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.

Old Photo Sheds New Light

 

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Before my husband and I left Illinois a year ago, we gave away carloads of possessions to local charities. If you’ve moved recently, you know what I mean. Ancillary furniture, dishes, clothes and knickknacks. We resolved there was no point in carrying all of these extra items seventeen hundred miles west only to deposit them in a dusty, $200-per-month storage closet. Especially when they might be of use to other families in other homes in the same metropolitan area.

But there was something of more personal, intrinsic value I couldn’t part with—my voluminous supply of family photos, complete with glimpses back in time to less complicated places and meaningful moments in Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Texas. All of them came with us to Arizona.

Even after raiding my photo repository for three memoirs I’ve written, some images have slipped under my radar. They are stored loosely in shoeboxes or glued to yellowing scrapbooks my parents left behind. Others I’ve accumulated in albums from my own six decades. Now all of them are stacked in our master bedroom closet or in my father’s World War II army trunk near the foot of our bed.

My intent—over time—is to scan and digitize the bulk of them. But if I do that, I won’t have the experience I had today. Reaching up to the top shelf of my closet, leafing through a stack of old photos, and discovering an image I forgot I had: this remarkably clear (though somewhat tattered) snapshot of my grandparents’ farmhouse in Huntersville, North Carolina.

As luck would have it, this circa-1940s photo was nowhere to be found three years ago when I was writing From Fertile Ground. I scoured every corner of my Illinois home to find the most iconic black-and-white images of the farm my granddad bought from a man named J.R. McCurdy in 1945.

But this old gem slipped through the cracks only to resurface today and shed new light on a blazing afternoon in the Sonoran Desert. It was a happy reminder of the tired but magical refuge I knew twenty years later in the 1960s, where my sister and I chased peacocks in July for a chance to bring home a colorful tail feather or two and a new batch of summer memories.

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.