Category: Love

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.

Sixty-Five Thoughts

I haven’t been agonizing about my milestone birthday–coming soon on July 6. But I am hyper-aware of the significance of turning sixty-five times two. (My husband and I were born on the same day in 1957, just thirteen hours and three hundred miles apart).

Sixty-five is both an age to celebrate–thanks to my new Medicare coverage I now pay nothing to refill my cholesterol medication–and a number to face with some trepidation.

Certainly, there is wisdom that comes with this station in life. That–and the daily company of my best friend–are the best parts of finishing another lap around the track.

In that spirit, on Independence Day 2022, I’ve assembled this random list of sixty-five thoughts … observations/reflections from the first six and a half decades of my life that came to me today as I walked the treadmill at the gym.

These items may or may not have significance or meaning for you. Either way, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I’ve learned so far about this rollercoaster existence that is the human condition.

***

#1: I am certain that love and loss are close cousins.

#2: Travel broadens the mind and gives me greater perspective about my place in the world.

#3: I am more inclined to connect with spiritual souls than those with specific religious beliefs.

#4: A good therapist is always worth the money.

#5: It takes time for most of us to find our way.

#6: Once I began to really love myself, I found greater peace.

#7: Save whatever money you can. It will ease your plight later in life.

#8: Each of us is more valuable than whatever salary we earn.

#9: Listen to your inner voice. It’s seldom wrong.

#10: A good cry is both cleansing and necessary at times.

#11: Get enough sleep. It rejuvenates the mind, body, and soul.

#12: We all need a home … a safe place away from the storm.

#13: See a doctor asap if you don’t feel right.

#14: “I’m sorry” are two powerful and underused words.

#15: In spite of their troubles, both of my parents loved my sister and me with all of their hearts.

In 1972, Dad, Mom, and Diane joined me on the St. Louis riverfront to celebrate my fifteenth birthday.

#16: On the other hand, family isn’t necessarily defined by where you came from. Sometimes it’s what you create with friends later in life that carries you forward.

#17: Depression is a real and frightening thing. Get help if you need it.

#18: Whenever I’ve shared my true feelings, I’ve built greater trust.

#19: Animals and nature soften the blow of life and make it sweeter.

#20: Tenderness and honesty are very sexy.

#21: Music — and singing — soothes and inspires my creativity.

#22: Children need love, guidance, and structure.

#23: Learning is a life-long odyssey.

#24: I was always meant to be a writer.

#25: A phone call with a dear friend can make everything better.

#26: Don’t give up on yourself. Sometimes the best advice is to simply get through the day.

#27: Divorce is a shattering personal experience.

#28: The best relationships provide you with enough room to learn and grow.

#29: The end of something is also the beginning of something.

#30: Humor and laughter are contagious and underrated.

#31: When you really open your eyes, you see beauty and serendipity in unusual places.

#32: College or a trade school education is essential to build a solid foundation.

#33: Flowers make me smile and brighten my world.

#34: Life is an open road of possibilities. Driving places can be great therapy.

#35: We all deserve love.

#36: Swimming keeps me happy and healthy.

#37: You need a good dermatologist when you live in Arizona.

#38: I love the warmth and solitude of the Sonoran Desert, but I’ll always be a Midwestern boy at heart.

#39: While math and technology confuse me, words and ideas light my fire.

#40: Ice cream always makes life better.

#41: Personal wealth isn’t defined by the amount in your bank account.

#42: I knew my husband was special right away. He has kind blue eyes.

#43: I have always loved being a dad … and I’m good at it. I’m a nurturer and cheerleader.

#44: My sons have added a dimension to my life that grows with each passing year.

#45: My mother was incredibly wise. She wrote detailed and encouraging letters to family, neighbors, and friends alike. My love of gardening came from her.

#46: My father’s enthusiasm carried me to parades and ballgames that brought me joy. Despite his personal pain, I now see the full measure of his best intentions.

#47: There is nothing wrong with sentiment. You need a dose or two of it to write a good memoir.

#48: I still miss the dogs of my past lives: Happy, Terri, Candy, Scooby-Doo, and especially Maggie.

#49: Being gay is a gift, not a liability. Being different has sharpened my empathy.

#50: I’m inclined to think 65 is the new 50 … at least I hope it is!

#51: I love holding hands with my husband in a movie theatre.

#52: The truth matters. That lesson applies to children and adults.

#53: The current state of our country–especially the violence–worries me.

#54: My heart is stronger than I realized.

#55: Nothing lasts forever, but I want to believe it will.

#56: I am passionate and loyal … to those I love and those who love me.

#57: I’ll admit it. A St. Louis Cardinals win (or loss) can change the course of my day.

#58: I will always cherish the time I spent with my grandparents on their North Carolina farm.

#59: I was a committed employee in every job I ever had … and a damn good rollercoaster operator.

#60: I still keep the National Park Service uniform and hat I wore when I worked at the Gateway Arch.

#61: I still can’t believe I’ve written and published four books. Do I have another one or two in me?

#62: I love the meditative aspects of yoga … and recommend it to all heart attack survivors.

#63: At this stage of life, I look younger with shorter hair.

#64: Aging isn’t so bad most days, as long as I keep moving.

#65: I am thankful for the constant love and companionship of Tom, my husband.

On the threshold of our sixty-fifth birthday, Tom and I captured this moment outside our Arizona home.

Just the Start

Five years ago, Tom and I signed the papers, closed the deal, and passed the keys of our Illinois home to the new owners, a thirty-something, Turkish-American couple with a six-year-old son.

It was a pivotal personal moment–a cocktail of joy, relief, sentiment, and sadness–as we walked out the door and prepared to begin our next chapter in our cozy Arizona condo.

Of course, it was just the start of our journey. Before we left on June 30, 2017, we captured this selfie in front of our Mount Prospect home with a sign that was a parting gift from a friend.

The sign came west with us. Later that summer, someone took it from the front of our Arizona condo. I never discovered what happened to it.

Suffice it to say, the spirit of the sign lives on in my heart and on the pages of my third book, An Unobstructed View. It’s an honest reflection on my Illinois years and the early days of my life as a heart attack survivor.

I sat in our Arizona sunroom and read the prologue again earlier this week. I’m thankful I found the creative resolve to reconstruct vivid memories from that watershed period. Friends and strangers have told me the book moved them.

Four years have passed since I published the book. I’m a much different person now. Less patient, more compassionate with a greater awareness of life’s fragility. I’m also more adept at living in the present.

That’s what a serious, sudden illness will do for you. You learn that tomorrow isn’t a given. You discover yoga and how to be mindful. You relish the quiet. You notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you.

You give thanks for simple but vital things–breathing, a strong heart, a loving husband, friends and family near and far, affordable healthcare, and an array of nearby doctors … and you also find a deeper appreciation for those who have loved and supported you along the way.

If you are reading this, you probably fall into this last category. Thank you for joining me on this journey. These first five years in Arizona have proven to be creative ones, and–with time–I’ve found greater equilibrium and new friendships I hold dear.

Given the state of our world, I think it’s also important to hold true to our beliefs and voice our opinions and concerns.

In that spirit, I’ll always advocate for human rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for all Americans no matter their skin color, cultural ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.

Hate has no home here.

Reentry

On Tuesday, April 26, 2022–the day Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for Covid without symptoms–I did too. But with symptoms: fever, headache, congestion, and fatigue.

Ironically, it was also about the same time Dr. Anthony Fauci declared we had crossed the pandemic bridge and entered an endemic world, where the disease rate is at an acceptable or manageable level.

At that moment, I don’t think I believed him. There was nothing acceptable about the situation for Tom or me. As you might suspect, my husband soon developed the same symptoms.

For the following week, Tom and I took turns playing nurse, while pumping a flurry of fluids, acetaminophens, decongestants, and attaboy encouragements.

We slept sporadically, texted my sons and our sisters, cancelled plans with friends reluctantly like two men waving from a desert island, and zapped each other endlessly with our digital thermometer–up to 102.3, down to 99.6, up to 101.2, down to 100.2, finally back to 98.6.

We rode out the storm together, quarantining in the privacy of our cozy desert condo. Two kind friends left wonton soup outside our front door, as they were dealing with their own trauma of repairing their car so they could drive east. Back to their home in New York.

Another sweet neighbor placed a bar of chocolate on the mosaic tile table between our two wicker chairs. I snatched it as soon as she left. She knows about Tom’s dark chocolate addiction and my wedding vow in 2014 to keep him supplied with a bottomless supply of it.

Through it all, I think you could characterize our Covid cases as mild, though my anxiety flew through the roof for seven days. I shuddered to think what the outcome might have been.

What if we hadn’t been fully vaccinated and boosted twice? What if I could never see Tom’s smiling face again or gaze into his beautiful blue eyes that nearly match the bluish-gray t-shirt I gave him that doesn’t fit me anymore?

***

About a million Americans have died of Covid complications.

We are two of the lucky few. But this isn’t a story about luck. It’s about truth and science.

The vaccinations we lined up for protected us, kept us out of the hospital, and forestalled any notions of two more premature deaths. By following the science and getting inoculated, we dodged two bullets. The universe rewarded us exponentially by giving us more time together.

This morning it feels like we are both back to normal. We’ve been symptom free for several days. We returned to the gym for the first time in nearly two weeks. I mounted the treadmill. Tom opted for the elliptical. I smiled as I watched Tom exchange his hellos with a community of patrons and familiar faces.

But earlier in the morning–when I leaned out the front door to water our succulents under the fig tree–there was a defining moment with an extraordinary animal, which I won’t soon forget.

Our feral friend Poly, the community cat that has lived on the fringe of life for a long time, meowed and came closer to me than she ever has. After a brief photo opportunity, Tom handed me the bag of cat treats and I sprinkled a dozen or so on the sidewalk.

Once I closed the door, Poly left the shelter of our eaves–safe in her own moveable, quarantining bubble–and approached the kitty kernels.

Unceremoniously, she glanced up at me as if to say, “I understand how you feel, all worried and frayed. But you’ve made it through. You’ll get by. You’re a survivor. Just like me.”

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.

Be Mine

We all know it when we feel it … love. When it is there, it fills our hearts and lights up the world.

I’m not only referring to romantic and physical love between two human beings–two men, two women, or a woman and man. Most of us need and want some form of that depending on our orientation.

True love goes beyond the jewelry commercials that implore men to buy rings for their sweethearts. It appears in many forms–parental love, neighborly love, pet love, friendship, companionship, etc. In my heart and mind, love is a close cousin of natural beauty, peace, kindness, and human decency.

As Tom and I strolled in the sun this morning along the Crosscut Canal in Scottsdale, I was transported back to grade school in the St. Louis suburbs and the Valentine’s Days of my 1960s childhood.

In those days, we created and decorated our individual holiday mail slots, fashioned out of shoe boxes and adorned with red, pink and white construction paper. Some were simple. Others grandiose, laden with tiny, pastel-colored candy hearts bearing messages. “Be Mine” was my favorite, because it communicated a winning combination of love, playfulness, and commitment.

Each year, our teachers were careful to instruct us to bring a paper valentine for each child in our classroom. Most of us followed the rules and returned with a packet of store-bought cards featuring Looney Tunes cartoon characters, Superman, cuddly puppies and kittens. Then, we went around the room and deposited all of our “love” messages. (Sixty years ago, we also had parties and trays of decorated cupcakes delivered by two or three “room moms” to our classrooms.)

Then and now, I liked the kindness and equity of that valentine distribution plan. Of course, some kids were more popular than others, but this even-handed method leveled the valentine playing field. In practice at least, each child got to feel the love of opening a box filled with valentines from each of his or her classmates.

I confess. I don’t know how schools treat Valentine’s Day now. But I suspect it’s a different animal. At a time when children and adults are bombarded with messages of fear and pandemic uncertainty, we are living in a world with a short supply of love. We need valentines more than ever this year.

It doesn’t cost much to whisper a message of love to a friend. Or to send a text or drop a card in the mailboxes of those in your metaphoric classroom.

Do it today. I’ll start. Won’t you be mine?

On January 26, 2022, I captured this photo of two geese sharing a tender moment on the path of life at the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert, Arizona.

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.

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.

Midwest Reunion: Part One

It rained most of September 4, 2021, in eastern Missouri. Fortunately, scattered-but-heavy showers didn’t wash away our plans.

At nine a.m., Tom and I drove north thirty minutes from our room at Hampton Inn Valley Park to visit my cousin Phyllis and her family in their St. Charles, Missouri home.

After we exchanged hugs, Phyllis’ husband Tom prepared homemade blueberry-and-apple pancakes. We volleyed catch-up stories between the kitchen and family room, while their golden retriever Truman sidled up to Tom and me on the couch, placed each of his front paws in our laps, and stole our hearts.

For the next two hours eleven of us–spread across three generations–gathered around a rectangular kitchen table framed by angled windows and a lush backyard.

The two Toms, Phyllis and I represented the senior set. Amanda, Austin, Kelsey, and Bryant smiled and shared stories of their thirty-something, heavy-lifting, career-and-child-rearing years. They shepherded and cradled: three-year-old Ava, who danced around the table in her princess gown; adorable one-year-old Violet, who is learning to walk; and baby Brooks born in July with a head of hair.

It was a treat for me to spend time with them all, the entirety of my Johnson family connection that remains in the St. Louis area.

Thankfully, the reunion around Phyllis’ and Tom’s table superseded our previous encounter at an Italian restaurant in St. Louis on July 5, 2017. It was one day before I suffered a mild heart attack as Tom and I walked to Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ central west end to see my book of light-hearted Missouri stories on the shelf.

***

When we left St. Charles just before noon, I pointed our rental car southeast. Tom typed the address for Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery into his smartphone to find the most direct route to my parents’ graves.

Ironically, our most recent visit to the rolling hills of white marble grave markers on the banks of the Mississippi River was four years ago–the same day we last saw Phyllis and Tom. But on this occasion–September 4–we were in town on what would have been Dad’s and Mom’s seventy-third wedding anniversary.

I had hoped to stop somewhere for a small bunch of flowers to leave on their graves. That never happened. Instead, we arrived at the cemetery entrance empty handed, made two right turns and one left, drove past the chapel, traveled up a hill, and parked our rental car under a tree.

About the time we arrived, the rain paused. We walked a hundred steps or so to DD 355, where Dad and Mom are buried near a large oak tree. As Tom and I surveyed the grounds and knelt quietly, he spotted two acorns side-by-side on top of the wet grass on Mom’s side of the marker.

Before we left, I placed the acorns on top of the marker in honor of their wedding anniversary.

I suppose even in the solemn solitude of a cemetery the strength of our family ties endure and life goes on.

My parents, Walter A. Johnson and Helen F. Johnson, are buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis, Missouri. Walter was a sergeant in the Army, who served in World War II. Mom and Dad met on January 4, 1948 and married on September 4, 1948 in St. Louis. Walter died one week shy of his eightieth birthday, on November 26, 1993. Helen passed away on January 26, 2013. She was eighty-nine years old.