Category: Family History

They Pitch Horseshoes, Don’t They?

Late yesterday afternoon–a mid-April throwback Monday squeezed in before the Sonoran heat arrives in full force–I met John and Len, my full-time, sixty-something friends and part-time Polynesian Paradise neighbors, at the north edge of our community. We played horseshoes.

Two sandy, part-sun-part-shade horseshoe pits (spaced about fifty feet apart) have existed in our condo complex since the early 1960s. In 2021, residents and guests seldom use them. It’s more common for folks to walk by and not think twice about the horseshoe pits and their history on the way to their mailboxes.

That didn’t stop John, Len, and me from reclaiming the space and recapturing a practice that our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed more frequently in the twentieth century. The primitive, low-stress gaming experience was just my speed: slow, nostalgic and gentlemanly. It was a light-hearted, jovial hour of tossing, joking, clinking, clanking, and male bonding. (By the way, John won on Monday. He came from behind with a well-tossed ringer. Len and I will survive. We will live to throw horseshoes another day.)

Anyway, the activity rekindled a memory I wrote about and published in 2017 in a story titled They Pitch Horseshoes, Don’t They? from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri recollections from the 1960s and 70s. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

What follows are excerpts. The setting? Babler State Park and the rolling rural countryside thirty miles west of St. Louis in October 1961. While the men were throwing horseshoes that day, I discovered a primitive-and-glassy nirvana: marbles.

***

Clink clank clink. Clink clank clink. It was the sound of metal on metal. The men in our family–Dad, Uncle Ralph and Uncle Harry–were hammering stakes into two sand pits about fifty feet apart. They sure do like to fling horseshoes, don’t they, I thought. Within minutes, they were tossing the U-shaped irons from one end to the other, hoping to catch the right angle and rack up a ringer …

On this particular occasion, while the women in our family unfurled the tablecloth and unpacked the meat for grilling, and the men settled into their game and passed cold bottles of Falstaff between throws, I wandered down a path to investigate the picnic area. That’s when I found a vacant campsite nearby and an abandoned plastic bag of multi-colored glass marbles wedged into a gap between the flat rocks of a stone bench.

In my visual memory, this was a To Kill a Mockingbird moment. You know, like when Jem and Scout found Boo Radley’s toys and trinkets buried in the trunk of a big ole tree. In hindsight, I suppose Boo had nothing to do with my glassy discovery. Another child had simply and accidentally lost his or her marbles. For some period of minutes, hours, days or weeks, these multi-faceted marbles were no one’s. They were lost in an unassigned gaming galaxy. But in the universe of fair play, it was Finders Keepers. This treasure was mine …

When I pulled Dad away from his pitching and showed him what I had found, his smiled doubled instantly. It felt like we had discovered a whole new language mined from an archeological dig … In a flash, Dad and my uncles suspended their horseshoe tossing, reverted to their childhoods, and surrounded me with explanations and names for the different marbles–many of them laced with swirls of colorful strands …

Marbles became my forever home of circular undisrupted creative possibilities. After our 1961 picnic was over and the sun began to set, we snuffed out the campfire, folded up the red gingham tablecloth, and packed away our picnic basket. I stepped up into the back seat of our Plymouth with my new marbles in tow.

Over the coming weeks and months, Dad pitched more horseshoes at the farm of Ed and Ollie Puetz near Gray Summit, Missouri, where we picnicked with family and friends and I watched the men drink another round of brews and play the game they loved.

Meanwhile, I added marbles to my glassy collection: aggies (made of agate) swirling with various ribbon patterns inside, tigers (clear with orange-yellow stripes), opaques (milky green, blue, and gray marbles) and cat’s eyes (they look like what they sound like).

All of my marbles became a creative extension of me. I played my instant-game-in-a-bag any time and any place–mostly at home on our basement floor on ordinary rainy days after kindergarten. All I had to do was obey one rule: “Mark, don’t leave your marbles in the middle of the floor.”

Metamorphosis

This week marks five years since I completed and published my first book, From Fertile Ground. In celebration of the anniversary of my entry into this literary life, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from March 24 through 28. What follows is the story of what brought me to this moment. If you are an aspiring writer, I hope reading this will provide a little added encouragement.

***

If you look and listen closely—and breathe deeply—you will find spring stirring in the Sonoran Desert. Sweet and fragrant orange blossoms dance through the air. Lizards and ground squirrels reemerge to scamper and soak up the sun. A hummingbird darts and twitters in a Palo Verde tree. I imagine a lone loon, descending from a blue sky, is practicing for his pilot license. He receives clearance from nearby Sky Harbor Airport traffic control and lands with a graceful whoosh that ripples in the Crosscut Canal. A monarch butterfly flits and rests on a bud near the fence of the Desert Botanical Garden, pausing long enough for me to creep in for a closeup of nature’s transformation. 

This central Arizona winter-to-spring progression is a warmer, dryer, more gradual shift—a far cry from the flurry, upheaval, and calm of a midwestern lion-to-lamb experience I had been accustomed to for my first sixty years. Nonetheless, it is a March metamorphosis.

Five years ago, like a clumsy butterfly, I emerged from my own cocoon. At age fifty-eight, I launched my first book From Fertile Ground. I remember the anticipation and anxiety of March 24, 2016—the day my book emerged—as I moved from wannabe writer to published author.

I felt exhilaration. It was as if I were boarding a rollercoaster, gripping the bar tightly, grinning ear to ear, throwing my arms in the air, and shouting “Look over here” as my book entered the literary universe. Maybe I sound immodest, but it was and is such a thrill to have discovered this better-late-than-never renaissance.

Previously, as a busy single dad and on-the-go communication professional, the idea of writing on my own terms seemed like a faraway neverland of creative euphoria. But slowly, as I drifted from the gravitational force of my previous orbit, I felt the magnetic pull of an artistic life.

This literary life sprung from a personal void, molded from the fog of my grief after my mother died in January 2013. At that point, I was lost with plenty of tears, but without the language of emotion that normally came easily for me.

Fortunately, I was not alone on my journey. Thanks to the encouragement and support of my husband and a skilled therapist, I forged ahead, jotted notes in my diary, took a few nature photography classes, and slowly stepped away from a thirty-four-year advertising, PR, and consulting career. It had sustained my bank account and carried me through leans years of single fatherhood, but ultimately drained my energy and creativity.

Early on, after my corporate “retirement” there were moments of doubt and uncertainty to contend with. Even so, the more I wrote in my journal, the more I felt my voice begin to emerge. Within a few months, my writing and reading led me out of the darkness into the light.

A litany of wisdom-filled letters my mother sent me—along with a boxful of more than fifty years of diaries my grandfather left behind—spurred my creative impulses. I sequestered myself and perused them all. They spoke to me and my love of family, heritage, and history.

One day in 2014, as I turned the yellowing pages of my grandfather’s rural life—his spartan existence—an idea surfaced in my brain. It told me to weave a tale of three writers telling their stories across the generations, leaving behind a trail of their own words. In that moment, I found a new passion. From Fertile Ground was born. So was my life as an author. I prepared to emerge from my cocoon.

A year of daily soul-searching, writing and editing passed. In late 2015, I finished my manuscript. With the help of a friend, I found an editor and graphic designer—Anna and Sam—who came highly recommended. They both lived and worked in Nashville, Tennessee.

Instinctively, I liked hiring professionals with connections to the South, because much of my story shared a border with Tennessee to the east—in the rolling red earth of rural North Carolina. That is where my mother was born, where my grandparents owned a farm, and where my sister and I frolicked and spent parts of our summers in the 1960s.

Anna provided me with her recommended edits in January 2016. Following that, I collaborated with Sam. With my input, he created the cover for my book, designed the interior pages, formatted the text, and loaded it into the Amazon self-publishing software.

By late March 2016, I held the first copy of my book in hand. Friends and acquaintances began to send notes telling me they enjoyed reading my book and were moved by it. It was a joyous period in my life, far from the tears and fog that had preceded it just a few years before.

***

Five years have passed. I keep nurturing and practicing my passion for writing. It remains a priority in my life. I write a blog and have published three more books–Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, An Unobstructed View, and I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree–about the people and places that have influenced me.

I take long walks in the desert and collect photos to stir my imagination. I marvel at the beauty and continuity of nature that surrounds me. I give thanks for the gift of life in a warm and rugged place.

This metamorphosis continues.

The Texture of Our Lives

What have I missed most over the past year? The spontaneous moments that spring from nowhere. And, let’s face it, going nowhere pretty much describes what we have all experienced from last March to this one.

But, like the daffodils of March which I imagine are aching to bloom again in Illinois, the feeling of going nowhere is turning into the possibility of going somewhere as flickers of normalcy return.

My cousin Phyllis, who lives in Missouri, texted me a fun Happy St. Patrick’s Day message yesterday afternoon. It always brightens my day to hear from Phyllis. Her mother and my father were twins. We share lots of fond, long-ago, St. Louis memories.

Over the past nearly-four years, Phyllis and I have stayed in touch (via text mostly) since Tom and I last saw her and her family in person in St. Louis. Strangely, I suffered a heart attack in St. Louis the day after we dined with my cousin and her family. Tom and I were on our way west to our new home in Scottsdale when our entire world turned upside down.

Anyway, the texts back and forth between Phyllis and me are bursts of positive energy: wellness check-ins; holiday greetings; news and photos of her adorable granddaughters; snippets of stories about our beloved St. Louis Cardinals; exchanges about the weather in the St. Louis area and Scottsdale; and anecdotes about the latest developments in my writing universe. But, over the past four years, we have rarely spoken on the phone.

Yesterday, after our latest text exchange began, I decided to change things up a bit. I needed more. I needed to hear Phyllis’ voice. So I called her. We shared stories of our recent vaccinations and our grown sons. We laughed a little. We also complained about the state of the world that worries us. Our conversation felt deeper and more complete than the text exchanges. I realized after the fact how much I’ve been missing these kinds of conversations.

As all of us have retreated during twelve months of a global pandemic for our own protection, perhaps we have retreated too much. Perhaps, though we live in a world where we have the ability to text each other, we have created too much social distance between us and those we love. After all, we are human beings. We are social creatures. Even if we can’t touch each other, we need to feel as if we can. Our voices are instruments for making that happen.

A second example of me trying to recapture some spontaneity in my life happened this morning. I drove to Eldorado Pool for my morning swim. The pool was rather busy, but I spotted my friend Frank. He offered to share his lane. I thanked him and jumped in.

Before March 2020, Frank is someone I saw two or three times a week at the pool. We always traded random stories. This usually consisted of our favorite Scottsdale restaurants or our past lives on different trajectories in the Chicago area. Frank and I frequently connected on the fly in the stream of life. It was never planned. If it were, I think it would have felt less human, less important.

Of course, when our world shrank in 2020, there were no Frank-and-Mark encounters. When the pool was closed and the winter weather lingered longer than expected, that passing-friendship aspect of my life evaporated. Now that the weather is warming up, I expect to see Frank more regularly. We will share more of our foodie stories, pounds we need to relinquish from our pandemic doldrums, and the burgeoning construction activity in south Scottsdale that is growing up around us.

Yes, the thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 are the worst of all. But the little moments, which comprise the mosaic of our lives, have been missing for far too long.

While we continue to wear our masks and shout with joy at the realization that the pace of vaccinations is increasing rapidly, it’s time we paused, breathed deeply, and began to recapture the texture of our lives.

Grandfathering

Sherrell Richardson Ferrell, my maternal grandfather, posing at age fifteen or sixteen in 1916 or 1917.

In my previous life, working as a consultant in the human resources world, I often helped companies communicate with employees about changes to their benefit plans.

Inevitably, this included grandfathering certain groups of long-service employees–insulating them from the benefits changes that would affect newer employees only.

This story is not about benefits. But in a sense it is, because I think my grandfather–Sherrell Richardson (S.R.) Ferrell–benefitted the world like all bloggers do when we leave behind our words, impressions, and observations.

S.R. penned his spartan, daily diary entries for more than fifty-two years–1933 to 1985. I featured a few dozen of his diary entries in my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation writer’s mosaic about love and loss, which I wrote and published after my mother died.

Though S.R. scribbled all of his thoughts in long hand in tiny diaries and worked without a laptop or access to the internet, he lived like an early blogger extraordinaire–going about his rural North Carolina routine as a hosiery mill worker and later a farmer. At the end of each day, he recorded the minutia and magnificence of his days.

Evidence of S.R. Ferrell’s “blogging” life in the twentieth century and a sampling of more than fifty-two years of diaries he left behind.

Born on March 9, 1901, today would have been S.R.’s 120th birthday. In honor of my him (and the writing impulse that motivates and haunts all of us bloggers), my grandfather is my guest blogger today.

This is what S.R. Ferrell wrote fifty-nine years ago on a momentous Tuesday. It also appears as the opening to chapter two, Off Into Space, in From Fertile Ground.

Thank you for leaving behind a trail of your life, S.R., and Happy Birthday.

***

Tuesday, February 20, 1962

Watched Glenn’s capsule take off into space at 9:47 a.m. It made 3 trips around the earth at altitudes from 100 to 160 miles and the time for the three circuits was 4 hours 56 minutes and 26 seconds.

I went to Huntersville to send money order for insurance premium. Went to see Frances and boys. Fair. Cool. Ethel came by in afternoon. Martha Auten came to get turnip salad.

40 degree low. 59 degree high.

The Warmth of a Good Story

Our best and worst memories have a way of softening and sharpening as we age. Like photos pressed in the pages of a family scrapbook, some of them fade and crack. Others, through the lens of our selective memory, grow more brilliant.

I don’t know what it will feel like to look back on 2020 in ten or twenty years. But, as we work to survive the entirety of this preposterous year, I suspect our memories will follow the same unpredictable pattern.

On the morning of December 25, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and English muffins, my husband and I watched A Christmas Story.

Like many of you, I have seen this satirical and nostalgic film countless times. It’s one of my holiday favorites. The 1983 movie, directed by Bob Clark, is narrated by author Jean Shepherd and based on his stories of growing up in the Hammond, Indiana area (near Chicago) in the 1940s.

The writing is witty and the editing superb, but what I love most about the film (starring Melinda Dillon, Daren McGavin, and Peter Billingsley) is the sense of time and place it captures.

Like the endless scarves, hats, gloves, and buckled boots the kids wear to protect themselves from the cold and piles of snow, the film produces layer upon layer of lasting humor, warmth and comfort … told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. It is an exaggerated ode to a lost era in the United States. For all of these reasons, it is imminently watchable despite its constant availability.

In hindsight, warmth also was the feeling I intended to capture in my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, published in 2017. I wanted to leave behind a record of what it felt like to grow up in the hot St. Louis, Missouri suburbs in the 1960s and 70s.

It was an age when kids ran barefoot, chased ice cream trucks, played with marbles, watched dads toss horseshoes, cuddled with puppies in backyard pools, performed tricks for Halloween treats, banged pots and pans outside to celebrate New Years Eve, sucked on popsicles to beat the heat with the neighborhood kids on scorching summer afternoons, and (in my case, at the age of sixteen in 1974) learned to operator a rollercoaster.

This was my front porch (circa 1960) in Affton, Missouri: Jimmy; Marianne; Diane; Suzy; Carol; and me. My mother sealed the moment with the help of her Brownie camera. Now the image lives forever in my light-hearted book of Missouri memories.

It certainly was a more innocent time. But, as we grew, the world became more complicated. We watched and listened to Walter Cronkite. We believed everything he told us through our black-and-white TVs. That included images and stories of JFK’s assassination, the first steps on the moon, Watergate, and the raging Vietnam War.

At any rate, if you’re looking for a little warmth and nostalgia to get you through the winter, I have an antidote. Download a free copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator through the end of 2020.

As we prepare to cross into a new year and hope for brighter days ahead, maybe my stories of a bygone period in American life will inspire you to laugh a little, revisit your youth, dust-off your favorite memories, and find new meaning in the indelible moments that stay with you for a lifetime.

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.

Escaping the Labyrinth

It’s my sister’s birthday. Soon she will open the card and presents we sent her. I will call her later today to wish her well. To tell her I love her.

Like every relationship, ours has had its ebbs and flows. But Diane and I are the only ones left from our family of origin. The only ones who remember the best sounds of our St. Louis childhood–Dad slurping his breakfast beverages through the overflowing Coffee Hound cup we gave him or Mom sifting red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies shaped liked reindeer, candy canes, stars and Santas.

After our mother died in 2013, Diane and I each retreated into our individual darkness. We had worked together closely to care for her during her final years and months, but after Mom was gone I wasn’t sure we would escape the labyrinth of pain and grief or come out the other side whole. It wasn’t that I doubted our love, but we both had to find our personal paths to heal from the devastating loss.

For me that meant writing about it and sharing my observations in From Fertile Ground. Diane wasn’t keen on the idea. She preferred privacy. This difference between us–and the resulting grief-induced friction–was unexpected for me, but with time I realized I needed to respect my sister’s point of view. To this day, she rarely reads what I write.

In June of 2017, right before Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, Diane drove from her suburban Chicago home to visit with us on our backyard deck in Mount Prospect. I decided to give her the concrete birdbath that had been Mom’s, hoping it would remind her of the shared love we had for our nature-loving mother.

A few weeks later–on the way west–I landed in a St. Louis hospital after a heart attack. I called my sister to tell her what had happened. To hear her voice. To hear her love. That conversation was the turning point toward greater understanding.

In early September, Tom and I received a card from the American Heart Association in the mail. To acknowledge Tom’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, it told us Diane and Steve (my brother-in-law) had made a donation to the organization.

After I opened the card and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized Diane and I had escaped the labyrinth of grief. Our relationship had emerged on the other side of the shadows. There was light on the horizon.

Riding High in Gatlinburg

GatlinburgTN_August1970 (2)

In August of 1970, I felt I had lost my father. The trauma of his World War II emotional scars, heart disease and bi-polar diagnosis had consumed him. My thirteen-year-old self-consciousness and his fifty-six-year-old discontent didn’t know what to make of each other.

It seemed like the only thing Walter and I shared was our love for the St. Louis Cardinals. Muggy but mighty moments together in the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium. Watching Bob Gibson dazzle and dominate National League hitters in the sixties, while Lou Brock stole bases and our hearts.

But beyond baseball, the schism between my father and me was more than a “generation gap” (a phrase you never hear any more). It felt as if a grand canyon–a dark and sinister abyss nothing like the Arizona wonder four hours north of me by car in my sixties–existed between us.

As Dad pursued my love, validation and respect, I withdrew further into the fear and anxiety of my crowded teenage closet. My sister and mother felt the weight of Dad’s unhappiness and family drama too.

Yet, fifty years ago with Walter behind the wheel of our boxy Chevy Biscayne, the Johnson family from the St. Louis suburbs (Walter, Helen, Diane and Mark) threw caution to the wind and set sail on a summer vacation.

Our destination? Huntersville, North Carolina–seventeen miles north of Charlotte–where we would spend a week with my mother’s family on the rocky-but-fertile ground of my grandparents’ farm in the Tar Heel State.

Past the midpoint of our journey, we drove up and around the hairpin curves of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Dad guided our clunky sedan into town, where we were welcomed by the grits and glitz of Gatlinburg.

Spontaneously, soon after we parked, we decided to board a ski lift (technically, the Gatlinburg Skylift) into the August mist. Mom and Diane boarded first. Dad and I trailed behind, climbing over the tall trees shrouding Crockett Mountain. I don’t remember much more about the day. Only that it felt as if the four of us had escaped our troubles into the clouds of Tennessee for a few hours.

More than five decades have passed. Since 2017, I’ve more closely identified with my father and his plight, because of my advancing age and our shared mild heart attack experiences separated by fifty-five years.

The grief for Dad has felt more palpable to me in the past three weeks, because the baseball team we loved and cheered for in the humidity of St. Louis summers–the team I still love today–has suffered through a COVID-19 outbreak; to date ten players and eight staff members of the St. Louis Cardinals have tested positive for the virus.

When the outbreak first appeared in late July, the team quarantined in a Milwaukee hotel for several days before heading back to St. Louis to live in isolation in early August, like so many ordinary citizens in a country consumed by viral hot spots.

During that time, the other twenty-nine Major League Baseball teams played on. But the St. Louis Cardinals sequestered themselves for more than two weeks, hoping for a string of several consecutive days of negative testing, which would clear them to resume their season on the field.

As the Cardinals season went dormant, I felt depressed. A portion of my past and present life had been pealed away and thrown in the dumpster. It was as if the last remnant of the troubled father I loved (a man who fought for his country and died in 1993) had been stripped away and laid to rest. His team. My team. Our team had become another COVID-19 casualty.

Finally, the fog–like a Gatlinburg mist–has begun to lift. This morning Diane sent me a text from her suburban Chicago home. “Cards driving forty rental cars via I-55 to Chicago … Playing fifty-plus games in forty days. Hope you’re feeling better. Love you!”

Indeed, on Friday, August 14 the St. Louis Cardinals are driving in separate cars from St. Louis to Chicago to resume their baseball season on Saturday. After a seventeen-day hiatus, Dad’s, Diane’s and my redbirds will resume their baseball season on August 15. They will play a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox and a third game on Sunday, before a five-game set (including two more doubleheaders) against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Cardinals will begin the long climb back with a new batch of young players from their farm system on their roster and a veteran, big-game pitcher–thirty-eight-year-old Adam Wainwright–on the mound. He’ll start Game One in the Windy City.

If the Cardinals are able to finish their season, they will complete fifty-five contests in the following forty-four days. It will require a herculean effort by a team with a rich history. Eleven World Series championships, more than any other National League franchise.

No matter how this version of the Cardinals perform, I feel the tide of hope returning. Seeing them back on the baseball diamond will feel like a victory. Plus, Diane and I will still have each other, our bittersweet memories of family vacations, and a string of glorious years to recall cheering with Dad for Gibson, Brock and the Cardinals.

Now, our 2020 team is about to take the field to restore a little of sanity to our world. As they do, I have the memory of Dad and me side-by-side on a yellow chairlift. Him with his trusty Daily Word magazine of inspirational thoughts tucked in his shirt pocket. Me smiling, but brimming with worry as I gripped the lap bar tightly.

In spite of our differences then, Dad and I had much more in common beyond baseball in 1970 than I knew or ever imagined. Together, we were fighting for survival. Riding high in Gatlinburg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.