Tag: Southern Roots

Gone But Still Giving

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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.

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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.