Six Years Have Passed, but the Poppies Still Bloom

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In mid-January 2013, I was marking time. I had just returned to my consulting job in Chicago after a two-month leave of absence to spend time with Helen Johnson. She was my wise, but ailing, mother. Somehow Helen had dodged and surpassed the prognostications of her doctors. She was clinging to life in hospice, enduring frequent breathing treatments to relieve her congestive heart failure, channeling the will and resiliency that had sustained her for more than eighty-nine years.

A few weeks later, everything changed. I got the dreaded call. My mother’s life ended peacefully in the wee hours of January 26, 2013. Soon after, a grief-induced fog rolled in and consumed me. Fortunately, I found the strength to write about it. My new life as an author began to take root. I never imagined the vacuum left by my mother’s existence would become the catalyst and subject matter for my first book, From Fertile Ground.

Six years have passed. Today I’m thankful I can remember my mother freely without the specter of pain. Helen Johnson had a passion for nature and supporting aspiring artists. She also believed in second chances. In the 1970s, Mom insisted I come with her to annual art shows at Menard state prison in southern Illinois. That’s where some of the more talented inmates presented and sold their work. On one of those excursions, she bought this painting.

For nearly the next three decades, it hung in our living room in suburban St. Louis. Then it traveled with Mom to her new home in Chicago’s western suburbs, where she spent the last nine years of her life. After Mom died, I kept the painting. When my husband and I moved to Arizona in 2017, we brought it with us.

In a weak moment this week, as the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death drew closer, I considered giving it away because we have less space now. But then I had a change of heart. With my husband’s encouragement, I realized the painting will never mean as much to anyone else. We found the right spot to display it in our condo kitchen.

This vivid splash of blooming poppies on a hillside, painted by an artist named McCall in 1975, will always represent my mother’s best qualities. As long as I’m alive, I hope the memories of her goodness never fade.

 

Alumni Bookshelf: Upper Right Corner

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Perhaps you feel like me. It’s day five in the new year. I’m restless … and I’m itching to regain my rhythm. The joys and demands of the holiday season have vanished in the night. They’ve left me standing in front of a gaping hole in my writing routine.

Simply typing these words is helping me to fill the void. It’s jarring me enough to jumpstart my journalistic juices. But, this week in my mail, I also found another bridge back to my creative ballast. My heart skipped a bit when I opened the Winter 2019 edition of MIZZOU magazine (the magazine of the Mizzou alumni association). I spotted a mention of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, in the upper right corner on page fifty-seven. It’s one of a dozen books highlighted in this edition, all written in 2018 by University of Missouri alumni.

As background, I didn’t pay for this mention. A few months ago I sent my latest book to the Alumni Bookshelf editor with a letter. I told him I thought his readers would find my book to be an inspiring story of promise, perseverance and reflection. Of course, I was hoping for this result. Because when you’re an independent writer, you’re a one-man or one-woman band. You’re always looking for a little exposure that puts you on the map. Maybe a few lines of type to represent the gallons of energy and love you poured into your latest literary venture.

So, here I am in front of my laptop on January 5, 2019. I’m sitting at my desk, gazing up at a palm tree outside my Arizona window. I’m thankful for MIZZOU magazine. I’m grateful for my University of Missouri education and the doors it has opened for me. I’m proud of the journalism degree I earned back in 1979.

Yes, it was forty years ago. But I’m still reaping the benefits. Today I’ve got an unobstructed view on the upper right corner of the alumni bookshelf.

A New Year, A New Day to Feed the Ducks

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My husband and I have a New Year’s Day tradition in Arizona. Every year on January 1 we hike to a nearby park to feed crusts of old year bread to new year birds. We began doing this four or five years ago when we were birds ourselves — snowbirds, that is — and found we had fallen in love with the darling ducks at a little oasis surrounded by buttes and palm trees.

Today, on a frosty Arizona morning, we renewed our ritual. We tossed tufts of multi-grain goodness into the water. The ducks dove in and paddled up to gobble up the bread. A family with two pre-teen children watched with delight from the edge of the water. Their expressions told me they were fascinated with our interaction with the ducks. I smiled and passed them two slices of bread so they could join in our moment with the ducks.

What better way to begin 2019. Reaching out to nature. Connecting with strangers. Celebrating the start of another year in a world of possibilities.

Desert Rose: December Memories

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In a world that overvalues youth, immediacy and hashtags (and undervalues history, longevity and sentiment), I sometimes fear that memoirs will vanish one day soon. That no one will care about the past, what we might learn from it, and what it means to us. Still, I continue to share my stories, because I believe we grow as human beings by remembering where we came from and how these experiences inform our present lives.

Last week, I wrote about my fascination with desert rose plants and their beautiful blooms. This story goes deeper than my Arizona life. Decades deeper. Back to my childhood in St. Louis and beyond. Back to my mother and father, when they were newlyweds living in Texas in the late 1940s.

As Christmas approaches and my new desert rose plant lies dormant in my Arizona home, the time is right to share my earliest desert rose memories from the 1960s and the sense of renewal this beautiful succulent represents in my life.

Following is an excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of stories about my Missouri youth. This is one of my sweetest December recollections.

*   *   *

With the disruptions at home, my parents had too much on their plates and seldom played host and hostess on holidays. The one exception was Christmas Day dinner. That’s when they threw caution to the wind annually; when Mom poured highballs for our hardest drinking guests; when a layer of cigarette and cigar smoke bellowed and hung across our living room; when Mom cooked roast beef, whipped potatoes and gravy, and some sort of green vegetable to present a “balanced meal;” when she reached into the kitchen cupboard for her favorite dinnerware; when–best of all–she proudly displayed the place settings of Franciscan Desert Rose she and Dad received as wedding gifts in 1948.

While Mom’s meal was in the oven, I helped her swing open the leg of our maple dining room table and insert a few leaves to accommodate our house guests: Thelma, Ralph, Harry, Violet,  Phyllis, Vic, Virginia, Vickie and Lib–and a few other aging relatives and friends who had nowhere else to go. Then, between intermittent checks of her roast, she took laps around the dining room, setting each place with utensils and napkins, and adding the Desert Rose plates, cups, and saucers.

I don’t think I was a tremendous help to her as she set the table, but I remember seeing a far off glint in Mom’s eyes as she examined and caressed each plate. I know she treasured her embossed earthenware. Introduced by Gladding, McBean and Company in 1941, Franciscan Desert Rose was one of the best-selling dinnerware lines of the 1940s. Perhaps it reminded her of a simpler time … when she and Dad were newlyweds preparing to move to Texas where his dry goods sales job was taking them … when they had lighter hopes, greater dreams, more time, and a sparkling set of dinnerware to frame lovingly-prepared meals with new friends and acquaintances.

Whatever the case, the classic design of the Desert Rose–the pink rose with a yellow center and a green-leaf border–dressed up Mom’s holiday table and brought a hint of beauty into an otherwise chaotic world.

Over the decades, several plates, cups and saucers were chipped or broken. I don’t know what happened to the remaining pieces of my parents’ Desert Rose dinnerware, but my husband and I have bought a few Desert Rose plates in the past few years, whenever we discover them on a random shelf in a Midwestern antique shop. They remind me of my happiest holiday memories and that fleeting, wistful look I saw on my mother’s face each year on Christmas Day.

*   *   *

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, as 2018 winds down, I encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on your favorite childhood memories. And, most of all, I wish you peace and good health in 2019. I hope you realize your desert rose dreams and witness the power of renewal in the coming year.

 

 

Desert Rose: December Dreams

 

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Several years before our cross-country move and 2017 whirlwind adventure that led to An Unobstructed View, my husband and I were snowbirds. We flocked annually to the Arizona desert to escape portions of Chicago’s frigid winters and snowy springs.

One April, I remember being dazzled by the bright red blooms on the desert rose plants (adeniums) at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. We vowed that once we moved permanently and got settled, we’d buy one of these beautiful succulents and place it in a container in a sunny spot outside our condo.

We made good on that promise in October. We bought this adenium at the Desert Botanical Garden plant sale. Now our new addition is losing its leaves. It’s dormant. It will remain that way until March, when the growing season takes flight.

This morning, I felt a little like our desert rose looks when I walked past it … out of sorts and disheveled in early December … craving quiet time as the busy Christmas season approaches … hoping for another spurt of growth and creativity in the new year … wondering where my next inspiration will come from.

For now, I’ll do my best to lie dormant. I’ll keep dreaming of new blooms in my Arizona life.

 

 

Thanksgiving 1993: The Mourning After

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It was eight o’clock on November 26, 1993, the morning after Thanksgiving, when I answered my phone in suburban Chicago. Mom’s voice cracked. Six words spilled out of her mouth, traveled through the phone line and hung in the air. “Mark, your Dad died this morning.”

My father had passed away peacefully in the middle of the night at his home south of St. Louis. Instantly, I no longer felt thankful. The mourning unfolded. Numbness inhabited my body.

Gradually, the facts began to sink in. My parents Helen and Walter Johnson had enjoyed the holiday with his two sisters in north St. Louis County. They had gathered at my cousin’s home for a big meal in Missouri that night. After Dad consumed a second slice of Thanksgiving pie, Mom and he kissed his sisters goodbye, drove home and prepared for bed. Shortly after midnight, Dad leaned back on his pillow and uttered, “Helen, I think I’m going to die now.” And he did. Unceremoniously.

Mom told me the paramedics came immediately after she dialed 911. They tried to revive Dad. But his second heart attack, thirty-one years after the first, claimed him that Friday morning. His life ended one week shy of his eightieth birthday.

Later that week, I stood near the banks of the Mississippi River with my mother, sister and two young sons. We watched as two stone-faced soldiers folded the flag on top of his casket into a triangle. Dad, a World War II veteran, was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. He was buried by a large tree on a hill overlooking a chapel.

Twenty-five years have passed. Row after row of simple white marble stones surround my father there, marking the remains of hundreds of other veterans. I imagine each of them were as proud as Dad was of his service to his country.

I’ve probably visited Dad’s gravesite twenty times since 1993. I go there to pay my respects to my father’s well-intentioned and turbulent life, to hear the clear tones of the clarion ring from the chapel on the quarter hour, to retrace my steps between the rolling rows of stones, to gaze at the deer that saunter by, to kneel beside Dad’s grave and that of my mother’s. She joined him, the other veterans and the deer there in 2013.

I’ll never forget how my father struggled with his bipolar disorder … how he searched endlessly for relief. But with the passage of time, the pain I witnessed has sifted away. Now I’m thankful to remember the entire picture of him: his corny jokes, crooked smile and chatterbox style; his love of family, the St. Louis Cardinals and a cold bottle of beer; his enthusiasm for Big Band music, sappy old movies and overflowing cups of coffee; his unbridled sincerity and patriotism; his quest to write his poetry in the 1960s.

I’m absolutely certain Dad would have been proud of his two grandsons and the men they have become. I’m not as sure he would have understood or accepted me as a gay man. But, because I know he loved me, he would have tried. He would have marveled at how I maneuvered through life as a single dad, juggled a demanding consulting career, sang on a stage with other gay men, wrote and published three books, married and moved across the country with my husband, and forged ahead in our Arizona home after suffering a heart attack of my own on my sixtieth birthday.

In 2018, when I see the American flag flap in the breeze, watch the Cardinals play ball or board the treadmill to keep my heart strong, I think of Dad. I have greater compassion for my father’s frailties and his plight to recover from his own heart trauma in 1962.

I wish I could have one more conversation with Walter Johnson to tell him these things and hug him once again, but this will have to suffice.

You’ve been gone so long, Dad, but I still love and remember you. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

 

A Salute to Walter and All Veterans

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My father, Walter Albert Johnson, was an Army sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment and veteran of World War II. Dad was proud of his service to his country. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the last great conflict of the European phase of the war.

When the war in Europe ended and Walter returned home on board the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, he was scheduled for a thirty-day leave prior to reassignment in the Pacific Theater of the military operation. But on August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. World War II ended  shortly thereafter. Walter’s fighting days were over. He received his honorable discharge from the Army on October 11, 1945.

Walter didn’t talk much about his experience as a soldier. But I know he endured foxhole fright and frozen feet alongside hundreds of other soldiers who faced a similar plight. Years later, he suffered horrible nightmares. Even so, in the early 1960s when he huddled with my sister and me along parade routes that wound down St. Louis streets,  I remember how Dad jumped to attention to salute the American flag as it passed. I admired his sense of patriotism. It was one of his finest qualities.

Though Walter has been gone nearly twenty-five years, I think of him often. Snippets of him and his lasting impressions on my life appear in all three of my books. In honor of Veterans Day and the sacrifices made by all military veterans living and deceased, the purchase price of the Kindle version of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, will be reduced to ninety-nine cents on Amazon from November 9 through 15.