Tag: Grandparents

Pondering the Puzzle Pieces of Past Lives

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The dusty attics, dog-eared scrapbooks, and forgotten files of our past don’t always provide answers about mysterious deceased family members. But often they are all we have, once those who remembered them are gone too.

I have no memories of Albert Edward Johnson, my paternal grandfather. Just second-hand stories about the man with slicked-back blonde hair who died when I was three. Random photos and puzzle pieces that, when connected, leave me with an unsubstantiated picture of Albert. Tales of who he was, where he lived, what he believed and what he aspired to do.

Based on a patchwork of anecdotes, passed down from my parents, aunts and uncles, apparently this is the man I never knew.

***

Albert, an idealistic boy, was born in Duluth, Minnesota on January 10, 1884.

His mother Sophia Amelia Danielson and her family immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden when she was a teenager. They lived in Quebec, Canada for a few years before traveling to Minnesota. His father Bernt Franklin Johnson was born in Breen, Norway. Sophia and Bernt met and married in Duluth and had six children (Dan, Ben, Josie, Jenny, Albert and Carl).

When Albert was ten years old, he and his family moved to Anniston, Alabama where his father operated a grocery store on a Native American reservation. I don’t know what prompted them to move more than eleven-hundred miles south in 1894. Perhaps they simply needed gainful employment or were tired of the cold.

Subsequently, around 1900, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Johnson men worked in the meat packing houses. Evidently, the job didn’t suit Albert’s sensitivity. Helen, Albert’s daughter-in-law and my mother, told me the shrieks of the slaughtered animals were too much for him to bear.

Albert was a health-conscious and  athletic young man: an amateur wrestler; Mississippi River rower; and cross-country racer. According to family members, he competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon in St. Louis. I have no proof he participated, but I choose to believe it.

In 1907 or 1908, Albert met and married Anna Louise Sendke in St. Louis. They raised three children: Thelma and twins, Violet and Walter (my father). Albert wasn’t home much during Walter’s childhood years (1913 to 1925). I’ve always wondered where his travels took him and who he met along the way.

According to my dad, Albert valued intellectual stimulation, political discourse and philosophical conversations. At some point (in the 1930s perhaps), Albert–a lifelong Democrat–pursued a career in local politics. He ran for state representative twice, but lost both times.

During that same period, Albert tried his hand at motivational speaking and received an honorary doctor of divinity degree. The public speaker you see here (standing on a stool in an athletic shirt in the foreground of a Depression-era, Milwaukee, Wisconsin gathering eighty-eight years ago on August 3, 1932) believed one should choose a career or path that maximized his or her greatest innate skills.

In his own words from a stained 1943 “Biodynamics: The Science of Power” handout he must have used in one of his lectures, “we will not be happy, healthy or successful unless we choose as our life work some line of endeavor towards which we have a strong biological tendency.”

In the 1940s, Albert, the man who earlier in his life only rarely brought his son with him on trips north from St. Louis to Chicago or Milwaukee, wrote and sent encouraging letters to Walter overseas to bolster his spirit as he fought in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II in Europe.

During the last several years of Albert’s life, he and Louise lived with their eldest daughter Thelma and son-in-law Ralph at their home in north St. Louis County.

I vaguely recall sitting on the edge of Albert’s twin bed in his empty room in the early 1960s soaking up the silence. It was a few years after my grandfather, the one-time athlete, fell on the steps of a restaurant during the holidays, broke a hip and succumbed to pneumonia.

Albert died on December 30, 1960 at age seventy-six.

***

Until this moment, at age sixty-three and one month, I’ve never considered the collective attributes and personality traits of Albert and my three other grandparents–Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–and how they may have shaped the calling in my life: that of a late-in-life creative writer.

But as I think about each of my grandparents, I recognize their DNA strands coursing through me: Sherrell Ferrell’s love of nature and From Fertile Ground journalistic sensibility; Georgia Ferrell’s love of animals, gift of gab and laughter; Louise Johnson’s  sense of personal loyalty and soap-opera storytelling drama; and Albert Johnson’s quest for intellectual stimulation, personal fulfillment and public discourse.

I don’t believe each of us is simply a product of our biological past. We are each unique human beings … like snowflakes that fall and add irreplaceable texture to the sky. But I do think these varied qualities and preferences may have shaped my direction and influenced my choices on life’s path more than I’ve previously realized.

Of course, what you read here is all mine: ideas, opinions, stories and experience.  But history, both personal and societal, counts for something. It informs my stories about the power of nature, animals, relationships, family, diversity, sensitivity, and social justice. Because there is at least a little bit of all four of my grandparents–Albert, Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–in me.

You might say I’ve had a “strong biological tendency” to be a writer and storyteller all along. It’s written in my DNA.

 

 

 

 

 

A Fateful Friday Fifty-Six Years Ago

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For all of his eighty-five years, S.R. Ferrell lived an ordinary and unassuming twentieth-century rural life. Before the first rays of sunlight emerged each morning, my grandfather rose to milk the cows, tend to his crops, and complete a never-ending list of chores on his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Every night before bed, until the day he died in 1985, the stoic farmer recorded his brief thoughts about the day (like the pages you see here from 1962).

Five years ago, as I perused his diary entries and told the story of my hard-working grandfather in From Fertile Ground, I discovered that many of the things S.R. wrote were rather mundane. But, every once in a while, I unearthed a hidden gem. A startling first-hand account of a momentous day in American history. Ironically, my grandfather was sixty-two … the same age I am today … when he wrote the following on November 22, 1963. It was a fateful Friday. Exactly fifty-six years ago.

***

I went to pasture to work up some wood and haul it to the house. Mr. and Mrs. P.E. Miller came this morning to get some strawberry plants. Then they went on to Charlotte. I hauled more wood in the afternoon.

President Kennedy, 46, was assassinated at twelve o’clock noon in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon Johnson is now president.

Partly cloudy. Warm. 56 degree low. 77 degree high.

***

While S.R. Ferrell was toiling on his farm in Huntersville and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dying in Dallas, I was an innocent six-year-old schoolboy in suburban St. Louis in November 1963. Probably sitting at my first grade desk practicing my spelling.

I remember my teacher crying in the front of the classroom that day. As she tried to compose herself, she told us school would end early. Soon after, we filed to the cloak room to put on our jackets. We boarded our buses for our respective homes.

That weekend, I sat glued to the floor in front of our family’s black-and-white TV and watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. And, in the horrific and historic days that followed, JFK’s three-year-old son saluted his father’s passing, flag-draped casket. That image may have been the most mournful of all.

We’ll never know how the world would have evolved if JFK had lived to write another chapter in American history. But somehow the world kept spinning and S.R. Ferrell kept writing. And I have the comfort of knowing that my grandfather’s account of November 22, 1963 is forever chronicled in Chapter 39 of From Fertile Ground. You’ll find it on page 157 of my first book.

 

 

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 World Was Our Oyster

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My mother, Helen F. Johnson (the F was for Ferrell), sent me more than a thousand letters during her lifetime from her home in St. Louis. After she died in January 2013, reading them gave me comfort and strength.

Each letter contained a treasure trove of information: personal anecdotes, parenting and investment advice, and countless words of love and encouragement. (They and my grandpa Ferrell’s farm-life diaries from North Carolina inspired me to write and publish my first memoir, From Fertile Ground. It’s a story about love, loss and leaving your mark on the world.)

Inside Helen’s letter dated April 1, 2002, was this photo of her with my dad, Walter Johnson. Someone captured this image in Texas seventy years ago today (July 26th, 1949) on my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday. How do I know for sure? Because Helen wrote about it in her letter. Here’s a snippet of what she told me that day.

“… Walt and me when we were young and happy and the world was our oyster. It was taken on my 26th birthday at Club Seven Oaks–off the highway about halfway between San Antonio, TX and Austin, TX. We had been married 10 months. We had 14 happy years before he had his heart attack that took all our lives through some difficult times … It helps me to look at us then and remember there were some good years. Few people live a life without difficulties–something we learn as we live and age.”

Today, on what would have been my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday, the best way I know of celebrating her life, wisdom, and passion for letter writing, is to share her story … really our story … with the world. To that end, on July 26, 27 and 28, you can download a free Kindle copy of From Fertile Ground on Amazon.  I feature many more of Helen’s letters in my book.

Twilight by the Pool

 

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I’m fortunate to live in a charming, mid-century condo community in South Scottsdale with a gorgeous pool and rich history. Traditions and ripples run deep here at Polynesian Paradise. From memories of grandparents, close cousins, great aunts and uncles living under the slanted-and-peaked roofs of their Googie-style architecture.

Many early residents, Chicagoans with Italian heritage, discovered their desert hideaways in the 1960s and 70s. Others came from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Canada. They all traveled south or west to escape brutal winters and forge a new life in their twilight years.

During the day, Lucy (my husband’s soft-spoken grandmother) and her friends gathered by the pool to soak up the sun, unwind on a lounge chair, read a book under a kitschy umbrella, sip a cool drink or play cards in the clubhouse while their laundry flapped on the clothesline in the dry breeze.

At night, as palm trees painted sunsets over western skies, these westward-ho pilgrims dined on pasta and cannolis lovingly prepared by good-hearted neighbors like Sam (my husband’s grandfather). He spent his working years making cookies at the Nabisco factory back in Chicago and needed an outlet for his boundless energy. He found it in the condo clubhouse kitchen.

From January through April each year, as the rest of the world shivered on frosty Wednesday nights, the warmest stars aligned over the desert. Delighted residents and their guests shouted BINGO, collected their winnings, and sauntered home down sidewalks to their modest desert dwellings illuminated by porch lights.

Of course, Lucy and Sam are gone. So are most of their friends and neighbors. Like Connie and Sam who lived a few doors away. They were surrogate parents who coached us on the dos and don’ts of closing down our desert home when we were still fresh snowbirds straddling two worlds: one in Illinois; one in Arizona. Both of them died a few years ago, though their last name still hangs on a wall plaque outside what was once their door.

And Anita, another long-time resident, who passed away early in April. She was a familiar-and-friendly fixture at the pool. Tanning on her lounge chair with her extended, manicured nails. Listening contentedly to her favorite oldies on her transistor radio. Though I didn’t know her well, I miss her presence. I miss her connection to all the others.

Sadly, the soaring prow on the clubhouse façade is gone too. The condo association decided to remove it a few years ago, because the wood had begun to rot. It posed a safety concern for those walking beneath and the cost was too prohibitive to repair it.

Fortunately, though, all is not lost. Life goes on at Polynesian Paradise. With a fresh coat of exterior paint and a new generation of residents (grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews, singles and couples) the community spirit lives on. There are still social gatherings in the clubhouse each month. Donut and hot dog days. Holiday parties. Yoga on occasional mornings. Bingo has moved from Wednesday to Tuesday nights when the snowbirds are in town.

Many in our community are over sixty, like my husband Tom and me. Living our twilight years in a pleasant condo community with an inviting pool. But there are a growing number of younger, full-time residents living here too. Infusing the community with new energy. Remodeling and updating their condos. Heading to work and school each day. Walking to their cars past cooing doves that nest under our eaves.

We’re all neighbors. Some of us enjoy a regular dip in the pool. Some of us don’t. But we’re all in the same boat. Finding our way in the world as new condo communities rise up around us in South Scottsdale. Doing what we can to live the best versions of our own lives in the Sonoran Desert. Just like the Sams, Lucys, Connies and Anitas who’ve come and gone before us.