When I was a youngster in the 1960s, my dad and his sisters spoke solemnly of an alliterative-sounding day we don’t hear about anymore: Decoration Day.
It was an apt description for an activity Americans performed every May 30, as the heat of summer rolled in. They decorated the graves of those who died in defense of their country.
According to history.com, the tradition began May 30, 1868. After General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, 5,000 participants left flowers on the graves of 20,000 who died during the Civil War.
What we now know as Memorial Day has evolved into a hybrid holiday–the day we honor those who have served, pig out on barbecue, watch sports on TV, bicker about politics, guns, and vaccinations, pay an arm and leg to fill up our gas tanks, and race to the mall for a new mattress that’s on sale.
On this especially somber weekend–just days after the latest school shooting and slaughter of innocent children in Uvalde, Texas–I prefer to pause and kneel (theoretically) before the grave of my father rather than salute our flag. Though I can’t be in St. Louis right now to do that, I can write about it.
Walter Johnson served our country during World War II. He was an Army sergeant, who fought in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
Despite shell shock, personal trauma, and frequent nightmares, Dad lived nearly fifty more years. He died in 1993. He and Helen Johnson, my mother, are buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis on the top of a hill under an oak tree.
This weekend, volunteers will be decorating all of the graves there–and in all national cemeteries–with miniature American flags.
On September 4, 2021–it would have been my parents’ seventy-third wedding anniversary–Tom and I visited Dad’s and Mom’s graves.
We left two decorations–a couple of acorns–on top of their marble headstone. Though my parents are both long gone, like the acorns, the vivid memories are alive and the love endures.
My hope is that one day soon–for the sake of American children and future generations–we can find our way to put down our guns, regain our senses, and decorate our lives with more than flowers and regrets.
“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”
If you love Madonna or remember who she is–please say you do–these eleven words from Like a Prayer, her 1989 pop hit, may prompt your musical heart to soar.
On June 4 and 5 at the Tempe Center for the Arts, these lyrics also will comprise my solo in the Homecoming concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.
I’m a lifelong lover of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and an ardent Arizona admirer of a majestic bald eagle that likes to pose atop a telephone pole along Hayden Road near Chapparal Park in Scottsdale every May.
Still, I don’t know what it feels like to actually fly without the aid of an aircraft.
No matter. Singing has always felt like flying–or what I imagine it to be–with the wind lifting me up as I spread my wings and raise my voice. Particularly the sensation of standing on a stage and harmonizing with a chorus of like-minded, artistic-and-musical souls.
The last time I sang a solo on stage was 1979. I was a senior at the University of Missouri and performed On and On (the way-too-precious-sounding Stephen Bishop tune) with a vocal jazz ensemble of fresh-scrubbed faces and silky-smooth voices. We called ourselves The Singsations. (I know. It was pretty corny.)
Anyway, if you’re a Baby Boomer, you know the lyrics from Bishop’s 1976 song …“Down in Jamaica, they got lots of pretty women. Steal your money, then they break your heart …”
At that point, pretending to be a straight man, I wasn’t in touch with my true orientation. It would be June 2010–long after the birth of my two sons and a failed first marriage–before I would discover the safe haven and friendship of the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago.
But from 2010 to 2017, I never auditioned for a solo with Windy City. I was content to be a voice among voices.
In 2022–in the autumn of my life a month before my sixty-fifth birthday, in a city where it feels like summer lasts forever–I will be singing my next solo. I’ll be surrounded by a community of about forty gay friends.
As you might imagine I’m excited and a little nervous … waiting to take the stage on June 4 and 5 with more than a dozen friends and family in the audience.
I know I will savor every note of the experience. No doubt, it will feel like flying.
Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.
If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.
Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.
It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)
I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.
Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.
Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”
I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.
Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.
Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.
It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!
It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.
This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.
On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.
I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.
Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.
I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.
As we cross through the middle of May, it’s time to share the conclusion of the story of Millie, my neighbor, and our relationship that spanned twenty years Along the Back Fence.This story first appeared inAn Unobstructed View.
In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby.
Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.
When she arrived, I leaned out to give her a hug and she rested her head on my shoulder. She told me she loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it anymore.
Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from her side of the yard and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.
Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too.
It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.
“I love you guys,” she said.
“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.
Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.
And the red rose bush–which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire–took root and bloomed before we departed.
We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.
It only seemed fitting.
In late October 2019, Kathy–another of our Mount Prospect, Illinois neighbors–called with sad, but inevitable, news. Millie had passed away, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
In May 2022, I fantasize that somewhere in a distant universe, Millie is preparing to serve up a Tupperware container filled with ambrosia salad for all her friends.
In reality, seventeen hundred miles west of my previous Illinois home, it is our Arizona neighbors who are about to be dazzled by a summer-long perennial display compliments of our double-red desert rose bush.
The arrival of this much-anticipated splash of brilliant color is something Millie would have loved.
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.”
Today marks four years since I began my blogging adventure and obsession.
When I launched this website May 4, 2018, I wanted to promote my books and develop a greater literary presence online. Over time, that goal has been superseded by a desire to share topical stories about the extraordinary, meaningful moments and people that cross through one ordinary life.
It’s been no simple task nurturing my creativity in this chaotic world. Blogging has given voice to my memories, ideas, values, observations, and opinions. More than that, in my sixties it has become the organic structure I need to stay sharp, sane, hopeful, and whole.
Most definitely, blogging was my salvation during the height of the pandemic. The whimsical and serious tales I spun at my laptop became fodder for my fourth book about two gay men forging a new life in the Sonoran Desert.
This post is #324. That’s an average of eighty-one stories per year or nearly seven each month. Written at all hours of the day and night. Concocted in all sorts of moods: happy, sad, angry, reflective, devastated, and triumphant.
Thank you for joining me on this circuitous journey. If you follow me, you know I often share poetry. Frequently, I like to include photos that ignite and inspire an idea that might otherwise never have surfaced.
For nearly thirty years, I’ve written poems and stashed them in an expanding file. It’s a body of work that encompasses the highs and lows of six-and-a-half decades and chronicles the profound role nature plays in our everyday existence.
As I approach my 65th birthday in July, I feel an impulse to publish a collection of my most vivid poems. Would such a chapbook interest you? As you ponder that question, I hope you enjoy reading this verse.
When I wrote it May 7, 2016, Tom and I were Midwesterners–more familiar with blooming iris and peonies than spiky cacti and monsoon rains.
As an Illinois resident on the threshold of more change than I could imagine, I wanted to remember the imagery of past Mays.
My, our world has changed.
Arriving welcome, clean and fresh, reflecting skies grow amorous.
Crisp at dawn, bursting through, captured by a mother’s view.
Blooming iris, sweet repose, ducklings lined up in a row.
Bounding blooms, fast and pure, veiled peonies pink allure.
Reaching high, bred for speed, stretching out to take the lead.
Calm til dusk, an even pace, ushered in the rain’s disgrace.
This is my domain, though at times I barely recognize the land that met the sky on the wings of my ancestors. Now it is divided into parcels and corridors of parched earth and concrete that channel swirling desert winds.
I crave missing monsoon rains. I grieve for the fallen in war and peace. I pause to observe the pain, pestilence, and progress. I wince over apathy and shortsightedness. I am blind to none of it.
Call me a scavenger or opportunist if you will. I am imperfect like you. I am a survivor, a symbol of what is right and wrong. I was nearly gone and forgotten. Now I am standing guard over the mystery and mayhem that is my home.
It’s a big job, keeping the trees pruned in our complex. Yes, it’s like me to prune the lemon tree outside our front door and write a book of essays set against the beauty and warmth of this Sonoran Desert life.
But trimming palms exists in another stratosphere in the hall of fame of pruning and gardening. You’ll never find me shimmying up the trunk of a palm (think Gilligan’s Island) to sculpt them to look like this. It requires experts, like the crew that descended upon us yesterday. Even so, I admire the tidy end result and occupy myself by photographing the uplifting outcome and telling a story about it.
As the first holiday weekend of summer approaches, the manicured appearance of these Polynesian Paradise palms reminds me that I live in a relatively carefree resort community. I’m not stranded (perpetually) on a unchartered island like Gilligan, the Skipper, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann were in the 1960s, but I am far removed from the demanding midwestern life I left behind.
I’m grateful for this slower pace and quieter life. As summer approaches, I wish you the same. We all need time to reflect and rejuvenate our spirits, time to get lost in a silly old sitcom, time to read a good book, time to pour a cool drink, time to relax and indulge ourselves under a favorite tree.
Life is brimming with duality: birth and death; joy and sorrow; old and new; calmness and turbulence.
In my nearly sixty-four years, I’ve learned we need both the void of darkness and the energy of light–the yin and the yang of contrary forces–to breathe new meaning into our human and fragile existence.
In the confines of spring 2021, both ends of life’s emotional spectrum have crossed my path. First came the sudden death of Gary, an elderly neighbor. He passed in front of our condo, in my arms on April 2.
The calendar told me it was Good Friday, but I felt only sadness and profound disbelief that day. It didn’t matter that Gary was eighty-six years old and declining rapidly. Exits are seldom easy. I prefer new beginnings.
Six weeks later, I got one. Grief was counterbalanced by joy. Something new and happy happened on Tuesday, May 18, to compensate for Good Friday’s trauma.
The wave of anticipation began a few days before when our friend Brian called Tom to enlist our help. He asked us to join him and girlfriend Bernadette at the Desert Botanical Garden.
But there was a twist … something new waiting beyond the something old of simply sharing coffee and stories with our thirty-something friends. Brian wanted us to capture his surprise marriage proposal to Bernadette on camera.
Tuesday morning came. We met at the garden entrance at 10 o’clock as planned. After thirty minutes of light conversation at a shaded table on Ullman Terrace near a gathering of quail, the four of us walked down a garden path.
Brian and Bernadette walked a few steps ahead. He paused, lowered to one knee, and popped the question under the pink blossoms of an ironwood tree.
From behind her neon-green-framed sunglasses, Bernadette beamed and said “yes”. She slid the ring on her finger and they embraced.
Bernadette reached out to hold her future husband and clutch his curly locks. All the while, surrounded by succulents and saguaro cacti, Tom and I snapped photos from six feet away. Boundless joy filled the air.
After ten minutes passed, we walked toward the garden exit together. Tom and I told Bernadette and Brian we wanted to give them some private time in the beauty of the Sonoran Desert landscape.
Before we departed, the four of us spotted a colorful lizard. As Brian’s and Bernadette’s hearts raced– and Tom and I recounted our gratitude for simply being there–the foot-long reptile sat motionless on a rock.
I want to believe it was nature’s way of saying, “Be still with this moment. Let it last a while in the quiet of the garden.”