Helen and Her Legacy of Letters

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In 1923, Helen—after Dorothy—was the second most popular name given to infant girls. But the Helen I knew, born that year on July 26 in High Point, North Carolina, was second to none. Helen Matilda Ferrell was my resilient mother. This would have been her ninety-fifth birthday.

After a Depression-era childhood filled with hardship and family responsibilities, Helen left the Tar Heel State at twenty-two. In 1945, she landed a government job in post-WWII St. Louis, where she lived most of the next six decades. In 1948, she met my father, Walter Johnson, at Westminster Ballroom. They married later that year after a brief courtship.

The ensuing decade was a relatively quiet time. By 1957, Helen and Walter were proud parents of two healthy children—my sister and me. But the 1960s, like the social upheaval in our country, were turbulent years for our family. Walter suffered a heart attack in 1962 that left him alive but reeling and unable to work consistently. Helen found a full-time job to sustain us.

I know my mother felt alone under the weight of the grind for the next twenty-five years. I watched her muster the strength to raise two children, mark time in a disintegrating marriage, and teeter above it all with no safety net. Finally, Helen took a deep breath in 1987. She retired to a more peaceful, contented life at sixty-three.

Over the next twenty-five years, Helen penned and mailed a thousand or more cards and letters to me. Kind but forceful, I almost had to hold them at arm’s length to keep the contents from smothering me like the kudzu vines that constrained the trees and plant life in rural North Carolina. But time gives us greater appreciation and perspective. I now understand my mother’s letters were her narrative, her legacy of wisdom. I’ve kept them close at hand, stored in a box near my desk.

When Helen died of congestive heart failure on January 26, 2013 in Wheaton, Illinois, I didn’t know the full moon beaming on the horizon would be the last light I would see before two foggy-headed years swallowed me whole. I often felt alone in the darkness, though my husband and a circle of close friends stood with me. I forged along in the vacuum of Helen’s existence.

I hoped Helen’s letters would provide clues for me to move ahead without her physical presence. So in 2014, after retiring from my own demanding career in the communication business, I began to sift through her scribblings—strewn across my living room floor—like a desperate miner panning for gold nuggets.

Slowly, a few answers emerged. Remnants of Helen, the ultimate survivor, permeated the pages she authored at the desk of her St. Louis retirement. Her life lessons—and a mountain of diary entries her father left behind from his Spartan mid-twentieth-century life in rural North Carolina—prompted me to retrace my southern roots in 2015. A year later, with glimmers of Helen guiding me, I completed and published my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation memoir about all three of our lives.

Two more years have passed. Though the loss of my mother persists, it has subsided with the rise and fall of each passing full moon. Helen didn’t witness the life I’ve unearthed as a late-blooming author, my precarious existence following a heart attack a year ago, or the personalized definition of retirement my husband and I are shaping near the sands of the Sonoran Desert. But perhaps none of these eventualities would have surprised her.

Certainly, my mother’s voice and encouragement endure with each passing day. Late in her life, as her maladies mounted, she kept her even keel and a dish of her favorite candies, Werther’s original caramels, nearby to relieve her dry mouth. With a sly smile, she reminded me that “the best way to stay healthy is to get a chronic disease and then take care of it.”

It’s comforting knowing that whenever I need to access a page of my mother’s philosophy to get through a difficult moment, I have a path to follow, which—over time—I’ve integrated into my life along with a ready supply of Werther’s hard candies.

The splice of Helen’s handwriting you see here, taken from a 2008 thank-you note to me right after her eighty-fifth birthday celebration, is physical proof of the remarkable woman I knew. In Helen’s words, some things, like a fulfilling retirement, are “worth waiting for.”

And some people are most definitely worth remembering too.

After the Storm

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July 12, 2017 was a blistering afternoon in Scottsdale, Arizona. A year ago I was certain of one thing as my husband and I arrived at our new home, emerged from our stacked Sonata and stepped into the 107-degree heat. I was thankful. No matter the temperature, I had survived a mild heart attack on our way west. We were ready to turn the page in the desert.

For the next few weeks, we stayed inside mostly. Away from the sun. I unpacked a few boxes. Somehow I also found the energy to paint a wall in our condo after we had a new thermostat installed. But Tom did all of the heavy lifting. I sat and observed. I remember watching him clean our hummingbird feeder. He filled it with sugar water and hung it outside our kitchen window. Under the eaves.

Within a few days, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds zoomed in and landed. They found their newest source of neighborhood nourishment. It was comforting to see them hover nearby. They lingered there with us.

Over the past year, our hummingbird friends have become a mainstay. I’ll bet Tom has refilled the feeder with sweet nectar at least twenty times. This week we’ve seen heavy monsoon rains on a few afternoons. Yesterday I captured this image of one of our friends hanging out under our eaves. After the storm.

 

 

 

The Synchronicity of My Sixtieth Year

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My husband Tom and I are just hours away from celebrating our shared sixty-first birthday in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s been a remarkable and synchronistic year.

July 6, 2017 began with a surprise. It was me lying on a gurney. Tom stood by me. Calling my sons. Squeezing my hand. Assuring me that the doctors and nurses at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis (less than ten miles from my boyhood home) would take good care of me. I had just suffered a mild heart attack on our way west as we were driving to our new home in Arizona.

I will never forget that crazy day in muggy St. Louis. Craning my neck to steal a tear-stained hug from an anonymous and kind nurse. Telling her I was a writer. Explaining that I would share this experience to ease the pain for some other poor soul. Doing so would help me heal. It would be my salvation. The story became my third book: An Unobstructed View.

A year has passed, but my St. Louis synchronicity continues. The Major League Baseball schedule makers decided to send the St. Louis Cardinals to Arizona in early July–exactly one year after my brush with destiny. They paired my beloved team from the bleacher seats of my 1960s with the Arizona Diamondbacks in my new hometown in an Independence Day contest in the desert.

Needless to say, Tom and I bought two bleacher tickets for last night’s game. Before we found our seats, I snapped this synchronistic selfie of the two of us … with me, wearing my weathered Cardinals cap. Several hours later, the Redbirds escaped with a sloppy 8-4 victory.

But, in the scheme of life, the sweetest triumph of all happened for me a year ago on July 6, 2017 in St. Louis. That’s when I was reborn with my husband by my side. It happened in the city that first welcomed me.

 

 

Three Powerful Words

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When I woke up this morning, I panicked because it’s July 1st. Pride month had come and gone without me writing a word about it. But then I quickly regained my equilibrium. There is no expiration date on Pride. I’m proud of being gay 365 days a year.

That doesn’t mean I don’t feel anxiety and trepidation on a regular basis. I do. Especially in a world where the relentless news cycle reminds me that love and respect seem to be running in short supply for those who are different and disenfranchised. That’s probably what prompted me to spend $38 on this “LOVE IS LOVE” t-shirt, which my husband and I saw hanging in a window at a Banana Republic store in Chicago a few weeks ago.

Anyway, for my own peace of mind right now, I need to acknowledge and focus on the positive experiences in my life. Moments when I feel respect and pride. One of them occurred here in Arizona just a few nights ago.

I sing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. We are a diverse group of talented gay men of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. The Arizona Diamondbacks invited us to sing the national anthem at Pride Night before the start of the June 29 Dbacks game with the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field in Phoenix.

Before the game, as we exercised our vocal chords and gathered to make our way into the ballpark, courteous members of the Dbacks’ staff worked to locate a wheelchair for one of our members who needed assistance. He’s a beloved, longtime member of the chorus who has recovered from a stroke and returned to sing again. Once the wheelchair arrived, we were on our way. We wound up and down long corridors underneath the ballpark. Ultimately, we were escorted onto the outfield in front of four microphones. That’s when I gazed up at the crowd. I was surrounded by my chorus mates and some twenty thousand fans. A few minutes later, the public address announcer introduced us.

Time stood still. We sang beautifully. The fans cheered. We were thrilled. I was proud.

Love is love.

Telling the Forbidden Story

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Joyce Maynard, renowned author of sixteen books of fiction and non-fiction. Most notably the bestselling memoir At Home in the World. She was a guest lecturer at a writer’s workshop I attended in Tucson. I vividly remember one piece of advice Joyce gave the group: That as writers it was up to us to tell the forbidden story.

As a memoir writer, I believe every bit of what Joyce had to say. I strive to keep her gem of literary gumption at the forefront of what I produce. Telling the truth with personal passion. Exploring every emotion with honesty. Delivering authenticity in everything I write and publish. Anything less would be misleading and manipulative.

On the final night of the workshop, Joyce stood in front of the group and read a chapter from her latest book, The Best of Us. It’s the story of the love she shared with her husband Jim and their profound journey before, during and after his battle with pancreatic cancer shattered their lives. I was fortunate to be one of fifty or so other writers in the room that night. All of us were captivated by the poetic poignancy of Joyce’s chosen words and the gift of hearing her tell her story in her own voice with her own inflections.

This past week I finally had the time to read The Best of Us cover to cover on my flight from Phoenix to Chicago and back. The book is a testament to the power of love and loss. An ode to capturing the fleeting, indelible moments (both sweet and bitter) that come with only the most rare once-in-lifetime relationships.

Thank you, Joyce, for telling your personal forbidden stories. For sparing no details about the loves and losses in your life. You give all writers something beautiful, truthful, grand and glorious to aspire to.

A Year Later: The Circle is Complete

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My husband and I sold our suburban Chicago home and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona nearly a year ago. We hadn’t been back to the Windy City. Until last week, that is.

I’ll admit it. I was anxious about the trip. Primarily because I had encountered and survived a health scare on the way west. The experience changed and shook me to such a degree. I just wasn’t sure what it would feel like to spend a week in Illinois again. So much of my time in the past twelve months has been devoted to getting well, building a new life in the desert southwest, and reflecting on my previous home in Mount Prospect. (Incidentally, all of that led me to draft, reconfigure, rewrite, complete and publish my latest book, An Unobstructed View, a few weeks before my return to the Midwest.)

Naturally, I needed and wanted to see and hug loved ones again, who still live in the Land of Lincoln: my younger son, my sister, my sister-in-law. Not to mention close friends and neighbors. All of them kind. Concerned about our welfare. But living far away from us now. Seventeen hundred miles east. They were the impetus and motivation for our return. I knew that being with them again and feeling their love would remind me just how deep my Illinois roots still run. That I would always hold a special place in my heart for my thirty-seven years living in the Chicago area. Just as I do for the first two decades of my life in Missouri.

Anyway, last week, I felt the Illinois love again … without all the responsibilities of jobs and homeownership of my previous Illinois existence. Though we didn’t have the time to visit with everyone we wanted to see, our first trip back included the moments that mattered most: relaxing days and nights with friends in our old Mount Prospect neighborhood; a surprise invitation from the new owners of our previous home to step in and admire their freshly painted interior; quiet meals in the suburbs with our sisters and a dear friend who officiated our wedding; a musical evening in Chicago at St. James Cathedral watching and listening to our Windy City Performing Arts friends perform “My Life: A Mixtape”; a Father’s Day brunch on the north side with my son that extended into a fun afternoon of World Cup watching; and dinner with a close friend along the Chicago River on our last night in town.

That final stop is where my husband captured this photo of me. Watching the water traffic float by. Admiring the vibrant city that used to be my home.

Now the circle is complete.