Tag: July

July 1955: More Fertile Ground

This season of triple digits in Arizona–followed by a few days of overdue, soaking monsoon rains–is the perfect time to rummage indoors through personal, vintage photos.

The best of them, like peering into the Grand Canyon, leave me with a mix of joy and insignificance. They tell stories about humanity before I entered the picture.

I’m fortunate to have accumulated photographic treasures from both sides of my family. Some of them, tattered and faded, date back to the early 1900s.

I don’t recall seeing this image from July 1955 before. I imagine one of my maternal grandparents captured it on their Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Sixty-six years later, I stumbled across it in a forgotten album. Today, on July 26, 2021, it is speaking loudly through the sepia tone.

If she were alive, the woman on the left (my mother, Helen Ferrell Johnson) would be celebrating her ninety-eighth birthday today. In 1955, she held my sister Diane on her lap and celebrated her thirty-second birthday with her sister Frances (cradling her first born, Michael) and brother Jim by her side in her original home state.

Mom has been gone since 2013. Grief has taught me there will be days like today when I miss her smile, wisdom, perspective and resolve. Fortunately, thanks to the passage of time, the abyss of grief–the Grand Canyon of loss–subsided in 2015 as I wrote.

When you love someone, grief is the price you pay. It is everlasting, sometimes surprising, but often predictable. Photos, birthdays, anniversaries, and specific songs (I’ll Be Seeing You sung by Peggy Lee) provide the cues.

What makes this photo a rare find is that I have just a few images of my mother and her adult siblings together. Helen left North Carolina right after World War II to begin a new life in a bigger city … St. Louis, Missouri … where she and Dad met, married, settled, raised Diane and me, and discovered their share of happy, challenging, and unbearable moments together.

Jim and Frances stayed to build their lives in the Tar Heel State. They were teenagers on the farm in the late 40s. In the 50s, Jim and Frances (born in 1930 and 1932 respectively) left the nest, but returned frequently to this front porch that faced west. They met and married partners, traveled a few miles down the road to raise their families, and remained near their parents.

What I love most about this photo is the sense of possibilities and optimism in the eyes of Helen, Frances, and Jim. The wear and worry of life hadn’t yet entered the picture. By the mid 60s, Helen had two children. Frances had three. Jim had two. My grandparents loved all seven of us grandchildren. We now lead disparate lives.

Mom loved her brother. He was a friendly, handsome man, who loved to fish, hunt, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately, the harsh realities and complexities of life had a way of catching up with Jim. In 1987, he died of lung cancer at age fifty-six. When she learned of Jim’s passing, it frightened her. Mom saw his demise as a harbinger of her own mortality. She retired immediately after returning from his funeral.

Frances still lives in North Carolina. She is the most significant personal connection I have to my southern roots. I spoke with her a few months ago. She isn’t the spitfire she once was, but is content with her husband in their Davidson, North Carolina home.

Like all of us who remain, Frances is thankful to have survived the pandemic. She is looking forward to her ninetieth birthday, which she will celebrate January 1, 2022. In 2015, two years after Mom died, I traveled south to see Frances. At that time, we needed to see and hug each other to escape the throes of grief.

My quest to rediscover my southern family and find comfort with Frances ultimately became fodder for From Fertile Ground, my first book. It’s the story of my journey and grief told in part through the writings my grandfather and mother left behind. If you’ve lost someone close recently and are living with the fog of grief, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of my book. Reading it may soothe you.

With each passing year, I continue to find more fertile ground from the photos and writings my mother and father left behind. Reexamining them and rediscovering their importance reactivates the love I feel for imperfect–yet beloved–family members. They shaped my past and the memories of them still inform my present.

Monsooning

Power vanished, sparking leaping lightning.

Dusty skies boiled, torrents fell, Palo Verde trees obliged.

Fierce winds swept, parched weary washes overflowed.

Thunder clapped, cascading sheets to drum on carport roofs.

Awnings flew, chimes jangled, slickered neighbors scurried.

Starlings waited to bathe on endless dry tomorrows.

On the Shelf

Possibilities pose on the shelf of creativity. In the sculpting hands and firing synapses of the committed artist, a wedge of alabaster, foreboding canvas, or blank page evolves into something profound and present, provoking the imagination of those who linger and remember.

Desert Friendships and Roses

If you are a betting man or woman, fours are wild today. Four double-red desert rose buds are primed to burst on our back patio; this sixty-four-year-old writer (who has written four books) swam twenty-four laps at Chaparral Pool this morning; and July 12 is the fourth anniversary of Tom and me arriving (finally) at our Arizona home after a hospital stay in St. Louis.

Dad would have loved the synchronicity–the magical, random alignment–of these fours. He was a numerology freak. Like me, he also was a dreamer, poet, sentimentalist, Cardinal-baseball lover, and heart-attack survivor.

My father never met Tom. A week shy of his eightieth birthday, he died before my husband and I began dating nearly twenty-five years ago. I don’t think Dad would have understood our relationship, but he would have continued to love me anyway.

I also believe he would have loved Tom’s smile, enthusiasm, and youthful spirit … and marveled at my resolve to create an authentic life with a soulmate, while raising Nick and Kirk and living long enough to see my two young sons evolve into intelligent, critical-thinking, thirty-something men.

Most of all, Dad would have admired–possibly envied–the free-flowing, simple, yet meaningful life Tom and I have built in our sixties in the warmth (okay, intense heat) of the Sonoran Desert. After surviving my heart attack blip four years ago, we have our health and plenty of time to exercise, write, read, reflect, and nurture friendships.

Tom and I no longer have to worry about the demands of holding down regular/traditional jobs or living up to narrow standards prescribed by somebody else. I realize what a privilege that is, even though there was a time in my previously closeted and discriminated life when I felt I would never find a path through the labyrinth.

Yesterday, four of us gay friends who met in Arizona in 2017 and formed an impromptu book discussion group in 2018 … Brian, Mike, Tom and me (plus Andy, a longer-term friend living in Chicago who joined the conversation via Facetime) … gathered, talked and laughed in the friendly, freshly painted confines of our Scottsdale den/guest room. We were there to exchange ideas and mixed reviews of The Days of Anna Madrigal, first published by Armistead Maupin in 2014. It was our first book group discussion since sometime in 2019, months before the pandemic began to ravage the world.

As I reflect on the three hours we spent together Sunday … critiquing various aspects of Maupin’s novel that I think missed the mark, recounting our original fascination with Maupin’s Tales of the City characters on Barbary Lane and the resulting PBS phenomenon in the 1990s, catching up on our own personal lives, telling summer stories of travel, and sharing brunch after surviving the dread of 2020 … I am especially thankful for friends such as Brian and Mike, who entered our lives in Arizona. Our Grand Canyon State friends have enriched our world after the St. Louis storm.

No matter how hot it gets in the Phoenix area this summer (110, 111, 112 degrees, and so on) … or whether the monsoons finally materialize and spill promised moisture into the Valley of the Sun this week as forecasters say they will … the lead of this personal story is the beauty of our desert roses, our mutual investment with new neighbors and friends between 2017 and 2021. During that time, we have come to love a whole new batch of people (and they have loved us) in our first four years in Arizona. It is a dream come true beyond the friends and family we continue to love in Illinois and Missouri.

From various avenues–literary, yoga, choral, gymnastic, canine, and cinematic–new Arizona friends and acquaintances have helped us heal, renewed our spirits, made us laugh, and stretched our creative sensibilities to new heights. I certainly didn’t see the breadth of this late-in-life resurgence coming from my precarious station in a hospital bed in St. Louis on July 6, 2017.

Dad would have loved these literary bonus years after the rises and falls of our midwestern life … these days of desert friendships and roses for Tom and me. Like the rousing song from Bye Bye Birdie, which played on the transistor radio next to Dad’s hospital bed as he recovered from his own St. Louis heart attack in September 1962, I’ve still got A Lot of Livin’ to Do.

Will You Still Need Me? Will You Still Read Me?

The title of this post is a shameless ripoff of the old Beatles song, When I’m Sixty-Four. But my bastardization of the lyrics is appropriate. Today I turn sixty-four and I’m a writer who wants you to read my books. When you do, you will feed my desire to stay relevant.

Ask Tom. He’ll tell you. At this stage of life, I’m generally contented and thankful for good health, a comfortable home, and a loving husband. It is remarkable that we share the same birthday … same year too.

In 1957, our mothers never imagined their newborn sons–delivered three hundred miles and thirteen hours apart–would meet one day and marry. It certainly feels like a miracle to me.

Back to my writing. Whenever I wear my literary hat–which is frequently–I find myself questioning why my book sales have dried up like a sun-drenched Arizona river bed.

Of course, I promote my books online and do a little advertising here and there. I also market my stories on a personal basis, but when you’re an independent writer it’s easy for your books to get lost in the stacks of Amazon’s metaphorical bookshelf.

This concern I have is not quite an obsession, though it borders on it. I put a lot of thought and creativity into my writing. I want to share it with a wider circle of readers.

Perhaps my advancing age and occasional forgetfulness–did I tell you I turned sixty-four on July 6?–is what drives me to keep writing, to keep sharing my impressions and reflections of the world, to keep checking progress (or lack there of) on book sales, to keep wondering if readers will still read me.

The good news is I feel spry most days. (Of course, I wouldn’t consider using the word spry unless I were at least six decades old.) Anyway, I still have a lot to say and plenty of energy. So, on my sixty-fourth birthday, I’m going to tell you why you should buy and read my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree.

As a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s, I observed how hard my mother worked to provide for our family and to prepare meals that we all liked … even after working long days in an office.

Frequently, Mom bought Sealtest Neopolitan ice cream and wedged it into the freezer portion of our avocado-colored refrigerator next to the Swanson’s TV dinners.

Why Neapolitan? Because she and Dad liked strawberry ice cream, while my sister and I preferred chocolate and vanilla. If you aren’t familiar with Neapolitan (I rarely see it in the supermarket these days), it included all three flavors in a carton stacked side-by-side. So, theoretically, Neopolitan offered something for everyone in our family in one container.

This ice cream recollection captures precisely the creative thrust I wanted to achieve as I wrote my Arizona-based essays. I must have been channeling my mother’s shopping sensibilities.

I wanted my book to include something for everyone … humor and sincerity, social relevance and frivolity, truth and fantasy … and to comment on the relevance of every personal and geographical chapter in my life: Missouri, North Carolina, Illinois, and Arizona.

Now that summer is upon us and the heat has arrived, I strongly encourage you to consume your favorite flavor of ice cream to cool off and to buy a paperback or Kindle version of my Neopolitan book.

In the thirty-nine essays that appear in the book, you will enjoy lapping up several flavors. For instance, there are stories about: citrus and lizards; a hummingbird and a boxer; time travel; an eavesdropping barrel cactus; a return to Tucson through the looking glass of an authentic gay life; reflections on an extended visit to that dreaded place we all lived–Coronaville; the musings of an incredible shrinking man; a wayward Viennese waiter/writer struggling to tell his heart-wrenching story; a mid-century St. Louis custodian who bonded with a famous scrub woman; alliterative observations of flickers and fedoras; the golden hours of living in the Sonoran Desert; and much more.

When you read my book (and I hope you’ll review it too), you’ll be feeding your own creativity and doing this sixty-four-year-old writer a big favor. Yes, even after writing this long-winded essay, I still need to feel needed.

Now, back to the musical portion of my post and the final verse of a pop song that feels especially personal today.

***

Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, wasting away

Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four
*

*The Beatles released When I’m Sixty-Four (lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) on their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Garden Shadows

GardenShadows_072620

It’s become one of our beloved desert traditions. For the past three years on July 26th, Tom and I have walked to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Actually, we visit this physical and psychological oasis, tucked inside the easternmost edge of the Phoenix city limits, a few dozen times in a typical year. Because of the pandemic, only recently have we been able to return.

Twice in the past month–early on Sunday mornings–we arrived at a reserved time, stood as an electric eye scanned my phone confirming our tickets and membership, and entered behind our protective masks.

We love the stillness of the garden. The proximity to our home. The majesty of the saguaros and cardon cacti. The exotic succulents. The spiky boojum trees. The dazzling desert roses. The prickly pears in bloom. The tranquility and color of the wildflowers in spring. The harvest of the herb garden in summer.

The chatter of desert wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The playfulness of the ground squirrels. Lizards pausing to do push ups on the trails. Bullfrogs croaking from a pond. Plentiful cottontails in the thicket. Occasional coyotes, long-eared jackrabbits, and road runners scurrying by to say hello and goodbye. Yesterday we spotted the latter two.

Most of all, it’s the connection to the natural desert landscape–and memories of those we’ve loved and lost–that draws us back. That’s where July 26th becomes significant. Yesterday would have been my mother’s ninety-seventh birthday.

Helen, a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, never joined us here. But it was a place she would have enjoyed for all of the reasons I’ve listed.

It’s a natural choice for Tom and I to come here each year on her birthday to acknowledge her past place in the world. To remember her shadow. Her legacy. The love and lasting positive impact she had on my life. Tom’s life. My sons’ lives. My sister’s life. All of our lives.

Of course, her physical shadow disappeared seven-and-a-half years ago. But Tom and I have carried the gardening mantle forward here in Arizona. Just as my sister Diane does at her home in Illinois. At this point, it’s our turn to appear at the front of the line in longevity, visibility and vulnerability.

So there Tom and I sat on Sunday. Casting our shadows in the garden on July 26, 2020. Pausing under the trees to reflect on how many we’ve loved and lost … four parents … and how far we’ve come together.

Doing our best to enjoy each day in spite of the turmoil that surrounds us. Taking cover from the pandemic under the shade of our broad-brimmed hats. Absorbing the comfort and magic of nature just outside our door.

 

Nine Years Ago in Italy

It’s been a while since I’ve boarded my dusty desert time machine. I figure we can all use a summer holiday escape. Away from daily reports of emerging COVID-19 hot spots, social unrest, and the grind of our shrunken stay-at-home lives.

Join me as I travel back nine years to late July 2011. When our resourceful guide and friend Yvette (a Canadian living in Tunisia), led six men (five Americans and one Canadian) on an eleven-day, Outgoing Adventures tour of Italy.

It was my first European odyssey. Six years before our 2017 Ireland immersion. Eight before Tom and I made a delicious 2019 dash through Germany and Austria.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Italy. The architecture, ancient history, hum and handsome men of Rome. The mystery and magic of Siena.

The countrysides and cooking of Tuscany. The alleys and alabaster of Volterra. The cliffs and colors of Cinque Terra. The style and silk of Florence.

Most of all, the enduring exuberance of the Italian people we met all along the way … lovers of art, pasta, wine, afternoon strolls and evening gelato.

Consider this my tribute to beloved Italy. A splendid sampler of nine representative images I captured that–nine years later–continue to feed my creative consciousness, spirit of adventure, and wonder about a nameless Florentine boy with a blue umbrella who followed his mother’s red shoes.

 

Iridescent Scales

Desert Lizard_050115

You survive … no, thrive … scampering from shadows to shade, shimmering across scorched soil, ignoring what lies and lurks before you, replacing fears and pitfalls with truth and tenacity, imploring less reptilian ones to follow the flicker and flight of your iridescent scales.

 

Advanced Degrees

It’s July. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s the Sonoran Desert. No surprises there.

But one-hundred-eleven? One-hundred-eleven again? One-hundred-thirteen? One-hundred-fifteen? One-hundred-seventeen?

These are the forecast high temperatures for Scottsdale, Arizona for Wednesday through Sunday of this week.

I’m not sharing this information to inspire pity or compassion. After all, I chose to live here.

Plus I won’t ever have to worry again about snow removal. Or icy sidewalks. Or digging decaying leaves out of gutters.

Or shoveling two-to-three feet of drifting snow. Or the cilia in my nostrils freezing solid in winter. Or driving down the street to discover that the snowplows have come through and blocked our driveway.

These are Chicago memories. November. December. January. February. March. April can be cold too. So can May.

Anyway, back to July in Arizona. It will rain again in the Valley of the Sun … some day.

Probably a vengeful monsoon or two in late July and August. The washes will fill up. And when they do, the thermometer will dip below 100. Sweater weather?

The local weather forecasters will have another monsoon story to tell. How to prepare for the next storm.

They’ll send their TV news crews out on the roads. To show us that actual rain is falling.

That the pavement on streets is wet. That windshield wipers are swooshing back and forth across glass. Only in Arizona will these ever be considered newsworthy.

Tom and I have figured out ways to manage in the Arizona heat. Early morning walks or swims or masked trips to the store. Reading and writing and yoga in the middle of the day in the AC of our condo.

Lighter meals. Fruit smoothies for lunch. Complements of the new Ninja we bought.

Scrabble. Game shows. Reruns of old sitcoms. That Girl and The Brady Bunch are our latest fixations.

Quiet dinners at home. Late evening strolls to the canal after the sun is down and the temperature is closer to 100 again.

This is the life of a desert rat. Living under the radar. Thinner. Tanner. Dryer. More tolerant of our advanced degrees.

Unexpected Fireworks

Sharing a birthday with a friend is a cosmic coincidence. When that friend is your husband–and to this day you remain stumped by the irony of being born in the same year, too–it’s an annual exercise in splendid serendipity.

As Tom and I prepare to cross into an odd-numbered birthday year (sixty-three, but who’s counting?) in an even-odder, even-numbered calendar year, the timing is right to share this excerpt from An Unobstructed View. You can purchase the whole story through any major online retailer.

***

… Tom and I first met on a muggy Saturday night in August 1996.

I had attended a fortieth birthday party for a friend in Chicago. After it was over, I couldn’t bear the idea of going home directly–walking into a silent house. I decided to stop at Hunter’s instead.

When I entered the room around nine o’clock, I was anxious and lonely. The bar was dingy and silent. There were a dozen other men scattered throughout the place. I wasn’t at all comfortable being there. I had been to Hunter’s just once or twice before.

That night I remember feeling two vastly different emotions: hopeful I would meet someone and fearful of the darkness. But I decided to fight my fear and stay for a few minutes anyway to quiet my nerves. I bought a drink at the bar and planted myself on a stool for an hour or so.

At some point, I got squirmy and decided to stretch my legs and look for the restroom. As I crossed the room, I spotted a handsome man with brown hair. He was wearing a plum polo shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.

Our eyes locked. Sparks flew. I felt I knew him, though we had never met before. I was dazzled by his smile, but needed to make a quick pit stop first. I smiled and told him I would be right back.

When I returned, we introduced ourselves. His name was Tom. He told me he was born in Chicago, but he and his family–his mom, dad and sister–had moved to Mount Prospect in 1960, when he was a toddler and suburbia was just beginning its sprawl.

Tom and I decided to find a spot on the patio in the open air to get to know each other further. We talked about our favorite movies and held hands for three hours at a table in the relative darkness barely illuminated by the flickering flame of an ordinary votive candle. I felt another electric charge.

When Tom confided that his birthday was July 6, 1957, I wondered if he was feeding me a line. I needed proof and asked him to show me his driver’s license. Once he did, we reveled in the serendipity of our shared birthday experience.

We basked in the glow of irony … stumbling into another thirty-nine-year-old gay man who entered the world on exactly the same day, discovering another Midwesterner who realized there would always be a personal celebration two days after the country’s supply of Fourth of July sparklers and bottle rockets flamed out.

Shortly after 1 a.m., Tom and I walked to our cars in the parking lot and kissed goodnight. Though there were no pyrotechnics blazing across the sky above us at Hunter’s, there was a different kind of combustion in the air between us.

We vowed to meet later that morning for brunch at a restaurant near his Schaumburg condo. And we did. It was just the beginning of our fireworks story …