Though he has been gone since 1993–taken by a second heart attack a week before his eightieth birthday–my dad still appears in fading photos on the walls and shelves of my Scottsdale condo … and in memories I carry.
Like an earnest anthropologist combing for clues, I’ve kept Walter Johnson’s history and story–his highs and lows–alive. He lingers on the pages of all four of my books. The journalist and the son in me believe I’ve done right by him.
In spite of his traumas (World War II shellshock, bipolar rants, and heartache), I’ve long ago put Walter’s pain to rest. It no longer consumes me in my sixties.
It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.
I don’t think I’ve ever uttered or written the following sentence, but it’s time I did: I have never doubted my father’s love for me.
I certainly see and feel it in his eyes in this (now vintage) photograph my mother captured of Dad and me.
More than six decades later–in these desert-dwelling days I never imagined in my Midwestern life–I link the joyous and boundless expression on Dad’s face with a keepsake Tom and I wrapped carefully and brought with us in the backseat of our Hyundai Sonata when we came west in 2017.
It’s an electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign, which Walter the salesman salvaged from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.
In the early 60s before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement. Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs in Missouri. Then later, it danced on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of our suburban Chicago home.
Strangely, the wheel disengaged in 2017–somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona as I mended from a heart attack on the passenger side.
I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.
Bob called two days later to say the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him. I thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home and found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale.
I plugged in the sign and turned on the switch. The light-and-color wheel twirled. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced, just as Walter had…
It comforts me to know that on Father’s Day–or any day–I can flip the switch in one simple motion. I can reignite the love I still feel for my father and remember his best intentions.
In an instant, I can remind myself that Dad is with me on my journey.
Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.
If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.
Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.
It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)
I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.
Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.
Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”
I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.
Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.
Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.
It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!
It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.
This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.
On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.
I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.
Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.
I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.
As we cross through the middle of May, it’s time to share the conclusion of the story of Millie, my neighbor, and our relationship that spanned twenty years Along the Back Fence.This story first appeared inAn Unobstructed View.
In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby.
Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.
When she arrived, I leaned out to give her a hug and she rested her head on my shoulder. She told me she loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it anymore.
Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from her side of the yard and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.
Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too.
It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.
“I love you guys,” she said.
“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.
Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.
And the red rose bush–which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire–took root and bloomed before we departed.
We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.
It only seemed fitting.
In late October 2019, Kathy–another of our Mount Prospect, Illinois neighbors–called with sad, but inevitable, news. Millie had passed away, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
In May 2022, I fantasize that somewhere in a distant universe, Millie is preparing to serve up a Tupperware container filled with ambrosia salad for all her friends.
In reality, seventeen hundred miles west of my previous Illinois home, it is our Arizona neighbors who are about to be dazzled by a summer-long perennial display compliments of our double-red desert rose bush.
The arrival of this much-anticipated splash of brilliant color is something Millie would have loved.
It’s not unusual for the proximity of neighbors to cause conflicts.
But often the bonds we forge with those next door–or in this case along the back fence–can add more texture and meaning to our lives than we once imagined.
Shortly after Tom and I moved west, I wrote Along the Back Fence about Millie–our Illinois neighbor from 1996 to 2017.
I’ve been thinking of her again recently, because the fifth anniversary of selling my Midwestern home is approaching.
This story first appeared in An Unobstructed View, a book about my personal journey from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and an unexpected detour that awaited in the city where I was born.
In this world of turmoil and uncertainty, our best neighbors deliver color, comfort, and continuity.
I bet there’s a Millie in your life worth remembering.
Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence.
But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.
It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it–too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess.
When she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.
I don’t think we had much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here or there as I pushed my mower around my yard, and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage.
Eventually, we broke the ice. From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.
By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.
Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. One summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis.
Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.
“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”
And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature salad of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.
That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents–Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015.
But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health–her own surefootedness–declined …
Rest assured, I’ll share part two of this story later this week.
Today marks four years since I began my blogging adventure and obsession.
When I launched this website May 4, 2018, I wanted to promote my books and develop a greater literary presence online. Over time, that goal has been superseded by a desire to share topical stories about the extraordinary, meaningful moments and people that cross through one ordinary life.
It’s been no simple task nurturing my creativity in this chaotic world. Blogging has given voice to my memories, ideas, values, observations, and opinions. More than that, in my sixties it has become the organic structure I need to stay sharp, sane, hopeful, and whole.
Most definitely, blogging was my salvation during the height of the pandemic. The whimsical and serious tales I spun at my laptop became fodder for my fourth book about two gay men forging a new life in the Sonoran Desert.
This post is #324. That’s an average of eighty-one stories per year or nearly seven each month. Written at all hours of the day and night. Concocted in all sorts of moods: happy, sad, angry, reflective, devastated, and triumphant.
Thank you for joining me on this circuitous journey. If you follow me, you know I often share poetry. Frequently, I like to include photos that ignite and inspire an idea that might otherwise never have surfaced.
For nearly thirty years, I’ve written poems and stashed them in an expanding file. It’s a body of work that encompasses the highs and lows of six-and-a-half decades and chronicles the profound role nature plays in our everyday existence.
As I approach my 65th birthday in July, I feel an impulse to publish a collection of my most vivid poems. Would such a chapbook interest you? As you ponder that question, I hope you enjoy reading this verse.
When I wrote it May 7, 2016, Tom and I were Midwesterners–more familiar with blooming iris and peonies than spiky cacti and monsoon rains.
As an Illinois resident on the threshold of more change than I could imagine, I wanted to remember the imagery of past Mays.
My, our world has changed.
Arriving welcome, clean and fresh, reflecting skies grow amorous.
Crisp at dawn, bursting through, captured by a mother’s view.
Blooming iris, sweet repose, ducklings lined up in a row.
Bounding blooms, fast and pure, veiled peonies pink allure.
Reaching high, bred for speed, stretching out to take the lead.
Calm til dusk, an even pace, ushered in the rain’s disgrace.
In this season of rebirth, I am reminded of my transformative journey that began five Aprils ago.
I should have known better. Life had taught me there was nothing certain about any journey.
I had already navigated the ups and downs of my St. Louis childhood, struggled along as a single dad, shed illusions of a straight existence in favor of an authentic life, and retraced the path of my mother’s life from fertile ground.
Yet, I didn’t expect the journey I was about to embark upon with my husband–waving goodbye to one home and resurfacing in another–would prove to be as circuitous.
By the fourth month of 2017, Tom and I had drawn up the details of our dream. We would sell our home in northern Illinois; escape the cold; move to Scottsdale, Arizona; and live in the desert permanently. We wouldn’t be denied.
It all began in April with the physical trappings of certainty. We were locked into a familiar pattern of cool and damp Lake Michigan air with only a ray or two of sun filtering through the clouds. But as we prepared to leave behind the permutations of our past, we also knew there was heavy lifting to be done.
Before we could leave the Midwest and say goodbye to our Illinois family and friends, we needed to sell our home in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.
What you just read is a portion of the prologue from An Unobstructed View. If you find yourself intrigued and pondering your own personal transformation, my third book will have special meaning for you. Download a free copy on Amazon through Monday, April 18.
One simple request: once you are through, please take a few moments to post your review.
Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.
Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.
Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.
Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.
For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.
As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.
Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.
Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.
Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?
2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)
To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!
On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.
About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.
Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.
The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.
As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.
Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.
We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.
We sat–quietly and obediently–in rows facing the front of the room. Most of the girls wore frilly dresses, bangs, and patent-leather shoes; the boys sported bold-striped shirts, crew cuts, and bright-white Keds.
Our mornings and early afternoons were occupied with simple math, spelling, reading, recess, and cartons of cold milk on lunch trays. The American flag draped over the alphabet border above the blackboard.
Images of George, Abraham, and John–Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy–stood guard. I suspect they were there to ease our minds and protect our American innocence.
If only it were that simple.
I don’t remember feeling fear, when our teacher told us it was time for another drill. We knew the routine and followed instructions.
A voice on the public address system told us when to practice hiding under our desks, when to duck and cover, when to escape to fallout shelters in hallways if a bomb were dropped.
It lasted but a few minutes. We covered our heads and faces until the all-clear signal came from our teacher. We absorbed the fear–the height of the Cold War–without knowing what it was.
This was what we knew in the early 1960s in middle America. We were fortunate these were merely practice drills, false alarms.
I imagine the scenes weren’t much different in schools on the outskirts of Chicago, Cincinnati or Cleveland. At Mesnier School in Affton–ten miles from downtown St. Louis–we aspired to a gleaming symbol. We lived in the shadow of an emerging national monument.
By its completion in 1965, the Gateway Arch would soar, though across the nation the fog of pollution and social issues intensified.
As history would have it, all of the names of St. Louis school children would be stored in a time capsule in the base of the Arch. Mine is among them.
Back in the classroom, between random drills and parent-teacher conferences, we learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. We tied our shoes and kept on skipping in a world where rules were prescribed narrowly for girls and boys.
This was the credo for boys: Get good grades in school. Be prepared. Keep your eye on the ball. Run faster. Jump higher. Find a decent job. Don’t be a sissy. Meet and marry a woman. Buy a house. Have kids. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Pass the baton to the next generation.
But what about those of us who are different? Where do we fit into the story? We had to figure that out for ourselves.
The sixties weren’t pretty. Assassinations reigned. The Vietnam War raged. Poverty and racism amplified. People felt trapped, ready to shed the remnants of restrictive gender roles and sexuality, sealed in the repressive 1950s.
But the world is exponentially more complicated now. The latest madman is hellbent on ravaging innocent people in Ukraine. Though love appears in abundance in many circles across all continents, ignorance and hate manifest themselves next door and around the world.
Once again, sixty years later, we find ourselves living in fear of the fallout. We must find ways to duck and cover, to speak the truth while standing as tall and mighty as the Gateway Arch.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren to put politics aside, to protect our planet, to uphold individual rights and civil liberties, to teach them about black and white, but also the color and grayness of the world and all its permutations. Pandemic or not, they are watching.
Even if they don’t know it, the youngest members of our society are counting on us to speak the truth, denounce racism and hate, celebrate gay and straight lives, and to teach them that every generation has a responsibility to remember and honor the seminal moments in history, and–hopefully–carry the best of humanity forward.
I’m at it again, pairing the random recent pruning of our fig tree with a story of my first haircut in a land far away but never forgotten.
In the arc of life, St. Louis, Missouri, was my first hometown; Scottsdale, Arizona, will likely be my last. Beyond this personal connection, they have little in common.
They certainly aren’t Sister Cities. The former is a muggy midwestern city shrinking in population on the banks of the Mississippi River; the latter, a dry western town growing exponentially in the Sonoran Desert.
Though, if you follow NFL franchise history, you know the present-day Arizona Cardinals made their home in St. Louis from 1960 through 1987. As a kid, I rooted for the Big Red there.
Now I cheer for this iteration of the Cardinals here. Regrettably, the team’s promising 2021-22 season faded in December and January. They won’t appear in the Super Bowl. The Bengals and Rams will be featured instead on Sunday.
At this stage of life–when I’m not writing or singing or swimming or exercising or baking or eating or sleeping or following my baseball and football Cardinals (the first still resides in St. Louis)–you might find me giving or getting trims.
Let me be clear. The giving involves me manipulating large garden shears and a hand saw to prune (only occasionally) a few of the fruit trees in our condo community. I even wrote and published a book of stories a year ago, which alludes to this activity in the title.
Anyway, on Tuesday, Tom and I were outside giving trims again. We pruned the fig tree near our front door. It’s an annual thing we do in February. It keeps the tree healthy.
We actually enjoy doing it. It’s a way for us to contribute to the well-being of our condo community and pamper the gnarled tree that provides shade on our hottest summer days.
On the other hand, the getting part of this is a different story. It equates to me sitting in a chair and having a stylist trim my hair with clippers and scissors every six weeks.
Most recently, I had this done two weeks ago at a Super Cuts in Scottsdale. But the first time was August 13, 1958, in St. Louis. I was a little over one year old. Someone named Frank Goetz did the trimming.
How do I know the who, what, when and where of this? My mother kept a detailed baby book of photos and anecdotes from the first seven years of my life.
Inside is a treasure trove of memories: things I would never have known or remembered if she hadn’t taken the time to maintain this personal record. She even kept a lock of my cut blond hair from that day, sealed it in a small envelope, and pasted it on a scrapbook page.
This morning, a day after Tom and I finished giving our fig tree its annual haircut, I pulled out the baby book from our hallway closet. In short order, I stumbled upon this photo.
Isn’t it funny and magical how a grainy black-and-white photo can transport you to another era and instantly pair the scissor cities of your imagined and true-life experiences?
This is a true story about a chance encounter on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1962. It’s a testament to the good citizenship of my mother and father, who did the right thing sixty years ago.
The story, A New Year Resolution (I wrote it in 2017), fills me with hope and the warm possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen. It first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri stories.
As we cross into 2022, I wish you good health and a few magical surprises to lighten your spirit.
Aunt Thelma was flush with frozen anticipation and prepared to toot her fringe-laced party horn. It’s how she felt every year. She had a new year resolution: to be the first out the door to inhale the cold remnants of December night air and replace it with January oxygen expectant with sharp promise and unassigned possibilities.
Thelma fumbled to secure the buttons on her worn car coat, snap her hat in place on the top of her wobbly bun, and race into the frigid Midwestern night. “Happy New Year,” she hollered leading her merry band out the door as the clock struck twelve. In an instant, the atmosphere from two distinct years comingled in her lungs and the clamoring began on cue.
Uncle Ralph, Mom, Dad, Diane, and I twirled our ratcheting noisemakers, flailed away with wooden spoons on pots and pans, and shrieked with glee. Magically, in an instant, the joys and regrets of 1961 were erased. Each of us had a fresh batch of winter air to contend with. It was January 1, 1962, in St. Louis, Missouri.
The frosty air told us it was too cold for the revelry to linger. By 12:15 a.m., we scurried back inside and returned our cockamamie thingamabobs and pointy hats. As Thelma and Ralph gathered it all and washed off the wooden spoons for safe keeping in the kitchen drawer, Dad and Mom broke the news to Diane and me. Our makeshift winter carnival was over.
With Dad behind the wheel, it was time to head home to South St. Louis County and our three-bedroom brick ranch in Affton. We had an hour-long drive ahead of us in our ’59 Plymouth.
Dad figured Hanley Road would be the most direct route. He could take the highway, but he didn’t want to contend with higher speeds and the potential for an anonymous, boozy driver veering head-on into his path. The thought of that was too much for his weary brain.
Under the whir of tires hugging cold pavement, Mom glanced over her left shoulder to check on the two of us in the backseat. Diane and I were beginning to fade. Mom knew we would be asleep soon. She and Dad were prepared to rouse us from our slumber once we pulled into the driveway. She felt comfort knowing we would need to be carried into the house and rolled into bed. She didn’t know there was more excitement coming before we trailed off to sleep.
A few minutes passed before something caught Mom’s eye between the high beams of an approaching car. She spotted a fuzzy figure up ahead a few hundred feet on the right shoulder. Someone was walking alone. From a distance, it could have been a man or woman. She and Dad couldn’t be sure.
Dad reduced his speed. As we approached, our headlights illuminated a bewildered young woman teetering on silver high heels, shivering under a skimpy mink stole thrown over her shoulders, exposing an emerald cocktail dress and too much skin on a cold night.
Mom verbalized what Dad was thinking. “Walter, I think she needs help. Let’s pull over and see if she needs a ride somewhere.” They rolled down their windows and waved her over to the car.
At first, the young woman’s eyes darted away. She could see a man was driving the car. But when she realized that an entire family was in the car, she relaxed a bit and approached on her fast-freezing feet.
“It’s so cold out, honey. Can we help you?” Mom offered through her partially open window. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“Yes,” she stammered. “I guess I do.” She grabbed the hinge of the back door and shimmied into the backseat next to Diane. “I was going home with a date after a New Year’s Eve party, and we got into a big fight. So, I got out. That bastard drove off and left me on the side of the road … Oh, I’m sorry about the language.”
“It’s alright,” Dad assured her. “We’re just glad we stopped. Point us in the right direction and we’ll get you home. What’s your name?”
“Oh, it’s Melba,” she confirmed. It was a name I’d seldom heard. Melba recited her address in Maplewood. By this time, any notion of sleep in our eyes was history. It vanished when Melba and her allure entered our world. We were wide-eyed and dumbfounded–captivated by her exotic name and slinky dress. Diane homed in on Melba’s beaded purse and shoes. I was mesmerized by her glistening green eyes, which flickered when cars flashed by. They matched her sequined gown.
Melba must have been an aspiring movie star or a lost character in a Twilight Zone episode, I thought. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, I was certain she was navigating a sudden detour on the road of life, trying to make the best of plans gone awry. She was craving silence in a secure sedan with no requirements, explanations, or assumptions.
From the front seat, Mom respected Melba’s need for quiet and distance. In the back, Diane and I sat motionless; we preferred to watch relief wash over Melba’s face. Dad focused on the tasks at hand: operating our vehicle and driving Melba home. He could tell the young woman was rattled. He wanted to return her home safely without fanfare.
Within twenty minutes, Dad pulled up in front of a tidy bungalow with white awnings and a steep front porch. This must be where Melba lived, I thought. Even though it was 1:30 a.m., all the lights inside Melba’s house were lit. I was thankful and relieved that her family had waited up.
With a flip of her hair from the top of her fur collar, Melba thanked Dad and Mom for the ride. She flashed a grateful smile, wrapped each end of her mink stole around her neck, patted Diane and me on the top of our heads, and braced for the cold air. She left the cozy warmth of our green sedan.
By this time, I had imagined a whole new life for Melba–a wandering, sensitive soul with a caring mother and father of her own, a nosey little brother, and a dream to escape her world and climb a ladder into a fairy-tale universe filled with brilliant stars.
Then, under the partial glow of a frosty January moon, I watched Melba ascend the concrete stairs, turn to wave goodbye, and step across the threshold of her ordinary front door into an awaiting aura. Certainly, New Year’s Day 1962 was off on a magical foot.
None of us thought we’d see Melba again. And we were right. Even so, all we needed was thirty minutes together to keep the memory alive. I curled up in the back seat next to my sister and considered the vision of Melba–coming and going in a pre-dawn hush.
There wasn’t much to say, but Dad knew what to do. He eased the car from the curb and guided us back onto the road. With a flash of his headlights, he signaled to Melba that all was good.