‘Twas two weeks til our concert, we rehearsed all day long,
Me wedged in the back row, ‘tween Keaton and Imran.
With AIDS quilts surrounding on walls of despair,
Warm carols we sang with humor and flair.
Away from the rain in the Valley of the Sun,
Seven hours in one room, so much work to be done.
Then, out of our mouths, pure tones pranced and did gather,
They sprang into lush chords, Marc’s heart pitter-pattered.
Santa Baby, Underneath the Tree, Mistletoe and Holly,
Shaping these and a dozen more made all of us jolly.
These next frantic weeks will fly faster than reindeer,
Fine-tuning, tweaking, “More hot tea for my throat, dear.”
Then, the lights will come up.
The joy will appear in the faces out there.
And the smiles will bounce back.
They will double and bloom in this season we share.
On Saturday, December 3–two days after World AIDS Day–I gathered with about fifty of my mates in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus for an all-day rehearsal at the Parson’s Center in Phoenix. Led by artistic director Marc Gaston, our chorus will perform its holiday show (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”) on December 17 and 18 at the Galvin Playhouse, 51 East 10th Street in Tempe, Arizona. For ticket information, go tohttp://www.phxgmc.org.
It wasn’t an unpleasant sound that stirred my brain before 5 a.m. It was a light desert wind filtering through our tubular chimes that woke and evoked me and distant sounds. Reassuring, comforting ones from suburban St. Louis.
Mom was always the first one up.
From my middle bedroom–a connecting space with two doors wedged between the hall and kitchen–I could hear her creaking on linoleum, shuffling in slippers, opening drawers, turning on the dial to the radio, reaching into the refrigerator, sizzling bacon in a skillet, placing the kettle on the stove, and pouring hot water over a teaspoon or two of instant coffee.
Then, at night–when the day was done–it was the splash of rain and swirling sensation of fallen leaves on the metal awning outside my bedroom window that soothed me. Or Happy’s soulful howl, craning his neck as he responded to the calls of other dogs in the neighborhood.
As I huddled under the covers on a twin bed, these sounds beckoned me to sleep. Now, as I remember them and write about them on my laptop, they exist and endure.
Certainly, the memory of them gets richer because they have been gone longer. They rise to the top like the cream of milk, while what happened yesterday might easily be forgotten tomorrow.
I would be lost if I couldn’t listen and remember the sounds of the past. In the moment they were invisible, fleeting footprints. But they echo in my thankful memory … lasting reminders of the texture, meaning, depth, people, and love I hear and remember.
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.