Category: Missouri

A New Year Resolution

Photo by Tairon Fernandez on Pexels.com

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.

We were on our way home.

Free Rollercoaster Rides Through December 22

In April 1974, I became a rollercoaster operator. It was my first job. I was sixteen years old.

Like most teenagers, I didn’t have a clue about life. But, as I think about it more than forty-seven years later, “driving” the River King Mine Train at Six Flags Over Mid-America near St. Louis became the creative catalyst for twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. I call them MOstalgic tales of American culture in the 1960s and 70s, when children had far more freedom to grow, play and run amok.

From December 20 through 22, you can download a free Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon worldwide. It’s my holiday gift to you.

The last essay in the book is especially timely. It celebrates a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger nearly sixty years ago on New Year’s Day 1962.

As 2021 draws to a close, perhaps my stories will make you smile. Maybe even inspire you to post a review online. But, at the very least, I hope they prompt you to remember a simpler time and the twists, turns and thrills from your own childhood–wherever you were born, wherever you grew up, wherever you called home.

What Is Remembered Lives

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is remembered lives.

Antidote for Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a September Sunday Morning in St. Louis

All of us are required to play roles in society, especially to earn a living. We project a persona that may or may not align with who we are or what we value. We wear masks.

Of course, in a pandemic some us wear them more than others in public situations. But in my post-corporate sixties–even if I’m donning a face covering for physical protection–I prefer to spend time with people who are genuine. I don’t have the patience for games or innuendoes.

My need for authenticity has roots that wind back to my formative years. In the 1970s, as a budding-but-denying gay adolescent who had unnamed feelings for other boys and wasn’t allowed to express them, my personal development was frozen in time.

Imagine closing off one portion of your identity entirely with no light, voice or path encouraging you to explore it. None of the relationship rites of passage for straight kids–flirting, dating, parties, dances–were available to gay and lesbian kids in the 70s.

In my middle school years, I became close with Daniel. There was a lot I liked about him: his intelligence, his quirkiness, his dimples, his love of language and the arts.

On occasion, Daniel came over to my house after school. We played board games or simply talked about school and the teachers we liked. We never acted physically on the bond and attraction we shared.

I remember that Mom and Dad liked Daniel … and Daniel admired some of my parents’ most endearing qualities: my father’s exuberance and sensitivity; my mother’s kindness and sensibility.

In seventh grade, I was the spelling bee champion for Mackenzie Junior High School. I represented our school at the St. Louis-area finals. Each student was allowed to bring one friend in addition to his or her family. My choice was Daniel. I remember him sitting in the audience that day in April 1970. It felt like he belonged there, like he was a part of my family.

Not long after I lost the spelling bee, a few boys at school must have recognized something about the care and closeness Daniel and I demonstrated for each other in the halls and in the classroom. They spewed venom. They bullied us physically and verbally. It hurt me deeply and pushed me further into the darkness.

Daniel and I remained friends in eighth grade and beyond, but we spent less time with each other as a result of that trauma and feelings of vulnerability that surfaced. Our paths crossed only rarely in high school even though we both performed in plays and musicals.

Looking back, it was a survival strategy for me to pull away from Daniel, but I always regretted that we never had a chance to be authentic with one another or to talk about the elephant in the room … the experience of being chastised for being different.

That would change on a September Sunday morning in St. Louis.

***

In August 2021, I contacted Daniel online to tell him that I wanted to reconnect with him while I was in St. Louis for the Six Flags reunion. (We hadn’t seen each other since 1995, and then it was just a brief hello at our twentieth high school reunion.)

Daniel loved the idea. So, on Sunday, September 5, 2021–before Tom and I left Missouri to drive to the Chicago area to see our sisters and my son Kirk–we met him for coffee at a place he recommended. The three of us spent an hour together talking on the patio of a lovely cafe in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis.

For the first time, I was able to tell Daniel how awful I felt about the way our friendship was derailed. That led to a deeper discussion about other boys who were tormented to worse outcomes. But that wasn’t the entirety of our conversation. It was just one moment in a warm exchange with each of us … Daniel, Tom and me … sharing stories of our careers, families, and adventures. The bonus for me was watching and listening as my husband and my first boyfriend discussed their favorite films.

Before Tom and I departed, we invited Daniel to come visit us in the Phoenix area. As we left the cafe, I hugged Daniel and said goodbye. I truly believe there will be another chapter to our friendship. Maybe it will happen in Phoenix. Maybe it will happen in St. Louis.

Either way, on my Midwest journey in 2021, I was able to tie together a few more of the disparate ends of my past rollercoaster life to my more fully actualized Arizona existence, and for that I am grateful.

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.