Tag: science

Pondering the Puzzle Pieces of Past Lives

AlbertJohnson_August1932

The dusty attics, dog-eared scrapbooks, and forgotten files of our past don’t always provide answers about mysterious deceased family members. But often they are all we have, once those who remembered them are gone too.

I have no memories of Albert Edward Johnson, my paternal grandfather. Just second-hand stories about the man with slicked-back blonde hair who died when I was three. Random photos and puzzle pieces that, when connected, leave me with an unsubstantiated picture of Albert. Tales of who he was, where he lived, what he believed and what he aspired to do.

Based on a patchwork of anecdotes, passed down from my parents, aunts and uncles, apparently this is the man I never knew.

***

Albert, an idealistic boy, was born in Duluth, Minnesota on January 10, 1884.

His mother Sophia Amelia Danielson and her family immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden when she was a teenager. They lived in Quebec, Canada for a few years before traveling to Minnesota. His father Bernt Franklin Johnson was born in Breen, Norway. Sophia and Bernt met and married in Duluth and had six children (Dan, Ben, Josie, Jenny, Albert and Carl).

When Albert was ten years old, he and his family moved to Anniston, Alabama where his father operated a grocery store on a Native American reservation. I don’t know what prompted them to move more than eleven-hundred miles south in 1894. Perhaps they simply needed gainful employment or were tired of the cold.

Subsequently, around 1900, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Johnson men worked in the meat packing houses. Evidently, the job didn’t suit Albert’s sensitivity. Helen, Albert’s daughter-in-law and my mother, told me the shrieks of the slaughtered animals were too much for him to bear.

Albert was a health-conscious and  athletic young man: an amateur wrestler; Mississippi River rower; and cross-country racer. According to family members, he competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon in St. Louis. I have no proof he participated, but I choose to believe it.

In 1907 or 1908, Albert met and married Anna Louise Sendke in St. Louis. They raised three children: Thelma and twins, Violet and Walter (my father). Albert wasn’t home much during Walter’s childhood years (1913 to 1925). I’ve always wondered where his travels took him and who he met along the way.

According to my dad, Albert valued intellectual stimulation, political discourse and philosophical conversations. At some point (in the 1930s perhaps), Albert–a lifelong Democrat–pursued a career in local politics. He ran for state representative twice, but lost both times.

During that same period, Albert tried his hand at motivational speaking and received an honorary doctor of divinity degree. The public speaker you see here (standing on a stool in an athletic shirt in the foreground of a Depression-era, Milwaukee, Wisconsin gathering eighty-eight years ago on August 3, 1932) believed one should choose a career or path that maximized his or her greatest innate skills.

In his own words from a stained 1943 “Biodynamics: The Science of Power” handout he must have used in one of his lectures, “we will not be happy, healthy or successful unless we choose as our life work some line of endeavor towards which we have a strong biological tendency.”

In the 1940s, Albert, the man who earlier in his life only rarely brought his son with him on trips north from St. Louis to Chicago or Milwaukee, wrote and sent encouraging letters to Walter overseas to bolster his spirit as he fought in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II in Europe.

During the last several years of Albert’s life, he and Louise lived with their eldest daughter Thelma and son-in-law Ralph at their home in north St. Louis County.

I vaguely recall sitting on the edge of Albert’s twin bed in his empty room in the early 1960s soaking up the silence. It was a few years after my grandfather, the one-time athlete, fell on the steps of a restaurant during the holidays, broke a hip and succumbed to pneumonia.

Albert died on December 30, 1960 at age seventy-six.

***

Until this moment, at age sixty-three and one month, I’ve never considered the collective attributes and personality traits of Albert and my three other grandparents–Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–and how they may have shaped the calling in my life: that of a late-in-life creative writer.

But as I think about each of my grandparents, I recognize their DNA strands coursing through me: Sherrell Ferrell’s love of nature and From Fertile Ground journalistic sensibility; Georgia Ferrell’s love of animals, gift of gab and laughter; Louise Johnson’s  sense of personal loyalty and soap-opera storytelling drama; and Albert Johnson’s quest for intellectual stimulation, personal fulfillment and public discourse.

I don’t believe each of us is simply a product of our biological past. We are each unique human beings … like snowflakes that fall and add irreplaceable texture to the sky. But I do think these varied qualities and preferences may have shaped my direction and influenced my choices on life’s path more than I’ve previously realized.

Of course, what you read here is all mine: ideas, opinions, stories and experience.  But history, both personal and societal, counts for something. It informs my stories about the power of nature, animals, relationships, family, diversity, sensitivity, and social justice. Because there is at least a little bit of all four of my grandparents–Albert, Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–in me.

You might say I’ve had a “strong biological tendency” to be a writer and storyteller all along. It’s written in my DNA.

 

 

 

 

 

Sting

macro photography of an insect
Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

 

I wasn’t fantasizing about Sting, the legendary English singer and songwriter, or even remotely humming a tune of his as I jogged along the Crosscut Canal early Friday afternoon in Arizona. But a gust of wind shifted my trajectory. It swept my safari hat from my head. As I swatted to grab it, I crashed face-first into the path of an oncoming honey bee.

In keeping with the theme of this story, the innocent insect stung me on the middle of my lower lip. That’s when I began to screech for Tom (running six-feet away beside me) to pull out the blasted stinger, which I could feel dangling from my numbing and fattening lip.

At this point, I might have opted to call for the police (not Sting’s rock band, but the Scottsdale police) to intervene. To see if they might rescue me. Because every breath I took … every move I made, every step I took … led me to believe that all the bees of the world were watching me. I’m not really a prissy sort, but I kept cryin’ baby, baby, please … stop hurting me.

Fortunately, with Tom as my husband, it’s almost like having the police (not a rock band, but an emergency medical technician) on hand twenty-four hours a day. Though he’s not medically trained, I like to call him Mr. Science. He always seems to have readily available common knowledge to share. For instance, how a dog drinks water. Or what causes the monsoons in Arizona to boil over the mountains and into the Valley of the Sun in the summer.

Of course, he also passed the ultimate science exam, when he got me to the Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency room entrance in St. Louis when my heart was aching (not my lower lip) and I wondered if every breath I took … that July 2017 day in the Midwest humidity … might be my last.

Anyway, Tom was able to calm me down on April 17, 2020. He pulled out the stinger without the assistance of any police, as a handful of other desert rats strolled and biked by at safe distances … far enough away during any neighborhood bee catastrophe or global pandemic.

One can only imagine the under-the-breath giggles that ensued along the path, as Tom and I (two non-straight Arizonans) made a beeline home for ice and (no-sting) first aid antiseptic spray, which I envisioned on the top shelf of our medicine chest.

A few minutes later we unlocked the backdoor of our abode. I went into the bathroom and found the spray. Tom dashed to the kitchen, where there was no ice in our freezer. Fortunately, in this day and age, we have plenty of frozen vegetables to ride out the apocalypse. So he handed me a sixteen-ounce bag of frozen corn kernels and ordered me to apply it to my face.

Mr. Science failed to tell me that the bag was open. Therefore, when I applied the cold corn compress to my lip, a shower of kernels scattered across our living room floor. I proceeded to ball up the remaining corn in the bag, while Tom grabbed a broom to police the area and sweep up the runaway pieces of corn.

A few moments later he reached into the freezer and handed me an unopened bag of frozen spinach. That, a few spritzes of the antiseptic on my lip, and two acetaminophen caplets were all I needed  to recline in comfort and return to my pre-bee state.

A day has passed. All is well. Just a slightly swollen lip and a few laughs remain. But there’s one thing I have to say to the bees of the world that may be buzzing nearby the next time I venture out for a walk, run or hike.

Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.

 

I Was a Child of the Global Pandemic

Princess_032320

In 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession and the subprime mortgage crisis, I found myself reading the handwriting on the wall. My sister Diane and I were seated beside our mother. She had begun to slip mentally.

A physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago began to examine Mom to determine the severity of her cognitive impairment. As he proceeded to ask questions, I felt a sense of sadness and impending doom wash over me. I knew we were about to cross the threshold into a personal crisis for our family.

The doctor began. “Helen, tell me about yourself.”

She responded. “I was a child of the Great Depression.”

Those were my eighty-five-year-old mother’s first eight wise-and-weary words. I wasn’t surprised by her commencement. As her mental acuity waned and her short-term memory deteriorated, Helen always described herself as she existed near the beginning of her story.

She was proud to share her hard-working narrative. To explain how her father and mother–people of simple means and honest ambitions– somehow always found ways to put food on the table in the 1930s after the stock market crashed and some folks, overcome by their losses, jumped out of high-rise windows.

But Helen and her family survived the depths of the Great Depression in rural North Carolina. The experience forever shaped the woman she would become. She wore it as a badge of honor. Saving for a rainy day. Taking the surest path. Honing her skills. Consolidating the contents of half-empty ketchup bottles. Pulling the little red wagon up and down the hill to get groceries when the car went kaput and Dad’s heart weakened.

Building a career in Human Resources that often included working on Saturdays. Helping find government jobs for those who were disabled. Chatting about her love of gardening over the fence with neighbors. Trusting in time and patience. Squirreling away money. Parlaying it into smart investments. Turning a little into something that might someday become a lot.

***

Helen wasn’t alone. Her feelings and experiences represented those of an entire generation of Americans. Decades before she and other hearty souls like her–men and women who would also suffer one day from macular degeneration, heart disease, dementia, and more maladies–fought World War II, bought war bonds, rationed meals, moved to the suburbs to live in brick starter homes, lived the American dream, and produced a generation of Baby Boomers.

Helen passed away in 2013. There have been moments over the past few weeks when I’ve been grateful that she’s gone … not wanting her to experience the pain of this global pandemic that is consuming us, swirling over and through us, occupying every waking and nightmare-inducing moment of our lives. In other words, I’ve been thinking about  Helen’s plight from nearly a century ago and that of the young children of today.

How will the fear and anxiety spawned by this pandemic shape their lives? How will it inform their values? How will it determine the choices they make? How will it influence their destinies? How will they describe themselves and define their lives when it becomes their turn to tell their stories to doctors in the year 2100?

Perhaps they will tell these kinds of stories.

***

My name is Anna. I was born on March 22, 2013. I was a child of the Global Pandemic. Before 2020, my mother and father owned and operated a popular restaurant in the Phoenix area. Customers raved about the great food and the lively atmosphere. But after the coronarivus entered our world, my parents were forced to abandon their business.

To survive, Mom ended up starting a business to deliver food to those who were house bound. Dad was handy. A few of the local condo communities hired him to handle day-to-day mechanical problems that came up. My parents didn’t earn much, but it was enough to sustain us in the short term.

I remember the tears and the anguish in our home. Everyone was afraid of contracting the virus. The news reports and the loss of life were devastating … especially to a few of my parents’ friends and restaurant acquaintances in major cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

But Mom and Dad tried to remain strong. If anything, I loved them more during those years of hardship. For my seventh birthday, they insisted we would celebrate, though it felt as if all of us were living under a dark cloud … even here in the Valley of the Sun.

Mom and Dad always referred to me as their little princess … Princess Anna. So, Mom bought a banner with silver curls that seemed to float down from the sky. It was emblazoned with the word “princess” on it … and the three of us sat under a green metal canopy in a park in Scottsdale. They sang Happy Birthday to me and we enjoyed cake and ice cream outside. It felt like the safest place we could be at that time.

That’s a moment in my life I’ll never forget, because it happened at the beginning of all this uncertainty in the world … schools and businesses closing, the stock market bobbing and weaving, an over-worked and broken health care system fully taxed, our political system in disarray, our infrastructure crumbling. It was frightening for everyone, but most of us survived and became stronger.

The next few years were lean ones. But, with time, the economy grew strong again. People put their lives back together. Many years later, I ended up pursuing a career in health care, because I could see how desperate the world was for qualified doctors.

I never imagined I would become an epidemiologist. But it happened. Who knows what my life might have become if the health challenges of our world hadn’t become so apparent to me in 2020?

After all, I was a child of the Global Pandemic.