Tag: Heritage

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Movies, Mannequins and Mall Walking

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July 2020 was the hottest month ever recorded in Phoenix, Arizona.

To beat the heat, on the first day of August, with another day of 110-plus-degree temperatures looming, Tom and I retreated indoors to Fashion Square Mall in Scottsdale to accumulate five thousand steps.

This is the same mall where in any other year we could have imagined taking in a matinee on a similar scorching summer Saturday.

But not in 2020. Even though the sign above the escalators declares “See You at the Movies!”, the only bodies standing near the entrance to the Harkins Camelview multiplex were a cluster of zombie-like faceless and maskless mannequins in a nearby store window. Everyone else in the mall knew better. They were wearing masks.

The good news is Tom and I are the proud owners of about three hundred of our favorite films. We can watch any one of those in our living room or select something online, via Netflix or cable to occupy our time in the comfort and air conditioning of our home.

But we still miss the experience of sitting in a movie theater together. Sharing a medium-size popcorn (no butter, please). Guessing how many trailers will run across the screen before the featured film plays.

It will likely be at least a few more months before that happens again. I miss the regularity of these sorts of mini-escapes at the movies away from life’s painful breaking news.

I’ve also longed for the return of major league baseball. Now, only a week into the abbreviated season, at least six members (three players and three staff members) of my favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, have tested positive for COVID-19.

The league postponed the Cardinals/Brewers games in Milwaukee on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. After an outbreak on the Miami Marlins squad a week ago, the 2020 season appears to be in jeopardy.

In the life-and-death scheme of things, I realize movies and baseball games pale when compared with 155,000-plus deaths in the United States and historic job losses.

But we need entertaining escapes to keep us all sane. Otherwise, I fear we’ll end up like the mannequins in the store window. Stiff. Still. Staring blankly into an empty space.

The Irish Mist

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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.