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Palm and Pine and Sycamore

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Three gather to whisper, one natural grace.

Sure shiny October, rare shady space.

Beckoning branches, bowing before.

Triumphant triad, truth to adore.

Forever delight, never ignore.

Palm and pine and sycamore.

 

By Mark Johnson, October 20, 2019

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 Spirit of St. Louis

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If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know I write frequently about the importance of family and home. Thematically, I’m a big believer that they shape and influence the trajectory of our lives.

Though I left St. Louis (my original hometown) nearly forty years ago, my Missouri memories have proven to be a source of creative inspiration, pride, joy and considerable heartache. In fact, I’m certain the Gateway to the West occupies a permanent strand in my DNA.

No one personifies the spirit of St. Louis in my memories more than Thelma DeLuca. She was my aunt. I’ve been thinking of Thelma a lot lately. Mostly because the twentieth anniversary of her passing is coming later this month. But also because Dad and she were lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fans.

Tonight their favorite team (and mine too) will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. I’ll be watching the game on TV. If Thelma were living, she’d be doing the same. Cheering for her Redbirds. Wearing something red.

As a tribute to my aunt (shown here in a 1952 photo with “Bluebird”, her beloved blue Plymouth), I hope you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy this excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

* * *

Thelma’s middle name was Ruth, but it should have been Truth. She was Dad’s older sister, the life of the party, the leader of the band, a true original. There was no denying Thelma. She was the boldest, biggest-hearted member of the Johnson family. You always knew where she stood, because she would tell you with gusto. Like an Olympic gymnast on a quest for gold, she nailed the dismount, stuck the landing, and finished her routine planted firmly on the ground on the right side of an issue.

Thelma sheltered a collection of canines over the years. In the 1950s, when Lassie was king, she devoted her free time to Laddie, her prized collie. The dog won several blue ribbons with Thelma at his side. In the years that followed, she welcomed: Tina, the runt in a mixed-breed litter; Tor, a powerful but gentle Norwegian elkhound; and Heath Bar and Gizmo–Yorkshire Terriers–into her home. There’s no question she revered all of her pooches. I remember when I was a teenager as she moved in close to remind me with all the sincerity she could muster. “You know, dog is God spelled backwards,” she proclaimed …

In one breath Thelma, a lifelong Democrat, praised Harry Truman’s the-buck-stops-here forthrightness. In the next, she launched into a smooth glide down the hall on high heels with Uncle Ralph as Dean Martin sang Come Back to Sorrento or Vikki Carr belted out It Must Be Him on the hi-fi. All the while, Ralph’s prized braciole was baking in the oven.

Thelma craved the richness of relationships and the cumulative effect of what we learn from each other throughout a lifetime. Sitting at her kitchen table in the 1970s with a far-off look in her eyes, she leaned in with her wig slightly askew and told me, “Mark, we’re all like ships passing in the night.”

In her wake, Thelma certainly left her mark on me. Whenever she sent me a letter, she sealed it with a kiss–along with the letters SWAK written underneath in case her love was ever in question–leaving behind remnants of her red lipstick on the back of the envelope or at the bottom of her letter next to her signature. 

In 1976, Thelma gave me a small envelope filled with bicentennial coins: medallions, dollars, half dollars, and drummer boy quarters. She encouraged me to start a century box with these so that all of my “heirs will sit in awe and wonder about the old days back in 1976.” I still have the coins. It was a magnanimous gesture. I loved her for it and all of her convictions.

Like my dad, Thelma loved her St. Louis Cardinals. She was sixteen in 1926 when the National League Champion Cards played in their first World Series against the American League Champion New York Yankees, led by legendary slugger Babe Ruth.

The Cardinals won the series four games to three and were crowned World Series Champions for the first time. Rogers Hornsby was the Cardinals player-manager. Grover Cleveland Alexander was the winning pitcher in two of the Cardinals’ victories. Though Ruth clubbed three home runs in Game 4 and another in Game 7, the “Bambino” recorded the final out in Game 7 when the Cardinals caught him attempting to steal second base.

With a chuckle and a raspy voice, Thelma recounted that when the 1926 series was over, “I walked down the street chanting ‘Hornsby for President, Alexander for Mayor, Babe Ruth for dogcatcher, isn’t that fair?”

In April of 1979, during my senior year of college at Mizzou, I interviewed my aunt for a family folklore assignment. I was riveted as Thelma described the destruction from the September 29, 1927 tornado, which tore through St. Louis and killed seventy-eight people. She and my grandmother Louise Johnson huddled inside their home that day and rode out the storm safely.

At one point, they leaned against the front door with all their might to keep it from blowing off the hinges. When the violent storm was over, they ventured outside to discover houses on both sides of them had been lifted off their foundations. 

Thanks to Thelma and her recollections, the link to my Johnson family heritage and St. Louis history is alive and well. That was Thelma.

The Little Red Wagon (Part Two)

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m traveling during much of September. While I’m away, I hope you’ll enjoy this story (divided in two parts) about a different sort of journey. The Little Red Wagon first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book I wrote and published in 2017 about the ups and downs of my early years in St. Louis, Missouri.

***

… I wanted to believe Dad, but his recovery was slow in spite of his desire to regain his previous vitality. When he returned home in mid-October, he was depressed and agitated. He wasn’t able to return to work.

As the bills mounted, Mom felt the financial pressure grow. She could see that it would be months or years before he was able to resume working. So she began looking for a full-time job to begin replacing his lost income. Five months later, she found one as a stenographer at the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center, earning $4,000 a year.

During the next several years, I was filled with anxiety and uncertainty as I watched Dad struggle. I could see he had lost his bearings. He was drifting away physically and emotionally. But I also observed my mother’s resolve and resiliency under duress as she worked to balance her life at work and home.

In the summer of 1963, our ’59 Plymouth sedan died. Our family couldn’t afford to buy another car for several weeks. Fortunately, Mom was able to get a ride to and from her job with a coworker, but we were left without any conventional transportation to go to the store on weekends. That didn’t stop us. Mom realized we had another set of wheels parked beneath the house that could serve us in a pinch.

While Dad was convalescing at home on Saturday mornings, Mom, my sister Diane, and I pulled our slow-but-steady Radio Flyer — our little red wagon with four trusty wheels — behind us for a mile each way down and up the hills to Yorkshire Plaza. It was at the corner of Laclede Station Road and Watson Road. Our destination was Jansen’s IGA.

Jansen’s was the closest place to our home where we could buy meat, milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. It was an ordinary supermarket in a strip mall just off Route 66. After we bought a few bags of essentials for the coming week, we loaded them into our wagon and walked next door to the Kresge’s five-and-dime department store. Mom bought shampoo, soap, paper supplies, and other inexpensive household items there.

Our last stop at the strip mall — and my favorite on our weekly little red wagon tour — was Lubeley’s Bakery. It was a pastry-lover’s paradise. When we stepped through the doors of Lubeley’s, it felt as if we left our money worries and Dad’s illness behind. I was immediately swept away by a warm wave of freshly baked bread, gooey butter cake, sugar cookies, and yummy glazed donuts. Lubeley’s made such a positive impression on me that I recall saying to Mom late one morning, “I think I want to be a baker when I grow up.”

Mom pondered my revelation. With all the love and restraint she could muster, she confided, “Honey, you’ll have to get up awfully early if you want to be a baker. She knew I loved glazed donuts. She also knew how much I loved to sleep.

Eventually, we completed our Saturday shopping. We left Lubeley’s, Kresge’s, and Jansen’s behind. We climbed the hills of Laclede Station Road. We returned home with our little red wagon filled with groceries and a few waxed white paper bags. One contained two fresh loaves of bread. Inside the other was something you might consider non-essential for a family struggling to make ends meet: a half-dozen delectable glazed Lubeley’s donuts.

I firmly believe those heavenly baked goods kept our family afloat. We were hungry for security beyond the scope of our wagon. The donuts gave us hope that Dad would feel better, that he really did have a lot of living to do, and that one day we would see order restored in our lives.

We all craved the peace we deserved and the goodness of a glazed escape with a hole in the middle.

The Little Red Wagon (Part One)

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m traveling during much of September. While I’m away, I hope you’ll enjoy this story (divided in two parts) about a different sort of journey. The Little Red Wagon first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book I wrote and published in 2017 about the ups and downs of my early years in St. Louis, Missouri.

***

It was my second week of kindergarten and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962 — September 13 to be exact — I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.

Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened up the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board. The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.

I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the backyard fence.

“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.

I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.

Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month.

During the next thirty days, my mother, sister and I visited Dad several times each week. I remember boosting myself up to sit on the edge of his bed. I swiveled my head to watch portions of unidentifiable westerns and night-time dramas on a grainy black-and-white TV mounted high above on the facing wall across the room.

Every few minutes, the nurses trooped into Dad’s room to adjust his bed, prop him up higher on his pillow, bring pills and water in paper cups, and deliver trays of bland food and a bonus cup of ice cream Dad wasn’t allowed to eat. Instead of throwing away the ice cream, he gave it to me as a treat.

Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long — unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames.

But, Dad insisted he would rebound. Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”

Still Counting in September

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“What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined — to strengthen each other — to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”

George Eliot — English novelist, poet, journalist and translator

***

George Eliot had it right. Memories are a powerful human connection. Without a moment’s notice, we can be transported back to a person, time, and place. Often, this happens as we complete our simplest daily activities at home in the kitchen. Pouring a cup of coffee. Biting into a crunchy apple. Stirring a pot on the stove. Or, in my case, counting and depositing pills into a tray.

On the surface, this may seem like a purely clinical exercise. But it was something significant I did for my mother during the last several years of her life as her macular degeneration worsened. As her dementia deepened. Every other Saturday morning, I drove twenty miles from my home in one Chicago suburb to hers in another. Each time I counted out two weeks worth of medications for her.

Of course, our visits consisted of more than medication administration. We shared late breakfasts, early lunches, short walks and longer stories about our lives and love of family and nature whenever her health and the weather permitted. Neither of us ever imagined I’d  write about our journey years later in what became From Fertile Ground.

Yesterday in Arizona, as I was filling my own tray of medications for the coming week, I was reminded of those intimate Saturday mornings with my mother. Sorting her pills in past Septembers. Doing what I could to help sustain her life for another two weeks as the late summer light in northern Illinois produced elongated shadows.

Of course, it was all worth it. I would do it all over again. But at least now I have the memories to savor. At least I’m still counting in September.

 

Under the Eaves

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You greet me in the morning, flying under the eaves. Serene and steady. Zooming in for nearby nectar. Always aiming to adapt.

I see how you and your cautious cousins coexist. You skitter across pebbled paths. Nest atop spiky saguaros. Hoot through dusty darkness.

You are the best among us. Feathered and unfettered advocates for organic order. If only we could soar like you in this Sonoran life.