Tag: Missouri

I Didn’t Know, Indigo

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I didn’t know what roads we’d take eighty-two thousand miles ago.

“I bought a new car, Mom” … “What color is it?” … “Indigo.”

I didn’t know we’d escort her ashes in Illinois.

I didn’t know we’d dodge a windswept tumbleweed in Albuquerque.

I didn’t know we’d take a desperate left turn in St. Louis.

I didn’t know we’d go back to the Grand Canyon rim to gather pine cones.

I didn’t know any of it seven years ago.

I only knew you’d be the one to carry us home.

 

By Mark Johnson

May 21, 2019

 

I’ll Be Seeing You

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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.

***

To learn more about  From Fertile Ground, listen to my podcast interview on The Authors Show.

 

 

 

 

 

Free Rollercoaster Rides Through April 8

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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.

Six Years Have Passed, but the Poppies Still Bloom

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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.

 

Desert Rose: December Memories

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In a world that overvalues youth, immediacy and hashtags (and undervalues history, longevity and sentiment), I sometimes fear that memoirs will vanish one day soon. That no one will care about the past, what we might learn from it, and what it means to us. Still, I continue to share my stories, because I believe we grow as human beings by remembering where we came from and how these experiences inform our present lives.

Last week, I wrote about my fascination with desert rose plants and their beautiful blooms. This story goes deeper than my Arizona life. Decades deeper. Back to my childhood in St. Louis and beyond. Back to my mother and father, when they were newlyweds living in Texas in the late 1940s.

As Christmas approaches and my new desert rose plant lies dormant in my Arizona home, the time is right to share my earliest desert rose memories from the 1960s and the sense of renewal this beautiful succulent represents in my life.

Following is an excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of stories about my Missouri youth. This is one of my sweetest December recollections.

*   *   *

With the disruptions at home, my parents had too much on their plates and seldom played host and hostess on holidays. The one exception was Christmas Day dinner. That’s when they threw caution to the wind annually; when Mom poured highballs for our hardest drinking guests; when a layer of cigarette and cigar smoke bellowed and hung across our living room; when Mom cooked roast beef, whipped potatoes and gravy, and some sort of green vegetable to present a “balanced meal;” when she reached into the kitchen cupboard for her favorite dinnerware; when–best of all–she proudly displayed the place settings of Franciscan Desert Rose she and Dad received as wedding gifts in 1948.

While Mom’s meal was in the oven, I helped her swing open the leg of our maple dining room table and insert a few leaves to accommodate our house guests: Thelma, Ralph, Harry, Violet,  Phyllis, Vic, Virginia, Vickie and Lib–and a few other aging relatives and friends who had nowhere else to go. Then, between intermittent checks of her roast, she took laps around the dining room, setting each place with utensils and napkins, and adding the Desert Rose plates, cups, and saucers.

I don’t think I was a tremendous help to her as she set the table, but I remember seeing a far off glint in Mom’s eyes as she examined and caressed each plate. I know she treasured her embossed earthenware. Introduced by Gladding, McBean and Company in 1941, Franciscan Desert Rose was one of the best-selling dinnerware lines of the 1940s. Perhaps it reminded her of a simpler time … when she and Dad were newlyweds preparing to move to Texas where his dry goods sales job was taking them … when they had lighter hopes, greater dreams, more time, and a sparkling set of dinnerware to frame lovingly-prepared meals with new friends and acquaintances.

Whatever the case, the classic design of the Desert Rose–the pink rose with a yellow center and a green-leaf border–dressed up Mom’s holiday table and brought a hint of beauty into an otherwise chaotic world.

Over the decades, several plates, cups and saucers were chipped or broken. I don’t know what happened to the remaining pieces of my parents’ Desert Rose dinnerware, but my husband and I have bought a few Desert Rose plates in the past few years, whenever we discover them on a random shelf in a Midwestern antique shop. They remind me of my happiest holiday memories and that fleeting, wistful look I saw on my mother’s face each year on Christmas Day.

*   *   *

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, as 2018 winds down, I encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on your favorite childhood memories. And, most of all, I wish you peace and good health in 2019. I hope you realize your desert rose dreams and witness the power of renewal in the coming year.

 

 

Thanksgiving 1993: The Mourning After

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It was eight o’clock on November 26, 1993, the morning after Thanksgiving, when I answered my phone in suburban Chicago. Mom’s voice cracked. Six words spilled out of her mouth, traveled through the phone line and hung in the air. “Mark, your Dad died this morning.”

My father had passed away peacefully in the middle of the night at his home south of St. Louis. Instantly, I no longer felt thankful. The mourning unfolded. Numbness inhabited my body.

Gradually, the facts began to sink in. My parents Helen and Walter Johnson had enjoyed the holiday with his two sisters in north St. Louis County. They had gathered at my cousin’s home for a big meal in Missouri that night. After Dad consumed a second slice of Thanksgiving pie, Mom and he kissed his sisters goodbye, drove home and prepared for bed. Shortly after midnight, Dad leaned back on his pillow and uttered, “Helen, I think I’m going to die now.” And he did. Unceremoniously.

Mom told me the paramedics came immediately after she dialed 911. They tried to revive Dad. But his second heart attack, thirty-one years after the first, claimed him that Friday morning. His life ended one week shy of his eightieth birthday.

Later that week, I stood near the banks of the Mississippi River with my mother, sister and two young sons. We watched as two stone-faced soldiers folded the flag on top of his casket into a triangle. Dad, a World War II veteran, was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. He was buried by a large tree on a hill overlooking a chapel.

Twenty-five years have passed. Row after row of simple white marble stones surround my father there, marking the remains of hundreds of other veterans. I imagine each of them were as proud as Dad was of his service to his country.

I’ve probably visited Dad’s gravesite twenty times since 1993. I go there to pay my respects to my father’s well-intentioned and turbulent life, to hear the clear tones of the clarion ring from the chapel on the quarter hour, to retrace my steps between the rolling rows of stones, to gaze at the deer that saunter by, to kneel beside Dad’s grave and that of my mother’s. She joined him, the other veterans and the deer there in 2013.

I’ll never forget how my father struggled with his bipolar disorder … how he searched endlessly for relief. But with the passage of time, the pain I witnessed has sifted away. Now I’m thankful to remember the entire picture of him: his corny jokes, crooked smile and chatterbox style; his love of family, the St. Louis Cardinals and a cold bottle of beer; his enthusiasm for Big Band music, sappy old movies and overflowing cups of coffee; his unbridled sincerity and patriotism; his quest to write his poetry in the 1960s.

I’m absolutely certain Dad would have been proud of his two grandsons and the men they have become. I’m not as sure he would have understood or accepted me as a gay man. But, because I know he loved me, he would have tried. He would have marveled at how I maneuvered through life as a single dad, juggled a demanding consulting career, sang on a stage with other gay men, wrote and published three books, married and moved across the country with my husband, and forged ahead in our Arizona home after suffering a heart attack of my own on my sixtieth birthday.

In 2018, when I see the American flag flap in the breeze, watch the Cardinals play ball or board the treadmill to keep my heart strong, I think of Dad. I have greater compassion for my father’s frailties and his plight to recover from his own heart trauma in 1962.

I wish I could have one more conversation with Walter Johnson to tell him these things and hug him once again, but this will have to suffice.

You’ve been gone so long, Dad, but I still love and remember you. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

 

The Blue Blazer

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There isn’t much left of my wardrobe from five years ago. In those days, I was a corporate guy working in Chicago. I rotated two or three suits, sport coats, and countless long-sleeve dress shirts and pants for casual dress days. They are all history. I gave the clothing to local charities in Illinois and Arizona, because none of it fit me anymore. I mean that literally (I’ve lost forty pounds in those years), but also psychologically.

In late 2013 at age fifty-six, my body and mind were telling me corporate life didn’t suit me any longer. I needed to find a creative oasis before it was too late. I thought writing might be in my future, but I wasn’t sure. My husband and I planned our corporate exit strategy and left it all behind in early 2014. We began to seriously discuss creating a quieter life in a warmer climate.

As I shed weight and stress, I felt like a sculptor chiseling away the excess matter. I uncovered the writer inside of me. Ironically, with less of me in the picture, I discovered I had more to say about my family, my heritage, my sexuality and my home—and how these foundational components of my identity have shaped my experience and journey.

I’m proud of this transformation, the three books I’ve written and published, and the life Tom and I are molding in the Arizona desert—especially after we survived my heart attack during our move on the way west. But occasionally I need an intersection that melds the man I was with the man I’ve become.

That’s where this silk, 44-long, blue Oscar de la Renta blazer enters the story. I bought it at least ten years ago at a Chicago store. Whenever I wore it for work or play, I brought my best self. So, while all of my other suits and jackets from my Midwest life are gone, this was my favorite. I kept it for special occasions in my Arizona life.

Recently, I found a tailor near my new home. She tapered the waist and shortened the sleeves to suit my lighter build. Now my past and my present have come together.

I’m a lucky man indeed.