Albert’s life, he and Louise lived with their eldest daughter Thelma and son-in-law Ralph at their home in north St. Louis County.

I vaguely recall sitting on the edge of Albert’s twin bed in his empty room in the early 1960s soaking up the silence. It was a few years after my grandfather, the one-time athlete, fell on the steps of a restaurant during the holidays, broke a hip and succumbed to pneumonia.

Albert died on December 30, 1960 at age seventy-six.

***

Until this moment, at age sixty-three and one month, I’ve never considered the collective attributes and personality traits of Albert and my three other grandparents–Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–and how they may have shaped the calling in my life: that of a late-in-life creative writer.

But as I think about each of my grandparents, I recognize their DNA strands coursing through me: Sherrell Ferrell’s love of nature and From Fertile Ground journalistic sensibility; Georgia Ferrell’s love of animals, gift of gab and laughter; Louise Johnson’s  sense of personal loyalty and soap-opera storytelling drama; and Albert Johnson’s quest for intellectual stimulation, personal fulfillment and public discourse.

I don’t believe each of us is simply a product of our biological past. We are each unique human beings … like snowflakes that fall and add irreplaceable texture to the sky. But I do think these varied qualities and preferences may have shaped my direction and influenced my choices on life’s path more than I’ve previously realized.

Of course, what you read here is all mine: ideas, opinions, stories and experience.  But history, both personal and societal, counts for something. It informs my stories about the power of nature, animals, relationships, family, diversity, sensitivity, and social justice. Because there is at least a little bit of all four of my grandparents–Albert, Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–in me.

You might say I’ve had a “strong biological tendency” to be a writer and storyteller all along. It’s written in my DNA.