Here in the Valley of the Sun, 100-degree temperatures have returned. This is not a revelation. Now that I’ve become a desert rat, I’ve learned to expect they’ll be with us for the next few months.
There’s no need to worry about me. I’ve adapted to living in the heat. Early morning walks and swims before the heat sets in. Daily and repeat applications of sunscreen. Plenty of water. Broad-brimmed hats. Pop-up monsoon storms. Biannual visits to the dermatologist. A few weekend getaways to the majestic mountains and fragrant pines of northern Arizona. A trusty sunshade to cover the dashboard of our car when its parked. These are the norm in the Sonoran Desert.
I find strange comfort in all of this, because the return of triple digits reminds me of the scorching summers that defined my suburban St. Louis childhood. This 1960 image always makes me smile. It features the neighborhood kids and me (on the far right) devouring popsicles on the front porch of my home. As a tribute to the blazing days of summer, I hope you’ll enjoy this cooling excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of twenty-six, up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.
The oppressive heat and humidity in St. Louis can wear you down. At times, it’s like carrying around a moist ten-pound cape on your shoulders. Or having your dental hygienist take x-rays and forget to remove the protective flak jacket before you leave the office.
One solution is a three-letter word: ice. In the 1960s, a Pevely Dairy truck driver would deliver milk and other dairy products to homes at the top of our street in the cul-de-sac. About a half dozen of us kids would scurry to catch the truck up the street screaming “ICE!” at the top of our lungs.
On occasion, the driver would pause and drop a big block of ice off the back of his truck onto the pulsating concrete, where it broke into smaller pieces. We’d grab a chunk and apply it to our skin as a soothing balm. We were in heaven.
Truth be told, the iceman didn’t cometh to deliver the goods that often, but he winked and dropped a block of ice into our path a few times each summer–just enough to give us hope that we could carry on the chase and renew the ritual.
The ice cream truck also visited our neighborhood. My sister and I begged our parents for change to buy an ice cream sandwich or dreamsicle from the Good Humor man. He even sold a “bomb pop” popsicle. It was red, white and blue and shaped like an actual bomb with a round top and fins coming out the sides.
Of course, in the Vietnam War era, we didn’t grasp the horror of buying a refreshing treat that was shaped like a weapon. We just knew it kept us cool.
When I drafted this poem on August 27, 1996, I wrote it as a tribute to my father, Walter Johnson, who died in 1993. He was an aspiring-but-unfulfilled poet and proud World War II veteran, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge towards the end of the war in Europe.
Dad is buried here at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery–just south of St. Louis, Missouri–alongside thousands of others who served their country and, in many cases, died defending it.
As Memorial Day approaches, I’m posting this to honor Walter and all of the soldiers on the hill, who rest eternally on the banks of the Mississippi River.
On the afternoon of April 23, I wrote and sipped ice tea at Echo, an independent coffee shop in Scottsdale. I sat there, creating characters and spinning scenarios for a piece of fiction.
At some point, I became aware of the sounds in the room: my husband typing on his laptop across the table; the chatter of patrons; the whir of a barista grinding coffee beans; the soaring voice of Ella Fitzgerald cascading down upon us. It was her rousing rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You, an iconic 1940s tune my mother, Helen Johnson, loved. So much so that my sister and I chose to play it at her memorial service in 2013.
The irony of hearing the song on April 23 was that I had been feeling blue all day. I’d spoken with the manager of an independent bookstore a few hours before. She said she hadn’t recently sold any copies of my first book, From Fertile Ground,a three-generation memoir I wrote and published in 2016 about the grief I experienced after my mother’s death. The manager had decided to pull it from the store’s shelves. I could pick up the five remaining paperbacks at my convenience.
From a business standpoint, this isn’t unusual. Books come and go. Bookstores have a limited amount of space. They’re under intense pressure to maximize the revenue possibilities on their shelves and keep their inventory fresh to entice readers. Intellectually, I got that. But, emotionally, I felt something different. Disappointment. Sadness. Grief.
If you’ve lost someone you loved, you know what I mean. The wound of grief heals with time, but is ever present. As a character in the 2010 movie Rabbit Hole explains, grief is like carrying a stone in your pocket. Some days the stone is heavy. Other days the stone is light. But the stone is always with you and over time provides strange comfort. For me, that metaphor rings true.
To take it one step further, imagine if you wrote a book about the stone, as I did. You mustered all the energy and creativity you could to tell the tale of grief. About an adventure-seeking woman from rural North Carolina, who leaves the south and her hard-working parents. The woman finds a new-and-often-tumultuous life in St. Louis, where she builds a successful career, becomes a wife, mother, and grandmother. One day she retires. She decides to devote her time and energy to writing and sending a litany of letters about the lessons she’s learned to those she loves.
Of course, no matter how many books I sell, I am grateful for my writing and the satisfaction it gives me. I will always have my book as a chronicle of Helen’s life, death and legacy. I will always have my memories of writing it. Capturing the universal story of love and loss that permeates every life. Hearing from friends and strangers who enjoy reading it. As a writer, this is what I’ll hold onto even as we live in a society of constant distraction that overemphasizes the latest superhero movie and undervalues the historical perspective, humanity and truth in books all around us.
As Mother’s Day approaches, this is the most meaningful part of the stone metaphor. This is what I choose to carry with me:
I still love you, Helen. There is comfort knowing that I’ll be seeing you and your fading blue eyes in my writing. For as long as I’m in the world, I’ll be seeing you in my grief.
In April 1974, I became a rollercoaster operator. It was my first job. I was sixteen years old.
Like most teenagers, I didn’t have a clue about life. But, more than four decades later, “driving” the River King Mine Train at Six Flags Over Mid-America near St. Louis became the creative catalyst for twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. I call them MOstalgic tales of American culture in the 1960s and 70s, when children had far more freedom to grow, play and run amok.
From April 5 through April 8, you can download a free Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon worldwide. It’s my way of celebrating the forty-fifth anniversary of my amusing amusement park experience and other vivid Baby Boomer recollections, including: discovering the joys of a first pet; loading up the car and heading to the drive-in theatre; embarking on a quest to wrangle World Series tickets with my dad; working at the top of the Gateway Arch; and witnessing the wonder in a brand new year after a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger.
Perhaps my stories will make you smile and light your desire to post a review online. But, at the very least, I hope they prompt you to remember a simpler time and the twists, turns and thrills from your own childhood. Wherever you were born. Wherever you grew up. Wherever you called home.
In mid-January 2013, I was marking time. I had just returned to my consulting job in Chicago after a two-month leave of absence to spend time with Helen Johnson. She was my wise, but ailing, mother. Somehow Helen had dodged and surpassed the prognostications of her doctors. She was clinging to life in hospice, enduring frequent breathing treatments to relieve her congestive heart failure, channeling the will and resiliency that had sustained her for more than eighty-nine years.
A few weeks later, everything changed. I got the dreaded call. My mother’s life ended peacefully in the wee hours of January 26, 2013. Soon after, a grief-induced fog rolled in and consumed me. Fortunately, I found the strength to write about it. My new life as an author began to take root. I never imagined the vacuum left by my mother’s existence would become the catalyst and subject matter for my first book, From Fertile Ground.
Six years have passed. Today I’m thankful I can remember my mother freely without the specter of pain. Helen Johnson had a passion for nature and supporting aspiring artists. She also believed in second chances. In the 1970s, Mom insisted I come with her to annual art shows at Menard state prison in southern Illinois. That’s where some of the more talented inmates presented and sold their work. On one of those excursions, she bought this painting.
For nearly the next three decades, it hung in our living room in suburban St. Louis. Then it traveled with Mom to her new home in Chicago’s western suburbs, where she spent the last nine years of her life. After Mom died, I kept the painting. When my husband and I moved to Arizona in 2017, we brought it with us.
In a weak moment this week, as the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death drew closer, I considered giving it away because we have less space now. But then I had a change of heart. With my husband’s encouragement, I realized the painting will never mean as much to anyone else. We found the right spot to display it in our condo kitchen.
This vivid splash of blooming poppies on a hillside, painted by an artist named McCall in 1975, will always represent my mother’s best qualities. As long as I’m alive, I hope the memories of her goodness never fade.