Tag: Memories

Sixty-Five Thoughts

I haven’t been agonizing about my milestone birthday–coming soon on July 6. But I am hyper-aware of the significance of turning sixty-five times two. (My husband and I were born on the same day in 1957, just thirteen hours and three hundred miles apart).

Sixty-five is both an age to celebrate–thanks to my new Medicare coverage I now pay nothing to refill my cholesterol medication–and a number to face with some trepidation.

Certainly, there is wisdom that comes with this station in life. That–and the daily company of my best friend–are the best parts of finishing another lap around the track.

In that spirit, on Independence Day 2022, I’ve assembled this random list of sixty-five thoughts … observations/reflections from the first six and a half decades of my life that came to me today as I walked the treadmill at the gym.

These items may or may not have significance or meaning for you. Either way, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I’ve learned so far about this rollercoaster existence that is the human condition.

***

#1: I am certain that love and loss are close cousins.

#2: Travel broadens the mind and gives me greater perspective about my place in the world.

#3: I am more inclined to connect with spiritual souls than those with specific religious beliefs.

#4: A good therapist is always worth the money.

#5: It takes time for most of us to find our way.

#6: Once I began to really love myself, I found greater peace.

#7: Save whatever money you can. It will ease your plight later in life.

#8: Each of us is more valuable than whatever salary we earn.

#9: Listen to your inner voice. It’s seldom wrong.

#10: A good cry is both cleansing and necessary at times.

#11: Get enough sleep. It rejuvenates the mind, body, and soul.

#12: We all need a home … a safe place away from the storm.

#13: See a doctor asap if you don’t feel right.

#14: “I’m sorry” are two powerful and underused words.

#15: In spite of their troubles, both of my parents loved my sister and me with all of their hearts.

In 1972, Dad, Mom, and Diane joined me on the St. Louis riverfront to celebrate my fifteenth birthday.

#16: On the other hand, family isn’t necessarily defined by where you came from. Sometimes it’s what you create with friends later in life that carries you forward.

#17: Depression is a real and frightening thing. Get help if you need it.

#18: Whenever I’ve shared my true feelings, I’ve built greater trust.

#19: Animals and nature soften the blow of life and make it sweeter.

#20: Tenderness and honesty are very sexy.

#21: Music — and singing — soothes and inspires my creativity.

#22: Children need love, guidance, and structure.

#23: Learning is a life-long odyssey.

#24: I was always meant to be a writer.

#25: A phone call with a dear friend can make everything better.

#26: Don’t give up on yourself. Sometimes the best advice is to simply get through the day.

#27: Divorce is a shattering personal experience.

#28: The best relationships provide you with enough room to learn and grow.

#29: The end of something is also the beginning of something.

#30: Humor and laughter are contagious and underrated.

#31: When you really open your eyes, you see beauty and serendipity in unusual places.

#32: College or a trade school education is essential to build a solid foundation.

#33: Flowers make me smile and brighten my world.

#34: Life is an open road of possibilities. Driving places can be great therapy.

#35: We all deserve love.

#36: Swimming keeps me happy and healthy.

#37: You need a good dermatologist when you live in Arizona.

#38: I love the warmth and solitude of the Sonoran Desert, but I’ll always be a Midwestern boy at heart.

#39: While math and technology confuse me, words and ideas light my fire.

#40: Ice cream always makes life better.

#41: Personal wealth isn’t defined by the amount in your bank account.

#42: I knew my husband was special right away. He has kind blue eyes.

#43: I have always loved being a dad … and I’m good at it. I’m a nurturer and cheerleader.

#44: My sons have added a dimension to my life that grows with each passing year.

#45: My mother was incredibly wise. She wrote detailed and encouraging letters to family, neighbors, and friends alike. My love of gardening came from her.

#46: My father’s enthusiasm carried me to parades and ballgames that brought me joy. Despite his personal pain, I now see the full measure of his best intentions.

#47: There is nothing wrong with sentiment. You need a dose or two of it to write a good memoir.

#48: I still miss the dogs of my past lives: Happy, Terri, Candy, Scooby-Doo, and especially Maggie.

#49: Being gay is a gift, not a liability. Being different has sharpened my empathy.

#50: I’m inclined to think 65 is the new 50 … at least I hope it is!

#51: I love holding hands with my husband in a movie theatre.

#52: The truth matters. That lesson applies to children and adults.

#53: The current state of our country–especially the violence–worries me.

#54: My heart is stronger than I realized.

#55: Nothing lasts forever, but I want to believe it will.

#56: I am passionate and loyal … to those I love and those who love me.

#57: I’ll admit it. A St. Louis Cardinals win (or loss) can change the course of my day.

#58: I will always cherish the time I spent with my grandparents on their North Carolina farm.

#59: I was a committed employee in every job I ever had … and a damn good rollercoaster operator.

#60: I still keep the National Park Service uniform and hat I wore when I worked at the Gateway Arch.

#61: I still can’t believe I’ve written and published four books. Do I have another one or two in me?

#62: I love the meditative aspects of yoga … and recommend it to all heart attack survivors.

#63: At this stage of life, I look younger with shorter hair.

#64: Aging isn’t so bad most days, as long as I keep moving.

#65: I am thankful for the constant love and companionship of Tom, my husband.

On the threshold of our sixty-fifth birthday, Tom and I captured this moment outside our Arizona home.

What Is Remembered Lives

Long after the most cherished and meaningful moments pass, our memories–good, bad, vivid, and foggy–endure like saguaro cacti dotting the terrain of our vast consciousness.

***

Over the weekend, the lone survivor of my mother’s prized African violet plants died. Tom and I discovered it withered on the window sill of our Scottsdale condo. I supposed it succumbed to the heat of the desert’s afternoon sun.

I’ve chronicled the journey and symbolism of Mom’s African violets before–here and in two of my books: From Fertile Ground and An Unobstructed View.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom when she moved north to be closer to my sister Diane and me in 2004.

When Mom died in January 2013, Diane divided up the remaining African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

For the next four years, my cuttings flourished in our Mount Prospect, Illinois home. In early July 2017, Tom and I wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. We brought them west from Illinois to our new home in Arizona.

On the road, after I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis and couldn’t lift anything for a few weeks, I remember my husband carrying the African violets between our car and hotel rooms in Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico to protect them from fluctuating temperatures overnight. It’s a memory I will always treasure.

When we arrived in Scottsdale on July 12, 2017, Tom and I deposited the plants on our southern-facing window sill. The pink African violet lived two more years before petering out in 2019. Now the purple one is gone too. It last bloomed ten months ago in January 2021 … eight years after Helen Johnson’s passing.

Of course, I feel a twinge or two of sadness. This marks the end of a long, circuitous chapter, connecting my present life to the past memories of my nature-loving mother.

But, at this point (four-plus years in my Arizona home), Tom and I feel rooted in the desert. We have chosen and nurtured plants that embellish our life in this warm, dry place: bougainvillea, desert roses, succulents, even a bird of paradise.

To be sure, though their physical evidence is gone, the stories of the traveling African violets and the memories of their captivating blooms will be with me as I hike the rises and falls of the Sonoran Desert with Tom.

What is remembered lives.

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.

Thorns and All

Life is a mysterious mosaic of beginnings and endings, hellos and goodbyes, births and deaths, marriages and divorces, successes and failures.

It is human to create and nurture vivid memories within the confines of these wins and losses. Yet, in reality, we spend most of our time existing before and after the highs and lows.

Nature displays a different path to follow. It encourages us to savor the space between budding and deflating events. It reminds us to live in the present, thorns and all.

Hold Your Breath … Breathe

Tom and I arrived at the Cardiovascular Consultants office in Glendale at 10:30 a.m. on August 5. About fifteen minutes ahead of my scheduled echocardiogram.

Though my vital signs during my regular checkup two days before looked good (110/70 blood pressure, normal EKG) I’ve been feeling a little fatigued. That’s likely a byproduct of my medication and the world we’re living in, but Dr. B. prescribed the procedure just to make sure my heart is pumping as it should.

As I entered through the glass doors, Tom hugged me. Only patients with masks were allowed inside the office space. His plan was to find a safe coffee spot nearby and wait until I called him.

I checked in at the front desk and answered all the expected questions. The attendant scanned my forehead. No temperature. No COVID-19 symptoms of any kind. When she asked, I told her I hadn’t traveled outside the country lately (though I wish I had) or gone on a cruise.

Laney, the technician, called me in promptly. She asked me to remove my shirt and lay on my left side on the exam table with my arm folded under my head. She pasted nodes to eight or ten places on my chest, smeared gel across my upper torso and began to apply a wand to various spots.

Hold your breath … breathe.  She scanned one area. I heard my heart pound and echo through a machine. Glub glub … glub glub. Over the next twenty minutes we repeated this rumba at least twenty times–Laney scanning and prompting like a teacher, my heart responding like an obedient student reporting for class and waving his hand (“I’m here. I’m here!”) on the first day of school. The device danced across my chest.

Then, after a few moments of shifting on the table to find a comfortable position reclining on my back, Laney’s magic wand scanned a few new places. Down to my upper rib cage and up to my throat with my head extended back.

Through it all, there was no physical pain. By 11:15, I had dressed, called Tom to pick me up and checked out. I’ll see Dr. B. again on August 17. He’ll have the results.

Of course, I feel anxious. Who wouldn’t? Especially because this experience brought me back three years to a hospital gurney in St. Louis and a similar echocardiogram procedure with Jacob, a different technician. Fear and apprehension ensued. But, I need to remind myself, my heart was experiencing trauma in July 2017. It isn’t today.

Now, thirty-seven months later and twenty-five pounds lighter, I’m a leaner, healthier guy with An Unobstructed View and a quieter life. Even so, I wait and wonder. I’ve been having strange dreams like many of you.

Two recent ones had me back in the corporate world working without a clue of what to do. Or shuffling around the condo searching for my misplaced blended bifocals, normally reasonable perspective and vision of clarity.

Such is the trauma of COVID-19 in a country with a president who doesn’t want to take responsibility for any of it. Still I’m fortunate when compared with most of the world. I swim. I walk. I write to stay whole. I don’t have to worry about the demands of a traditional job. I stretch out on my yoga mat and unwind. I keep breathing. I listen to the regular rhythm of my beating heart. Tom and I are there everyday to love and reassure each other.

Climbing out of bed at 6 am. on August 6, somehow I felt more rested. Out the door by 7, walking in Vista del Camino Park in 84-degree temperatures, the air felt cooler and lighter than the previous two torrid months. Miraculously, there was a break in the oppressive heat overnight. Could this be a harbinger of hope in an otherwise grey world?

Strolling with Tom, it felt like a September school day morning in the early 60s back in suburban St. Louis. When I carried a lunch box to the bus on some days or thirty cents in the pocket of my jeans to buy a hot meal in the cafeteria. The days were longer. Life was simpler. Or at least my childhood memory tells me so.

But in reality, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and our duck-and-cover drills in our classrooms in case of a nuclear attack. Then, later, JFK’s assassination. Then, Martin’s and Bobby’s. Those worries, the unrest in the streets, and the anxieties in the recesses of our consciousness kept us occupied after completing our spelling and math workbooks.

Now we have the unrelenting pain of a global pandemic. Our COVID-19 children and grandchildren will always remember social distancing, hand sanitizing, that displaced feeling of not knowing when/if/how school would resume, and the masks they wore in 2020.

No generation gets by unscathed. We scrape by through difficult times and do the best we can. We relax and reflect through more tranquil years. When we’re strong, we go on  without ever feeling ill or vulnerable. We work long hours and make everyday sacrifices for those we love. We say goodbye to parents who lived full lives and friends who died too young.

Then life shifts for no apparent reason. We find ourselves visiting doctors, bonding with cardiologists behind masks, waiting for the heat and oppression to lift. We find ourselves hoping for fewer casualties, more job opportunities and financial aid for the disenfranchised, a lower infection rate, normal echocardiogram results, a trustworthy president, and a reliable vaccine that nearly everyone will agree is the right thing to do.

We find ourselves taking each day as it comes, waiting impatiently for the good news we deserve.

 

The Columns and Buttes

MU_ColumnsRing_May1979

Our best memories–the ones cast in precious metals and inscribed with our names in cursive–far outweigh the cubic zirconium rings and balled up aluminum foil we choose to discard. But even the brightest ballast-laden snippets blur at the edges as they flash through our mind’s eye. They provide the weight we press against, cling to, or push away from.

My fourteen-karat gold college ring symbolizes the continuity of my University of Missouri years in Columbia. Resting in a dish with assorted jewelry in my bureau drawer, it features the school’s six iconic time-tested columns. All that remains of the university’s Academic Hall, which burned in a fire in the fresh snow of January 1892.

Out of the ashes, President Richard H. Jesse had the vision and fortitude to guide the school and transform it into a research-based institution. During his seventeen-year administration, the modern university Jesse envisioned was born. It grew and produced positive ripples around the ever-enduring stone columns … as well as generations who met near, lounged under or studied beneath them.

MU students have built lives and careers there. Succeeded and failed in times of war and peace. In the 1970’s, dozens of us tossed our Frisbees around the stone pillars … galloping across the Francis Quadrangle grass, running amok in the “Show Me” state until the next keg of beer or slice of Shakespeare’s pizza captured our attention. In my case, I walked across an outdoor stage to accept my Bachelor of Journalism degree in May 1979.

At their essence, the columns represent more than a social backdrop for play and frivolity. They are larger-than-life markers of time and civilization, before automobiles, airplanes, computers or digital technology. Poetic and historic reminders of their permanence and significance under fire versus our relative impermanence and insignificance.

I no longer wear the ring, but I’ve kept it nonetheless. When I pick it up and examine the luster and sparkle of the tiger’s eye, I marvel at what I accomplished, recall what I survived, and “retreat to the chambers that I left behind”, a lyrical line from folk rocker Dan Fogelberg’s song Heart Hotels and his 1979 album Phoenix.

In the late 1970’s, as I turned up the volume on my stereo and escaped into Fogelberg’s melancholy music behind my long hair, I didn’t imagine I’d go west one day and create a whole new life near the base of another rock formation … the Papapo Park buttes; a natural one … but that’s what can happen over the course of a lifetime.

More than forty years later, I’ve discovered a longer view, which comes only with lengthening late-afternoon shadows and survival. Whenever I imagine my life on an eighty-year, bell-shaped curve (we should all feel lucky to live that long … Dan Fogelberg died in 2007 at age fifty-six), I see the columns as the launching pad after the first twenty years.

The geological formation of the Papago Park buttes, just steps from my Arizona condo and millions of years ago at the bottom of a vast ocean, are likely the landing pad on the down slope of life for my last twenty.

Global pandemic or not, none of us knows when the end point will arrive. What the circumstances will be. We might as well enjoy the flights of fancy–keep throwing and catching our Frisbee in our sixties as Tom and I do–and take comfort in the anchors of life. The symbols of strength around us. The columns and buttes that keep us grateful and grounded in good times and bad.

 

 

 

 

 

A Fateful Friday Fifty-Six Years Ago

FFG_Photo 1

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.

 

 

Still Counting in September

PillTray_090219

“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.