Tag: Mothers

Another January

There are few certainties in life, but certainly January will always be a difficult month for me. It will always be the dreaded thirty-one days at the start of the year when grief reappears. When grief rattles my brain and reminds me of the final moments of my mother’s life on January 26, 2013, when grief introduced the real culprit: the void that took her place.

Strangely writing these sentences comforts me, just as writing From Fertile Ground–the story of my journey with grief–comforted me in 2015 when I needed it most. Just as reading this passage from my book (written nearly five years ago on January 27, 2015) comforted me this morning when I woke up at 3:30 and couldn’t fall back to sleep.

***

Chapter 12: Helen Came Home Today

My mother was cremated. About a week after she died in January 2013, I drove to pick up her remains.

When I arrived at the Illinois Cremation Society in Downers Grove, the attendant greeted me with a sheepish smile and carefully handed me the mahogany urn. You would think this experience would have cued tears and deep sadness within me, but it didn’t. Instead, I felt a quiet sense of purpose and a strange jolt of adrenalin. Maybe that was just another side effect of my grief.

Without hesitating, I tucked Mom’s remains under my arm, left the building, opened the passenger door of my 2012 Hyundai Sonata, and placed the container on the floor of the front seat. I couldn’t imagine the tragedy of putting Mom’s ashes on the seat itself and then facing the possibility that they might spill everywhere if I had to stop suddenly.

I scooted around to the driver’s side, opened my door, turned the key to start the engine, and sighed. This would be my final drive with my mother. Now some sadness was beginning to creep in.

Ironically, Mom never rode in this car when she was alive. I had bought it just eight months before, when she was already sliding deep into her physical decline. However, I remember one warm Saturday morning in the summer of 2012.

I was pushing Mom in her wheelchair, circling the Brighton Gardens grounds where she lived. She was wearing her powder blue baseball cap and green, cable-knit cardigan sweater. We completed one or two laps around the building and paused a few times to reflect and chat about my job, my sons, where I might be traveling next on business.

Before we headed back inside, I took a slight detour to the other side of the parking lot where my new car was parked. As we approached the car, I stopped near the right rear bumper and applied the wheelchair brake, so she could get a closer look within the limits of her macular degeneration.

We had a brief, but happy exchange:

“I bought a new car, Mom.”

“You did? What color is it?”

“Indigo.”

***

Tom and I still drive our 2012 Hyundai Sonata. It’s served us well over the past seven-and-a-half years. Most important, it got us to Arizona in July 2017 when everything else in our life seemed to go haywire.

Mom lived to be eighty-nine. Ironically, the odometer on our trusty indigo sedan is about to surpass 89,000 miles. I don’t know how many more years it will last. Though we change the oil regularly and do a decent job maintaining it, the upholstery is showing wear. The steering column creaks whenever we hit a bump. I need to take it to the dealer to check that out. It probably needs new shock absorbers too.

But other than a few hours of sleep, all isn’t lost. I have a good life in Arizona. Mom would have been happy for Tom and me … living in a warmer climate, sharing the joys and pains together, making new friends, holding onto those who’ve been with us all along the way, watching my sons evolve into the kind and productive adults their grandmother always knew they would be, telling my stories from the desert, coping with life’s misfortunes and maladies, doing my best to survive another January without her.

 

 

 

 

My Everlasting Christmas Wish

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In the darkest days of the final year of the aughts, Helen diminished like the decade’s December light. But from her cozy corner apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois, she and her prized African violets persevered. Collectively, they captured remaining rays through two windows. One faced west. The other north.

It was independent living of sorts for those like my mother, who had fallen physically or slipped mentally. Helen had done both. Her descent prompted my sister Diane and me to move Mom and her favorite belongings from her two-bedroom condo into smaller and safer quarters ten months before.

As Christmas 2009 drew near, I was befuddled. What could I give my nature-and-poetry-loving mother that she didn’t already have? My inner monologue told me to write something for her. To bridge the gap from my mid-sixties matinee memory of Mom, Diane and me seated side-by-side in a St. Louis theater. Hypnotized by Doctor Zhivago and scenes of Yuri at a desk penning poetry in the icy rural castle of Varykino.

Perhaps with a little inspiration from Boris Pasternak, I knew what to do. Far from the snow-covered majesty and drama of Russian landscapes and revolutions, I composed and framed a poem for Helen from the relative flatness of my Illinois home.

On Christmas Eve, Tom and I carried it with us to our family holiday. On December 24, it was our tradition to gather at my sister’s home, where she, brother-in-law Steve, Mom, Tom and I would savor thin-crust pizza and thick eggnog, devour delectable desserts, and listen to our favorite Christmas music.

As the evening progressed, we retired to the living room for the main event: our annual, round-robin gift exchange. As the unopened presents dwindled, I leaned down, plucked my gift from the pile, and handed it to Mom on the other side of the circle.

Seated in her wing-back chair, she paused and looked up at me before unwinding red tissue paper. Slowly Mom revealed the contents and examined the rectangular-shaped object. She mustered five words of amazement as she pulled the gift closer within the limitations of her macular degeneration:

“You wrote me a poem.”

During the last three years of her life, Helen propped the poem on a table near the door of her apartment. Across the room from the chair where she read, watched TV and eventually received breathing treatments to ease her congestive heart failure in her last days. I saw it there each time I left. I think it gave both of us comfort in her final days.

After she died on January 26, 2013, Diane and I divided her remaining possessions and re-potted cuttings of her African violets to place on the window sills of our respective homes. Naturally, I kept the poem. When I finalized From Fertile Ground (the story of my journey after Helen’s demise) in 2015, I found the right place to insert it in the book.

In 2017, the poem came with Tom and me as we made our way in our indigo Sonata on our westward odyssey. Today, it resides on top of a wooden file cabinet in our sun room near the back door of our Scottsdale home. It’s a place Helen never visited, but one she would have loved.

***

You Everlasting

You are the comfort of nature.

Eternally pressed.

The first magnolia petal of spring.

The last gingko leaf of autumn.

The determined orchid that flourishes.

The lingering annual that endures.

Perennial.

 

You are high and low tide.

Remarkably present.

The hidden, tranquil meadow.

The crackle and thump of fresh melon.

The dancing firefly,

In a warm Carolina sky.

The soulful howl of a January hound,

Waiting by the gate.

Undeniable.

 

You are the simplest wisdom.

Gracefully proud.

The tender touch of summer days,

That melt but never fade.

The breaking dawn of blues and greens,

Forever in my memories.

The resilient path,

Carved and captured in my heart.

The polished gem of hopeful dreams.

Everlasting.

***

Ten years have passed since that tender Christmas Eve moment at my sister’s home. Mom will be gone seven years in January. The pain of her loss has softened considerably, though now it returns like an old familiar friend on holidays, birthdays and anniversaries to remind me how much I loved her.

Remarkably, a cutting of one of my mother’s African violets, which she nurtured during the last ten or more years of her life, continues to thrive with Tom and me near our southern-facing windows. Yesterday on winter solstice, it absorbed the heat of the Scottsdale sun. Its purple blooms on the shortest day of the year are evidence that sometimes … against all odds … life and love go on.

As Christmas 2019 approaches, perhaps you’re like me. Thankful for life today. Thankful for family and friends who bring joy. Thankful for the memories of those who’ve gone and the reminders they’ve left behind.

Perhaps this story of everlasting gratitude will give you comfort and strength as you prepare to celebrate with family and friends … as you remember those absent from your circle.

This is my everlasting Christmas wish.

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Oh Very Young and Less Fortunate Men

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At this stage of life, I have more time and space to reflect on the fragility and inequities of life. When I hit the trail for a hike or catch a glimpse of the jagged edges of Camelback Mountain, I sometimes ponder the plights of less fortunate men and less developed versions of the man I’ve become.

Recently, without notice, a Sonoran time machine swooped down and transported me from the desert. Back to south suburban St. Louis and my blue-denim-bell-bottom memories. Jerry and Joey (not their real names) lived near me on the same cul-de-sac street and the Oh Very Young prognostications of Cat Stevens looped through my brain.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while …

It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1974. I sat at the kitchen table, finishing up my last few bites of scrambled eggs and toast. My over-worked and under-appreciated mother washed the breakfast dishes. Over one shoulder, she blurted a provocative and unexpected question in my direction: “Mark, did you know Jerry is a practicing homosexual?”

Like most teens, I was bound up with insecurity. If I’d been less repressed, more freewheeling—or at sixteen had an ounce of awareness or comfort with my budding gayness—the idea of “practice” sex with an older boy down the street would have intrigued me. But at that moment I had no clue how to respond to my mother’s audacious question. I just shrugged my shoulders and muttered something like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard he might be.”

It didn’t occur to me that she might be fishing to learn about my sexuality. I just knew Jerry’s mother had died when he was young and his father, brothers and sisters had been left to make sense of her early exit. Whenever I walked by the front of their home, I saw the heaviness of their hearts had caused the foundation and the trees around it to sag.

I’ve written a lot about my mother. She was smart, resilient and courageous. Many years later, she left me with her legacy of wise letters. But back in the 1970s, we weren’t approaching that. We were nearly three decades away from the profound sense of respect and understanding we would construct during her eighties and I would witness  the love and deep regard she felt for my future husband and me.

Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity. More specifically, like most parents then (and sadly many now), the implications of homosexuality and the image of two men engaged in mutually satisfying love frightened her. The word homosexual cast a shadow of shame, discomfort, darkness and isolation. Of course, without knowing it, I was absorbing the uninformed views about gay people coming through all sorts of channels–parents and neighbors, aunts and uncles, classmates and coaches, media and popular culture, etc. 

I will never forget that trauma. Pushed and bullied down middle school hallways. Labeled a faggot for wearing my favorite purple sweater vest, a gift from my mother. As you might surmise, I learned it was best not to wear purple or pink or challenge society’s narrow mold of masculinity in the 1970s. It would take decades for me to love myself and create an unapologetic life as a gay man comfortable in pastels.

This is a prelude to tell you that, in addition to my personal sexual identity struggles, I felt sad and angry hearing and seeing Jerry and other young gay men ostracized for their nature, mannerisms and social awkwardness.

I don’t know where Jerry lives or anything about his adult life in 2019. But I now realize Jerry was a trailblazer. I owe a lot to the Jerrys of that time. Despite neighborhood chatter and suspicions, they were courageous enough to risk ridicule. To be true to themselves in the 1970s.

***

The story of Joey has nothing to do with societal pressures, sexuality or suburban mores. It’s a cataclysmic tragedy.

Joey was the blonde boy who lived next door. We were the same age. As youngsters, from kindergarten through fifth grade we waited for the same bus at the end of our street. He loved to roughhouse with his golden retriever when he came home from school. In sixth grade—lunch boxes in hand—we walked together to a new elementary school, built to handle the overflow of Baby Boomers.

Throughout the 1960s, once school ended in June, Joey and I raced to the top of the street with our  neighborhood crew to play baseball in a vacant cemetery lot. We stayed there until our mothers or fathers stood on their front porches, cupped their hands to their mouths, and called our names for dinner.

In high school, Joey and I went our separate ways. I didn’t feel our connection any more. He was a mechanical guy. I wasn’t. I had a knack for stringing words together. He didn’t. He loved tinkering under cars. I loved singing on stage. While he developed a passion for playing the drums, my interest in the clarinet waned. In August of 1975, we continued down divergent paths. We left home for college at different Missouri schools.

Through it all, I felt no physical attraction for Joey, but I envied his apparently idyllic Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies family life. Complete with the faux-wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon parked in their driveway, which I watched them load annually for summer vacations. Joey’s family seemed to embody the ideal of suburban happiness:  two friendly and well-liked parents, two popular daughters who went on to become cheerleaders, two masculine and mechanically-inclined sons.

On a horrific Saturday in May 1976, everything changed. I came home from my seasonal job as a roller coaster operator at Six Flags and found my mother sobbing on the living room couch. She told me Joey had been killed in an accident. He was riding shotgun without a seat belt on the way home from his first year at college when the car he was in collided with another vehicle.

Spring flowers were blooming outside that day, but inside I was numb and devastated like everyone on our block. One cruel moment had ended Joey’s life and transformed his family’s home from the center of happiness into the epicenter of grief.

A few days later my mother, father, sister and I attended Joey’s wake. I didn’t know what to say to his bereaved father and mother. But I summoned a few inadequate words and gripped their brittle arms as we passed a pair of drum mallets stretched across Joey’s closed casket. It was frightening evidence of teenage mortality.

In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area. Whenever I returned to St. Louis to visit my parents and boyhood home, I thought of Joey and his family. Scampering in their yard with their dog as they prepared to load up their station wagon for the next trip. When Joey died, that era ended. Soon after, the rest of the family moved away.

Forty years have come and gone. Joey is on my mind again.  Perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to pursue the next path at the base of rugged buttes. His Oh Very Young life ended back in the rolling Missouri hills without any chance to explore the west or have a spouse to share it.

Somehow, through good fortune, I’ve lapped his lifespan more than three times. After surviving a heart attack on my sixtieth birthday, I’m rounding the bend on the fourth lap here in Arizona.

For all the Jerrys and Joeys who have come and gone, I must keep telling my stories. I must make the most of the extra time I’ve been granted.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

Saturday at the Library

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Some of my earliest and most vivid “learning” memories happened at the library. To be precise, it was the Tesson Ferry Library in South St. Louis County in the 1960s. I remember finding quiet comfort there with my mother on autumn Saturdays. I don’t recall the titles we checked out, but my sister and I always left with two or three books in our arms. Stories to be read at home. Books our busy mother often read with us.

At that point in life, I never imagined I would become an author. Or that some fifty years later the manager of acquisitions at the St. Louis County Library would call me (on my deceased mother’s birthday) with happy and fortuitous news. The library had purchased four copies of From Fertile Ground, my book about the grief I felt after the loss of my mother.

Now in my sixties, local libraries in Arizona deliver a dependable dose of quiet continuity. They connect my early days as an eager reader with my later days as a memoir writer … and provide community outlets for me to connect with avid readers.

All of this is a prelude to say I’m excited and proud to be exhibiting at a Local Author Fair this Saturday (1 to 4 p.m.) in Mesa at the Dobson Ranch Library, 2425 S. Dobson Road. Authors from across Arizona will be there exhibiting, selling and signing their books. I love these opportunities to talk with readers. To hear about the kinds of books that interest them. To share my stories and memoir writing tips.

If you live in the area or happen to be visiting the Valley of the Sun, I hope you’ll stop by to say hello and spend part of your Saturday at the library.

After Grief Swallowed Me Whole

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In October 2015, I was a fixture in front of my laptop. I spent endless hours painstakingly polishing the final draft of my first book, From Fertile Ground. It’s the story of my journey after my mother’s death in 2013.

With help from a trail of letters and diary entries my mother and grandfather left behind, writing renewed my spirit. It led me out of the darkness and propelled me forward. After grief swallowed me whole, I finally reemerged and rediscovered sunlight at the end of a numb and winding road.

Intuitively, I realized I needed to share my story openly with the world. That of a gay man, loving husband, devoted father and grateful son searching for answers. I dreamed it would help others find a new path and navigate their way through grief.

Not long after I published From Fertile Ground in February 2016, friends and strangers began to post reviews online. They described how they were moved by the book and its lessons of love and loss. My dream was coming true.

By the end of 2017, things had gotten rather quiet. That’s what happens with books and creative accomplishments. They come and go no matter how much you want them to linger. They flash across the sky like shooting stars and then fall off the radar.

Fortunately, every once in a while, there is a glimmer or twinkle to remind you of their importance long after they first appear. That happened last week when I read a new review posted on Goodreads and Amazon … a review that reminded me why I decided to publish the book in the first place:

“This book is a life compass if you are experiencing loss or disruption in your family.

From Fertile Ground came to me at precisely the right time in my life. Mark’s perspective and reflection helped me to navigate loss and disruption in my own life. I pulled from his examples and experiences to temper my feelings and expectations. I ultimately gained a great deal of comfort and reassurance from his novel, and I continue to think back on it often as my life continues to evolve.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed getting to know Mark and his family. They are relatable people demonstrating courage, compassion, and love. The poem he wrote and included that was a tribute to his mom was one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed seeing his relationship with his children evolve from childhood to adulthood.”

This is the kind of glorious feedback that motivates me to keep sharing stories. To shine a light on truths … both personal and universal. To bring a little love, inspiration, comfort and reassurance to a world that really needs it. To devote time each day to my literary passion. To pen the next poem and dust off that fictionalized piece that I keep going back to. To live the life of a writer. It’s what I was meant to do. It is my fertile ground.

Still Counting in September

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“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.

 

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.