Tag: North Carolina

A Fateful Friday Fifty-Six Years Ago

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For all of his eighty-five years, S.R. Ferrell lived an ordinary and unassuming twentieth-century rural life. Before the first rays of sunlight emerged each morning, my grandfather rose to milk the cows, tend to his crops, and complete a never-ending list of chores on his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Every night before bed, until the day he died in 1985, the stoic farmer recorded his brief thoughts about the day (like the pages you see here from 1962).

Five years ago, as I perused his diary entries and told the story of my hard-working grandfather in From Fertile Ground, I discovered that many of the things S.R. wrote were rather mundane. But, every once in a while, I unearthed a hidden gem. A startling first-hand account of a momentous day in American history. Ironically, my grandfather was sixty-two … the same age I am today … when he wrote the following on November 22, 1963. It was a fateful Friday. Exactly fifty-six years ago.

***

I went to pasture to work up some wood and haul it to the house. Mr. and Mrs. P.E. Miller came this morning to get some strawberry plants. Then they went on to Charlotte. I hauled more wood in the afternoon.

President Kennedy, 46, was assassinated at twelve o’clock noon in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon Johnson is now president.

Partly cloudy. Warm. 56 degree low. 77 degree high.

***

While S.R. Ferrell was toiling on his farm in Huntersville and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dying in Dallas, I was an innocent six-year-old schoolboy in suburban St. Louis in November 1963. Probably sitting at my first grade desk practicing my spelling.

I remember my teacher crying in the front of the classroom that day. As she tried to compose herself, she told us school would end early. Soon after, we filed to the cloak room to put on our jackets. We boarded our buses for our respective homes.

That weekend, I sat glued to the floor in front of our family’s black-and-white TV and watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. And, in the horrific and historic days that followed, JFK’s three-year-old son saluted his father’s passing, flag-draped casket. That image may have been the most mournful of all.

We’ll never know how the world would have evolved if JFK had lived to write another chapter in American history. But somehow the world kept spinning and S.R. Ferrell kept writing. And I have the comfort of knowing that my grandfather’s account of November 22, 1963 is forever chronicled in Chapter 39 of From Fertile Ground. You’ll find it on page 157 of my first book.

 

 

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.

The Gist of Past Augusts

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Securing pink and white hollyhocks that sagged across suburban lawns.

Devouring fresh melons and spitting out seeds at barefoot picnics.

Chasing patrolling peacocks to capture feathers for the trip home.

Cornering grasshoppers that jumped and landed from nowhere.

Dodging dragonflies that flitted, then perched in shallow waters.

Tiptoeing back to school over fading July-to-September bridges.

Discovering an old empty wagon laden with summer memories.

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.

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.

He Wrote Every Day for Fifty-Two Years

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Long before there were bloggers or social media mavens, there was S.R. Ferrell. He was my maternal grandfather, born March 9, 1901, in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Sturdy and steady, S.R. (he preferred the initials to his given name of Sherrell Richardson) wrote brief, daily observations in his diary for fifty-two consecutive years, until his death on April 17, 1985.

Needless to say, S.R. was a tenacious worker. At age forty-four when he bought his Huntersville, North Carolina farm–the place he loved most–it felt to him as if life had just begun. But, truth be told, in the first half of his life he’d already toiled as a WWI soldier, photographer, grocery clerk, furniture factory hand, and hosiery mill employee.

Imagine the personal commitment required to reach for your diary at the end of every day for more than half a century. To jot down something about the day after tending to your livestock and crops in extreme weather conditions. To do it over and over again.

In 2015, as I was writing From Fertile Ground, my three-generation memoir that weaves together recollections from my grandfather, my mother, and my own life, I sequestered myself and read every page of S.R.’s diary entries.

Much of his writing focuses on his observations about the weather, his output at the hosiery mill, the condition of his farm, and special moments with family members and neighbors. In S.R.’s world, most important occurrences happened within his physical reach or just down the road. Yet, on occasion, there is a reminder in his diary of the larger community in which he lived and the dramatic, history-defining moments he witnessed. For instance, these were his words on Sunday, November 24, 1963:

Lee Oswald, the man they were holding for the shooting of President Kennedy, was shot today in the basement of the Dallas, Texas jail … Jimmy and Steve came over for a few minutes … Fair. Sunny. Cooler … We watched the procession moving President Kennedy’s body from the White House to U.S. Capitol Building … 41 degree low. 56 degree high.

This week, as I remember S.R. and celebrate his 118th birthday, I’m grateful for the written legacy he left behind. Thirty years after his death, his stories helped me ignite my artistic sensibilities, rediscover my southern roots, and find my path as an author.

Yet, I find myself longing for the stoic farmer to pick up his pen one more time. To tell me about the weather. To remind me of those cherished days on his beloved farm, where he raised cantaloupes, cattle and corn. Where I spent summers with him and my tender-hearted grandmother a lifetime ago … milking cows, gathering eggs from the hen house, cradling kittens and puppies, and chasing peacocks with the hope of bringing a colorful tail feather back to the Midwest as a souvenir of our adventure.

The best I can do is to gaze out my window at a pink, speckled 5 x 7-inch piece of granite stone from his farm. I’ve carried it with me throughout my life … from North Carolina to Missouri to Illinois to Arizona … and now the rock rests beneath a beautiful red bougainvillea in the Valley of the Sun.