Category: Grief

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 Reckoning

Kirk and I talked this morning. Every few weeks–usually on Sunday mornings–we connect via phone.

My thirty-three-year-old son is a kind counselor, who lives in Chicago. He lives a full, demanding life. He has navigated the Covid years on his own. I continue to do my best to bolster him from afar.

I always look forward to our conversations. Kirk tells me what’s happening in his world. I tell him what’s happening in mine. He’s planning a trip to Portugal at the end of March with a friend. The trip has been postponed twice due to the global pandemic. We both hope the third time is the charm.

Kirk is the adventurer in our family. He volunteered with the Peace Corps–taught English to children in Vanuatu on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific–in 2014 and 2015. He hasn’t traveled abroad since then due to Covid and career demands.

I admire Kirk’s sense of wonder. He told me he’s missed the opportunity to explore new worlds; to get lost in unfamiliar cultures. I could hear the loss in his voice.

While news of the war in Ukraine rages on, and we global citizens are catapulted into the uncertainty of another international drama, I think it’s likely that many will deny or try to forget the pain of the past two years. But we can’t and we shouldn’t.

At the very least, each of us must have a personal reckoning to account for the pain, anxiety, disruption, and multitude of losses. This is something I’ve contemplated for a while. This weekend it has surfaced more clearly.

During my conversation with Kirk, I recounted my Saturday with Tom. I told him I sang with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus pals at the Melrose Street Fair. It’s a lively community event in Phoenix that has gone missing for two years–for obvious reasons.

As I stood on the stage yesterday on a partly sunny and breezy morning–with Tom and a group of our close friends watching and listening–the last two years came flooding back.

Why? Because our chorus performed at the same event two years ago. It was right before the world stopped spinning and we all retreated. I will always remember the pain of that. None of us knew the magnitude and length of the tidal wave of fear and uncertainty that was coming. Somehow, we endured.

Yesterday’s moment was one to embrace and celebrate. Like a long, lost friend missing in action, the world felt suddenly alive as we sang. I wasn’t sure when or if I would feel that free again. But I did.

As I retold this story to Kirk on the phone, my tears appeared out of nowhere. The full emotion of Saturday’s reawakening arrived on Sunday morning with my younger son listening attentively seventeen hundred miles away.

Though it wasn’t in person, I am thankful that Kirk and I had a few moments of reckoning together. Like all of us who have lived through the darkness, we have earned the time and space to reflect and process all of the madness.

I hope my son is able to re-ignite his passion for travel in Portugal and find a little solace … maybe even realize a dream in an unfamiliar place in late March.

Ironic or not, one of the songs our chorus sang yesterday was Come Alive from The Greatest Showman. Let the lyrics wash over you and rekindle your best instincts. We have all earned the reckoning.

***

And the world becomes a fantasy, and you’re more than you could ever be,

’cause you’re dreamin’ with your eyes wide open.

And you know you can’t go back again to the world that you were livin’ in,

’cause you’re dreamin’ with your eyes wide open.

So come alive!

Tom captured this moment as the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus prepared to perform at the Melrose Street Fair on March 5, 2022.

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 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.

Egg Custard Pie: A Holiday Favorite

If you follow my blog, you know that–in addition to being a writer–I am the baker in our family. One of my favorite desserts for the holidays is egg custard pie.

If you’re looking for a simple-to-bake-and-creamy pie recipe, this one is a keeper. It definitely qualifies as comfort food at a time in the world when we could all use a heaping helping of that.

This recipe was passed to me via the southern branch of my family tree … from my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Martha Jane Matilda Simpson Miller. She lived in rural Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in the early 1900s.

* * *

Ingredients: 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 stick butter, 4 large eggs, 3 tablespoons flour, 1 2/3 cups milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Directions: Cream sugar and butter until light. Beat eggs and add to sugar/butter mixture. Add flour and beat until smooth. Add vanilla to milk. Mix milk into other ingredients gradually until smooth. Pour into an unbaked pie crust (deep dish) and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until custard is set and crust is brown. (The original recipe didn’t call for cinnamon, but I like it. If you do too, sprinkle the pie liberally before you place it in the oven.)

***

Incidentally, this egg custard pie recipe also appears in From Fertile Ground, my first book. which I wrote and published in 2016. It’s not a cookbook, but a memoir about love, loss, and grief … and the healing power of the written word across three generations of my family. If you haven’t read it, I hope you’ll check it out.

Most important, as 2021 comes to a close, I wish you good health. As we continue to endure this global health crisis, I encourage you to find comfort in your creative passions in 2022.

Turning Stuff into Wisdom

I’ve learned a lot in my sixty-four-plus years. Sometimes it feels like my brain is a swirling repository of “stuff” … data and memories.

On other days, it feels like I’ve found meaningful ways to synthesize my life experiences and relationships. Then–voila–I discover they have morphed magically into wisdom.

I’m not sure exactly when this wisdom thing began to kick into high gear, but probably in my fifties after my mother died. Then, certainly again at sixty when I suffered a mild heart attack. In both cases, I had to find my way back to the surface to breathe again and survive the depths of despair.

Most definitely, it is the challenging aspects of life–loss, fear, anxiety, discrimination–that prompt me to more forcefully explore, verbalize and share my opinions and feelings … not the happier, even moments.

I’ve been thinking about this because I have a few friends/relations who are dealing with difficult stuff. One is grieving the loss of a significant loving relationship while trying to find his way in a new job; the others are navigating the precipitous physical decline of two frail parents.

In both situations, I am there to provide empathy and support. I imagine these individuals feel as if they are lost in a dense forest without a compass. Yet, I suspect, the clouds will lift eventually. On no particular schedule, light will begin to filter through. Hope will reappear.

One day, the internalized aspects of loss and pain will spring from the ground like crocuses emerging from the frozen ground of winter. And, a new batch of wisdom will be born and saved for the next difficult encounter of life.

Pie and Pottery

My husband is an excellent cook. In a given two-week period, he gladly prepares chicken, tilapia, salmon, cod, turkey meatloaf (along with potatoes, Brussels sprouts, green beans) and pasta of every kind. I am thankful for him and all the things he does for us.

What is my contribution? I am the baker in our family. I concoct corn bread, blueberry muffins, chocolate chip cookies and the like. Oh, and on special occasions, I prepare and bake pies.

Our two deep dish favorites are egg custard (a silky treat handed down from my southern/maternal family) and Dutch apple (a recipe I found online several years ago). The latter has become our go-to dessert for Thanksgiving.

More than cake or cookies, I think the smell of pie baking in the oven will always cue my emotions and provide deep dish comfort. That first and last forkful of crumbly goodness with a cup of coffee won’t hurt either.

Anyway, this morning I stood over the kitchen sink and sliced eight Granny Smith apples for this year’s pie filling. Over the years, I’ve discovered the tartness of Granny Smiths make them ideal for baking.

That piece of wisdom came from my mother. So, naturally, I thought of her as I prepared a pie for Tom and me. It doesn’t matter that my mother has been gone for nearly nine years. Her influence in my life endures.

During the last four years of Helen Johnson’s life, she lived at Brighton Gardens, an assisted living facility in Wheaton, Illinois. My mother loved to bake and glaze ceramic pottery in a class there.

For her last Thanksgiving–2012–our family gathered a few weeks early in a community room at Brighton Gardens to celebrate the holiday together. Mom was in hospice at that point and declining rapidly, so that seemed like the safe thing to do at the time.

Meanwhile, back down the hall in her empty apartment, I can still imagine the shelves and tables of her room lined with family photos and a dozen or more of her prized pieces of homemade pottery.

Remarkably, my mother lived two more months. After she passed, my sister Diane and I held a memorial in early February for her. We brought many of the pieces of pottery with us to the funeral home and placed them on tables around the room.

When family and close friends departed after the service that night, we asked that they choose a piece of her art and take it with them.

Today, I still have at least a half dozen of Mom’s fired-and-glazed pottery from her Brighton Gardens days in our two-bedroom home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

At Thanksgiving every year, I bring out this ceramic turkey-shaped napkin holder she made. It is inscribed with her name “Helen J.” brushed on the bottom.

It’s stationed on our Thanksgiving table … next to my delectable, deep dish Dutch apple pie … ready to create a new batch of memories for Tom and me on Thanksgiving Day 2021 in our Arizona home.

What Is Remembered Lives

Long after the most cherished and meaningful moments pass, our memories–good, bad, vivid, and foggy–endure like saguaro cacti dotting the terrain of our vast consciousness.

***

Over the weekend, the lone survivor of my mother’s prized African violet plants died. Tom and I discovered it withered on the window sill of our Scottsdale condo. I supposed it succumbed to the heat of the desert’s afternoon sun.

I’ve chronicled the journey and symbolism of Mom’s African violets before–here and in two of my books: From Fertile Ground and An Unobstructed View.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom when she moved north to be closer to my sister Diane and me in 2004.

When Mom died in January 2013, Diane divided up the remaining African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

For the next four years, my cuttings flourished in our Mount Prospect, Illinois home. In early July 2017, Tom and I wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. We brought them west from Illinois to our new home in Arizona.

On the road, after I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis and couldn’t lift anything for a few weeks, I remember my husband carrying the African violets between our car and hotel rooms in Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico to protect them from fluctuating temperatures overnight. It’s a memory I will always treasure.

When we arrived in Scottsdale on July 12, 2017, Tom and I deposited the plants on our southern-facing window sill. The pink African violet lived two more years before petering out in 2019. Now the purple one is gone too. It last bloomed ten months ago in January 2021 … eight years after Helen Johnson’s passing.

Of course, I feel a twinge or two of sadness. This marks the end of a long, circuitous chapter, connecting my present life to the past memories of my nature-loving mother.

But, at this point (four-plus years in my Arizona home), Tom and I feel rooted in the desert. We have chosen and nurtured plants that embellish our life in this warm, dry place: bougainvillea, desert roses, succulents, even a bird of paradise.

To be sure, though their physical evidence is gone, the stories of the traveling African violets and the memories of their captivating blooms will be with me as I hike the rises and falls of the Sonoran Desert with Tom.

What is remembered lives.

Antidote for Grief

Grief is an insidious and universal human condition. When you love someone–and they leave or die–you need something to fill the space they’ve left behind. Grief enters to fill the void.

If you are in the midst of grieving (as I was in 2013 and 2014 after my mother passed away), it may feel as if you are wandering through a deep fog. Or you might wonder if you are chained to the floor in the middle of an empty room with water pouring in over all four walls and seeping through the floor boards.

That’s how grief can manifest itself, but for each of us the path is different. The loss lightens over the years. Still, we carry it wherever we go. It becomes an extension of us, ingrained in our identities.

In 2014 and 2015, I saved myself from drowning in grief by writing about it. My mother and grandfather helped immensely. They left behind a trail of their thoughts and experiences on paper … in the form of a mountain of letters from Helen (my resilient mother) and diaries from S.R. (my farming grandfather).

After my mother’s demise, reading her handwritten and wisdom-filled memories and her dad’s more stark observations prompted me to tell all three of our stories in one book. From Fertile Ground became my salvation. Yes, in 2015 it consumed me, but it also gave me renewed creative purpose and focus after I left my corporate job.

When I finished and published the book in 2016, I felt it was a story that would alleviate pain for grief-stricken souls. Five years later, I still feel that way. It helps me to revisit my book and my grief from time to time. Readers have taken the time to write reviews like this one online.

“From Fertile Ground” is more than just a terrific read. Johnson is generous in taking the reader into his world, his journey, his family, his emotions. In so doing, the reader obtains a soothing sense of identification of the human condition, particularly how we work through grief and loss. Johnson’s mother’s and grandfather’s letters are interspersed throughout the narrative (and connected) which adds to the reassuring sense of a collective history.

We live in a complicated world. Many of us are suffering through the side effects of loss and searching for answers. It gives me joy knowing that my book is a creative balm for many, possibly even an antidote for grief.

Through October 14, download From Fertile Ground for just 99 cents. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01DCUQR4C/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3. (The price of my book is reduced in the United Kingdom during that same period.) If you prefer a paperback, it’s available in that form too.

At any rate, as the days grow shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, I hope this personal and universal three-generation story inspires you and brightens your world … no matter who you’ve loved and lost, no matter where you live.

From Fertile Ground is a three-generation memoir and writer’s mosaic of love and loss. Published in 2016, it examines the implications of grief and our quest to make sense of our past so that we can find our path and move ahead.