Tag: Southern Roots

Georgia on My Mind

I have Georgia on my mind today. Not the Peach Tree state, but my peach-ice-cream-loving grandmother. April 7 would have been my maternal grandma’s 119th birthday.

Warm-hearted and hard-working, Georgia lived most of her seventy-one years in North Carolina.

In 1914, Georgia Evabell Miller met Sherrell Richardson (S.R.) Ferrell. Both attended a one-room school in Mecklenburg County. Six years later, they married at Georgia’s home in the same community. She was sixteen; he was nineteen.

A generation before I appeared, Georgia’s ordinary rural existence–tending to family, home, meals, and livestock–took an extraordinary toll on her body and emotional wellbeing. She bore four children: Helen (my mother) and Richard in the mid 1920s; James and Frances in the early 1930s.

In between, Georgia suffered a double whammy of grief and pain. Richard died of meningitis in 1926 one month before his first birthday. Not long after, cervical cancer compounded Georgia’s trauma. She was bedridden for an extended period. Helen grew up quickly and helped care for her mother.

Even with Georgia’s burden and her heavy body that contributed to arthritic knees and misshapen feet, my grandma maintained a girlish southern giggle into her late fifties and beyond.

In the summer of ’62, during one of our family visits to the farm, I absorbed the scene like a ready sponge as she prepared ham, grits, and biscuits for breakfast.

I loved Georgia and her jolly nature. As she toiled and told rambling stories over the sink, rolls of laughter shook her stout body. If she were here, she would describe it as the “gift of gab” handed down through her Irish descent.

Intermittently, she tossed table scraps and leftovers into a slop bucket for a trio of hungry hogs that waited impatiently in their pen.

On occasion, I accompanied her whenever the contents came close to sloshing over the sides of the dented metal pail. Together we squealed as the pigs poked their large snouts through wooden slats to explore what concoction was on the menu.

Like a southern-stitched patchwork quilt handed down through the generations to keep them warm, this moment remains cordoned off in my 1960s Carolina consciousness. It lives next door to Georgia’s humid hugs.

When I was a toddler, I begged for her to scoop me into the lap of her tattered periwinkle dress … churn butter or crank ice cream on the sagging back porch … venture into the earthen cellar where she stored pickled fruits and vegetables … or gather eggs from the chicken coup and cradle them in her apron on the return trip.

A victim of heart disease and decades of early mornings and long days working the farm, Georgia died nearly forty-eight years ago on July 4, 1974.

Two days later (after we drove through the night from St. Louis to attend her funeral), sprays of gladiolas surrounded her casket.

I can still envision the tacky floral arrangement–sent by a neighbor–with a plastic telephone teetering on top. Three words were written in ribbon: “God has called.” Ironically, my grieving grandpa loved it most.

Through our tears, Frances and I laughed about it. Georgia would have liked that and the image of my aunt and me consoling each other on my seventeenth birthday. We stood over her fresh grave in Huntersville, North Carolina, at a little cemetery outside Asbury United Methodist Church.

It was the center of the universe in “Ferrelltown”–where my southern family worshipped, married, gathered as a community, celebrated birthdays, consumed countless cakes and delectable pies, buried the beloved, and grieved for those who left early and stayed late.

***

Years later, it is the thought of Georgia’s gentility and kindness that endures. It is the love and laughter she planted in my heart that will never die.

As I began to write From Fertile Ground after my mother died–and later when I returned from North Carolina after another round of consoling with Frances and visit to my grandparents’ graves in the church yard–Annie Lennox’ soaring voice from her CD Nostalgia inspired me.

It was her stirring, melancholy rendition of the Ray Charles’ classic Georgia on My Mind that captivated me most. Listening to it, I channeled my grief and reconstructed my southern memories before they landed on the pages of my book.

Every child should be so lucky to spend a few weeks every other summer with a grandparent who simply smothers them with goodness and genuine love. That and the bucolic snippets of a farm populated with kittens, puppies, cows, chickens, pigs, and peacocks are forever stitched in my psyche.

When you add them all up, what do all these vivid memories mean? That in the course of any life, it is the collective music of a simple-but-extraordinary grandma’s unconditional love that keeps us hoping, that keeps us dreaming, that keeps us living, that keeps us singing.

Long after she is gone.

***

I said Georgia
Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines
.

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you
.

I said Georgia
Oh Georgia, no peace I find
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia at age fifty-three on the steps of my parents’ apartment during a rare visit to St. Louis in 1956. About a decade later, she and S.R. enjoyed the company of six of their seven grandchildren in rural NC.

Egg Custard Pie: A Holiday Favorite

If you follow my blog, you know that–in addition to being a writer–I am the baker in our family. One of my favorite desserts for the holidays is egg custard pie.

If you’re looking for a simple-to-bake-and-creamy pie recipe, this one is a keeper. It definitely qualifies as comfort food at a time in the world when we could all use a heaping helping of that.

This recipe was passed to me via the southern branch of my family tree … from my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Martha Jane Matilda Simpson Miller. She lived in rural Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in the early 1900s.

* * *

Ingredients: 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 stick butter, 4 large eggs, 3 tablespoons flour, 1 2/3 cups milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Directions: Cream sugar and butter until light. Beat eggs and add to sugar/butter mixture. Add flour and beat until smooth. Add vanilla to milk. Mix milk into other ingredients gradually until smooth. Pour into an unbaked pie crust (deep dish) and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until custard is set and crust is brown. (The original recipe didn’t call for cinnamon, but I like it. If you do too, sprinkle the pie liberally before you place it in the oven.)

***

Incidentally, this egg custard pie recipe also appears in From Fertile Ground, my first book. which I wrote and published in 2016. It’s not a cookbook, but a memoir about love, loss, and grief … and the healing power of the written word across three generations of my family. If you haven’t read it, I hope you’ll check it out.

Most important, as 2021 comes to a close, I wish you good health. As we continue to endure this global health crisis, I encourage you to find comfort in your creative passions in 2022.

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.

Gone But Still Giving

FFG_Photo 27

When my mother died in January 2013, she left behind a little money in an account. It was earmarked for charitable purposes only.

Over the years, my sister and I distributed small amounts to organizations in her name. Some money went to children’s charities; other stipends supported research to eradicate dreadful diseases.

With time, the account dwindled. The fund faded to the point where fees were beginning to gobble up money that would be better used by a charity. Seeing the dollars decline was something like witnessing the effects of the macular degeneration that clouded Helen Johnson’s vision late in life.

Today, after processing the final grant from her account, I imagined my mother sitting outside with me on a spring day in Wheaton, Illinois, where she lived her last few years. The daffodils bloomed as she modeled her freshly painted nails. It was a luxury she wouldn’t have dreamed of earlier in life … born of the rural South, a child of the Great Depression that left most families in turmoil, scraping to make ends meet.

Somehow, Helen survived all that. She left North Carolina at age twenty-two with two friends. She found a job in St. Louis, Missouri, just as World War II was ending. She met Walter Johnson. They married and brought two children into the world.

Helen went back to work after Walter had a heart attack in the fall of 1962. The next few years were lean ones for our family. Over time, Helen built a career and found ways to keep us afloat.

She and Walter had a tough time of it, but somehow they managed to stay together. They scrimped and saved. She retired in 1987. He died in 1993. She lived on, nurturing her family and flowers. Eventually, she said goodbye at 89.

Now, here I sit. Remembering my wise, kind and resilient mother. Knowing that the money she left behind will put food on the tables of hungry families in 2020, support the planting of shade-producing trees, grant a wish for a needy child, care for healthier hearts, and allow a few disadvantaged citizens to raise their voices proudly in an uncertain world.

I have no doubt Helen is smiling.

 

Three Writers and a Birthday

S & G Ferrell in 1930s

On this sunny and breezy, seventy-degree day in the Sonoran Desert, I celebrate the life of Sherrell Richardson Ferrell. (He preferred S.R. Ferrell, because he thought it sounded more dignified.) March 9 would have been my maternal grandfather’s one-hundred-and-nineteenth birthday.

S.R. was a mountain of a man, who loved his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. I still remember him climbing the creaking steps of his back porch. Coming in from tending to his cattle and crops. Removing the broad-brimmed hat that shaded him from the Carolina heat. Swatting horseflies that followed him through the screen door. Mopping his brow and grabbing a bar of soap to wash the red earth off his massive arms and hands.

On the surface, it would seem S.R. and I had little in common other than our blood line. He was born in 1901 … a straight-and-practical, stoic Republican, who lived his entire life in the rural south. I was born in 1957 … a gay-and-artistic, emotional Democrat who made a living in a major Midwestern metropolis before escaping to the desert.

But after reading his fifty-two years of diary entries five years ago … a chronicle of every day in his life from age thirty-two in 1933 until his death at age eighty-four in 1985 … I know now we will always share our grief for Georgia Ferrell (his wife and my grandmother) and our writing impulses to leave behind a trail of our divergent lives.

Neither S.R. or I imagined that I would write a book about our journeys. That I would tell the story of a third writer between us … his oldest daughter Helen, my resilient mother … who left the south, survived her traumas and kept writing her wisdom-filled letters to ensure her family would remember her world and intellect.

But it is all clear to me now. More than any other, From Fertile Ground is the book I was meant to write. It is the story of all three of us finding our paths, loving our families, making our way against the odds. It is a story I was meant to share with the world.

During our visits to Huntersville in the 1960s, my sister Diane and I chased the peacocks that patrolled the farm. Inevitably, each time we returned to the St. Louis suburbs, we left with a few prized feathers and another batch of memories of our Grandpa Ferrell.

There he sat. Alone with his thoughts. Gliding in his chair like a prehistoric blogger. Recording the highlights of his day in his diary each night before bed. Hoisting his sore body out of his rocker. Placing his diary back on the mantle. Climbing the winding stairs to his bedroom for another chance to do it all again the following day.

***

This morning Tom and I took a hike with John and Sharon, good friends visiting from St. Louis. We walked portions of the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale.

As we followed the switchbacks up and down the trail, it dawned on me that I am now nearly the same age S.R. was when I chased his peacocks and vacationed on his farm in 1962 and 1964. When he taught me to milk the cows. When he brought his ripe cantaloupes and melons in from the fields to prepare them for market.

Of course, S.R. never hiked this rugged mountain path. He never visited the sand and sun of the Arizona desert. Neither did Helen. They both preferred the cooler air, the green-and-misty escapes to the Smoky Mountains, the more fertile ground.

But there is comfort knowing that my grandfather’s lineage, his Scotch-Irish tenacity, his southern roots, his physical strength, his propensity to write, and his unmistakable Ferrell nose are with me on the trail of life.

They are all with me on my journey.

MarkJohnson_TomsThumb_030920

 

 

He Wrote Every Day for Fifty-Two Years

S & G Ferrell in 1930s

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.