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.
If you are a betting man or woman, fours are wild today. Four double-red desert rose buds are primed to burst on our back patio; this sixty-four-year-old writer (who has written four books) swam twenty-four laps at Chaparral Pool this morning; and July 12 is the fourth anniversary of Tom and me arriving (finally) at our Arizona home after a hospital stay in St. Louis.
Dad would have loved the synchronicity–the magical, random alignment–of these fours. He was a numerology freak. Like me, he also was a dreamer, poet, sentimentalist, Cardinal-baseball lover, and heart-attack survivor.
My father never met Tom. A week shy of his eightieth birthday, he died before my husband and I began dating nearly twenty-five years ago. I don’t think Dad would have understood our relationship, but he would have continued to love me anyway.
I also believe he would have loved Tom’s smile, enthusiasm, and youthful spirit … and marveled at my resolve to create an authentic life with a soulmate, while raising Nick and Kirk and living long enough to see my two young sons evolve into intelligent, critical-thinking, thirty-something men.
Most of all, Dad would have admired–possibly envied–the free-flowing, simple, yet meaningful life Tom and I have built in our sixties in the warmth (okay, intense heat) of the Sonoran Desert. After surviving my heart attack blip four years ago, we have our health and plenty of time to exercise, write, read, reflect, and nurture friendships.
Tom and I no longer have to worry about the demands of holding down regular/traditional jobs or living up to narrow standards prescribed by somebody else. I realize what a privilege that is, even though there was a time in my previously closeted and discriminated life when I felt I would never find a path through the labyrinth.
Yesterday, four of us gay friends who met in Arizona in 2017 and formed an impromptu book discussion group in 2018 … Brian, Mike, Tom and me (plus Andy, a longer-term friend living in Chicago who joined the conversation via Facetime) … gathered, talked and laughed in the friendly, freshly painted confines of our Scottsdale den/guest room. We were there to exchange ideas and mixed reviews of The Days of Anna Madrigal, first published by Armistead Maupin in 2014. It was our first book group discussion since sometime in 2019, months before the pandemic began to ravage the world.
As I reflect on the three hours we spent together Sunday … critiquing various aspects of Maupin’s novel that I think missed the mark, recounting our original fascination with Maupin’s Tales of the City characters on Barbary Lane and the resulting PBS phenomenon in the 1990s, catching up on our own personal lives, telling summer stories of travel, and sharing brunch after surviving the dread of 2020 … I am especially thankful for friends such as Brian and Mike, who entered our lives in Arizona. Our Grand Canyon State friends have enriched our world after the St. Louis storm.
No matter how hot it gets in the Phoenix area this summer (110, 111, 112 degrees, and so on) … or whether the monsoons finally materialize and spill promised moisture into the Valley of the Sun this week as forecasters say they will … the lead of this personal story is the beauty of our desert roses, our mutual investment with new neighbors and friends between 2017 and 2021. During that time, we have come to love a whole new batch of people (and they have loved us) in our first four years in Arizona. It is a dream come true beyond the friends and family we continue to love in Illinois and Missouri.
From various avenues–literary, yoga, choral, gymnastic, canine, and cinematic–new Arizona friends and acquaintances have helped us heal, renewed our spirits, made us laugh, and stretched our creative sensibilities to new heights. I certainly didn’t see the breadth of this late-in-life resurgence coming from my precarious station in a hospital bed in St. Louis on July 6, 2017.
Dad would have loved these literary bonus years after the rises and falls of our midwestern life … these days of desert friendships and roses for Tom and me. Like the rousing song from Bye Bye Birdie, which played on the transistor radio next to Dad’s hospital bed as he recovered from his own St. Louis heart attack in September 1962, I’ve still got A Lot of Livin’ to Do.
The midpoint of 2021 finds Tom and I spending the final night of our ten-day road trip in Page, Arizona. Tucked just inside the northern border of the Grand Canyon State, Page is home to Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, red rocks, and painted vistas that roll and repeat across distant horizons.
By the time we step through the door of our Scottsdale condo tomorrow afternoon, we will have driven nearly 2,500 miles … Arizona to Utah to Idaho to Montana and back again.
Along the way, we will have captured hundreds of photos; discovered a delectable German bakery (Forschers) in Orderville, Utah, where we consumed apple and cherry pockets; walked along the greenbelt and roaring rapids of the Snake River in Idaho Falls; marveled at our first live theatrical performance since the pandemic (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream) in Bozeman where we huddled with old and new friends on a blanket; and hiked around hairpin curves at magnificent Bryce Canyon National Park as a storm rumbled in the western sky.
Even with all of that (and much more I won’t detail here), the sweetest realization is conquering the twists and turns of life on a long road trip again. It is the first time Tom and I have ventured out to the highways and byways since I suffered a mild heart attack in 2017 in St. Louis on our shared sixtieth birthday on the way to our new home in Scottsdale.
Thankfully, this 2021 swing through the western states puts greater distance between the trauma of the past and the poignancy of the present. That brings me to the midpoint of 2021, where–tonight–the possibilities of post-pandemic, vaccinated life feel as endless as the Arizona horizon.
This must-see geological wonder in southern Utah proved to be more spectacular than imagined. On the last Tuesday in late June, threatening skies produced little rain over the hoodoos (spire-shaped rock formations) in the drought-stricken west, but plenty of photo opportunities.
Already dazzled by the majestic skies of Montana and Idaho, two sixty-something, homeward-bound, Scottsdale-Arizona guys hiked 1.5 miles along the Rim Trail … high above the Bryce Amphitheatre depression … from Bryce Point to Inspiration Point without slipping, tripping, tumbling or losing consciousness.
Traveling through the West, it is the beauty, desolation, and vastness that inspire me most. The sky and geography of Utah and Idaho collude to create soaring, lasting impressions. They seduce me, whispering ancient tales and promising a blur of stories of high plains, dusty buttes, painted plateaus, river rapids, and arid summer days.
As we travel highways and backroads, we gather and stack our stones. We accumulate memories of lovers and friends, tranquility and turmoil, balance and incongruity, strength and vulnerability.
Our teetering stones represent the yin and yang of our natural existence. Without them, we would have nothing to account for our discoveries, our disappointments, our victories, our losses, our presence.
Gaze beyond the earth to the cerulean sky. It lightens our load. The blueness invites us to forget the gravity of our stones, to aspire to possibilities loftier, to imagine peace over the weight of our past.
This is my domain, though at times I barely recognize the land that met the sky on the wings of my ancestors. Now it is divided into parcels and corridors of parched earth and concrete that channel swirling desert winds.
I crave missing monsoon rains. I grieve for the fallen in war and peace. I pause to observe the pain, pestilence, and progress. I wince over apathy and shortsightedness. I am blind to none of it.
Call me a scavenger or opportunist if you will. I am imperfect like you. I am a survivor, a symbol of what is right and wrong. I was nearly gone and forgotten. Now I am standing guard over the mystery and mayhem that is my home.
It’s a big job, keeping the trees pruned in our complex. Yes, it’s like me to prune the lemon tree outside our front door and write a book of essays set against the beauty and warmth of this Sonoran Desert life.
But trimming palms exists in another stratosphere in the hall of fame of pruning and gardening. You’ll never find me shimmying up the trunk of a palm (think Gilligan’s Island) to sculpt them to look like this. It requires experts, like the crew that descended upon us yesterday. Even so, I admire the tidy end result and occupy myself by photographing the uplifting outcome and telling a story about it.
As the first holiday weekend of summer approaches, the manicured appearance of these Polynesian Paradise palms reminds me that I live in a relatively carefree resort community. I’m not stranded (perpetually) on a unchartered island like Gilligan, the Skipper, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann were in the 1960s, but I am far removed from the demanding midwestern life I left behind.
I’m grateful for this slower pace and quieter life. As summer approaches, I wish you the same. We all need time to reflect and rejuvenate our spirits, time to get lost in a silly old sitcom, time to read a good book, time to pour a cool drink, time to relax and indulge ourselves under a favorite tree.