Tag: Storytelling

So Long, Old Friend

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“Just wanted to tell you that Millie passed away.

She was ninety-nine years old. What a life.”

Tom and I received this text today from Kathy, a close friend and neighbor who lived two doors north of us in Mount Prospect, Illinois. The community was our home until July 2017.

Millie, another of our neighbors, was an ever-enduring matriarch. She lived one block over. Directly behind us for two decades. Evidently, she died a few days ago.

I remember Millie fondly, tending to her flowers along the back fence. She was one part avid gardener and rose lover, one part suburban dynamo, one part cantankerous character.

Millie left a lasting impression on my family and me. So much so that I wrote Along the Back Fence, an essay about her and our relationship. It became a chapter in An Unobstructed View, my book of reflections on the meaning of my Illinois life.

Millie didn’t quite make it to her one hundredth birthday, which would have occurred in early January. But as a tribute to her and long-lasting neighbors everywhere who enrich our lives, I choose to celebrate as if she had.

Here’s my story and an image of a rose I captured across the sidewalk in another neighbor’s yard in sunny Arizona.

So long, old friend.

***

Along the Back Fence

Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence. But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.

It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it—too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess. So when she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.

I don’t think we had too much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here and there as I pushed my mower around my yard and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage. Eventually, we broke the ice.  From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.

By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.

Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. On one summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis. Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.

“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”

And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from their home on the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature dish of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.

That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents—Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015. But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health—her own sure-footedness—declined.

In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby. Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.

When she arrived, I reached out to give her a hug as she leaned in to rest her head on my shoulder. She told me she still loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it any more. Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from the side of her garage and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.

Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too. It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.

“I love you guys,” she said.

“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.

Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.

And the red rose bush—which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire—took root and bloomed before we departed.

We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.

It only seemed fitting.

 

 

Saturday at the Library

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Some of my earliest and most vivid “learning” memories happened at the library. To be precise, it was the Tesson Ferry Library in South St. Louis County in the 1960s. I remember finding quiet comfort there with my mother on autumn Saturdays. I don’t recall the titles we checked out, but my sister and I always left with two or three books in our arms. Stories to be read at home. Books our busy mother often read with us.

At that point in life, I never imagined I would become an author. Or that some fifty years later the manager of acquisitions at the St. Louis County Library would call me (on my deceased mother’s birthday) with happy and fortuitous news. The library had purchased four copies of From Fertile Ground, my book about the grief I felt after the loss of my mother.

Now in my sixties, local libraries in Arizona deliver a dependable dose of quiet continuity. They connect my early days as an eager reader with my later days as a memoir writer … and provide community outlets for me to connect with avid readers.

All of this is a prelude to say I’m excited and proud to be exhibiting at a Local Author Fair this Saturday (1 to 4 p.m.) in Mesa at the Dobson Ranch Library, 2425 S. Dobson Road. Authors from across Arizona will be there exhibiting, selling and signing their books. I love these opportunities to talk with readers. To hear about the kinds of books that interest them. To share my stories and memoir writing tips.

If you live in the area or happen to be visiting the Valley of the Sun, I hope you’ll stop by to say hello and spend part of your Saturday at the library.

Sand Dollar Days

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Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I have a good life. Warm, simple and true.

Exhibit A: though it’s late October (more than a month since most outdoor pools in the U.S. closed for the summer), today I completed my morning swim as I usually do at our Olympic-size community pool … thirty lengths under blue skies and eighty-degree temperatures.

Despite this frequently idyllic scenario, every locale has its drawbacks. For us in the Sonoran Desert, it’s the unforgiving heat in June, July and August … especially in the summer of 2019 when monsoon storms mysteriously didn’t materialize … and the fact that we live a few hundred miles from the closest beach on the Pacific Ocean. Put another way, we have plenty of sand, but no sand dollars to dazzle our days.

Unless, of course, you have a thoughtful friend such as Glenn. On Monday, having just returned from a week in San Diego, our neighbor and gentle-yoga comrade surprised Tom and me with a little beauty from the west coast: a handful of bleached skeletons of dead sand dollars.

Unfortunately, we weren’t home when Glenn stopped by, so he left them in a transparent tray near our back door. Who knew these sandy gems would one day wash up on the shore in land-locked Scottsdale, Arizona?

According to folklore and Wikipedia, sand dollars have come to represent all sorts of things. For instance, coins misplaced by mermaids or the lost citizens of Atlantis. Christian missionaries saw symbolism in the five-fold radial design, comparing it with the Star of Bethlehem.

I prefer to think of the sand dollars simply as a gift of nature. A reflection of grand, infinite, and ever-radiating design. Something like ripples of water on the surface of the ocean or individualized snowflakes that fall and decorate the sky and then the streets (not in Scottsdale, but surely back in my previous hometown of Mount Prospect, Illinois).

Better yet, I see sand dollars as a symbol of the interconnected way friends like Glenn enter and influence our lives. At first they may appear on the periphery. But over time they make their way on shore. They begin to leave their own personalized mark. They remind us to be grateful for the kindnesses of neighbors and friends who grace our lives. They teach us to be thankful for the goodness of our sand dollar days.

 

Palm and Pine and Sycamore

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Three gather to whisper, one natural grace.

Sure shiny October, rare shady space.

Beckoning branches, bowing before.

Triumphant triad, truth to adore.

Forever delight, never ignore.

Palm and pine and sycamore.

 

By Mark Johnson, October 20, 2019

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 Spirit of St. Louis

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If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know I write frequently about the importance of family and home. Thematically, I’m a big believer that they shape and influence the trajectory of our lives.

Though I left St. Louis (my original hometown) nearly forty years ago, my Missouri memories have proven to be a source of creative inspiration, pride, joy and considerable heartache. In fact, I’m certain the Gateway to the West occupies a permanent strand in my DNA.

No one personifies the spirit of St. Louis in my memories more than Thelma DeLuca. She was my aunt. I’ve been thinking of Thelma a lot lately. Mostly because the twentieth anniversary of her passing is coming later this month. But also because Dad and she were lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fans.

Tonight their favorite team (and mine too) will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. I’ll be watching the game on TV. If Thelma were living, she’d be doing the same. Cheering for her Redbirds. Wearing something red.

As a tribute to my aunt (shown here in a 1952 photo with “Bluebird”, her beloved blue Plymouth), I hope you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy this excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

* * *

Thelma’s middle name was Ruth, but it should have been Truth. She was Dad’s older sister, the life of the party, the leader of the band, a true original. There was no denying Thelma. She was the boldest, biggest-hearted member of the Johnson family. You always knew where she stood, because she would tell you with gusto. Like an Olympic gymnast on a quest for gold, she nailed the dismount, stuck the landing, and finished her routine planted firmly on the ground on the right side of an issue.

Thelma sheltered a collection of canines over the years. In the 1950s, when Lassie was king, she devoted her free time to Laddie, her prized collie. The dog won several blue ribbons with Thelma at his side. In the years that followed, she welcomed: Tina, the runt in a mixed-breed litter; Tor, a powerful but gentle Norwegian elkhound; and Heath Bar and Gizmo–Yorkshire Terriers–into her home. There’s no question she revered all of her pooches. I remember when I was a teenager as she moved in close to remind me with all the sincerity she could muster. “You know, dog is God spelled backwards,” she proclaimed …

In one breath Thelma, a lifelong Democrat, praised Harry Truman’s the-buck-stops-here forthrightness. In the next, she launched into a smooth glide down the hall on high heels with Uncle Ralph as Dean Martin sang Come Back to Sorrento or Vikki Carr belted out It Must Be Him on the hi-fi. All the while, Ralph’s prized braciole was baking in the oven.

Thelma craved the richness of relationships and the cumulative effect of what we learn from each other throughout a lifetime. Sitting at her kitchen table in the 1970s with a far-off look in her eyes, she leaned in with her wig slightly askew and told me, “Mark, we’re all like ships passing in the night.”

In her wake, Thelma certainly left her mark on me. Whenever she sent me a letter, she sealed it with a kiss–along with the letters SWAK written underneath in case her love was ever in question–leaving behind remnants of her red lipstick on the back of the envelope or at the bottom of her letter next to her signature. 

In 1976, Thelma gave me a small envelope filled with bicentennial coins: medallions, dollars, half dollars, and drummer boy quarters. She encouraged me to start a century box with these so that all of my “heirs will sit in awe and wonder about the old days back in 1976.” I still have the coins. It was a magnanimous gesture. I loved her for it and all of her convictions.

Like my dad, Thelma loved her St. Louis Cardinals. She was sixteen in 1926 when the National League Champion Cards played in their first World Series against the American League Champion New York Yankees, led by legendary slugger Babe Ruth.

The Cardinals won the series four games to three and were crowned World Series Champions for the first time. Rogers Hornsby was the Cardinals player-manager. Grover Cleveland Alexander was the winning pitcher in two of the Cardinals’ victories. Though Ruth clubbed three home runs in Game 4 and another in Game 7, the “Bambino” recorded the final out in Game 7 when the Cardinals caught him attempting to steal second base.

With a chuckle and a raspy voice, Thelma recounted that when the 1926 series was over, “I walked down the street chanting ‘Hornsby for President, Alexander for Mayor, Babe Ruth for dogcatcher, isn’t that fair?”

In April of 1979, during my senior year of college at Mizzou, I interviewed my aunt for a family folklore assignment. I was riveted as Thelma described the destruction from the September 29, 1927 tornado, which tore through St. Louis and killed seventy-eight people. She and my grandmother Louise Johnson huddled inside their home that day and rode out the storm safely.

At one point, they leaned against the front door with all their might to keep it from blowing off the hinges. When the violent storm was over, they ventured outside to discover houses on both sides of them had been lifted off their foundations. 

Thanks to Thelma and her recollections, the link to my Johnson family heritage and St. Louis history is alive and well. That was Thelma.

Oh, Lemon Trees and Lizards

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Ordinarily, pruning branches in our condo complex is something our landscape crew attends to. But they haven’t appeared lately. So, last week Tom and I dusted off our hedge trimmers. We gave haircuts to the fig and orange trees in our row. We didn’t mind. We had the time, energy and motivation.

Today, I stood in front of our mid-century condo. Gazing east as the morning light forced me to shield my eyes. Surveying the overgrown boughs of a luscious lemon tree that shrouded the sidewalk to our parking lot. Hands on hips, I uttered these seven words:

I think I’ll prune the lemon tree.

Yes, a guy born and raised in the Midwest, near towering oaks and majestic maples that abandon their leaves every October, now trims fragrant citrus fruits in autumn and says these peculiar things. Who is this crazy person? Where did this new language come from?

Let me be clear. This wasn’t the first time I was privy to this sort of newfangled, desert phraseology.  In the fall of 2017, just a few months after my husband and I left Illinois and moved into our Arizona condo, he shouted the following previously undocumented sentence as I wrote at my desk:

There’s a lizard in the sink.

As calmly as possible, I pressed “save” on whatever I was writing and scampered into the kitchen to see what Tom had discovered. Indeed, there was a lizard in the trap of the sink. He was no more than two inches long and frozen like a tiny statue exhumed from an archaeological dig. I’m sure he was frightened by the two giant heads peering down at him.

If you’re an animal lover like we are, you’ll be delighted to learn that we didn’t freak out and smash him in the sink. Instead, we kept our wits. We scooped him onto a piece of paper and carried him outside to safety.

Slowly, he slithered off into the desert landscape to resume his natural existence. Just a few yards away from where the freshly shorn fig, orange and lemon trees live in this sun-drenched land of sand and saguaros.

I never thought I’d live here. Oh, lemon trees and lizards, I never thought I’d say and hear such things.

 

 

 

 

Waiting to be Fed

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Eight o’clock on a seventy-degree October morning. Tom and I walk three thousand steps west from our condo door and arrive here. Squint and you can conjure the head of a giant tortoise emerging over the hill … waiting to be fed. In reality, the only ones scouring for breakfast are the three microscopic bighorn sheep climbing the Papago buttes in the Phoenix Zoo on the right side of the frame.

Surreal giant tortoises and real bighorn sheep on a spectacular Sunday. Such is life in the rugged, yet serene, Sonoran desert.

When in Wien

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You are a ring of lush palaces, pastries, parables and past civilizations.

Of cavernous courtyards, cascading cathedrals and crusty cafe croissants.

Of stained statues on strassers, strolling strangers and circling streetcars.

Of hidden September stables where loyal Lipizzaner stallions saunter.

Of magnificent museums, Mozart, mythology and melange metaphors.

Of baroque avenues, ornate artifacts, elegant archways and acute angles.

Of afternoon tea, while gazing at you through sunlit storefront windows.

 

When in Vienna … when in Wien.

 

Written by Mark Johnson, October 2, 2019

 

 

 

A Drink with Jam and Bread

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Some memories are like rare monarch butterflies.  They land before you in a brilliant twist of fate. They perch on a sunflower petal for a moment, as one did yesterday on a path at the Desert Botanical Garden here in Phoenix. But before you know it, the moment has passed. The breathtaking beauty has flown away.

That’s how I felt about my visit to Salzburg, Austria, earlier this month. So, on the last day of September, before my fleeting recollections of fabled Austria fade and vanish into the sky, I’m going to turn back the clock almost two weeks to a few sensory-filled moments in this captivating and historic city.

***

It was the afternoon of September 17. A Tuesday, to be precise. Tom and I had just completed a walking tour of the city with forty others. Harold, our friendly and knowledgeable guide, led the way.

After the group disbanded for the day, my husband and I were craving some down time. That’s when we found the quiet comfort of Cafe Bazar, an historic haunt along the banks of the Salzach River. Given my literary endeavors, a friend had told us to go there. Since its birth in 1909, legends such as Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann, Arthur Miller, Klaus Maria Brandauer and many other artists have been Cafe Bazar guests. One can only imagine the magnitude of their stirring conversations.

At any rate, Tom and I sat in the same room where they had … soaking up the Salzburg scenery at a table for two on a Tuesday. To be clear, we didn’t sip tea while we ate our jam and bread. We each ordered a cup of Wiener melange (German for “Viennese blend”). One shot of espresso topped with a dollop of steamed milk and foam. Let’s just say it was the perfect complement to a freshly baked croissant and apricot jam in spectacular Salzburg.

If you’re a lover of The Sound of Music like me, you’ve already caught my creative drift. For an American baby boomer, it’s impossible to visit Salzburg and the surrounding area without recalling moments from the iconic 1965 movie musical.

You know, singing “Do-Re-Mi” like the Von Trapp kids did. Bobbing up and down on the steps in Mirabell Gardens. Pretending to dash around a bubbling fountain in formation in one of the freshly made outfits Maria made from old curtains. Channeling Julie Andrews as she twirls with her bag, struts under a canopy of trees, and sings “I Have Confidence.” Even consuming a drink with jam and bread at Cafe Bazar.

But, as charming and memorable as those Hollywood images are, they aren’t the real Salzburg. No other city can boast that it’s the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Salzburg also has the distinction of appearing on the UNESCO World Heritage List. That designation came in 1996.

Twenty-three years later, in September 2019, two guys from Scottsdale, Arizona, passed through town. They sipped on a cup of Wiener melange with jam and bread, watched the world go by, and cherished the gift of Salzburg … a forever-artistic city.