Category: Family History

Aging Hands

I take a blood thinner; therefore, I bruise easily.

So, for instance, if I’m putting away dishes in our cupboard after dinner and bump the top of my hand on the corner of the cabinet, I am sure to leave that mundane household experience with a souvenir–an immediate red patch that will last a few days in the afflicted area.

I haven’t always been ultra-self-conscious about the condition of my extremities. It’s only lately–in my sixties with thinner skin on my thinner body–that I’ve become aware of my aging hands and, of course, my mortality. They go hand in hand.

Since I’m a writer and rely on my fingers, wrists, and hands to write these sentences on my laptop, I’m fortunate not to have arthritis in my joints–in my hands.

My sister Diane seems to be the one in our family who has inherited that painful component of our mother’s DNA. Particularly in her hips, knees, and feet.

Diane is sixty-eight-years old. She doesn’t read what I write. We live seventeen hundred miles apart. She in Illinois. Me in Arizona.

Even so, I love my sister. I always have and will. Tom and I visited her and Steve (Diane’s husband) for an afternoon last October while we were in the Chicago area. In this age of Covid, we recounted all the things we are thankful for.

Diane will always be my only sibling, my only big sister. We talk and text occasionally. I worry about Diane’s physical wellness and longevity. We’re the only two remaining in our family of origin, since Mom passed away ten years ago.

Diane also is the only other person who remembers the nuances of our St. Louis childhood, our homelife (good, bad, and indifferent), our difficult plight as a family after Dad’s heart attack in 1962, our mother’s resolve in her fifties and fragility in her eighties, our mother’s aging hands.

I came across this photo of Mom’s folded hands from Christmas Eve 2008. That night, we gathered at Diane’s home in Illinois to celebrate the holiday and open gifts. Mom would live to share another four Christmases with us.

It’s a cropped image and not the clearest, but when I saw it, I was reminded of Mom’s age spots and blemishes that grew with the passage of time on her fair, loose, thin skin. The rough patches on her hard-working hands go back in time to her rural southern roots in High Point, North Carolina, and fifty years in St. Louis, Missouri, which I chronicle in From Fertile Ground.

In her final nine years living in northern Illinois, our mother had this habit of clutching a tissue in her palms. She often hid an auxiliary one in the arm of her blouse or sweater. If you look closely, you can see it peeking out of the sleeve of her heather-flecked turtleneck.

These are the little personal idiosyncrasies that only a sibling would remember. They don’t matter in the grander scheme of things, but they do when it’s your mother and you still love and miss her after ten years of living without her. And you realize that your own mortality creeps ever closer with every blogpost.

Sure, I stay active–mentally and physically–and will continue to mount the treadmill several times each week to keep my heart strong.

But there is no denying the evolving appearance of my spotted, aging hands. They are looking more like my mother’s every day.

Every Heart Tells a Story

On March 25, 2023, I will participate in the Phoenix-area Heart Walk, sponsored by the American Heart Association.

If you follow my blog, you know I am a heart attack survivor. You may not know that both of my parents died of heart disease: Mom on January 26, 2013 (almost ten years ago); Dad on November 26, 1993 (nearly thirty years ago). Both Helen and Walter appear frequently in my published stories.

One of my favorite photos of Mom and Dad, celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday on July 26, 1949, at a restaurant in Texas.

Obviously, heart disease is personal for me and millions of American families. I hope you will consider making a donation to support ground-breaking research that keeps hearts beating and enables other unsuspecting victims of heart disease and stroke (like me) live longer and write new chapters.

As an added incentive, if you click the link below and donate $30 to the American Heart Association, I will sign and send any two of my books (your choice) to you. I’ll pay the postage and include two of my personalized bookmarks.

http://www2.heart.org/goto/Mark_Johnson_HeartWalk_2023

Thank you for your kindness and consideration. Every little bit helps.

Waitin’ for the Man with the Bag

Everybody’s waitin’ for the man with the bag, cause Christmas is comin’ again.

I’ll be singing this lyrical line with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus mates this Saturday and Sunday on stage in Tempe, Arizona at the Galvin Playhouse. (Go to http://www.phxgmc.org for tickets.)

“Man With The Bag” is a jazzy, Christmas mash-up, artfully arranged by David Maddux. It’s the second number of Act II, a mix of frolicking, silky, reflective, fun, inspiring, and sometimes-bawdy music in our “Twas the Night Before Christmas” show.

If I sound excited, I am. This will be my thirteenth consecutive holiday concert: seven with Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago; six here in Phoenix.

Singing Christmas music in my fifties and sixties with two diverse community choruses of gay men has somehow rekindled the wonder and anticipation of my childhood.

Close your eyes and travel back in time. Music or not, you remember that giddy Christmas feeling.

For me, it happened annually with my sister Diane. Decades before the advent of fake news, we stood on opposite ends of our fake, cardboard fireplace in suburban St. Louis. No doubt, as we posed for this photo, Perry Como crooned a holiday tune on the hi-fi.

Anyway, in December 1962–yikes, sixty years ago–we were waitin’ for the man with the bag in the dining room of our modest brick home without an actual fireplace. But that didn’t deter our keen imaginations or exuberance. In fact, it nurtured them.

I don’t know what happened to that fabulous fireplace I leaned against years ago. I doubt that it survived to see 1970.

But Diane and I are still here. Yes, much older and definitely wiser. She lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with her husband; I live in Scottsdale, Arizona, with mine.

I mailed a small box of gifts to her recently, and her package will arrive here before Christmas. But it is the gifts of music and memory that I cherish today … and the thought of just the two of us–way back when–waitin’ for the man with the bag.

Royalties with Heart

I confess. Like many independent writers, I dream of dozens of rave reviews online from readers and a steady stream of royalties.

But that rarely happens. Most of us are not that fortunate. It doesn’t mean our books aren’t worthy of praise and financial rewards. It just means that it is difficult to remain visible and compelling without a marketing budget. The literary competition runs wide and deep in the Amazon distribution ocean of new and old releases.

Even so, behind the scenes–when someone buys one or more of my books on Amazon–royalties appear on my author dashboard and land magically in my checking account a few months later.

It isn’t the amount that makes me happy. (It’s usually a trickle, no more than five or ten dollars, though in a rare month the dollars can spike higher.) It’s the acknowledgement that someone continues to derive value and meaning from one of my “very creative, heart-warming stories.”

That phrase in quotes is the way the staff at Barnes & Noble in Mesa, Arizona describes my books on their shelves. When I saw this, I felt honored because the motivation for my writing comes from my heart and the myriad of emotions–love, loss, happiness, discontent, hope, disappointment–we all feel.

Recently, a development director with the American Heart Association (AHA) in Arizona asked if I would be an Executive with Heart to help raise money for their 2023 campaign. Without hesitation, I said “yes.”

Technically, it runs from February 1 through March 24 and concludes with a Heart Walk in the Valley of the Sun. But on “Giving Tuesday” this year (November 29) I will donate the $200 in book royalties I have earned in 2022 to the AHA to help support the fight against heart disease and stroke. An anonymous donor will match that amount.

Ironically, in the coming few months, I will remember both of my parents who succumbed to heart disease. My dad died after suffering his second heart attack on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving twenty-nine years ago. My mother passed on January 26, 2013–nearly ten years ago on a frigid Illinois morning–due to congestive heart failure.

In their honor, I will increase my $200 donation to the AHA by $10 for every purchase of An Unobstructed View between now and November 29. In case you don’t know, the book is a personal account of my transformative journey with Tom, moving from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and navigating a frightening detour in St. Louis in between. It’s my heartfelt story of survival.

I hope you’ll purchase a copy for yourself or a friend. When you do, you will fill my heart with joy and benefit others–like me–who are building strong hearts and longer, more meaningful lives.

Over the next few weeks as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, I encourage you to also give thanks for those you love and those who love you … and the heart that beats inside you every moment of every day.

The Clothesline

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

It was laundry day. So, this morning, Tom and I grabbed our pouch of wooden clothespins and walked five hundred steps or so to the landing behind our condo clubhouse.

For the next five minutes–shielding our eyes from the penetrating sun–we stood on the concrete there, hanging our just-washed, delicate shorts and shirts on the community clothesline to dry in the desert breeze.

Call me old fashioned. But I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I enjoy it. Especially as fall approaches and the air begins to cool.

More important, the plastic-coated clothesline connects my present life to my past. It represents the resiliency I’ve watched, absorbed, and carried forward.

It reminds me of the family members I’ve lost, but still love, and the survival instincts they instilled in me sixty years ago. What follows are excerpts from my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.

***

It was my second week of kindergarten, and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962–September 13 to be exact–I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.

Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board.

The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.

I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the back fence.

“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.

I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.

Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket, and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month …

Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long–unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames. But Dad insisted he would rebound.

Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”

***

The next decade was difficult for our family. Watching Dad drift away physically and emotionally, filled me with anxiety. He never recovered fully, though the man who fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge soldiered on until his death in 1993.

Meanwhile, my mother kept our family afloat financially. She went back to work in March 1963 and did her best to balance life at home and in the office. When she died in 2013, she left behind a legacy of wisdom that I cherish and share.

Watching my parents toil produced a silver lining. Seeing them tread deep water for all those years gave me something I never imagined: the will to face my own personal challenges, standing tall as a proud gay man, and surviving my own heart attack on my sixtieth birthday.

Of course, it all began in the suburbs of St. Louis in September 1962. That sagging clothesline swayed. But it never snapped.

And, here in the Sonoran Desert in 2022, another clothesline sways 1,400 miles west.

It’s a much less turbulent September day.

Glimpse of Greatness

Of the primary team spectator sports in the United States–football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer–baseball’s generational roots and family rituals run the deepest.

Parents (and grandparents) bring their kids to Major League Baseball (MLB) games to pass along the shared experience of watching their favorite teams–and the stars of the moment–take the field.

I have no statistics to support my theory. Just sixty years of personal baseball anecdotes to draw from watching my favorite team–the St. Louis Cardinals–perform against an array of opponents in stadiums and cities (St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix) across the country.

My personal passion for baseball remains intact in 2022, despite escalating ticket and concession prices, MLB’s all-to-frequent owner/player labor strife, lingering steroid controversy and cheating scandals, frequent umpiring blunders, and often-long-and-laborious games that stretch well beyond three hours.

Yet the game endures. Fans keep coming back to relive their personal traditions and–if the stars align–perhaps catch lightning in a bottle and see something truly magical they didn’t anticipate.

On Saturday evening, August 20, that happened.

Tom and I drove west from our home in Scottsdale to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Tom is a Chicago Cubs fan. He was less interested in this particular game than his more-competitive, die-hard-fan husband.)

I should digress to tell you that the Diamondbacks are rebuilding in 2022, while the Cardinals have assembled an entertaining team of older stars, clutch hitters, crafty pitchers, fielding phenoms, and talented youngsters. They are now in first place in the Central Division of the National League and appear to have gelled at the right time.

The final score on Saturday night? Cardinals 16, Diamondbacks 7.

There was more action–on the field and in the stands–in this one game than you might find in 10 visits to the ballyard. Dazzling defensive plays. Five home runs. A triple that cleared the bases. A grand slam in the ninth inning. A large, raucous crowd (at least half were rooting for the visiting Redbirds) on Mexican Heritage Night in the Valley of the Sun.

One especially obnoxious and inappropriate Cardinal fan screamed non-stop for three hours several rows behind us. We were relieved when security finally arrived in the seventh or eighth inning to remove him.

But, for my money, the magic supplied by a future hall of famer superseded all of it.

Albert Pujols, the Cardinals designated hitter (DH) and long-time first baseman, crushed two long home runs–his 691st and 692nd–into the centerfield bleachers. The most prolific hitter of the twenty-first century, forty-two-year-old Pujols will retire at the end of this season.

Albert, who wears number 5 on the back of uniform, currently ranks number five on the list of the greatest home run hitters of all time.

Behind Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696), Pujols hopes to pass Rodriguez and reach 700 homers before his last game in October.

As background, in 2022, Pujols returned to the Cardinals, the team he first starred with from 2001 through 2011, to tie a large red bow on his twenty-two-year career. He contributed repeatedly to two Cardinals World Series Championships in 2006 and 2011.

Many of us fans, who watched the game in the desert Saturday night, were in the stands to cheer for Albert in his final year.

When he approached home plate each time, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. A buzz filled the air; the atmosphere was electric.

I don’t think any of us dreamed he’d hit two home runs and two singles in this one game, becoming the oldest player since 1901 to go 4-4 in a major league game.

Tom and I absorbed it all from our seats in foul territory in the lower level of the right-field-corner (Section 109, Row 12, Seats 3 and 4) grandstand.

***

Albert Pujols had already hit his 691st home run in the second inning. Then, he came to the plate for the second time on Saturday night.

From the row in front of us, a boy no more than ten years old (wearing the jersey of another Cardinal great, shortstop Ozzie Smith, from the 1980s) stood beside his mom and dad.

From behind, it felt as if I could have been watching myself standing as the Cardinals played in the 1960s, or one of my sons rooting for the Redbirds at a game in the 1990s.

At any rate, I imagine the child hoped to capture a picture of Pujols, as the perennial all-star approached home plate to take his next at bat.

He snapped his photo. I snapped mine.

Seconds later, Pujols swung his bat. The baseball soared over the outfield wall.

We cheered, hollered, and high fived.

In that moment, I thought of the generations of baseball fans who’ve come and gone. They’ve attended games with their dads and moms, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, cousins and neighbors, and husbands and wives.

To root for their favorite players. To cheer for their teams. To spend their money in the bleachers and grandstands on steamy Midwestern days and hot desert nights.

Remarkably, win or lose, we fans keep coming back to remember the past and celebrate the present.

And, on the best of those days, we’re lucky when we catch lightning in a bottle, see a little history in the making, and get a glimpse of greatness.

Dad and Me

Though he has been gone since 1993–taken by a second heart attack a week before his eightieth birthday–my dad still appears in fading photos on the walls and shelves of my Scottsdale condo … and in memories I carry.

In July 1959, I celebrated my second birthday with Dad in the basement of our suburban St. Louis home.

Like an earnest anthropologist combing for clues, I’ve kept Walter Johnson’s history and story–his highs and lows–alive. He lingers on the pages of all four of my books. The journalist and the son in me believe I’ve done right by him.

In spite of his traumas (World War II shellshock, bipolar rants, and heartache), I’ve long ago put Walter’s pain to rest. It no longer consumes me in my sixties.

It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.

I don’t think I’ve ever uttered or written the following sentence, but it’s time I did: I have never doubted my father’s love for me.

I certainly see and feel it in his eyes in this (now vintage) photograph my mother captured of Dad and me.

More than six decades later–in these desert-dwelling days I never imagined in my Midwestern life–I link the joyous and boundless expression on Dad’s face with a keepsake Tom and I wrapped carefully and brought with us in the backseat of our Hyundai Sonata when we came west in 2017.

It’s an electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign, which Walter the salesman salvaged from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.

What follows is an excerpt from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, which I published in early 2021.

***

In the early 60s before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement. Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs in Missouri. Then later, it danced on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of our suburban Chicago home.

Strangely, the wheel disengaged in 2017–somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona as I mended from a heart attack on the passenger side.

I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.

Bob called two days later to say the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him. I thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home and found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale.

I plugged in the sign and turned on the switch. The light-and-color wheel twirled. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced, just as Walter had

***

It comforts me to know that on Father’s Day–or any day–I can flip the switch in one simple motion. I can reignite the love I still feel for my father and remember his best intentions.

In an instant, I can remind myself that Dad is with me on my journey.

Georgia on My Mind

I have Georgia on my mind today. Not the Peach Tree state, but my peach-ice-cream-loving grandmother. April 7 would have been my maternal grandma’s 119th birthday.

Warm-hearted and hard-working, Georgia lived most of her seventy-one years in North Carolina.

In 1914, Georgia Evabell Miller met Sherrell Richardson (S.R.) Ferrell. Both attended a one-room school in Mecklenburg County. Six years later, they married at Georgia’s home in the same community. She was sixteen; he was nineteen.

A generation before I appeared, Georgia’s ordinary rural existence–tending to family, home, meals, and livestock–took an extraordinary toll on her body and emotional wellbeing. She bore four children: Helen (my mother) and Richard in the mid 1920s; James and Frances in the early 1930s.

In between, Georgia suffered a double whammy of grief and pain. Richard died of meningitis in 1926 one month before his first birthday. Not long after, cervical cancer compounded Georgia’s trauma. She was bedridden for an extended period. Helen grew up quickly and helped care for her mother.

Even with Georgia’s burden and her heavy body that contributed to arthritic knees and misshapen feet, my grandma maintained a girlish southern giggle into her late fifties and beyond.

In the summer of ’62, during one of our family visits to the farm, I absorbed the scene like a ready sponge as she prepared ham, grits, and biscuits for breakfast.

I loved Georgia and her jolly nature. As she toiled and told rambling stories over the sink, rolls of laughter shook her stout body. If she were here, she would describe it as the “gift of gab” handed down through her Irish descent.

Intermittently, she tossed table scraps and leftovers into a slop bucket for a trio of hungry hogs that waited impatiently in their pen.

On occasion, I accompanied her whenever the contents came close to sloshing over the sides of the dented metal pail. Together we squealed as the pigs poked their large snouts through wooden slats to explore what concoction was on the menu.

Like a southern-stitched patchwork quilt handed down through the generations to keep them warm, this moment remains cordoned off in my 1960s Carolina consciousness. It lives next door to Georgia’s humid hugs.

When I was a toddler, I begged for her to scoop me into the lap of her tattered periwinkle dress … churn butter or crank ice cream on the sagging back porch … venture into the earthen cellar where she stored pickled fruits and vegetables … or gather eggs from the chicken coup and cradle them in her apron on the return trip.

A victim of heart disease and decades of early mornings and long days working the farm, Georgia died nearly forty-eight years ago on July 4, 1974.

Two days later (after we drove through the night from St. Louis to attend her funeral), sprays of gladiolas surrounded her casket.

I can still envision the tacky floral arrangement–sent by a neighbor–with a plastic telephone teetering on top. Three words were written in ribbon: “God has called.” Ironically, my grieving grandpa loved it most.

Through our tears, Frances and I laughed about it. Georgia would have liked that and the image of my aunt and me consoling each other on my seventeenth birthday. We stood over her fresh grave in Huntersville, North Carolina, at a little cemetery outside Asbury United Methodist Church.

It was the center of the universe in “Ferrelltown”–where my southern family worshipped, married, gathered as a community, celebrated birthdays, consumed countless cakes and delectable pies, buried the beloved, and grieved for those who left early and stayed late.

***

Years later, it is the thought of Georgia’s gentility and kindness that endures. It is the love and laughter she planted in my heart that will never die.

As I began to write From Fertile Ground after my mother died–and later when I returned from North Carolina after another round of consoling with Frances and visit to my grandparents’ graves in the church yard–Annie Lennox’ soaring voice from her CD Nostalgia inspired me.

It was her stirring, melancholy rendition of the Ray Charles’ classic Georgia on My Mind that captivated me most. Listening to it, I channeled my grief and reconstructed my southern memories before they landed on the pages of my book.

Every child should be so lucky to spend a few weeks every other summer with a grandparent who simply smothers them with goodness and genuine love. That and the bucolic snippets of a farm populated with kittens, puppies, cows, chickens, pigs, and peacocks are forever stitched in my psyche.

When you add them all up, what do all these vivid memories mean? That in the course of any life, it is the collective music of a simple-but-extraordinary grandma’s unconditional love that keeps us hoping, that keeps us dreaming, that keeps us living, that keeps us singing.

Long after she is gone.

***

I said Georgia
Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines
.

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you
.

I said Georgia
Oh Georgia, no peace I find
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia at age fifty-three on the steps of my parents’ apartment during a rare visit to St. Louis in 1956. About a decade later, she and S.R. enjoyed the company of six of their seven grandchildren in rural NC.

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.

The Hopeful Realist

On the spectrum of optimism to pessimism, my attitudes on a given day place me somewhere in the middle near realism. Though, generally, I maintain an air of hopefulness.

For illustration purposes, I don’t think the world will end tomorrow or the next day, but I do think we have lots of problems to solve. Currently, the pandemic and global warming are chief among them.

Beyond that, the gun violence in this country is insane. (Incidentally, I would mandate that every American see the movie Mass. Released in October 2021, Tom and I watched it last night. It is the most riveting and emotionally honest film I’ve seen in the past year.)

In April 2021, the CDC reported this sobering statistic. For a child born in the United States in 2021, the average life expectancy is 77.8 years. That’s a decline of a full year from 2019 when the life expectancy was 78.8 years. The realist in me says we’re heading in the wrong direction.

For a male born in 1957 (that’s me), the life expectancy is 66.4 years. That’s a daunting number when I consider that I am now 64.5 years. However, the fact that I’ve made it this far (I’m no actuary) and don’t take undo risks (I’m fully vaccinated and boosted and buckle my seat belt), puts me in a position to make it another twenty or so.

Family history tells me that too. My father lived to be nearly 80; my mother almost 90. Plus, I don’t smoke and drink very little. Since surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I’ve dropped twenty-five pounds and kept it off. I’m fit and committed to a regular exercise regimen that keeps me strong.

Of course, life isn’t predictable really. It’s a sound philosophy and practice to live each day–each moment–as it comes. Yoga, meditation, and a raging pandemic have taught me that.

I spoke with Frances on January 2. She is my mother’s sister and the only remaining relative from either side of my family from the Silent Generation (those born from 1928 to 1945).

Born January 1, 1932 (the first baby in the new year in High Point, North Carolina), Frances turned 90 earlier this week. I called to wish her a happy birthday belatedly. She and husband Paul, also in his nineties, live in Davidson, North Carolina.

Frances is or was the spunky-and-opinionated adventurer in my mother’s family. I’ve always felt a special bond with her. I admire her zest for life. In 2015, I flew to the Tar Heel State to spend a little time with my worldly southern aunt.

The experience helped me heal after my mother’s death in 2013 and finish my first book, From Fertile Ground. I know visiting with me helped Frances too. She loved her older sister, who moved away as a young woman to create a life in the Midwest. Being together gave both of us a chance to complete the circle of our loved one’s life.

The sad truth is Frances is frail and forgetful now. I could hear it in her voice last Sunday. She’s far less sharp, though I’m certain she knew the voice on the other end of the phone line was me. Our conversation was brief and pleasant.

I recall Frances telling me in 2015 that she wanted to live to be 100. I’m doubtful she’ll survive ten more years. Even the infallible Betty White fell a few weeks short of the centenarian status most of us expected she would achieve.

At 90, Frances suffers from dementia. After the phone call, Lu–one of her daughters-in-law–confirmed it for me via text. I wasn’t surprised to receive this news, but knowing it prompted me to feel sad and reflective. My mother lived with cognitive impairment during her final few years.

Lu told me Frances doesn’t remember what happened the previous day. For instance, she doesn’t recall receiving the card and birthday gift I sent, though the United States Postal Service tracking system tells me it arrived safely at her home before Christmas.

At any rate, I’m grateful for the moments I shared on the phone with Frances. “I’m feeling pretty well,” she told me with a familiar lilt in her voice. “My husband looks after me.”

“I’ve always loved you, Aunt Frances,” I said with a hitch in my affirmation. “I’m a day late calling you, but I wanted you to know I was thinking of you on your birthday.”

Frances sputtered in her response. “You mean so much to me, honey.” Though she never mentioned my name during our conversation, the hopeful realist in me thinks she knew it was Mark, the writer.

Somewhere in her past or present existence, I want to believe she remembers that I am her sensitive gay nephew. The one with two grown sons and a husband. The one who survived a heart attack. The one who recounts stories about the people he loves.