Tag: Mothers

The Clothesline

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

It was laundry day. So, this morning, Tom and I grabbed our pouch of wooden clothespins and walked five hundred steps or so to the landing behind our condo clubhouse.

For the next five minutes–shielding our eyes from the penetrating sun–we stood on the concrete there, hanging our just-washed, delicate shorts and shirts on the community clothesline to dry in the desert breeze.

Call me old fashioned. But I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I enjoy it. Especially as fall approaches and the air begins to cool.

More important, the plastic-coated clothesline connects my present life to my past. It represents the resiliency I’ve watched, absorbed, and carried forward.

It reminds me of the family members I’ve lost, but still love, and the survival instincts they instilled in me sixty years ago. What follows are excerpts from my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.

***

It was my second week of kindergarten, and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962–September 13 to be exact–I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.

Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board.

The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.

I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the back fence.

“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.

I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.

Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket, and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month …

Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long–unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames. But Dad insisted he would rebound.

Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”

***

The next decade was difficult for our family. Watching Dad drift away physically and emotionally, filled me with anxiety. He never recovered fully, though the man who fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge soldiered on until his death in 1993.

Meanwhile, my mother kept our family afloat financially. She went back to work in March 1963 and did her best to balance life at home and in the office. When she died in 2013, she left behind a legacy of wisdom that I cherish and share.

Watching my parents toil produced a silver lining. Seeing them tread deep water for all those years gave me something I never imagined: the will to face my own personal challenges, standing tall as a proud gay man, and surviving my own heart attack on my sixtieth birthday.

Of course, it all began in the suburbs of St. Louis in September 1962. That sagging clothesline swayed. But it never snapped.

And, here in the Sonoran Desert in 2022, another clothesline sways 1,400 miles west.

It’s a much less turbulent September day.

What Lingers

She’s been gone nine-and-a-half years. I no longer feel the frequent weightiness of her loss. But on this day–what would have been Helen Johnson’s ninety-ninth birthday–I do.

My mother was a lifelong gardener and nature lover. So, this morning–as a symbolic gesture–Tom and I walked the Desert Botanical Garden. It was quiet and muggy there; just us, a few other couples, and a parade of random reptiles doing push-ups on the concrete path before scampering off.

Grief is a tricky thing. If you’ve lost someone you loved (and who hasn’t?), the discomfort appears as an uninvited clunky extra, who wanders on stage to disrupt a scene … only to vanish until the next anniversary, birthday, favorite song, or serendipitous moment.

As a soothing balm, I have kept the treasure trove of hundreds of letters my mother sent me. They represent a lifetime of her wisdom–her pain, joy, uncertainty, pride, denial, and acceptance. It only became wisdom and the catalyst for my first book, because she had the foresight to share it.

Perhaps the image of her–sitting at her desk or dining room table composing another letter–is her greatest gift of all to me in my literary, later-in-life years.

Out of her death and my grief, I was able to comb the beaches of her life (and mine) and make sense of it. Her letters–like this joyous one from 1999, which I included in From Fertile Ground–are the meaningful shells that washed up on shore and remain.

***

July 11, 1999

Dear Mark,

I really enjoyed your visit! It is good to see you happy and at peace. The fact that you plan to end your group therapy indicates a confidence in your life’s path that is reassuring. I wish for you continued growth and success in every area of your life. The next 20 years should be your best!

The boys are growing up. Nick seems to have recovered some of his old verve and displayed more of the child of old than I had seen in a few years. As he matures and charts his own course as a man, more of that lovely, lovable child nature will return and be revealed to his family members. Kirk is still an adorable rascal and much fun to have around. Enjoy it. Everything can change quickly …

Love to you and the boys. Hello to Tom.

Mom

***

Two years before, in the fall of 1997 while vacationing with her sister Frances, Mom wore a light blue hat in this grainy photo. She scoured the South Carolina shoreline for seashells and shark teeth. She marveled at the way the ocean’s high and low tides polished their sharp edges.

Twenty-five years later, I marvel at the wisdom and intellect my mother shared and left behind. It is her letters and my love for her that linger.

Get Happy

Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.

Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away.
Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.

***

Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.

Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.

For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.

As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.

Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.

Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.

Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?

***

2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)

To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!

On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.

About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.

Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.

The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.

As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.

Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.

We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.

Eight Days on the Emerald Island

There is no better time than St. Patrick’s Day to pay tribute to the Emerald Island.

In late August 2017–just six weeks after I suffered a mild heart attack–Tom and I boarded a flight for Dublin, Ireland.

It was an excursion we had planned months before. But on July 6th (our shared sixtieth birthday) the trip and our future felt very much in doubt as I lie on a gurney in a St. Louis hospital.

Remarkably, my health improved considerably in a month. Doctors in Scottsdale, Arizona–my new hometown–encouraged us to proceed with our plans. The journey to Ireland would help us heal.

Looking back five years, both of us were anxious about traveling abroad, but we also needed to reclaim our joy. As I wrote in An Unobstructed View, Tom and I spent eight days with forty other travelers from around the world. Brian, our capable guide with CIE Tours, led us clockwise around the island.

It’s a bit of a blur now. But in one week’s time we moved from Dublin to Waterford, Killarney, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, Galway, the sheepdogs in Sligo, the Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland, and the Titanic Museum in Belfast … before returning to Dublin and riding atop a double-decker bus with the wind racing through my hair.

Along the way, on our farewell dinner with the tour, we enjoyed an evening of Irish songs and music at the Glyde Inn just south of Dundalk.

In the spontaneity of the experience, I was pulled onto the floor to join in a broom dance. For a few fleeting moments, I rediscovered my spark away from the worries of the previous month.

I also spotted a little old Irish lady, singing her heart out across the room. She resembled my Scotch-Irish mother, who never had the opportunity to return to her ancestral home country. Seeing her there was an important step in my healing process.

In 2019, I wrote The Irish Mist. My poem is a tribute to the comfort I felt looking out over the Atlantic Ocean across the vast Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland as the clouds rolled in on August 27, 2017.

***

I’ll always remember you, rolling in over the gaelic green.

I felt cool comfort knowing the veiled intentions you whispered in my ear wouldn’t be denied.

No matter how much I wanted to gaze beyond the moss and ferns you shrouded, you held me there.

You knew I needed to stand strong above the craggy cliffs of my past.

You knew I needed to feel rooted to the emerald island, thankful for the mystery of my mending heart.

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Scissor Cities?

Me pruning the fig tree outside our front door in Scottsdale on February 8, 2022.

I’m at it again, pairing the random recent pruning of our fig tree with a story of my first haircut in a land far away but never forgotten.

***

In the arc of life, St. Louis, Missouri, was my first hometown; Scottsdale, Arizona, will likely be my last. Beyond this personal connection, they have little in common.

They certainly aren’t Sister Cities. The former is a muggy midwestern city shrinking in population on the banks of the Mississippi River; the latter, a dry western town growing exponentially in the Sonoran Desert.

Though, if you follow NFL franchise history, you know the present-day Arizona Cardinals made their home in St. Louis from 1960 through 1987. As a kid, I rooted for the Big Red there.

Now I cheer for this iteration of the Cardinals here. Regrettably, the team’s promising 2021-22 season faded in December and January. They won’t appear in the Super Bowl. The Bengals and Rams will be featured instead on Sunday.

At this stage of life–when I’m not writing or singing or swimming or exercising or baking or eating or sleeping or following my baseball and football Cardinals (the first still resides in St. Louis)–you might find me giving or getting trims.

Let me be clear. The giving involves me manipulating large garden shears and a hand saw to prune (only occasionally) a few of the fruit trees in our condo community. I even wrote and published a book of stories a year ago, which alludes to this activity in the title.

Anyway, on Tuesday, Tom and I were outside giving trims again. We pruned the fig tree near our front door. It’s an annual thing we do in February. It keeps the tree healthy.

We actually enjoy doing it. It’s a way for us to contribute to the well-being of our condo community and pamper the gnarled tree that provides shade on our hottest summer days.

On the other hand, the getting part of this is a different story. It equates to me sitting in a chair and having a stylist trim my hair with clippers and scissors every six weeks.

Most recently, I had this done two weeks ago at a Super Cuts in Scottsdale. But the first time was August 13, 1958, in St. Louis. I was a little over one year old. Someone named Frank Goetz did the trimming.

How do I know the who, what, when and where of this? My mother kept a detailed baby book of photos and anecdotes from the first seven years of my life.

Inside is a treasure trove of memories: things I would never have known or remembered if she hadn’t taken the time to maintain this personal record. She even kept a lock of my cut blond hair from that day, sealed it in a small envelope, and pasted it on a scrapbook page.

This morning, a day after Tom and I finished giving our fig tree its annual haircut, I pulled out the baby book from our hallway closet. In short order, I stumbled upon this photo.

Isn’t it funny and magical how a grainy black-and-white photo can transport you to another era and instantly pair the scissor cities of your imagined and true-life experiences?

On August 13, 1958, my sister Diane posed with me in St. Louis moments after I got my first haircut.

January Musings

It’s one of those days when my stream of consciousness is running in many directions. That has prompted this post about everything (or nothing depending on your point of view).

I call it January musings, because that’s the best thematic thread I can find in this ball of yarn and semi-related thoughts.

***

Morning, noon and night the fabric of our winding threads becomes a tapestry. That’s the opening lyrical line from Mighty Mosaic, one of four pieces I wrote for the March 12 Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus concert.

The song is an LGBTQA anthem of sorts to capture the complicated–and often triumphant–journeys we take to discover who we are and what we believe.

Hearing my lyrics come to life in a room of familiar voices during Tuesday night’s rehearsal brought me personal joy in a month previously laced with grief.

***

I bristle whenever I hear film directors, writers or musicians say in an interview that they don’t ever step back to watch their films, read their books, or listen to their music.

I’ll admit it. I’m a writer, who learns by retracing literary steps. I find myself revisiting themes in my writing all the time (family, love, loss, the beauty of nature, the serendipity of life) or frequently pulling one of my books off the shelf and re-reading certain passages.

Why? Because it keeps the process of telling a particular story fresh in my mind. Each of my four books is a child I have loved and guided from infancy to adulthood. They will live on the page long after I’m gone, even if nobody reads them.

Revisiting my stories also allows me to remember the richness of life: the hows … how far I’ve traveled, how far I still have to go, how much the world has changed, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, how fortunate I am to love and be loved.

***

The ninth anniversary of my mother’s passing is January 26. Earlier this week, I looked skyward and spotted a full moon. It transported me back to a frigid January morning right after I said goodbye to her–an indelible Illinois moment in 2013–when Tom and I sat with my sister and brother-in-law at a suburban McDonald’s (the only place open for coffee at 5 a.m.) to feel the warmth and close comfort of an enormous full moon illuminating the horizon and the snow-packed streets.

The grief I felt that morning is far less present now. But the welcome sight of a full moon will forever remind me of the journey after Helen Johnson’s passing, her wisdom and undaunted spirit, and the growth that followed. All of it inspired me to chart a new trajectory, write From Fertile Ground and three more books, and even discover a poet and lyricist lurking inside.

Pie and Pottery

My husband is an excellent cook. In a given two-week period, he gladly prepares chicken, tilapia, salmon, cod, turkey meatloaf (along with potatoes, Brussels sprouts, green beans) and pasta of every kind. I am thankful for him and all the things he does for us.

What is my contribution? I am the baker in our family. I concoct corn bread, blueberry muffins, chocolate chip cookies and the like. Oh, and on special occasions, I prepare and bake pies.

Our two deep dish favorites are egg custard (a silky treat handed down from my southern/maternal family) and Dutch apple (a recipe I found online several years ago). The latter has become our go-to dessert for Thanksgiving.

More than cake or cookies, I think the smell of pie baking in the oven will always cue my emotions and provide deep dish comfort. That first and last forkful of crumbly goodness with a cup of coffee won’t hurt either.

Anyway, this morning I stood over the kitchen sink and sliced eight Granny Smith apples for this year’s pie filling. Over the years, I’ve discovered the tartness of Granny Smiths make them ideal for baking.

That piece of wisdom came from my mother. So, naturally, I thought of her as I prepared a pie for Tom and me. It doesn’t matter that my mother has been gone for nearly nine years. Her influence in my life endures.

During the last four years of Helen Johnson’s life, she lived at Brighton Gardens, an assisted living facility in Wheaton, Illinois. My mother loved to bake and glaze ceramic pottery in a class there.

For her last Thanksgiving–2012–our family gathered a few weeks early in a community room at Brighton Gardens to celebrate the holiday together. Mom was in hospice at that point and declining rapidly, so that seemed like the safe thing to do at the time.

Meanwhile, back down the hall in her empty apartment, I can still imagine the shelves and tables of her room lined with family photos and a dozen or more of her prized pieces of homemade pottery.

Remarkably, my mother lived two more months. After she passed, my sister Diane and I held a memorial in early February for her. We brought many of the pieces of pottery with us to the funeral home and placed them on tables around the room.

When family and close friends departed after the service that night, we asked that they choose a piece of her art and take it with them.

Today, I still have at least a half dozen of Mom’s fired-and-glazed pottery from her Brighton Gardens days in our two-bedroom home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

At Thanksgiving every year, I bring out this ceramic turkey-shaped napkin holder she made. It is inscribed with her name “Helen J.” brushed on the bottom.

It’s stationed on our Thanksgiving table … next to my delectable, deep dish Dutch apple pie … ready to create a new batch of memories for Tom and me on Thanksgiving Day 2021 in 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.

Antidote for Grief

Grief is an insidious and universal human condition. When you love someone–and they leave or die–you need something to fill the space they’ve left behind. Grief enters to fill the void.

If you are in the midst of grieving (as I was in 2013 and 2014 after my mother passed away), it may feel as if you are wandering through a deep fog. Or you might wonder if you are chained to the floor in the middle of an empty room with water pouring in over all four walls and seeping through the floor boards.

That’s how grief can manifest itself, but for each of us the path is different. The loss lightens over the years. Still, we carry it wherever we go. It becomes an extension of us, ingrained in our identities.

In 2014 and 2015, I saved myself from drowning in grief by writing about it. My mother and grandfather helped immensely. They left behind a trail of their thoughts and experiences on paper … in the form of a mountain of letters from Helen (my resilient mother) and diaries from S.R. (my farming grandfather).

After my mother’s demise, reading her handwritten and wisdom-filled memories and her dad’s more stark observations prompted me to tell all three of our stories in one book. From Fertile Ground became my salvation. Yes, in 2015 it consumed me, but it also gave me renewed creative purpose and focus after I left my corporate job.

When I finished and published the book in 2016, I felt it was a story that would alleviate pain for grief-stricken souls. Five years later, I still feel that way. It helps me to revisit my book and my grief from time to time. Readers have taken the time to write reviews like this one online.

“From Fertile Ground” is more than just a terrific read. Johnson is generous in taking the reader into his world, his journey, his family, his emotions. In so doing, the reader obtains a soothing sense of identification of the human condition, particularly how we work through grief and loss. Johnson’s mother’s and grandfather’s letters are interspersed throughout the narrative (and connected) which adds to the reassuring sense of a collective history.

We live in a complicated world. Many of us are suffering through the side effects of loss and searching for answers. It gives me joy knowing that my book is a creative balm for many, possibly even an antidote for grief.

Through October 14, download From Fertile Ground for just 99 cents. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01DCUQR4C/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3. (The price of my book is reduced in the United Kingdom during that same period.) If you prefer a paperback, it’s available in that form too.

At any rate, as the days grow shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, I hope this personal and universal three-generation story inspires you and brightens your world … no matter who you’ve loved and lost, no matter where you live.

From Fertile Ground is a three-generation memoir and writer’s mosaic of love and loss. Published in 2016, it examines the implications of grief and our quest to make sense of our past so that we can find our path and move ahead.