Category: Books

Along the Back Fence: Part Two

As we cross through the middle of May, it’s time to share the conclusion of the story of Millie, my neighbor, and our relationship that spanned twenty years Along the Back Fence. This story first appeared in An Unobstructed View.

***

In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby.

Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.

When she arrived, I leaned out to give her a hug and she rested her head on my shoulder. She told me she loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it anymore.

Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from her side of the yard and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.

Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too.

It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.

“I love you guys,” she said.

“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.

Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.

And the red rose bush–which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire–took root and bloomed before we departed.

We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.

It only seemed fitting.

***

In late October 2019, Kathy–another of our Mount Prospect, Illinois neighbors–called with sad, but inevitable, news. Millie had passed away, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

In May 2022, I fantasize that somewhere in a distant universe, Millie is preparing to serve up a Tupperware container filled with ambrosia salad for all her friends.

In reality, seventeen hundred miles west of my previous Illinois home, it is our Arizona neighbors who are about to be dazzled by a summer-long perennial display compliments of our double-red desert rose bush.

The arrival of this much-anticipated splash of brilliant color is something Millie would have loved.

Get Happy

Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.

Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away.
Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.

***

Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.

Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.

For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.

As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.

Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.

Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.

Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?

***

2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)

To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!

On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.

About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.

Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.

The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.

As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.

Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.

We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.

The Rituals

Sherrell Richardson Ferrell, my farming and writing grandfather, posing in the 1930s.

As a writer and gardener, I’ve learned there is constancy and comfort embedded in the rituals of life.

Each time I sit before my laptop to tell another story I feel a sense of grounding. My hard-working grandfather, the North Carolina farmer, must have understood that. He kept a journal every day for fifty-two consecutive years–from 1933 until the day he died in 1985.

Less about his personal reflections, much of what S.R. Ferrell wrote was about the day-in-day-in responsibilities of farm life. For instance, forty-nine years ago on his seventy-second birthday, this is what he had to say:

I did my farm chores in cloudy foggy wet morning. The mud is getting deeper by the day. I mopped the kitchen after I got my outside work done. I changed my clothes and went to Huntersville to get prescriptions filled. My 72nd birthday. Jimmy, Frankie and Frances came and ate lunch with us today. Mamma and Zelma called and talked to me. Cloudy, wet, muddy, mild all day. More rain expected tonight. 54 degree low; 60 degree high.

There is nothing spectacular in these words until you consider that he wrote down his thoughts for more than five decades. Little did he know that–long after he was gone–I would read every page of his journals and (after my mother and his daughter died) write a book about the writing DNA that runs through my blood.

Now that I’m a desert rat, I keep a speckled rock from S.R.’s farm in our Arizona garden. At this moment, it’s wedged in the ground under our fig tree. Every time I water the tree, I see the stone. It reminds me of my southern roots and connection to the earth.

In keeping with the ebb and flow of nature and lineage, I do this ceremonial gardening dance twice a year. In early December, I lug my beloved desert roses (aka, adeniums) inside away from winter’s chill. They hide dormant in the darkest corners of our condo until March, when I haul them back outside to face the world again.

Yesterday morning, one day before S.R.’s 121st birthday, I renewed part two of this desert rose ritual. This year, it also happened to be the day Tom hired Chem Dry to clean our carpet.

Before Drew from Chem Dry arrived, my husband and I hoisted our slumbering desert rose and situated it outside our backdoor. We didn’t want to spill any soil on our freshly manicured carpet.

All of that went without a hitch. Neither of us strained our backs and Drew finished his job in less than an hour. The carpet even dried more quickly than expected.

By early afternoon, we were able to walk on the surface without wearing blue booties. By 3 p.m., we had moved all of our furniture back to where it belonged.

The blooming cycle for our prized adenium will take quite a bit longer. Rest assured, new leaves will appear this spring, prompted by warmer, longer days. Though S.R. never traveled to Arizona, I can imagine him sitting with his sleeves rolled up between farm tasks, nodding in his rocking chair as I write these words.

By June (maybe sooner) when the temperatures have reached 100-plus again here in the Valley of the Sun, this remarkable plant will produce several gorgeous double-red blooms. With it all, once again, I will have physical proof that natural beauty is constant.

Even though it feels like the rest of the world has gone mad, I draw strength from fertile ground and the knowledge that these rituals help me feel hope is always on the horizon.

What I Feel

In addition to writing four memoirs, I’ve been blogging for nearly four years. A few of you have joined me for every twist and turn. I feel humbled by your interest and loyalty.

In my first post (May 4, 2018), I shared ten tips for writing a meaningful memoir. I believed then (as I do today), that each of us has at least one story to tell. If you are an aspiring writer, who is searching for a little inspiration, you may find these tips helpful.

#4 on the list is especially important if you are looking to engage readers, because feelings–fear, disappointment, grief, joy, excitement, anticipation, etc.–are universal:

Write what you feel. Go beyond reporting what you know. The details are important, but not as much as how you were affected by the occurrences that appear in your story. Tell your reader how you feel. Describe your experience—how the positive, negative and unusual happenings in your story touched your life.

Often when I sit down to write a new blogpost–and my fingertips touch the keyboard of my laptop–I’m uncertain what I want to write. But from the beginning of this odyssey, I’ve vowed to follow my own advice to tell and show you what I feel about personal and global issues.

That has included the emotions connected to creating an authentic life as a gay man and father of two sons; recovering from a heart attack; building a new life in the Sonoran Desert with my husband; aging in a predominately youth-focused society; surviving a global pandemic; and simply observing the healing properties of animals and nature.

Even in our uncertain American society–still hamstrung politically and dealing with the ravaging effects of COVID-19–I feel fortunate to have a safe home, good health, enough food to eat, and a community of family and friends nearby.

However, I also feel a strange mix of anger, anxiety, and sadness. I attribute that to the frightening stories and images of what’s happening in Ukraine.

I won’t pretend to understand the politics of it but can imagine the tremendous pain that is occurring as Russian troops invade and thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians are threatened.

The deceptions and power-hungry antics of certain world leaders–rooted in lies and insatiable egos–are unacceptable to me. So is the growing level of American ignorance and intolerance for the truth of what history and provocative literature can teach us.

Yet we have too many “adults” in communities clamoring for the removal of books, which might help teach our children to become critical thinkers. On that note, what I feel today is the excruciating pain of what our world has become.

Rest assured, I will continue to write and voice my concerns, but I feel it’s best if I set aside my laptop for the moment. Here in the Valley of the Sun, I’m going to lace up my sneakers on a gorgeous Friday afternoon and take a hike to Papago Park.

I’m certain the sun is shining there, and the saguaro cacti are standing tall.

FREE Through Friday

Need a warm escape? Download my latest book–FREE–through February 25.

Set against the rugged Sonoran Desert landscape, it’s an anthology of whimsical and serious stories about a little bit of everything: hot rods, high points, climbing up, growing old, coming out, pruning trees, eavesdropping cacti, pool rules, sand dollars, shrinking men, tiny lizards, literary life, fanciful flights, fresh lemons, pandemic truths, desert fantasies, and much more.

Please post your review online. It will mean a lot to this independent writer.

January Musings

It’s one of those days when my stream of consciousness is running in many directions. That has prompted this post about everything (or nothing depending on your point of view).

I call it January musings, because that’s the best thematic thread I can find in this ball of yarn and semi-related thoughts.

***

Morning, noon and night the fabric of our winding threads becomes a tapestry. That’s the opening lyrical line from Mighty Mosaic, one of four pieces I wrote for the March 12 Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus concert.

The song is an LGBTQA anthem of sorts to capture the complicated–and often triumphant–journeys we take to discover who we are and what we believe.

Hearing my lyrics come to life in a room of familiar voices during Tuesday night’s rehearsal brought me personal joy in a month previously laced with grief.

***

I bristle whenever I hear film directors, writers or musicians say in an interview that they don’t ever step back to watch their films, read their books, or listen to their music.

I’ll admit it. I’m a writer, who learns by retracing literary steps. I find myself revisiting themes in my writing all the time (family, love, loss, the beauty of nature, the serendipity of life) or frequently pulling one of my books off the shelf and re-reading certain passages.

Why? Because it keeps the process of telling a particular story fresh in my mind. Each of my four books is a child I have loved and guided from infancy to adulthood. They will live on the page long after I’m gone, even if nobody reads them.

Revisiting my stories also allows me to remember the richness of life: the hows … how far I’ve traveled, how far I still have to go, how much the world has changed, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, how fortunate I am to love and be loved.

***

The ninth anniversary of my mother’s passing is January 26. Earlier this week, I looked skyward and spotted a full moon. It transported me back to a frigid January morning right after I said goodbye to her–an indelible Illinois moment in 2013–when Tom and I sat with my sister and brother-in-law at a suburban McDonald’s (the only place open for coffee at 5 a.m.) to feel the warmth and close comfort of an enormous full moon illuminating the horizon and the snow-packed streets.

The grief I felt that morning is far less present now. But the welcome sight of a full moon will forever remind me of the journey after Helen Johnson’s passing, her wisdom and undaunted spirit, and the growth that followed. All of it inspired me to chart a new trajectory, write From Fertile Ground and three more books, and even discover a poet and lyricist lurking inside.

The Past Eight Years

Eight years ago this month, I left my communication consulting job at Aon Hewitt. Technically, I retired in January 2014, though I’ve hardly dropped off the face of the earth since then. I’ve simply escaped to the desert.

It feels strange for me to admit this: some details of my thirty-four-year communication career in Chicago–especially the most daunting moments with impossible clients–have faded. What I remember most are the creative accomplishments and closest colleagues.

Ironically, while our country has moved into a period of darkness and upheaval during the past eight years, I’ve transformed my life into one that more closely resembles who I am and what I value.

I’ve gotten married, moved cross country, survived a heart attack, dropped about forty pounds, found a new home with my husband, nurtured the artist inside, written four books and nearly 300 blog entries, coached both of my sons as they’ve navigated life and career changes, made a bunch of new friends in a warm climate, and evolved into a more contented person.

In that sense, trading my corporate life for that of an emerging, independent writer has felt more like shedding the weight of a familiar suit of armor to discover a more light-hearted, personal, and sometimes vulnerable existence underneath.

To mark the anniversary of my retirement–and subsequent literary emergence–I’m discounting the paperback version of my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, on Amazon during the month of January.

Hopefully, this will be just the incentive you need to devote a little more time to reading in the new year.

Free Rollercoaster Rides Through December 22

In April 1974, I became a rollercoaster operator. It was my first job. I was sixteen years old.

Like most teenagers, I didn’t have a clue about life. But, as I think about it more than forty-seven years later, “driving” the River King Mine Train at Six Flags Over Mid-America near St. Louis became the creative catalyst for twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. I call them MOstalgic tales of American culture in the 1960s and 70s, when children had far more freedom to grow, play and run amok.

From December 20 through 22, you can download a free Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon worldwide. It’s my holiday gift to you.

The last essay in the book is especially timely. It celebrates a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger nearly sixty years ago on New Year’s Day 1962.

As 2021 draws to a close, perhaps my stories will make you smile. Maybe even inspire you to post a review online. But, at the very least, I hope they prompt you to remember a simpler time and the twists, turns and thrills from your own childhood–wherever you were born, wherever you grew up, wherever you called home.

Thanksgiving Gift for You

Here in the U.S. we are preparing for Thanksgiving. For some, that will mean traveling again–despite this unrelenting global pandemic–to see loved ones and share a feast. For others, it will consist of a quiet, simple meal at home (if we are lucky to have one) with little fanfare.

No matter which end of the spectrum you find yourself on, I hope you have the opportunity to reflect on what you are thankful for as November’s days wind down.

I am most thankful for good health, the love and companionship of my husband, a cozy condo in a warm climate we call home, and the positive relationship I’ve nurtured and forged with each of my adult sons.

It’s a real gift, after suffering a mild heart attack in 2017, to see Nick and Kirk grow and evolve in their thirties … and a welcome change from the heavy-lifting of child rearing I experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Near the top of my “thankfulness” list is the time, ability, and creative energy to write. I’m proud of each of the four books I’ve drafted, polished, and published since 2016. (Plus, since May 2018, I’ve worked diligently to generate and post 286 stories and poems here on my blog. That’s an average of seven pieces of free original content per month.)

If you are a regular follower or first-time visitor who has stumbled upon my page, I have wrapped up a Thanksgiving gift for you.

Through November 25, go to Amazon and download your free Kindle copy of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, my latest book. (By the way, if you live outside the U.S., I believe many of you will be able to download a copy through your local Amazon connection.)

If you’re an independent writer like me, you know how important and challenging it is to try to build traction with a community of readers. Online reviews help immensely.

So, once you finish reading my anthology of thirty-nine whimsical and serious essays, I hope you’ll take a moment to rate and/or review my book online.

Thank you to my loyal followers, and happy reading!

Are the Grapefruits Ripe Enough to Pick?

No writer wants to be known as a one-trick pony. Yes, to this point I’ve written mostly creative nonfiction, but each of my four books includes flashes of poetry. And, in my latest book of essays–home grown on the metaphor of pruning a lemon tree in my desert community–I also dabble in fiction.

In other words, I have no problem branching out into the great beyond of fruit trees. Grapefruits, for instance.

Here in our Polynesian Paradise condo community we live among lemon, tangelo, orange, fig, and lime trees … even a lone pomegranate. But we are surrounded by a bumper crop of pink and white grapefruits that will be ready to pick in late December. They are a far cry from the maple, elm, magnolia, oak, and gingko trees of my Midwestern past, which will be bare soon.

I’m not a fan of grapefruits. They’re too tart for my palette. Plus, if I ate them they would counteract the positive effects of the statin medication I take to keep my cholesterol count in the normal range.

However, Nick–my older son who lives near us–craves these tangy softball-size citruses. (I remember my dad loving grapefruits too. In fact, Nick resembles him. It’s funny how certain likes, physical qualities, and personality traits skip a generation.)

This afternoon I texted Nick this photo with a grapefruit update: “You’ll be happy to know the grapefruits are shaping up. They’ll be ripe in a month or so.”

“Oh nice” was Nick’s laconic response.

As the citrus-plucking season draws nearer in Arizona, here’s a snippet from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, my book of whimsical and serious essays available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon.

***

Nick is especially enamored with the citrus trees—most notably, the plethora of grapefruits that dominate our condo complex grounds. In December and January each year, Nick the Citrus King contacts me frequently concerning the status of the ripening citrus crops. His texts or phone conversations begin something like this:

“Hey there. Are the grapefruits ripe enough to pick?” There is no preliminary happy talk such as “How are you feeling, Dad?” before the citrus cross-examination.

Aware of Nick’s citrus sensibilities and no-frills communication style, in January 2020—as a belated Christmas present—Tom and I surprised him with his own fiberglass fruit picker. We gave him one with a durable steel trap and extendable arm, which would extend his reach to grab the largest orbs clinging to the highest branches in a galaxy far beyond low-hanging fruits.

Upon receiving his gift, Nick’s smile grew three sizes. With the flexible picker in one hand and a few empty bags in the other, he and I set out to corral a selection of the sweetest and juiciest citrus delicacies we could find in the common areas of our complex.

Twenty minutes later, we returned to the condo with a mix of white and pink grapefruits, tangelos, lemons, and oranges. Harry & David would have been proud to grow, pick, and ship them to Vitamin-C-starved customers in cold-and-gray winter climates. 

Without a crystal ball or a notion of where to find a citrus psychic, I have no way of knowing where Nick’s quest for fresh grapefruit will lead. But I am gratified to see him plucking fruits from the sky and flourishing in his Arizona life despite the heat.