Tag: 1950s

Dad and Me

Though he has been gone since 1993–taken by a second heart attack a week before his eightieth birthday–my dad still appears in fading photos on the walls and shelves of my Scottsdale condo … and in memories I carry.

In July 1959, I celebrated my second birthday with Dad in the basement of our suburban St. Louis home.

Like an earnest anthropologist combing for clues, I’ve kept Walter Johnson’s history and story–his highs and lows–alive. He lingers on the pages of all four of my books. The journalist and the son in me believe I’ve done right by him.

In spite of his traumas (World War II shellshock, bipolar rants, and heartache), I’ve long ago put Walter’s pain to rest. It no longer consumes me in my sixties.

It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.

I don’t think I’ve ever uttered or written the following sentence, but it’s time I did: I have never doubted my father’s love for me.

I certainly see and feel it in his eyes in this (now vintage) photograph my mother captured of Dad and me.

More than six decades later–in these desert-dwelling days I never imagined in my Midwestern life–I link the joyous and boundless expression on Dad’s face with a keepsake Tom and I wrapped carefully and brought with us in the backseat of our Hyundai Sonata when we came west in 2017.

It’s an electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign, which Walter the salesman salvaged from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.

What follows is an excerpt from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, which I published in early 2021.

***

In the early 60s before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement. Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs in Missouri. Then later, it danced on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of our suburban Chicago home.

Strangely, the wheel disengaged in 2017–somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona as I mended from a heart attack on the passenger side.

I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.

Bob called two days later to say the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him. I thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home and found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale.

I plugged in the sign and turned on the switch. The light-and-color wheel twirled. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced, just as Walter had

***

It comforts me to know that on Father’s Day–or any day–I can flip the switch in one simple motion. I can reignite the love I still feel for my father and remember his best intentions.

In an instant, I can remind myself that Dad is with me on my journey.

Scissor Cities?

Me pruning the fig tree outside our front door in Scottsdale on February 8, 2022.

I’m at it again, pairing the random recent pruning of our fig tree with a story of my first haircut in a land far away but never forgotten.

***

In the arc of life, St. Louis, Missouri, was my first hometown; Scottsdale, Arizona, will likely be my last. Beyond this personal connection, they have little in common.

They certainly aren’t Sister Cities. The former is a muggy midwestern city shrinking in population on the banks of the Mississippi River; the latter, a dry western town growing exponentially in the Sonoran Desert.

Though, if you follow NFL franchise history, you know the present-day Arizona Cardinals made their home in St. Louis from 1960 through 1987. As a kid, I rooted for the Big Red there.

Now I cheer for this iteration of the Cardinals here. Regrettably, the team’s promising 2021-22 season faded in December and January. They won’t appear in the Super Bowl. The Bengals and Rams will be featured instead on Sunday.

At this stage of life–when I’m not writing or singing or swimming or exercising or baking or eating or sleeping or following my baseball and football Cardinals (the first still resides in St. Louis)–you might find me giving or getting trims.

Let me be clear. The giving involves me manipulating large garden shears and a hand saw to prune (only occasionally) a few of the fruit trees in our condo community. I even wrote and published a book of stories a year ago, which alludes to this activity in the title.

Anyway, on Tuesday, Tom and I were outside giving trims again. We pruned the fig tree near our front door. It’s an annual thing we do in February. It keeps the tree healthy.

We actually enjoy doing it. It’s a way for us to contribute to the well-being of our condo community and pamper the gnarled tree that provides shade on our hottest summer days.

On the other hand, the getting part of this is a different story. It equates to me sitting in a chair and having a stylist trim my hair with clippers and scissors every six weeks.

Most recently, I had this done two weeks ago at a Super Cuts in Scottsdale. But the first time was August 13, 1958, in St. Louis. I was a little over one year old. Someone named Frank Goetz did the trimming.

How do I know the who, what, when and where of this? My mother kept a detailed baby book of photos and anecdotes from the first seven years of my life.

Inside is a treasure trove of memories: things I would never have known or remembered if she hadn’t taken the time to maintain this personal record. She even kept a lock of my cut blond hair from that day, sealed it in a small envelope, and pasted it on a scrapbook page.

This morning, a day after Tom and I finished giving our fig tree its annual haircut, I pulled out the baby book from our hallway closet. In short order, I stumbled upon this photo.

Isn’t it funny and magical how a grainy black-and-white photo can transport you to another era and instantly pair the scissor cities of your imagined and true-life experiences?

On August 13, 1958, my sister Diane posed with me in St. Louis moments after I got my first haircut.

July 1955: More Fertile Ground

This season of triple digits in Arizona–followed by a few days of overdue, soaking monsoon rains–is the perfect time to rummage indoors through personal, vintage photos.

The best of them, like peering into the Grand Canyon, leave me with a mix of joy and insignificance. They tell stories about humanity before I entered the picture.

I’m fortunate to have accumulated photographic treasures from both sides of my family. Some of them, tattered and faded, date back to the early 1900s.

I don’t recall seeing this image from July 1955 before. I imagine one of my maternal grandparents captured it on their Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Sixty-six years later, I stumbled across it in a forgotten album. Today, on July 26, 2021, it is speaking loudly through the sepia tone.

If she were alive, the woman on the left (my mother, Helen Ferrell Johnson) would be celebrating her ninety-eighth birthday today. In 1955, she held my sister Diane on her lap and celebrated her thirty-second birthday with her sister Frances (cradling her first born, Michael) and brother Jim by her side in her original home state.

Mom has been gone since 2013. Grief has taught me there will be days like today when I miss her smile, wisdom, perspective and resolve. Fortunately, thanks to the passage of time, the abyss of grief–the Grand Canyon of loss–subsided in 2015 as I wrote.

When you love someone, grief is the price you pay. It is everlasting, sometimes surprising, but often predictable. Photos, birthdays, anniversaries, and specific songs (I’ll Be Seeing You sung by Peggy Lee) provide the cues.

What makes this photo a rare find is that I have just a few images of my mother and her adult siblings together. Helen left North Carolina right after World War II to begin a new life in a bigger city … St. Louis, Missouri … where she and Dad met, married, settled, raised Diane and me, and discovered their share of happy, challenging, and unbearable moments together.

Jim and Frances stayed to build their lives in the Tar Heel State. They were teenagers on the farm in the late 40s. In the 50s, Jim and Frances (born in 1930 and 1932 respectively) left the nest, but returned frequently to this front porch that faced west. They met and married partners, traveled a few miles down the road to raise their families, and remained near their parents.

What I love most about this photo is the sense of possibilities and optimism in the eyes of Helen, Frances, and Jim. The wear and worry of life hadn’t yet entered the picture. By the mid 60s, Helen had two children. Frances had three. Jim had two. My grandparents loved all seven of us grandchildren. We now lead disparate lives.

Mom loved her brother. He was a friendly, handsome man, who loved to fish, hunt, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately, the harsh realities and complexities of life had a way of catching up with Jim. In 1987, he died of lung cancer at age fifty-six. When she learned of Jim’s passing, it frightened her. Mom saw his demise as a harbinger of her own mortality. She retired immediately after returning from his funeral.

Frances still lives in North Carolina. She is the most significant personal connection I have to my southern roots. I spoke with her a few months ago. She isn’t the spitfire she once was, but is content with her husband in their Davidson, North Carolina home.

Like all of us who remain, Frances is thankful to have survived the pandemic. She is looking forward to her ninetieth birthday, which she will celebrate January 1, 2022. In 2015, two years after Mom died, I traveled south to see Frances. At that time, we needed to see and hug each other to escape the throes of grief.

My quest to rediscover my southern family and find comfort with Frances ultimately became fodder for From Fertile Ground, my first book. It’s the story of my journey and grief told in part through the writings my grandfather and mother left behind. If you’ve lost someone close recently and are living with the fog of grief, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of my book. Reading it may soothe you.

With each passing year, I continue to find more fertile ground from the photos and writings my mother and father left behind. Reexamining them and rediscovering their importance reactivates the love I feel for imperfect–yet beloved–family members. They shaped my past and the memories of them still inform my present.