Tag: Mothers

The World Was Our Oyster

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My mother, Helen F. Johnson (the F was for Ferrell), sent me more than a thousand letters during her lifetime from her home in St. Louis. After she died in January 2013, reading them gave me comfort and strength.

Each letter contained a treasure trove of information: personal anecdotes, parenting and investment advice, and countless words of love and encouragement. (They and my grandpa Ferrell’s farm-life diaries from North Carolina inspired me to write and publish my first memoir, From Fertile Ground. It’s a story about love, loss and leaving your mark on the world.)

Inside Helen’s letter dated April 1, 2002, was this photo of her with my dad, Walter Johnson. Someone captured this image in Texas seventy years ago today (July 26th, 1949) on my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday. How do I know for sure? Because Helen wrote about it in her letter. Here’s a snippet of what she told me that day.

“… Walt and me when we were young and happy and the world was our oyster. It was taken on my 26th birthday at Club Seven Oaks–off the highway about halfway between San Antonio, TX and Austin, TX. We had been married 10 months. We had 14 happy years before he had his heart attack that took all our lives through some difficult times … It helps me to look at us then and remember there were some good years. Few people live a life without difficulties–something we learn as we live and age.”

Today, on what would have been my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday, the best way I know of celebrating her life, wisdom, and passion for letter writing, is to share her story … really our story … with the world. To that end, on July 26, 27 and 28, you can download a free Kindle copy of From Fertile Ground on Amazon.  I feature many more of Helen’s letters in my book.

Never Far Away

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Every morning you appear outside my window in the fever of July.

In the blooming blanket of a Barbara Karst bougainvillea.

A red reminder of ripe melons and ready resiliency.

Of sweet magnolia miles and pink petunias past.

Of green thumbs and blue birthday hydrangeas.

Every night you fade with each Sonoran sunset.

But you are never far away in the garden.

 

By Mark Johnson, July 22, 2019

 

To Stand Tall

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The world has gone mad. Last week, I felt it personally.

***

On Monday at the gym, bully #1 sprayed venomous, hateful words at me in a weight-lifting room. He claimed I had usurped his space on a bench. He was wrong. It was vacant when I stepped in briefly. At any rate, I was smart enough to walk away from someone far more muscular.

I was also scared enough to recognize old wounds from my adolescence … bullying and humiliation in middle school hallways and locker rooms by larger, straighter, nastier boys who wielded the “F” word and ruled by physical intimidation without adult supervision.

Before I left the gym, I reported the incident to an employee. A few minutes later the reality of what had happened hit me. I cried in the car with my husband Tom by my side.

***

On Saturday at the local market, Tom and I had just bought scented soaps from a vendor. She’s a friend and single mother. I hugged her, knowing her children will be leaving soon for the summer to spend time with their dad.

Before we left, I stopped at a booth to enter my friend’s name in a Mother’s Day drawing. That’s when it happened. “Are you a mother?” bully #2 asked rhetorically. She covered the entry box with both hands and shook her head.

“No, I’m not,” I replied. “But a friend is. I’d like to enter her name in the contest.”

She scolded me. “Vendors aren’t allowed to participate.”

With all the sarcasm I could muster, I glared back and thanked her for “the pleasurable experience of meeting her.” My hair was on fire. I stomped away. Tom stayed long enough to tell bully #2 and her manager how rude they were. We both wondered if they would have treated us the same if we’d been a straight couple.

***

On Sunday, Tom and I missed our mothers. They both died several years ago. Naturally, we still feel the weight of grief. We always will on Mother’s Day. To find solace, we hiked to the Desert Botanical Garden in the morning. It’s one of our favorite spots to be alone with our thoughts. To see the cacti and succulents bloom. To watch the quail and ground squirrels skitter. To escape our worries and get lost in nature.

As we walked along a path, a six-or-seven-year-old boy and his extended family approached us. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he shouted gleefully. “Thank you. Same to you,” I responded with gusto. Instantly, the child stole my heart on a garden path in the desert. At least for a few moments, he renewed my faith in humanity.

Before Tom and I left the garden, we stopped to buy a desert rose. I wanted to pay tribute to my wise, garden-loving mother by planting new life in the sun on our back patio with two similar roses. I wanted to give us hope that one day we’ll live in a world with stronger leaders, who have greater compassion and desire to help protect young children like the one who greeted us with unbridled joy. Leaders who will fight against bullying, rather than foster it.

Until then, I need this third desert rose to remind me to remain true to myself. To continue performing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus, as I did on Saturday night at a benefit for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. To speak my mind as a concerned American, husband, father, son, neighbor, and gay man.  To stand tall in a world gone mad.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

A New High Point

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There is a definite rhythm to writing. When it’s working, it’s as if you are conducting the full breadth of a finely tuned orchestra. But, when you are out of rhythm, you might as well be stomping on the toes of your favorite dance partner. It’s that painful.

At any rate, in January 2016—eighteen months before my husband and I moved to Scottsdale permanently—we escaped suburban Chicago to snowbird in the warmth of Arizona for a few precious months. I remember being concerned about messing up my writing rhythm. To complicate matters, I was fully immersed in the editing of my first book, From Fertile Ground, and unwinding the unending grief for Helen Johnson, my mother. I didn’t yet have a defined space for my writing or Helen’s past influence in our Arizona condo. I needed a trusty desk, like the one that supported my laptop in Illinois, and a few artifacts that would remind me of the mother I loved.

My husband Tom was sensitive to my dilemma. So, on a Tuesday morning a few days after we arrived in Scottsdale, we set out to find a suitable writing surface. We didn’t want to spend much. So, we opted to explore thrift stores in the area for a wooden desk that could fit under the window in our sunroom. It faces south.

I suppose I felt a little like Goldilocks as she searched for the right bed. Our first few stops produced nothing promising. The desks we encountered were too clunky, too small, too rickety, too ugly, too … wrong. I hadn’t found the one that was just right. But we decided to try one more place before calling it quits. We pulled into the Goodwill store on North Scottsdale Road.

Once inside, we filed our way up and down aisles of discarded ceramics, leftover lamps and sagging upholstered chairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a slightly scuffed, mid-sized, mid-century wooden desk. It was just the right size to fit in my creative space. The right price too—twenty dollars.

Tom and I flagged down a clerk. He helped us process the order and arrange for the delivery of our newfound desk. I paused to run my fingers across the desk’s smooth finish and pull open the top drawer. That’s where I discovered a small embossed plate with an ironic identifying inscription: Alma Desk Company, High Point, North Carolina.

In case you aren’t familiar with High Point, the town is the home furnishings capital of the United States. It also happens to be the birthplace of my mother. Here’s the remarkable part. At the time I found the desk in a resale shop more than two thousand miles from her birthplace, I was in the midst of completing a book about grieving Helen’s loss. Certainly, this was a prophetic signpost I couldn’t ignore. It was the right desk, blessed by the writing gods and—perhaps in some cosmic way—endorsed by my furniture-loving mother from the south.

I was convinced that this connection to Helen’s past would be the injection of continuity I needed to complete my book about her in Arizona, even though she never visited the Valley of the Sun. She never stood in awe of the spiky Sonoran saguaros. She never ambled down a quiet path at the Desert Botanical Garden on a Sunday morning to hear the mourning doves coo on crooked branches of Palo Verde trees. She never saw bighorn sheep climb to the top of this butte in the Phoenix Zoo and gaze east.

In this season of renewal, it feels right to acknowledge that my mother’s undaunted spirit and a sturdy High Point desk have helped sustain my creativity in Arizona. They–and a bighorn sheep standing tall in a much too complicated world–are with me on my writing journey.

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.

Joy … and Sadness

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A real day in a real life is comprised of the crisscrossing realities of joy and sadness. Strung together like a tangled knot of Christmas lights, they are the twinkling highs we crave blended with the burned-out bulbs we’d prefer to avoid.

Today, in the span of the same hour, I found myself composing an enthusiastic message to one friend in Arizona, who’s celebrating her sixtieth birthday, while offering condolences to an acquaintance in Illinois. He is my oldest son’s boyhood friend who had just lost his mother (also in her sixties) to cancer.

The combination of these two events gave me pause to consider how difficult it is to balance the highs and lows of life. Many of us spend a good deal of time contemplating tomorrow–saving for a college education, plotting for the perfect job, scrimping to buy a comfortable home, orchestrating the trip of a lifetime, preparing for a secure retirement. Yet, somewhere–way back in the recesses of our psyches–we know the day will come when the loss we experience will dash all of our plans. It will predominate everything else in our lives. Our grief will be all that matters.

So, on this day–March 22, 2019–I wish Kathy a spectacular sixtieth birthday in the Valley of the Sun. And, for Ryan, I send my love and deepest sympathy across the miles as he reconciles the joy of his mother’s kind and generous life with the sadness of her passing.