Category: Missouri

Midwest Reunion: Part Two

Our lives are an intricate tapestry of disparate threads. They weave over, around and through us. It is up to us to tie the loose ends. For those who seek and remember, we are on a lifelong quest to integrate the texture, color, and reality of our experiences. We return to our past lives to celebrate and reexamine what we have left behind and to find the greater meaning.

***

In August of 1976, I operated the River King Mine Train controls for the last time. I said goodbye to my rollercoaster crew mates, walked down the asphalt hill, punched the time clock, changed out of my Six Flags Over Mid-America (SFOMA) uniform, and drove my parents’ blue 1970 Chevy Belair four-door sedan from Eureka, Missouri to my childhood home in Affton. I was nineteen years old. I was ready to depart the St. Louis area to begin my sophomore year at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

It would take me forty-five years, but on the evening of September 4, 2021, I returned to Eureka. I went back to revisit my formative-and-repressed teenage years (and the scene of my first job and colleagues) and anchor them to my sixty-four-year-old existence as an openly gay writer, husband, father, son, desert rat, and heart-attack survivor.

The setting for my personal melding was the 50th reunion of SFOMA employees from the 1970s … shiny, bouncy teens and twenty-somethings who had evolved into grayer versions of themselves. In their sixties and seventies, many had gained weight and lost hair. Others had left us entirely. But those who remained had somehow managed to salvage their spark and spirit of adventure.

Tom and I flew together from Phoenix to St. Louis, but this portion of the journey was mine alone. (My husband stayed back at our hotel to read. Though he was 100 percent supportive of me going to the reunion, he had nothing to renew with a Missouri gang that would gather under a covered outdoor picnic area inside a St. Louis-area amusement park. Tom is a native Chicagoan.)

After I parked my rental car at what is now called Six Flags St. Louis in a relatively empty parking lot, I threw on my face mask, zipped up my windbreaker, and pulled up my hood. Yes, it was raining again, but the sky had begun to brighten as I fumbled for my ticket, walked through security, and entered the main gate.

If you had blindfolded and air-lifted me into the space and then removed my eye covering, I wouldn’t have known where I had landed. But I was happy to be there nonetheless. With a little help from a SFOMA map in the park, I found my way to the River King Mine Train, situated on the eastern side of the park. I headed up a steep hill that began to look familiar, past a restaurant, once called Naylor’s. In the 1970s, it served greasy fried chicken. That trail and olfactory memory led me to the entrance of the River King Mine Train.

Back in the 70s, there were two mine train tracks that were pressed into service on the busiest days. Now there is only one. I snapped a quick selfie in front of the ride sign and peeked in to see the 2021 version of the mine train crew at work and a train leaving the station. Then, I headed to the Palace Theatre to see displays of photos and memorabilia from the 1970s, when the park was sparkling new and crowded nearly every day … rain or shine.

When I paused for a quick pic of the Log Flume ride (along with the mine train, one of but a few original attractions that remain), I accidentally dropped my mask. Kevin, another reunion attendee, told me so. I swiped it off the ground and for the next ten minutes we traded stories of working in the park.

I soon discovered Kevin had also operated the mine train a year after I left … then he moved up another rung to the Screamin’ Eagle, which opened in the bi-centennial year. In 1976, it was that death-defying, stomach-dropping rollercoaster kids ran to ride as soon as the park gates opened each morning.

At six o’clock, I walked to the picnic entrance for the reunion. While I was in line, Cindy approached. Long ago, we were mine train pals for three summers; in 1974, we worked the swing shift — 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Supervisor Larry and foreman Gus (Cindy and Gus would marry a few years later) trained us at the same time to “drive” the rollercoaster and master the controls.

Cindy and I hadn’t seen each other in more than four decades–nor had we shared the up-and-down stories of our lives–but I felt the chemistry of our friendship return as we hugged. When I told her I had no clue of my sexual orientation back then, I realized why I had traveled from Phoenix to St. Louis. I needed to connect another piece of my past, less actualized, rollercoaster life in Missouri with the more even and authentic one I had created with Tom.

Cindy was on the reunion planning committee and needed to check on a few things, but we agreed to talk more once the event got started. After I filled out my name tag and an attendant handed me a 50th anniversary reunion pin, I walked through the crowd of 200 and chit-chatted.

I didn’t know or remember most of the attendees–singles and straight couples with their own stories and reasons for returning–though I could squint and recall younger versions of pretty and handsome cohorts lined up to greet guests nearly fifty years before.

A cooler breeze swept through. The rain stopped. Cindy returned. We stood in line together for a buffet dinner … beef brisket, baked beans, and potato chips. I suppose it qualified as a meal. What else should I have expected? It was amusement park food.

For the next thirty minutes, Cindy and I shared the highlights and lowlights of our past lives — the joys and tragedies that come with living and growing older. To keep the privacy of that moment, I’ll leave it at that.

On cue, the welcoming speeches from past leaders followed, along with a video collage set to music from the 70s. I felt sad more than happy as the images faded in and out. Though it reminded me of the hard-working days and fun-filled nights decades before, it also felt like I was viewing a fantasy land far away from the world we now occupy.

As the evening began to unwind, I pulled a signed copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator out of my backpack and handed it to Cindy. She smiled and thanked me. I invited her to visit Tom and me in the Sonoran Desert one day. Though she’s lived in Germany and speaks several languages, Arizona is a place she has yet to visit.

Before I left, there were door prizes, more hugs, and a small stream of goodbyes. At 9 p.m. I was ready to go. I made my way in the dark back to my rental car. No more rain. The sky was clear. The air was nearly crisp for a September night in Missouri.

I retraced my steps on I-44 to the Hampton Inn in Valley Park. Tom was waiting to hear more about my rollercoaster days, the 50th reunion, and the night I returned to Eureka, Missouri to tie up a few loose ends.

As I write and reflect on this experience, I realize my return to the past playground and promise of my youth–in the middle of a pandemic–placed me outside my comfort zone.

But, with my vaccination and mask protecting me and the creative impulse guiding me, I’m glad I went back there. The bonus was reconnecting with a good friend.

In addition to my memories, I left St. Louis with this souvenir of the 50th reunion of Six Flags Over Mid-America employees of the 1970s. It was held at Six Flags St. Louis in Eureka, Missouri, on September 4, 2021.

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.

Midwest Bound

Tom and I are flying to St. Louis tomorrow. On Saturday, I will attend an outdoor reunion of Six Flags Over Mid-America’s circa-1970s employees. About 200 of us will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the amusement park in the rolling hills of Eureka, Missouri thirty miles southwest of the Gateway Arch that towers over the Mississippi River.

Now called Six Flags St. Louis, the theme park is where I landed my first job in 1974. It’s where I learned to “drive” the River King Mine Train, the park’s first rollercoaster. It’s also where I began to navigate life’s ups and downs. Who knew the experience for three summers would become a metaphor and catalyst for a book I would write more than forty years later?

This will be my first trip to St. Louis since July 2017. I’m overdue to write a new and rejuvenating chapter in my original hometown … one that doesn’t include heart trauma and a personal detour that spawned uncertainty on my sixtieth birthday.

I’m excited and a little anxious about this journey, given the relentlessness of our global pandemic. But Tom and I have been fully vaccinated and will mask up for this adventure.

No doubt, the trip will reignite a flame of familiar faces and memories. I expect there will also be a few surprises and a mix of bittersweet feelings and observations seen through blended bifocals and sixty-four-year-old eyes. We’ll see.

After the Missouri reunion–plus a visit to my parents’ graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a few hours reconnecting with my cousin Phyllis in St. Charles, and coffee with a St. Louis friend I haven’t seen for more than twenty-five years–Tom and I will drive to Chicago to see my son Kirk and our sisters Sharon and Diane.

We haven’t visited the Windy City … a place I called home from 1980 to 2017 … or spent time with our siblings in the suburbs there since June of 2019. Of course, the pandemic is the culprit that accounts for that gap.

I wrote the poem that follows five years ago. In 2017, it first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of reflective, light-hearted, growing-up-in-Missouri stories.

Perhaps these words will resonate with you–wherever you were born, wherever you call home. The poem certainly has special meaning for me as I return to visit my homes in Missouri and Illinois that account for most of the first sixty years of my life, before Tom and I created this warmer, lighter, and simpler life in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

***

Coming Home

I saw you there day after day. We were together leaving the station. We made our way around the track. But now I don’t see you anymore. Where have you gone familiar ones? Could it be you left the track and vanished? Am I alone looking down from my perch? Are the markers and signs all that remain? What became of the rises and falls? Have you left me in charge to man the controls? Am I enough to carry this forward? Why have you brought me back here? Oh, that’s right. I remember now. I was on a journey. I was coming home.

I wore this badge for three summers (1974-1976) as a rollercoaster operator at Six Flags Over Mid-America in Eureka, Missouri.

July 1955: More Fertile Ground

This season of triple digits in Arizona–followed by a few days of overdue, soaking monsoon rains–is the perfect time to rummage indoors through personal, vintage photos.

The best of them, like peering into the Grand Canyon, leave me with a mix of joy and insignificance. They tell stories about humanity before I entered the picture.

I’m fortunate to have accumulated photographic treasures from both sides of my family. Some of them, tattered and faded, date back to the early 1900s.

I don’t recall seeing this image from July 1955 before. I imagine one of my maternal grandparents captured it on their Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Sixty-six years later, I stumbled across it in a forgotten album. Today, on July 26, 2021, it is speaking loudly through the sepia tone.

If she were alive, the woman on the left (my mother, Helen Ferrell Johnson) would be celebrating her ninety-eighth birthday today. In 1955, she held my sister Diane on her lap and celebrated her thirty-second birthday with her sister Frances (cradling her first born, Michael) and brother Jim by her side in her original home state.

Mom has been gone since 2013. Grief has taught me there will be days like today when I miss her smile, wisdom, perspective and resolve. Fortunately, thanks to the passage of time, the abyss of grief–the Grand Canyon of loss–subsided in 2015 as I wrote.

When you love someone, grief is the price you pay. It is everlasting, sometimes surprising, but often predictable. Photos, birthdays, anniversaries, and specific songs (I’ll Be Seeing You sung by Peggy Lee) provide the cues.

What makes this photo a rare find is that I have just a few images of my mother and her adult siblings together. Helen left North Carolina right after World War II to begin a new life in a bigger city … St. Louis, Missouri … where she and Dad met, married, settled, raised Diane and me, and discovered their share of happy, challenging, and unbearable moments together.

Jim and Frances stayed to build their lives in the Tar Heel State. They were teenagers on the farm in the late 40s. In the 50s, Jim and Frances (born in 1930 and 1932 respectively) left the nest, but returned frequently to this front porch that faced west. They met and married partners, traveled a few miles down the road to raise their families, and remained near their parents.

What I love most about this photo is the sense of possibilities and optimism in the eyes of Helen, Frances, and Jim. The wear and worry of life hadn’t yet entered the picture. By the mid 60s, Helen had two children. Frances had three. Jim had two. My grandparents loved all seven of us grandchildren. We now lead disparate lives.

Mom loved her brother. He was a friendly, handsome man, who loved to fish, hunt, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately, the harsh realities and complexities of life had a way of catching up with Jim. In 1987, he died of lung cancer at age fifty-six. When she learned of Jim’s passing, it frightened her. Mom saw his demise as a harbinger of her own mortality. She retired immediately after returning from his funeral.

Frances still lives in North Carolina. She is the most significant personal connection I have to my southern roots. I spoke with her a few months ago. She isn’t the spitfire she once was, but is content with her husband in their Davidson, North Carolina home.

Like all of us who remain, Frances is thankful to have survived the pandemic. She is looking forward to her ninetieth birthday, which she will celebrate January 1, 2022. In 2015, two years after Mom died, I traveled south to see Frances. At that time, we needed to see and hug each other to escape the throes of grief.

My quest to rediscover my southern family and find comfort with Frances ultimately became fodder for From Fertile Ground, my first book. It’s the story of my journey and grief told in part through the writings my grandfather and mother left behind. If you’ve lost someone close recently and are living with the fog of grief, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of my book. Reading it may soothe you.

With each passing year, I continue to find more fertile ground from the photos and writings my mother and father left behind. Reexamining them and rediscovering their importance reactivates the love I feel for imperfect–yet beloved–family members. They shaped my past and the memories of them still inform my present.

Mom and Me

It’s near the end of Mother’s Day 2021, but I couldn’t let this day pass without paying tribute to Helen Johnson, my resilient mother. Today, as I puttered in the garden–a universal place she loved–and planted impatiens in a shady spot under the eaves of my Scottsdale home, I channeled memories of her. Here’s a little story about the two of us.

***

Mom was 74 and I was 40 on Mother’s Day 1998. This is one of my favorite photos of us, standing outside her south suburban St. Louis home that day twenty-three years ago. It captures the essence of the lifelong bond and love between us. As her edges softened in her seventies and eighties and my appreciation for her vulnerabilities, strengths, and wisdom grew in my forties and fifties, our relationship deepened.

What I’ve learned since her death in 2013 (and my father’s in 1993) is that our relationships with our parents don’t end when they die. They evolve. We carry bittersweet and tender memories of them with us everywhere (in my case from North Carolina and Missouri to Illinois and Arizona).

I no longer think of my mother every day, but her gifts are part of the fabric of my life in the Sonoran Desert (a place she never visited) in a far less obvious way than they were back in St. Louis in 1998. For that reason, she appears in all four of my books. Sometimes as true reflections of the person she was; other times in fictional flights of fancy.

As long as I’m around, I will carry with me her love of gardening, impatience with ineptitude, kindness for neighbors, thirst for knowledge, respect for the written word, and commitment to family. In good times and bad, I am forever grateful for the legacy of love my mother left me and the path she provided to follow with my two sons.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, who work each day to make a positive difference in the lives of their children.

They Pitch Horseshoes, Don’t They?

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Texture of Our Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll Be Seeing You

Like many of you, I know grief. It is that clumsy, unwelcome house guest we imagine will never leave.

When it arrives, grief dominates our lives. It keeps us awake at night, saturates our sensibilities, zaps our strength, and slows the progression of time.

At its onset, grief feels like a heavy stone we must carry in our pocket. A character in the 2010 dramatic film Rabbit Hole describes it that way. With time, we grow accustom to the stone. We become grateful for the stone, because we realize it is all that remains of the person we loved and lost.

One day, without expecting it, grief is less heavy, less present. The achiness has packed its bags and moved on. We aren’t sure why or where it has gone–maybe down the hall, across the street, or into the next zip code. But grief is never far away. It returns to comfort us on milestone days: birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.

Grief appears on regular days too. It leaves little reminders to certify our humanity and frailty. It lingers in the cool air and warm sunshine of a spring day. It hangs in the lyrics of an old nostalgic tune, I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Peggy Lee. It grows on the window sill in the perennial bloom of an African violet.

It’s been eight years since my mother died at age eighty-nine. January 26, 2013 was a bitter morning in the Chicago suburbs, meteorologically and personally. About 2 a.m., my sister Diane called with the news.

Immediately, Tom and I bundled up and drove twenty miles south (from our home in Mount Prospect to Mom’s third-floor apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois).

That morning I kissed my mother’s forehead and patted her hand one final time. As my husband and I left the building, a full moon dominated the frozen sky.

Grief moved in with us that day. At the time, I didn’t know it would repurpose itself and transform from a stone to a familiar fog to a blanket of possibilities.

But grief is cagy. It can be an enemy or an ally. It became my muse, the catalyst for my creativity. With grief by my side, between 2014 and 2016, I wrote and published From Fertile Ground.

Over the past five years, friends, acquaintances, and readers I will never meet in person have posted heartfelt reviews. They have told me how the story of my grief–and my grandfather’s and mother’s written legacies–helped them examine their lives, process their sadness, and restore some semblance of hope.

Writing the book was my catharsis too. Like the final line from the Peggy Lee tune which describes my feelings of loss perfectly–“I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”–the pages of my book are permanent evidence of the grief I felt, which diffused with the passing of eight years. On days when I need confirmation of what 2013 to 2016 felt like, I can pick up my book and remember.

After our wise, nature-loving mother died, Diane did a kind thing. She divided up Mom’s 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.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom in 2004 when she moved north to be closer to us in her final years.

In July 2017, when Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, we wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. Ultimately, we deposited them on our southern-facing window sill in Scottsdale.

In 2019, the pink African violet died, but the lone one is a survivor. It captures the warm rays of the Sonoran Desert sun. It blooms every winter and has chosen this week–eight years after Helen Johnson left the world–to dazzle us once again.

When I examine the vibrant blues and greens the plant offers, it eases my mind. It reminds me that memories of the mother I loved and her lasting impact are never far away. That the mind-numbing initial waves of tears and grief led me to a softer reality, which is bearable, tender, and life affirming.

Even as we wander in the dark through the depths of this global pandemic, there is strange comfort knowing grief will always be there in some form or another to acknowledge our past, present and future losses. Because if grief never appeared, we would discover a harsher reality … that we never loved at all.

Thank you, grief, for filling the void. I’ll be seeing you.

The Warmth of a Good Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December Revisited

Sonoran Desert December days dazzle. Gone are dreary skies, icy gusts, swirling flurries, clanging Salvation Army bells, and busy Windy City sidewalk years wearing topcoats and backpacks. Still earlier, shedding St. Louis jackets and stocking caps. Hanging them on cloak room hooks before school started. Dreaming of holiday cupcakes and Santa’s flight trajectory.

Arizona’s anonymous set designer has replaced them. Sparkling sun burns off the chill of the morning. A neighbor’s pink rose blooms and brightens the walk. A flock of chirpy lovebirds dash away on cue like pent-up kids scampering out the door for recess. Playful palms shimmer and brush the sand from the sky. Granting the splendor of December revisited.