Palm and Pine and Sycamore

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Three gather to whisper, one natural grace.

Sure shiny October, rare shady space.

Beckoning branches, bowing before.

Triumphant triad, truth to adore.

Forever delight, never ignore.

Palm and pine and sycamore.

 

By Mark Johnson, October 20, 2019

After Grief Swallowed Me Whole

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In October 2015, I was a fixture in front of my laptop. I spent endless hours painstakingly polishing the final draft of my first book, From Fertile Ground. It’s the story of my journey after my mother’s death in 2013.

With help from a trail of letters and diary entries my mother and grandfather left behind, writing renewed my spirit. It led me out of the darkness and propelled me forward. After grief swallowed me whole, I finally reemerged and rediscovered sunlight at the end of a numb and winding road.

Intuitively, I realized I needed to share my story openly with the world. That of a gay man, loving husband, devoted father and grateful son searching for answers. I dreamed it would help others find a new path and navigate their way through grief.

Not long after I published From Fertile Ground in February 2016, friends and strangers began to post reviews online. They described how they were moved by the book and its lessons of love and loss. My dream was coming true.

By the end of 2017, things had gotten rather quiet. That’s what happens with books and creative accomplishments. They come and go no matter how much you want them to linger. They flash across the sky like shooting stars and then fall off the radar.

Fortunately, every once in a while, there is a glimmer or twinkle to remind you of their importance long after they first appear. That happened last week when I read a new review posted on Goodreads and Amazon … a review that reminded me why I decided to publish the book in the first place:

“This book is a life compass if you are experiencing loss or disruption in your family.

From Fertile Ground came to me at precisely the right time in my life. Mark’s perspective and reflection helped me to navigate loss and disruption in my own life. I pulled from his examples and experiences to temper my feelings and expectations. I ultimately gained a great deal of comfort and reassurance from his novel, and I continue to think back on it often as my life continues to evolve.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed getting to know Mark and his family. They are relatable people demonstrating courage, compassion, and love. The poem he wrote and included that was a tribute to his mom was one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed seeing his relationship with his children evolve from childhood to adulthood.”

This is the kind of glorious feedback that motivates me to keep sharing stories. To shine a light on truths … both personal and universal. To bring a little love, inspiration, comfort and reassurance to a world that really needs it. To devote time each day to my literary passion. To pen the next poem and dust off that fictionalized piece that I keep going back to. To live the life of a writer. It’s what I was meant to do. It is my fertile ground.

The Spirit of St. Louis

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If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know I write frequently about the importance of family and home. Thematically, I’m a big believer that they shape and influence the trajectory of our lives.

Though I left St. Louis (my original hometown) nearly forty years ago, my Missouri memories have proven to be a source of creative inspiration, pride, joy and considerable heartache. In fact, I’m certain the Gateway to the West occupies a permanent strand in my DNA.

No one personifies the spirit of St. Louis in my memories more than Thelma DeLuca. She was my aunt. I’ve been thinking of Thelma a lot lately. Mostly because the twentieth anniversary of her passing is coming later this month. But also because Dad and she were lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fans.

Tonight their favorite team (and mine too) will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. I’ll be watching the game on TV. If Thelma were living, she’d be doing the same. Cheering for her Redbirds. Wearing something red.

As a tribute to my aunt (shown here in a 1952 photo with “Bluebird”, her beloved blue Plymouth), I hope you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy this excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

* * *

Thelma’s middle name was Ruth, but it should have been Truth. She was Dad’s older sister, the life of the party, the leader of the band, a true original. There was no denying Thelma. She was the boldest, biggest-hearted member of the Johnson family. You always knew where she stood, because she would tell you with gusto. Like an Olympic gymnast on a quest for gold, she nailed the dismount, stuck the landing, and finished her routine planted firmly on the ground on the right side of an issue.

Thelma sheltered a collection of canines over the years. In the 1950s, when Lassie was king, she devoted her free time to Laddie, her prized collie. The dog won several blue ribbons with Thelma at his side. In the years that followed, she welcomed: Tina, the runt in a mixed-breed litter; Tor, a powerful but gentle Norwegian elkhound; and Heath Bar and Gizmo–Yorkshire Terriers–into her home. There’s no question she revered all of her pooches. I remember when I was a teenager as she moved in close to remind me with all the sincerity she could muster. “You know, dog is God spelled backwards,” she proclaimed …

In one breath Thelma, a lifelong Democrat, praised Harry Truman’s the-buck-stops-here forthrightness. In the next, she launched into a smooth glide down the hall on high heels with Uncle Ralph as Dean Martin sang Come Back to Sorrento or Vikki Carr belted out It Must Be Him on the hi-fi. All the while, Ralph’s prized braciole was baking in the oven.

Thelma craved the richness of relationships and the cumulative effect of what we learn from each other throughout a lifetime. Sitting at her kitchen table in the 1970s with a far-off look in her eyes, she leaned in with her wig slightly askew and told me, “Mark, we’re all like ships passing in the night.”

In her wake, Thelma certainly left her mark on me. Whenever she sent me a letter, she sealed it with a kiss–along with the letters SWAK written underneath in case her love was ever in question–leaving behind remnants of her red lipstick on the back of the envelope or at the bottom of her letter next to her signature. 

In 1976, Thelma gave me a small envelope filled with bicentennial coins: medallions, dollars, half dollars, and drummer boy quarters. She encouraged me to start a century box with these so that all of my “heirs will sit in awe and wonder about the old days back in 1976.” I still have the coins. It was a magnanimous gesture. I loved her for it and all of her convictions.

Like my dad, Thelma loved her St. Louis Cardinals. She was sixteen in 1926 when the National League Champion Cards played in their first World Series against the American League Champion New York Yankees, led by legendary slugger Babe Ruth.

The Cardinals won the series four games to three and were crowned World Series Champions for the first time. Rogers Hornsby was the Cardinals player-manager. Grover Cleveland Alexander was the winning pitcher in two of the Cardinals’ victories. Though Ruth clubbed three home runs in Game 4 and another in Game 7, the “Bambino” recorded the final out in Game 7 when the Cardinals caught him attempting to steal second base.

With a chuckle and a raspy voice, Thelma recounted that when the 1926 series was over, “I walked down the street chanting ‘Hornsby for President, Alexander for Mayor, Babe Ruth for dogcatcher, isn’t that fair?”

In April of 1979, during my senior year of college at Mizzou, I interviewed my aunt for a family folklore assignment. I was riveted as Thelma described the destruction from the September 29, 1927 tornado, which tore through St. Louis and killed seventy-eight people. She and my grandmother Louise Johnson huddled inside their home that day and rode out the storm safely.

At one point, they leaned against the front door with all their might to keep it from blowing off the hinges. When the violent storm was over, they ventured outside to discover houses on both sides of them had been lifted off their foundations. 

Thanks to Thelma and her recollections, the link to my Johnson family heritage and St. Louis history is alive and well. That was Thelma.

Oh, Lemon Trees and Lizards

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Ordinarily, pruning branches in our condo complex is something our landscape crew attends to. But they haven’t appeared lately. So, last week Tom and I dusted off our hedge trimmers. We gave haircuts to the fig and orange trees in our row. We didn’t mind. We had the time, energy and motivation.

Today, I stood in front of our mid-century condo. Gazing east as the morning light forced me to shield my eyes. Surveying the overgrown boughs of a luscious lemon tree that shrouded the sidewalk to our parking lot. Hands on hips, I uttered these seven words:

I think I’ll prune the lemon tree.

Yes, a guy born and raised in the Midwest, near towering oaks and majestic maples that abandon their leaves every October, now trims fragrant citrus fruits in autumn and says these peculiar things. Who is this crazy person? Where did this new language come from?

Let me be clear. This wasn’t the first time I was privy to this sort of newfangled, desert phraseology.  In the fall of 2017, just a few months after my husband and I left Illinois and moved into our Arizona condo, he shouted the following previously undocumented sentence as I wrote at my desk:

There’s a lizard in the sink.

As calmly as possible, I pressed “save” on whatever I was writing and scampered into the kitchen to see what Tom had discovered. Indeed, there was a lizard in the trap of the sink. He was no more than two inches long and frozen like a tiny statue exhumed from an archaeological dig. I’m sure he was frightened by the two giant heads peering down at him.

If you’re an animal lover like we are, you’ll be delighted to learn that we didn’t freak out and smash him in the sink. Instead, we kept our wits. We scooped him onto a piece of paper and carried him outside to safety.

Slowly, he slithered off into the desert landscape to resume his natural existence. Just a few yards away from where the freshly shorn fig, orange and lemon trees live in this sun-drenched land of sand and saguaros.

I never thought I’d live here. Oh, lemon trees and lizards, I never thought I’d say and hear such things.

 

 

 

 

Waiting to be Fed

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Eight o’clock on a seventy-degree October morning. Tom and I walk three thousand steps west from our condo door and arrive here. Squint and you can conjure the head of a giant tortoise emerging over the hill … waiting to be fed. In reality, the only ones scouring for breakfast are the three microscopic bighorn sheep climbing the Papago buttes in the Phoenix Zoo on the right side of the frame.

Surreal giant tortoises and real bighorn sheep on a spectacular Sunday. Such is life in the rugged, yet serene, Sonoran desert.

When in Wien

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You are a ring of lush palaces, pastries, parables and past civilizations.

Of cavernous courtyards, cascading cathedrals and crusty cafe croissants.

Of stained statues on strassers, strolling strangers and circling streetcars.

Of hidden September stables where loyal Lipizzaner stallions saunter.

Of magnificent museums, Mozart, mythology and melange metaphors.

Of baroque avenues, ornate artifacts, elegant archways and acute angles.

Of afternoon tea, while gazing at you through sunlit storefront windows.

 

When in Vienna … when in Wien.

 

Written by Mark Johnson, October 2, 2019

 

 

 

A Drink with Jam and Bread

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Some memories are like rare monarch butterflies.  They land before you in a brilliant twist of fate. They perch on a sunflower petal for a moment, as one did yesterday on a path at the Desert Botanical Garden here in Phoenix. But before you know it, the moment has passed. The breathtaking beauty has flown away.

That’s how I felt about my visit to Salzburg, Austria, earlier this month. So, on the last day of September, before my fleeting recollections of fabled Austria fade and vanish into the sky, I’m going to turn back the clock almost two weeks to a few sensory-filled moments in this captivating and historic city.

***

It was the afternoon of September 17. A Tuesday, to be precise. Tom and I had just completed a walking tour of the city with forty others. Harold, our friendly and knowledgeable guide, led the way.

After the group disbanded for the day, my husband and I were craving some down time. That’s when we found the quiet comfort of Cafe Bazar, an historic haunt along the banks of the Salzach River. Given my literary endeavors, a friend had told us to go there. Since its birth in 1909, legends such as Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann, Arthur Miller, Klaus Maria Brandauer and many other artists have been Cafe Bazar guests. One can only imagine the magnitude of their stirring conversations.

At any rate, Tom and I sat in the same room where they had … soaking up the Salzburg scenery at a table for two on a Tuesday. To be clear, we didn’t sip tea while we ate our jam and bread. We each ordered a cup of Wiener melange (German for “Viennese blend”). One shot of espresso topped with a dollop of steamed milk and foam. Let’s just say it was the perfect complement to a freshly baked croissant and apricot jam in spectacular Salzburg.

If you’re a lover of The Sound of Music like me, you’ve already caught my creative drift. For an American baby boomer, it’s impossible to visit Salzburg and the surrounding area without recalling moments from the iconic 1965 movie musical.

You know, singing “Do-Re-Mi” like the Von Trapp kids did. Bobbing up and down on the steps in Mirabell Gardens. Pretending to dash around a bubbling fountain in formation in one of the freshly made outfits Maria made from old curtains. Channeling Julie Andrews as she twirls with her bag, struts under a canopy of trees, and sings “I Have Confidence.” Even consuming a drink with jam and bread at Cafe Bazar.

But, as charming and memorable as those Hollywood images are, they aren’t the real Salzburg. No other city can boast that it’s the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Salzburg also has the distinction of appearing on the UNESCO World Heritage List. That designation came in 1996.

Twenty-three years later, in September 2019, two guys from Scottsdale, Arizona, passed through town. They sipped on a cup of Wiener melange with jam and bread, watched the world go by, and cherished the gift of Salzburg … a forever-artistic city.

 

 

Bavarian Bliss

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Munich  (“Home of the Monks”) is much more than beer and pretzels.

The capital of Bavaria and the third largest city in Germany has deep roots. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they wind and trail back to the Benedictine monastery at Tegernsee, which was founded in 750.

Nearly twelve hundred years later, more than forty percent of Munich’s buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing raids during World War II. Today the city is a hub in the banking industry and home to the annual two-week Oktoberfest celebration, which ends on the first Sunday in October.

My husband and I toured Munich on September 15. It was a quiet Sunday about a week before all of the beer-laden and oompapa festivities of Oktoberfest. All of the shops were closed, but that didn’t faze us. We were content to ogle stylish Oktoberfest apparel through storefront glass and soak up summer temperatures. We couldn’t have ordered a more perfect day to navigate the normally bustling Marienplatz on foot.

We craned our necks skyward when the Glockenspiel in the New Town Hall played promptly at 11 a.m. Afterwards, we discovered a charming cafe and dined outside. We filled our bottles with fresh water streaming from a city fountain. Next, we were ready for a defining moment: climbing to the top of St. Peter’s Church for An Unobstructed View of the city’s historic skyline.

At this point, I realized how far Tom and I had come. I’m not talking about the actual distance from our home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to Munich, Germany, via a congested connection through Montreal with a sea of tired travelers. I’m referring to our personal journey.

After my cardiac event in St. Louis on July 6, 2017, the notion of climbing 299 steps skyward anywhere (much less in a tight space with few opportunities to pause) seemed implausible. Yet, without fanfare, on the last Sunday of summer in Munich two years later, Tom and I paid three euros a piece to an attendant for the experience of saying we had done it. We entered the church for the pleasure of mounting steep and circuitous steps. We joined a trail of able-bodied adventurers, who flowed up and down around us.

To the top of the church spire we climbed. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the pinnacle. We took a deep breath or two and stepped out into an open-air observation area, where steel bars shielded us.

Together we wrapped our way around the circumference of the tower. We gazed across the horizon. We took a few more extended and grateful breaths. We captured a series of photos of a storied city.

Without the effects of beer or pretzels, we found our Bavarian bliss.

 

 

A Great Escape … A Long Trip Home

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Yesterday, my husband and I completed a whirlwind, nine-day tour of Germany and Austria. Today, I’m riding through jet lag … Vienna to London to Houston to Phoenix (and memories of seemingly endless security checkpoints and something close to twenty-four hours of air travel and airport lounging).

On this Monday, I’m also recovering from our Sunday morning sprint through Heathrow Airport to make our first connection (thank goodness for my generally improved fitness and the gate agent who pushed us like a track and field coach from the sidelines as we dashed from one end of the United Airlines terminal to the other).

In addition, between yawns, I’m flipping through vacation photos; sorting through the mail; paying the most pressing bills; buying groceries; thinking about tackling our pile of laundry (that’ll have to wait until tomorrow); and doing my best to remember when I’m supposed to eat and sleep.

At any rate, it was a fabulous trip. (Exhibit A is this photo of me outside Nymphenburg Palace in Munich a week ago.) In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing stories from our adventure and some of the colorful and kind people we encountered on our journey through Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna … three profoundly beautiful, cultural and historic European cities.

 

The Little Red Wagon (Part Two)

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I’m traveling during much of September. While I’m away, I hope you’ll enjoy this story (divided in two parts) about a different sort of journey. The Little Red Wagon first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book I wrote and published in 2017 about the ups and downs of my early years in St. Louis, Missouri.

***

… I wanted to believe Dad, but his recovery was slow in spite of his desire to regain his previous vitality. When he returned home in mid-October, he was depressed and agitated. He wasn’t able to return to work.

As the bills mounted, Mom felt the financial pressure grow. She could see that it would be months or years before he was able to resume working. So she began looking for a full-time job to begin replacing his lost income. Five months later, she found one as a stenographer at the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center, earning $4,000 a year.

During the next several years, I was filled with anxiety and uncertainty as I watched Dad struggle. I could see he had lost his bearings. He was drifting away physically and emotionally. But I also observed my mother’s resolve and resiliency under duress as she worked to balance her life at work and home.

In the summer of 1963, our ’59 Plymouth sedan died. Our family couldn’t afford to buy another car for several weeks. Fortunately, Mom was able to get a ride to and from her job with a coworker, but we were left without any conventional transportation to go to the store on weekends. That didn’t stop us. Mom realized we had another set of wheels parked beneath the house that could serve us in a pinch.

While Dad was convalescing at home on Saturday mornings, Mom, my sister Diane, and I pulled our slow-but-steady Radio Flyer — our little red wagon with four trusty wheels — behind us for a mile each way down and up the hills to Yorkshire Plaza. It was at the corner of Laclede Station Road and Watson Road. Our destination was Jansen’s IGA.

Jansen’s was the closest place to our home where we could buy meat, milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. It was an ordinary supermarket in a strip mall just off Route 66. After we bought a few bags of essentials for the coming week, we loaded them into our wagon and walked next door to the Kresge’s five-and-dime department store. Mom bought shampoo, soap, paper supplies, and other inexpensive household items there.

Our last stop at the strip mall — and my favorite on our weekly little red wagon tour — was Lubeley’s Bakery. It was a pastry-lover’s paradise. When we stepped through the doors of Lubeley’s, it felt as if we left our money worries and Dad’s illness behind. I was immediately swept away by a warm wave of freshly baked bread, gooey butter cake, sugar cookies, and yummy glazed donuts. Lubeley’s made such a positive impression on me that I recall saying to Mom late one morning, “I think I want to be a baker when I grow up.”

Mom pondered my revelation. With all the love and restraint she could muster, she confided, “Honey, you’ll have to get up awfully early if you want to be a baker. She knew I loved glazed donuts. She also knew how much I loved to sleep.

Eventually, we completed our Saturday shopping. We left Lubeley’s, Kresge’s, and Jansen’s behind. We climbed the hills of Laclede Station Road. We returned home with our little red wagon filled with groceries and a few waxed white paper bags. One contained two fresh loaves of bread. Inside the other was something you might consider non-essential for a family struggling to make ends meet: a half-dozen delectable glazed Lubeley’s donuts.

I firmly believe those heavenly baked goods kept our family afloat. We were hungry for security beyond the scope of our wagon. The donuts gave us hope that Dad would feel better, that he really did have a lot of living to do, and that one day we would see order restored in our lives.

We all craved the peace we deserved and the goodness of a glazed escape with a hole in the middle.