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.
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It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.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.
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.
It’s not unusual for the proximity of neighbors to cause conflicts.
But often the bonds we forge with those next door–or in this case along the back fence–can add more texture and meaning to our lives than we once imagined.
Shortly after Tom and I moved west, I wrote Along the Back Fence about Millie–our Illinois neighbor from 1996 to 2017.
I’ve been thinking of her again recently, because the fifth anniversary of selling my Midwestern home is approaching.
This story first appeared in An Unobstructed View, a book about my personal journey from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and an unexpected detour that awaited in the city where I was born.
In this world of turmoil and uncertainty, our best neighbors deliver color, comfort, and continuity.
I bet there’s a Millie in your life worth remembering.
Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence.
But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.
It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it–too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess.
When she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.
I don’t think we had much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here or there as I pushed my mower around my yard, and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage.
Eventually, we broke the ice. From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.
By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.
Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. One summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis.
Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.
“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”
And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature salad of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.
That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents–Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015.
But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health–her own surefootedness–declined …
Rest assured, I’ll share part two of this story later this week.
On Tuesday, April 26, 2022–the day Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for Covid without symptoms–I did too. But with symptoms: fever, headache, congestion, and fatigue.
Ironically, it was also about the same time Dr. Anthony Fauci declared we had crossed the pandemic bridge and entered an endemic world, where the disease rate is at an acceptable or manageable level.
At that moment, I don’t think I believed him. There was nothing acceptable about the situation for Tom or me. As you might suspect, my husband soon developed the same symptoms.
For the following week, Tom and I took turns playing nurse, while pumping a flurry of fluids, acetaminophens, decongestants, and attaboy encouragements.
We slept sporadically, texted my sons and our sisters, cancelled plans with friends reluctantly like two men waving from a desert island, and zapped each other endlessly with our digital thermometer–up to 102.3, down to 99.6, up to 101.2, down to 100.2, finally back to 98.6.
We rode out the storm together, quarantining in the privacy of our cozy desert condo. Two kind friends left wonton soup outside our front door, as they were dealing with their own trauma of repairing their car so they could drive east. Back to their home in New York.
Another sweet neighbor placed a bar of chocolate on the mosaic tile table between our two wicker chairs. I snatched it as soon as she left. She knows about Tom’s dark chocolate addiction and my wedding vow in 2014 to keep him supplied with a bottomless supply of it.
Through it all, I think you could characterize our Covid cases as mild, though my anxiety flew through the roof for seven days. I shuddered to think what the outcome might have been.
What if we hadn’t been fully vaccinated and boosted twice? What if I could never see Tom’s smiling face again or gaze into his beautiful blue eyes that nearly match the bluish-gray t-shirt I gave him that doesn’t fit me anymore?
About a million Americans have died of Covid complications.
We are two of the lucky few. But this isn’t a story about luck. It’s about truth and science.
The vaccinations we lined up for protected us, kept us out of the hospital, and forestalled any notions of two more premature deaths. By following the science and getting inoculated, we dodged two bullets. The universe rewarded us exponentially by giving us more time together.
This morning it feels like we are both back to normal. We’ve been symptom free for several days. We returned to the gym for the first time in nearly two weeks. I mounted the treadmill. Tom opted for the elliptical. I smiled as I watched Tom exchange his hellos with a community of patrons and familiar faces.
But earlier in the morning–when I leaned out the front door to water our succulents under the fig tree–there was a defining moment with an extraordinary animal, which I won’t soon forget.
Our feral friend Poly, the community cat that has lived on the fringe of life for a long time, meowed and came closer to me than she ever has. After a brief photo opportunity, Tom handed me the bag of cat treats and I sprinkled a dozen or so on the sidewalk.
Once I closed the door, Poly left the shelter of our eaves–safe in her own moveable, quarantining bubble–and approached the kitty kernels.
Unceremoniously, she glanced up at me as if to say, “I understand how you feel, all worried and frayed. But you’ve made it through. You’ll get by. You’re a survivor. Just like me.”
I have Georgia on my mind today. Not the Peach Tree state, but my peach-ice-cream-loving grandmother. April 7 would have been my maternal grandma’s 119th birthday.
Warm-hearted and hard-working, Georgia lived most of her seventy-one years in North Carolina.
In 1914, Georgia Evabell Miller met Sherrell Richardson (S.R.) Ferrell. Both attended a one-room school in Mecklenburg County. Six years later, they married at Georgia’s home in the same community. She was sixteen; he was nineteen.
A generation before I appeared, Georgia’s ordinary rural existence–tending to family, home, meals, and livestock–took an extraordinary toll on her body and emotional wellbeing. She bore four children: Helen (my mother) and Richard in the mid 1920s; James and Frances in the early 1930s.
In between, Georgia suffered a double whammy of grief and pain. Richard died of meningitis in 1926 one month before his first birthday. Not long after, cervical cancer compounded Georgia’s trauma. She was bedridden for an extended period. Helen grew up quickly and helped care for her mother.
Even with Georgia’s burden and her heavy body that contributed to arthritic knees and misshapen feet, my grandma maintained a girlish southern giggle into her late fifties and beyond.
In the summer of ’62, during one of our family visits to the farm, I absorbed the scene like a ready sponge as she prepared ham, grits, and biscuits for breakfast.
I loved Georgia and her jolly nature. As she toiled and told rambling stories over the sink, rolls of laughter shook her stout body. If she were here, she would describe it as the “gift of gab” handed down through her Irish descent.
Intermittently, she tossed table scraps and leftovers into a slop bucket for a trio of hungry hogs that waited impatiently in their pen.
On occasion, I accompanied her whenever the contents came close to sloshing over the sides of the dented metal pail. Together we squealed as the pigs poked their large snouts through wooden slats to explore what concoction was on the menu.
Like a southern-stitched patchwork quilt handed down through the generations to keep them warm, this moment remains cordoned off in my 1960s Carolina consciousness. It lives next door to Georgia’s humid hugs.
When I was a toddler, I begged for her to scoop me into the lap of her tattered periwinkle dress … churn butter or crank ice cream on the sagging back porch … venture into the earthen cellar where she stored pickled fruits and vegetables … or gather eggs from the chicken coup and cradle them in her apron on the return trip.
A victim of heart disease and decades of early mornings and long days working the farm, Georgia died nearly forty-eight years ago on July 4, 1974.
Two days later (after we drove through the night from St. Louis to attend her funeral), sprays of gladiolas surrounded her casket.
I can still envision the tacky floral arrangement–sent by a neighbor–with a plastic telephone teetering on top. Three words were written in ribbon: “God has called.” Ironically, my grieving grandpa loved it most.
Through our tears, Frances and I laughed about it. Georgia would have liked that and the image of my aunt and me consoling each other on my seventeenth birthday. We stood over her fresh grave in Huntersville, North Carolina, at a little cemetery outside Asbury United Methodist Church.
It was the center of the universe in “Ferrelltown”–where my southern family worshipped, married, gathered as a community, celebrated birthdays, consumed countless cakes and delectable pies, buried the beloved, and grieved for those who left early and stayed late.
Years later, it is the thought of Georgia’s gentility and kindness that endures. It is the love and laughter she planted in my heart that will never die.
As I began to write From Fertile Ground after my mother died–and later when I returned from North Carolina after another round of consoling with Frances and visit to my grandparents’ graves in the church yard–Annie Lennox’ soaring voice from her CD Nostalgia inspired me.
It was her stirring, melancholy rendition of the Ray Charles’ classic Georgia on My Mind that captivated me most. Listening to it, I channeled my grief and reconstructed my southern memories before they landed on the pages of my book.
Every child should be so lucky to spend a few weeks every other summer with a grandparent who simply smothers them with goodness and genuine love. That and the bucolic snippets of a farm populated with kittens, puppies, cows, chickens, pigs, and peacocks are forever stitched in my psyche.
When you add them all up, what do all these vivid memories mean? That in the course of any life, it is the collective music of a simple-but-extraordinary grandma’s unconditional love that keeps us hoping, that keeps us dreaming, that keeps us living, that keeps us singing.
Long after she is gone.
I said Georgia Georgia A song of you Comes as sweet and clear As moonlight through the pines.
Other arms reach out to me Other eyes smile tenderly Still in peaceful dreams I see The road leads back to you.
I said Georgia Oh Georgia, no peace I find Just an old sweet song Keeps Georgia on my mind.
Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.
Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.
Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.
Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.
For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.
As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.
Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.
Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.
Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?
2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)
To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!
On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.
About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.
Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.
The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.
As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.
Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.
We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.
There is no better time than St. Patrick’s Day to pay tribute to the Emerald Island.
In late August 2017–just six weeks after I suffered a mild heart attack–Tom and I boarded a flight for Dublin, Ireland.
It was an excursion we had planned months before. But on July 6th (our shared sixtieth birthday) the trip and our future felt very much in doubt as I lie on a gurney in a St. Louis hospital.
Remarkably, my health improved considerably in a month. Doctors in Scottsdale, Arizona–my new hometown–encouraged us to proceed with our plans. The journey to Ireland would help us heal.
Looking back five years, both of us were anxious about traveling abroad, but we also needed to reclaim our joy. As I wrote in An Unobstructed View, Tom and I spent eight days with forty other travelers from around the world. Brian, our capable guide with CIE Tours, led us clockwise around the island.
It’s a bit of a blur now. But in one week’s time we moved from Dublin to Waterford, Killarney, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, Galway, the sheepdogs in Sligo, the Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland, and the Titanic Museum in Belfast … before returning to Dublin and riding atop a double-decker bus with the wind racing through my hair.
Along the way, on our farewell dinner with the tour, we enjoyed an evening of Irish songs and music at the Glyde Inn just south of Dundalk.
In the spontaneity of the experience, I was pulled onto the floor to join in a broom dance. For a few fleeting moments, I rediscovered my spark away from the worries of the previous month.
I also spotted a little old Irish lady, singing her heart out across the room. She resembled my Scotch-Irish mother, who never had the opportunity to return to her ancestral home country. Seeing her there was an important step in my healing process.
In 2019, I wrote The Irish Mist. My poem is a tribute to the comfort I felt looking out over the Atlantic Ocean across the vast Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland as the clouds rolled in on August 27, 2017.
I’ll always remember you, rolling in over the gaelic green.
I felt cool comfort knowing the veiled intentions you whispered in my ear wouldn’t be denied.
No matter how much I wanted to gaze beyond the moss and ferns you shrouded, you held me there.
You knew I needed to stand strong above the craggy cliffs of my past.
You knew I needed to feel rooted to the emerald island, thankful for the mystery of my mending heart.
As a writer and gardener, I’ve learned there is constancy and comfort embedded in the rituals of life.
Each time I sit before my laptop to tell another story I feel a sense of grounding. My hard-working grandfather, the North Carolina farmer, must have understood that. He kept a journal every day for fifty-two consecutive years–from 1933 until the day he died in 1985.
Less about his personal reflections, much of what S.R. Ferrell wrote was about the day-in-day-in responsibilities of farm life. For instance, forty-nine years ago on his seventy-second birthday, this is what he had to say:
I did my farm chores in cloudy foggy wet morning. The mud is getting deeper by the day. I mopped the kitchen after I got my outside work done. I changed my clothes and went to Huntersville to get prescriptions filled. My 72nd birthday. Jimmy, Frankie and Frances came and ate lunch with us today. Mamma and Zelma called and talked to me. Cloudy, wet, muddy, mild all day. More rain expected tonight. 54 degree low; 60 degree high.
There is nothing spectacular in these words until you consider that he wrote down his thoughts for more than five decades. Little did he know that–long after he was gone–I would read every page of his journals and (after my mother and his daughter died) write a book about the writing DNA that runs through my blood.
Now that I’m a desert rat, I keep a speckled rock from S.R.’s farm in our Arizona garden. At this moment, it’s wedged in the ground under our fig tree. Every time I water the tree, I see the stone. It reminds me of my southern roots and connection to the earth.
In keeping with the ebb and flow of nature and lineage, I do this ceremonial gardening dance twice a year. In early December, I lug my beloved desert roses (aka, adeniums) inside away from winter’s chill. They hide dormant in the darkest corners of our condo until March, when I haul them back outside to face the world again.
Yesterday morning, one day before S.R.’s 121st birthday, I renewed part two of this desert rose ritual. This year, it also happened to be the day Tom hired Chem Dry to clean our carpet.
Before Drew from Chem Dry arrived, my husband and I hoisted our slumbering desert rose and situated it outside our backdoor. We didn’t want to spill any soil on our freshly manicured carpet.
All of that went without a hitch. Neither of us strained our backs and Drew finished his job in less than an hour. The carpet even dried more quickly than expected.
By early afternoon, we were able to walk on the surface without wearing blue booties. By 3 p.m., we had moved all of our furniture back to where it belonged.
The blooming cycle for our prized adenium will take quite a bit longer. Rest assured, new leaves will appear this spring, prompted by warmer, longer days. Though S.R. never traveled to Arizona, I can imagine him sitting with his sleeves rolled up between farm tasks, nodding in his rocking chair as I write these words.
By June (maybe sooner) when the temperatures have reached 100-plus again here in the Valley of the Sun, this remarkable plant will produce several gorgeous double-red blooms. With it all, once again, I will have physical proof that natural beauty is constant.
Even though it feels like the rest of the world has gone mad, I draw strength from fertile ground and the knowledge that these rituals help me feel hope is always on the horizon.
On the spectrum of optimism to pessimism, my attitudes on a given day place me somewhere in the middle near realism. Though, generally, I maintain an air of hopefulness.
For illustration purposes, I don’t think the world will end tomorrow or the next day, but I do think we have lots of problems to solve. Currently, the pandemic and global warming are chief among them.
Beyond that, the gun violence in this country is insane. (Incidentally, I would mandate that every American see the movie Mass. Released in October 2021, Tom and I watched it last night. It is the most riveting and emotionally honest film I’ve seen in the past year.)
In April 2021, the CDC reported this sobering statistic. For a child born in the United States in 2021, the average life expectancy is 77.8 years. That’s a decline of a full year from 2019 when the life expectancy was 78.8 years. The realist in me says we’re heading in the wrong direction.
For a male born in 1957 (that’s me), the life expectancy is 66.4 years. That’s a daunting number when I consider that I am now 64.5 years. However, the fact that I’ve made it this far (I’m no actuary) and don’t take undo risks (I’m fully vaccinated and boosted and buckle my seat belt), puts me in a position to make it another twenty or so.
Family history tells me that too. My father lived to be nearly 80; my mother almost 90. Plus, I don’t smoke and drink very little. Since surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I’ve dropped twenty-five pounds and kept it off. I’m fit and committed to a regular exercise regimen that keeps me strong.
Of course, life isn’t predictable really. It’s a sound philosophy and practice to live each day–each moment–as it comes. Yoga, meditation, and a raging pandemic have taught me that.
I spoke with Frances on January 2. She is my mother’s sister and the only remaining relative from either side of my family from the Silent Generation (those born from 1928 to 1945).
Born January 1, 1932 (the first baby in the new year in High Point, North Carolina), Frances turned 90 earlier this week. I called to wish her a happy birthday belatedly. She and husband Paul, also in his nineties, live in Davidson, North Carolina.
Frances is or was the spunky-and-opinionated adventurer in my mother’s family. I’ve always felt a special bond with her. I admire her zest for life. In 2015, I flew to the Tar Heel State to spend a little time with my worldly southern aunt.
The experience helped me heal after my mother’s death in 2013 and finish my first book, From Fertile Ground. I know visiting with me helped Frances too. She loved her older sister, who moved away as a young woman to create a life in the Midwest. Being together gave both of us a chance to complete the circle of our loved one’s life.
The sad truth is Frances is frail and forgetful now. I could hear it in her voice last Sunday. She’s far less sharp, though I’m certain she knew the voice on the other end of the phone line was me. Our conversation was brief and pleasant.
I recall Frances telling me in 2015 that she wanted to live to be 100. I’m doubtful she’ll survive ten more years. Even the infallible Betty White fell a few weeks short of the centenarian status most of us expected she would achieve.
At 90, Frances suffers from dementia. After the phone call, Lu–one of her daughters-in-law–confirmed it for me via text. I wasn’t surprised to receive this news, but knowing it prompted me to feel sad and reflective. My mother lived with cognitive impairment during her final few years.
Lu told me Frances doesn’t remember what happened the previous day. For instance, she doesn’t recall receiving the card and birthday gift I sent, though the United States Postal Service tracking system tells me it arrived safely at her home before Christmas.
At any rate, I’m grateful for the moments I shared on the phone with Frances. “I’m feeling pretty well,” she told me with a familiar lilt in her voice. “My husband looks after me.”
“I’ve always loved you, Aunt Frances,” I said with a hitch in my affirmation. “I’m a day late calling you, but I wanted you to know I was thinking of you on your birthday.”
Frances sputtered in her response. “You mean so much to me, honey.” Though she never mentioned my name during our conversation, the hopeful realist in me thinks she knew it was Mark, the writer.
Somewhere in her past or present existence, I want to believe she remembers that I am her sensitive gay nephew. The one with two grown sons and a husband. The one who survived a heart attack. The one who recounts stories about the people he loves.
This is a true story about a chance encounter on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1962. It’s a testament to the good citizenship of my mother and father, who did the right thing sixty years ago.
The story, A New Year Resolution (I wrote it in 2017), fills me with hope and the warm possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen. It first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri stories.
As we cross into 2022, I wish you good health and a few magical surprises to lighten your spirit.
Aunt Thelma was flush with frozen anticipation and prepared to toot her fringe-laced party horn. It’s how she felt every year. She had a new year resolution: to be the first out the door to inhale the cold remnants of December night air and replace it with January oxygen expectant with sharp promise and unassigned possibilities.
Thelma fumbled to secure the buttons on her worn car coat, snap her hat in place on the top of her wobbly bun, and race into the frigid Midwestern night. “Happy New Year,” she hollered leading her merry band out the door as the clock struck twelve. In an instant, the atmosphere from two distinct years comingled in her lungs and the clamoring began on cue.
Uncle Ralph, Mom, Dad, Diane, and I twirled our ratcheting noisemakers, flailed away with wooden spoons on pots and pans, and shrieked with glee. Magically, in an instant, the joys and regrets of 1961 were erased. Each of us had a fresh batch of winter air to contend with. It was January 1, 1962, in St. Louis, Missouri.
The frosty air told us it was too cold for the revelry to linger. By 12:15 a.m., we scurried back inside and returned our cockamamie thingamabobs and pointy hats. As Thelma and Ralph gathered it all and washed off the wooden spoons for safe keeping in the kitchen drawer, Dad and Mom broke the news to Diane and me. Our makeshift winter carnival was over.
With Dad behind the wheel, it was time to head home to South St. Louis County and our three-bedroom brick ranch in Affton. We had an hour-long drive ahead of us in our ’59 Plymouth.
Dad figured Hanley Road would be the most direct route. He could take the highway, but he didn’t want to contend with higher speeds and the potential for an anonymous, boozy driver veering head-on into his path. The thought of that was too much for his weary brain.
Under the whir of tires hugging cold pavement, Mom glanced over her left shoulder to check on the two of us in the backseat. Diane and I were beginning to fade. Mom knew we would be asleep soon. She and Dad were prepared to rouse us from our slumber once we pulled into the driveway. She felt comfort knowing we would need to be carried into the house and rolled into bed. She didn’t know there was more excitement coming before we trailed off to sleep.
A few minutes passed before something caught Mom’s eye between the high beams of an approaching car. She spotted a fuzzy figure up ahead a few hundred feet on the right shoulder. Someone was walking alone. From a distance, it could have been a man or woman. She and Dad couldn’t be sure.
Dad reduced his speed. As we approached, our headlights illuminated a bewildered young woman teetering on silver high heels, shivering under a skimpy mink stole thrown over her shoulders, exposing an emerald cocktail dress and too much skin on a cold night.
Mom verbalized what Dad was thinking. “Walter, I think she needs help. Let’s pull over and see if she needs a ride somewhere.” They rolled down their windows and waved her over to the car.
At first, the young woman’s eyes darted away. She could see a man was driving the car. But when she realized that an entire family was in the car, she relaxed a bit and approached on her fast-freezing feet.
“It’s so cold out, honey. Can we help you?” Mom offered through her partially open window. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“Yes,” she stammered. “I guess I do.” She grabbed the hinge of the back door and shimmied into the backseat next to Diane. “I was going home with a date after a New Year’s Eve party, and we got into a big fight. So, I got out. That bastard drove off and left me on the side of the road … Oh, I’m sorry about the language.”
“It’s alright,” Dad assured her. “We’re just glad we stopped. Point us in the right direction and we’ll get you home. What’s your name?”
“Oh, it’s Melba,” she confirmed. It was a name I’d seldom heard. Melba recited her address in Maplewood. By this time, any notion of sleep in our eyes was history. It vanished when Melba and her allure entered our world. We were wide-eyed and dumbfounded–captivated by her exotic name and slinky dress. Diane homed in on Melba’s beaded purse and shoes. I was mesmerized by her glistening green eyes, which flickered when cars flashed by. They matched her sequined gown.
Melba must have been an aspiring movie star or a lost character in a Twilight Zone episode, I thought. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, I was certain she was navigating a sudden detour on the road of life, trying to make the best of plans gone awry. She was craving silence in a secure sedan with no requirements, explanations, or assumptions.
From the front seat, Mom respected Melba’s need for quiet and distance. In the back, Diane and I sat motionless; we preferred to watch relief wash over Melba’s face. Dad focused on the tasks at hand: operating our vehicle and driving Melba home. He could tell the young woman was rattled. He wanted to return her home safely without fanfare.
Within twenty minutes, Dad pulled up in front of a tidy bungalow with white awnings and a steep front porch. This must be where Melba lived, I thought. Even though it was 1:30 a.m., all the lights inside Melba’s house were lit. I was thankful and relieved that her family had waited up.
With a flip of her hair from the top of her fur collar, Melba thanked Dad and Mom for the ride. She flashed a grateful smile, wrapped each end of her mink stole around her neck, patted Diane and me on the top of our heads, and braced for the cold air. She left the cozy warmth of our green sedan.
By this time, I had imagined a whole new life for Melba–a wandering, sensitive soul with a caring mother and father of her own, a nosey little brother, and a dream to escape her world and climb a ladder into a fairy-tale universe filled with brilliant stars.
Then, under the partial glow of a frosty January moon, I watched Melba ascend the concrete stairs, turn to wave goodbye, and step across the threshold of her ordinary front door into an awaiting aura. Certainly, New Year’s Day 1962 was off on a magical foot.
None of us thought we’d see Melba again. And we were right. Even so, all we needed was thirty minutes together to keep the memory alive. I curled up in the back seat next to my sister and considered the vision of Melba–coming and going in a pre-dawn hush.
There wasn’t much to say, but Dad knew what to do. He eased the car from the curb and guided us back onto the road. With a flash of his headlights, he signaled to Melba that all was good.