Two Septembers to Remember

 

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In September 2015, I returned to Huntersville, North Carolina. After my mother died, I was on a mission and a personal journey. I needed to set foot on this land, seventeen miles north of Charlotte. It was once the road to my maternal grandparents’ farm. I needed to go there to make sense of my southern roots, finish my first book, From Fertile Ground, and–in a sense–bring Mom back with me to the state she left behind in 1945. I will always be grateful for the experience.

How quickly conditions can change. Three years ago, I wrote about the parched land I saw and spoke with family members about the horrible drought in the area. Now, as Hurricane Florence barrels toward the eastern seaboard, forecasters are predicting a vastly different fate for North Carolina. Warnings have been issued for a destructive storm surge late Thursday or Friday along the South Carolina and North Carolina coasts, followed by days of heavy rain inland for western North Carolina. Towns like Huntersville.

Whatever transpires, I’m holding my breath. I hope all residents in harm’s way evacuate the region safely and get the FEMA assistance they need quickly if the storm delivers its expected punch and devastation.

Seventy Years and Two Ordinary Lives

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Though both of my parents are deceased — Walter Johnson in 1993 and Helen Johnson in 2013 — I think of one or both of them on most days. Today they are especially on my mind, because Walter and Helen were married in St. Louis on September 4, 1948. Seventy years ago.

Like most couples, my mom and dad lived ordinary lives and endured moments that were far from idyllic. But all lives, even unspectacular ones spent far beneath the radar, are meaningful and worth remembering.

As newlyweds, Walter and Helen lived in Texas, where Dad made a living as a dry goods salesman with the Ely-Walker Company. Mom took a secretarial job at the Fifth Army Headquarters in San Antonio. To be closer to Dad’s family, in the fall of 1951 they returned to St. Louis, where they rented a flat on the south side of town. Within the next six years, my sister and I were born. In 1959, Walter and Helen bought a three-bedroom brick home in south suburban St. Louis to accommodate our growing family.

Three years later, on September 13, 1962, Dad suffered a heart attack. I saw the arc of my parents’ lives and our family’s sense of well-being change forever that day. Fortunately, Dad survived the ordeal and Mom’s resourcefulness kicked into high gear. She found a government job and went back to work to sustain us. From that point forward, Walter and Helen led lives with vastly different trajectories. Walter’s health, earning power and confidence declined; Helen’s resiliency, frustration and success soared. In spite of their constant conflicts, they managed to stay together.

In September 1988, my sister and I hosted a small gathering in the basement of the church my parents attended to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. I remember thinking that their relationship seemed sweeter and quieter that day than it had for a long time. I believe that continued for the next five years until Dad died of a second heart attack on November 26, 1993.

Despite the personal difficulties and challenges my parents faced, they were good citizens and kind human beings. As I age, I see physical reminders of Walter and Helen looking back at me in the mirror. My father’s vulnerability and crooked smile. My mother’s fight and fading blue eyes. Occasionally, I observe a personality trait or gesture in my adult sons that reminds me of something Helen would have said or Walter would have done. It’s evidence that my parents live on in their grandsons. Those moments make me smile.

All three of my memoirs include stories about both of my parents and their impact on my life. This week — as a tribute to Walter and Helen and their frailties and triumphs — I’m discounting the price of the Kindle version of my first book, From Fertile Ground, on Amazon. Much of this memoir is about the grief that consumed me after Mom died in 2013 and my journey to make sense of the past, once both Helen and Walter were gone. It’s a universal story of love, loss and finding your way.

This photo — taken in 1949 at Club Seven Oaks somewhere off the highway between San Antonio and Austin, Texas — is now my favorite image of my parents together. I keep a framed copy on my desk for comfort and inspiration. Ironically, when I wrote and published From Fertile Ground in early 2016, I didn’t include this photo. At that time, I wasn’t quite as ready to embrace this apparently contented version of Helen and Walter seated side by side, holding hands on my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday eight years before I was born.

But the passage of time has brought me new insights. It and the experience of surviving my own health scare have given me greater understanding and compassion for my parents: two ordinary people I loved, two ordinary people I will never forget.

 

 

Magical Ireland

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A year ago—seven weeks after I survived a mild heart attack in St. Louis—my husband and I found ourselves on a vastly different journey and terrain in Ireland.

As I write this sentence, I’m grateful and astonished that we didn’t cancel our plans. We traveled, as intended, to the land my mother’s family emigrated from. To the lush seascapes and heather-covered hills she never visited, but longed to. When Mom died in 2013, I resolved that Ireland was a place I had to see for myself. Proceeding with my plans became even more paramount after my own brush with fate. In the face of my own fragility, I desperately needed to follow through on my Irish adventure.

Brian, our capable and clever CIE Tours guide, was just the man for the job. He entertained us with countless stories and songs of Irish lore as we circled the Emerald Isle clockwise on a coach with forty new friends from Europe, Australia and North America.

Our nine-day excursion was magical: a sojourn to the sixth century and the solitude of monastic life at Glendalough; hypnotic views through a dreamy morning fog at Lough Leane near Killarney; a fascinating immersion into Viking history in Waterford; a glimpse of a natural wonder at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, where piles of hexagonal-shaped, volcano-induced rocks of basalt—supposed stepping stones for legendary giants to walk across the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland—beckoned us; a sheep herding demonstration on the west coast of Ireland near Sligo, where Jack, this trusty border collie prepared to pounce from the thick grass to display his powers of persuasion on his master’s working farm; and a double-decker bus ride and romp through Dublin. That’s where we paused at the Dublin Writer’s Museum and I realized there was at least one more story I simply had to write when I returned home. Something that made sense of our cross-country move from Illinois to Arizona that went awry.

Of course, our Irish adventure included several pints of Guinness and at least one particularly personal and poignant moment. It occurred on one of our last nights in Ireland. We were dining at the Glyde Inn, a family-owned tavern north of Dublin overlooking the Irish Sea.

After I polished off my plate of Irish stew, I spotted an unassuming, elderly woman with thick gray hair combed to the side. She was seated with a few other local townspeople across from us on the other side of the room. She clapped her hands as the fiddler played a jig.

That frail, yet spunky, Irish lady reminded me of my mother.

That’s when I felt the magic of Ireland.

That’s when I realized my Irish adventure was complete.

 

Side By Side

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Whenever the summer winds down and the Major League Baseball pennant race heats up, I think of my father. Especially this year, because the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death is just three months away. If Dad were living, he would be thrilled by the remarkable late-season resurgence of his favorite baseball team: the St. Louis Cardinals.

Here are a few excerpts from my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, which includes my sweetest memories of my father.

When I look in the mirror, I see him looking back at me. My dad, that is. Though Walter Johnson was a larger man in stature with a broader chest–and hazel eyes instead of my blue–there was always a similarity to our stride and our gregarious, sensitive, idealistic, and loyal nature …

Dad was such a Cardinal lover that in July 1945, following his World War II service, he carried a paperback copy of The St. Louis Cardinals: The Story of a Great Baseball Club by Frederick G. Lieb with him. Evidently, the Special Services Division for the Army distributed the publication to servicemen overseas. Inside the flap, Dad wrote: “Read aboard ship enroute to U.S.  in July 1945 on U.S.S. Monticello.”

Two decades after Dad returned from the war and resumed his civilian life, cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals became our shared passion. Of course, it’s too soon to know whether the team will return to the postseason this year after two mediocre seasons in 2016 and 2017. But just knowing they are in serious contention again reminds me of Dad, our Cardinal-loving DNA, and dozens of muggy St. Louis nights in the 1960s.

There we were. Sitting in the Busch Memorial Stadium bleachers. Side by side. Listening to the melodious baseball banter of Harry Caray and Jack Buck through our transistor radio. Anticipating Lou Brock’s next stolen base. Watching Bob Gibson pitch another gem. Rooting for our favorite team.

 

 

Getting Giddy … If You Read Me

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I love what I do, because I finally have the time and focus in my life to write about subjects that interest me most: making sense of your heritage, finding your path, exploring your sense of community, embracing love, and transcending the inevitable losses we all face.

If you were to ask a group of independent authors “What motivates you to spend time writing everyday?”, you would likely get a variety of practical and lofty answers. Creative freedom … peace and solitude … giving voice to beliefs … crafting a legacy … a little extra cash … maybe one day unearthing an award-winning novel. Like me, I imagine many would also tell you this: “My hope is that people will read what I write … and enjoy it.”

With that in mind, yesterday I scanned my author page on Goodreads. I was immediately transported to writer heaven, because someone I don’t know–someone I will likely never meet–posted this five-star review about my latest book, An Unobstructed View.

“Enjoyable and touching memoir of fatherhood, finding love, and facing life’s changes (both planned and unexpected). I especially enjoyed the reminiscences of Chicago.”

These two sentences from a total stranger (but grateful reader) reinforced my realization that when people read my books and tell me about it, I get giddy.

Naturally, I thanked this person for reading what I wrote and for sharing her perspective. Now I have more of the fuel I need to keep writing. To keep telling my stories.

Two Worlds

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There is no shortage of visual drama in my new home state. Last week, as my husband and I wound our way north on Interstate 17—driving from Phoenix towards Flagstaff to escape the heat for a few days and eventually gasp at the sight of the Grand Canyon—the elevation climbed steadily. The terrain suddenly shifted near a town called Bumble Bee. The stately saguaro cacti vanished. We left behind the Sonoran Desert and August’s triple-digit temperatures. Within an hour, we found ourselves in a second world: a parallel, complementary universe of slender Ponderosa pine trees and cooler temperatures.

For many native Arizonans, I imagine this geographic dichotomy—desert heat and mountain retreat—feels customary. But not for this native Midwesterner; I lived and worked in the relative flatness of the Illinois prairie for most of my life. Having two rugged worlds at my immediate disposal is akin to savoring a scoop of each of my favorite ice creams (chocolate chip and mint chocolate chip), which I don’t allow myself to consume anymore.

Fortunately, breathtaking scenery—like this image from the south rim of the Grand Canyon—includes no saturated fat or cholesterol. I’ll have another scoop please.

Memoirs: True Stories That Connect Us

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We live in an age where we have more technological capability, more devices, more apps, more social media avenues to give us greater access to immediate information and services. Not to mention an infinitesimal number of perspectives and reams of historical data. Yet, in my sixty-one years, I’ve never seen our country as disconnected or divided socially and politically.

To keep my equilibrium, for the past few years I have resolved—perhaps subconsciously on some days and more overtly on others—that I need to keep telling my stories to do my part to neutralize the negativity that predominates our lives. To uphold my own personal truths. To influence what and who I can through my writing. Even if only a handful of people are really interested in reading what I have to say. (If you’re an aspiring, independent and/or self-published author, you know what I mean.)

I’ve also realized I need to read more true stories. Memoirs by ordinary and extraordinary people. Gifted authors who are writing about universal themes: the desire to examine, understand and celebrate the family we came from; the calling to sometimes create a different sense of family, community and belonging; the need for unconditional love and authentic acceptance; the ironic interdependence of our lives in a chaotic world; the rightful quest for equality and personal opportunity; the fundamental need for a safe home and refuge; and the daunting struggle to repair the human spirit and find peace after a significant loss.

So, as the summer winds down (or in my case continues on here in the heat of the desert), I encourage you to devote time to an inspirational true story that feeds your spirit. Of course, I’d be delighted if you read any of my three memoirs—An Unobstructed View, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, or From Fertile Ground—because they explore the themes I’ve described above. You can find information about each of them here on my website.

But there are many other memoirs about universal human conditions that may appeal to you. Consider these five, which I’ve read in 2018 (or am currently reading) and highly recommend. All are authentic stories written by gifted authors with distinctive voices.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me—by Bill Hayes. This is a tender memoir about the relationship between the writer and Oliver Sacks, noted neurologist and author. It’s perfectly seasoned with observations about love, loss, and the random creative connections between total strangers in New York. 

Life Is So Good—by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman. Originally published in 2000, this is the epic story of one man’s remarkable journey throughout the twentieth century and how he learned to read at ninety-eight years old.

Between Them: Remembering My Parents—by Richard Ford. Author of the iconic Frank Bascombe books, this is Ford’s first work of nonfiction. It’s a stirring, candid and intimate narrative about parental love.

The Best of Us—by Joyce Maynard. Published in 2017, this is an unbridled ode of love and loss, laced with indelible and bittersweet moments Joyce shared with her husband Jim as he battled pancreatic cancer.

Love, Bill—by Jan Krulick-Belin. After her father dies when she is six years old, the author believes she will never really know the man he was. But decades later Jan discovers letters that lead her on an extraordinary journey following her father’s actual footsteps during World War II.