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.
Where can you watch promising, future major league ball players perform outdoors in seventy degree temperatures in November, while spending just seven dollars a piece for two seniors to sit behind home plate?
At Arizona Fall League games at Sloan Park in Mesa. Consider it the perfect spot for baseball purists, major league scouts, western hat wearers, avid autograph seekers, foul ball hawks, and anyone simply wanting to chill in the shade and eat peanuts under the radar on a glorious afternoon in the Valley of the Sun.
Final score on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 (as if it really mattered): Glendale Desert Dogs 3, Mesa Solar Sox 2.
No writer wants to be known as a one-trick pony. Yes, to this point I’ve written mostly creative nonfiction, but each of my four books includes flashes of poetry. And, in my latest book of essays–home grown on the metaphor of pruning a lemon tree in my desert community–I also dabble in fiction.
In other words, I have no problem branching out into the great beyond of fruit trees. Grapefruits, for instance.
Here in our Polynesian Paradise condo community we live among lemon, tangelo, orange, fig, and lime trees … even a lone pomegranate. But we are surrounded by a bumper crop of pink and white grapefruits that will be ready to pick in late December. They are a far cry from the maple, elm, magnolia, oak, and gingko trees of my Midwestern past, which will be bare soon.
I’m not a fan of grapefruits. They’re too tart for my palette. Plus, if I ate them they would counteract the positive effects of the statin medication I take to keep my cholesterol count in the normal range.
However, Nick–my older son who lives near us–craves these tangy softball-size citruses. (I remember my dad loving grapefruits too. In fact, Nick resembles him. It’s funny how certain likes, physical qualities, and personality traits skip a generation.)
This afternoon I texted Nick this photo with a grapefruit update: “You’ll be happy to know the grapefruits are shaping up. They’ll be ripe in a month or so.”
“Oh nice” was Nick’s laconic response.
As the citrus-plucking season draws nearer in Arizona, here’s a snippet from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, my book of whimsical and serious essays available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon.
Nick is especially enamored with the citrus trees—most notably, the plethora of grapefruits that dominate our condo complex grounds. In December and January each year, Nick the Citrus King contacts me frequently concerning the status of the ripening citrus crops. His texts or phone conversations begin something like this:
“Hey there. Are the grapefruits ripe enough to pick?” There is no preliminary happy talk such as “How are you feeling, Dad?” before the citrus cross-examination.
Aware of Nick’s citrus sensibilities and no-frills communication style, in January 2020—as a belated Christmas present—Tom and I surprised him with his own fiberglass fruit picker. We gave him one with a durable steel trap and extendable arm, which would extend his reach to grab the largest orbs clinging to the highest branches in a galaxy far beyond low-hanging fruits.
Upon receiving his gift, Nick’s smile grew three sizes. With the flexible picker in one hand and a few empty bags in the other, he and I set out to corral a selection of the sweetest and juiciest citrus delicacies we could find in the common areas of our complex.
Twenty minutes later, we returned to the condo with a mix of white and pink grapefruits, tangelos, lemons, and oranges. Harry & David would have been proud to grow, pick, and ship them to Vitamin-C-starved customers in cold-and-gray winter climates.
Without a crystal ball or a notion of where to find a citrus psychic, I have no way of knowing where Nick’s quest for fresh grapefruit will lead. But I am gratified to see him plucking fruits from the sky and flourishing in his Arizona life despite the heat.
Today I will march (and sing) in the Phoenix Pride parade with other members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. As an open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–married to another open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–I have a lot to be proud of, a lot to be thankful for.
I remember the unactualized, closeted version of me in my thirties, the sense of isolation I felt after my divorce in 1992, the challenges of single parenthood as I sat alone in the bleachers (in a sea of suburban straight couples) watching my sons play ball, the pain and anxiety that ruled my life as I moved from job to job and tried to find my way.
Fortunately, by the mid-90s, I found friends and colleagues who supported me. They cheered when I came out and began to speak my truth.
In hindsight, knowing what it felt like to be ridiculed for who I am sharpened my empathy. It gave me strength and insight that–more than two decades later–I parlayed into my writing. In all four of my books, especially my latest, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I tell the story of my personal and gay evolution.
Telling my truth has proven to be cathartic and healing. I am the happiest when I give voice to my experiences and opinions, whether they relate to my sexual orientation or not.
In 2021, I rarely find myself confronted with blatant homophobia. But there are occasional “teachable” moments when I encounter someone who is ignorant or unaware that gay people seek the same love, understanding, and sense of belonging that straight people receive unconditionally.
I don’t have a problem getting up on my soapbox to defend that right, though I also don’t crave controversy. I prefer simply living honestly and openly, and letting those around me observe how I lead my life … versus the pitfalls of social media exchanges.
The key is visibility. The more of us who are out–and proud–in our daily lives, the more individuals in all circles will realize we have the same hopes and dreams: a loving spouse and family, a safe and secure home, gainful employment, personal freedom, a sense of community and belonging.
As I march in the Phoenix Pride parade today, I’m sure I will see all sorts of people in the crowd: Black, Hispanic, Asian, White, Native American. Many of them will be lesbian or transgendered or gay like me. Others will be straight allies cheering us on. There is power and creativity in our diversity.
Yes, we’ve come a long way in American society since I struggled along in the 1990s. But hatefulness has seen a resurgence. There are still instances of gay teens being kicked out of their homes or individuals losing their jobs, simply for being who they are.
What can we do as a society? Teach our children to love each other and embrace our differences. Because kindness is a choice; sexual orientation is not.
Pride postscript. It’s Saturday evening in Arizona. Though the parade is over, I will always remember the sense of freedom and inspiration I felt today. Shouting “Happy Pride” to exuberant strangers three deep along the parade route … all of us survivors of a frightening pandemic. Skipping down Third Street and singing Born This Way with my gay friends.
Rejoicing at the large number of young children in the crowd with gay and straight couples twirling rainbow flags. Waving to my smiling husband wearing his floppy hat. Celebrating the day with a rainbow umbrella that colored my world and protected my fair skin from the blazing sun.
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.
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.
Four-thirty on the last Sunday afternoon of November. Sliced turkey breast, roasted root vegetables and ramekins of mashed sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce await in the fridge. Remnants of a holiday weekend.
Neither Tom or I feel like cooking dinner. We exercise and write instead. We will rely on the convenience of leftovers as sun-crafted silhouettes dance across the windowsill of our sunroom.
I just completed an hour-long walk along the Crosscut Canal that winds through Phoenix. I’m one of the lucky ones. Healthy (so far, at least). Thankful for the love and companionship of my husband. Close to a wide open outdoor space.
Today I walked the Crosscut Canal alone. It was just a few bicyclists, joggers, hikers, fishermen, and me. Scattered along the Papago Park trails. Some folks wore masks. Some didn’t. There was plenty of distance between us.
On the way back to our condo I paused to admire a group of cottonwood trees on the other side of the fence. They swayed near a shallow pond inside the Desert Botanical Garden. Brittle from the drought. But still they survive.
The cottonwoods have become a benchmark for Tom and me. Majestic, tall reminders of life on the edge. “Let’s walk to the cottonwood trees and back.”
Today as I strolled past them, their shiny yellow and green leaves flickered in the fading Sonoran sunshine. I shaded my eyes and gazed up looking for reassurance beyond the breadth of their branches. It was the same comfort the cottonwood trees provided in March, May, July, September and October.
I left the canal path with the certainty that the cottonwood trees will be there in December and beyond. Because that’s what nature does. It endures past holidays and pandemics. It reminds us to do the same.
As COVID-19 cases climb and shadows of worry and anxiety cast doubts, we stew in our numbness. We attempt to process the depth of our grief. It has no bounds.
Here in the United States, we prepare for a thankless Thanksgiving Day 2020 minus more than a quarter of a million Americans–gone, but not forgotten–who sat at tables beside us a year ago. Our hearts ache for them and their families.
Seven years ago grief consumed me as the first Thanksgiving after my mother’s death approached. Tom and I decided we needed a holiday getaway from our then suburban Chicago home. We needed to shake things up. To begin a new tradition in a place that wouldn’t spark the rawness of Midwestern memories.
Both of my sons loved the idea. They decided to join us for an extended Thanksgiving weekend in the Arizona desert. It felt as if the odds were against us when Tom developed pneumonia after raking leaves on a frosty early-November Illinois morning. But, remarkably, he rebounded quickly. We kept our plans to fly west.
On Thanksgiving Day, Kirk, Nick, his friend Stephanie, Tom and I dined outside at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. We enjoyed turkey and stuffing, seated around a courtyard patio table shaded by an orange tree.
Three months after that November 2013 trip, I retired from corporate life and began to feel a calling to write about my grief. I soon discovered that by honoring and answering my creative impulses, I could ride through the waves of tears and numbness and emerge whole on the other side.
As strange as it sounds, grief became the fertile ground for my writing journey. In 2016, I published my first book, From Fertile Ground. It tells the story of three writers–my grandfather, mother and me–and our desires to leave behind a legacy of our own distinctive observations of our family, our loves, our losses, our worlds.
In honor of Thanksgiving and those we’ve loved and lost, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from November 21 through November 25.
I hope reading it will inspire you (or a friend who is grieving) to find your fertile ground. To discover your voice. To channel your creativity. To emerge from the numbness. To tell your unvarnished story. Perhaps even to leave behind a brief review of my book online.
She whispered November, though each step spoke September. No grey to brighten. No chill to thaw. Only cerulean skies. Proud pomegranates. Lonely lizards. Fading roses. Towering eucalyptus trees. Swaying suspension bridges.
In her Arizona embrace, we stood by banks of dusty monsoon memories. We crossed dry creek beds flowing with tears. We shielded our eyes from the sun. We moved ahead on our path. We listened to the language of lingering leaves.