Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Favorite Santa

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words . . .
 May your Holidays be Merry with lots of stories to tell . . .
Photo by me, of my dad - 2010

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rescued by Elijah

Stories just seem to find me. Yesterday I was on my way to tell stories at the Hagood Mill Storytelling Festival in Pickens, South Carolina. It was a rainy, foggy and overall gloomy morning, which I must say fit my mood.

 I had fallen asleep the night before crying from the waves of grief that have consumed me this week.  A week filled with Red Sox playoff games, my parents wedding anniversary and birthdays, left me missing my dad intensely. And now I was on my way to tell stories on stage for the first time in too long.  As I drove through the mist and fog I thought about the stories I wanted to tell. So many of my stories are filled with “Dadisms” that I found myself questioning whether I’d be able to get through a single story without choking up on stage.

As I pulled into the parking lot tears streamed down my cheeks and I just didn’t know if I’d be able to get through the day. But I wiped my tears and told myself to “Josie Up!” (that’ll be next week’s story) and get out there and enjoy all the stories I’d hear.

I took a deep breath, popped the trunk latch to get my CD’s, stepped out of the car and shut the door. I knew immediately that I had once again locked my keys in the car. Oh how I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve done that!! My next car will definitely have a keyless entry!

Staring into my trunk I noticed the back seat release latch and said a little prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps I’d be able to get in my car after all without having to call a locksmith, again. I pulled and pulled on that latch, but nothing happened. Finally I got the great idea to bang/push on the seat alternately with pulling on the release latch. It eventually worked. Now I looked at my trunk and that little opening into my car and thought, “No way is my Dairy Queen, Dunkin Donut loving butt getting through there . . . I need a kid!”

I looked around at the crowds gathering for the festival and quickly assessed that this was a typical 60+ age crowd and did not see any potential trunk crawling kids. So again I looked to the heavens and said, “Lord please help out your dingbat, story loving, grieving girl hear – I need a kid, quick.”

 As soon as I offered up my ridiculous little prayer, a mini-van drove into the parking lot and I spotted two little blond heads in their car seats.  I approached the mini-van, introduced myself and my dilemma. The grand-dad driving the mini-van was a dead-ringer for GomerPile with a smile and voice to match, and his grandsons could have easily been my Russell and Joel at age 5 and 2. But I knew without a doubt that God has a sense of humor when that 5 year old boy jumped out of the van to help me and landed wearing a pair of black cowboy boots   (just like my Russell’s  -“Naked Cowboy” boots) and introduced himself as Elijah – Really, “Elijah”?! Ok God, now you’re just showing off!

Grand-dad Gomer lifted Elijah into my trunk and I was rescued, but not just rescued from being locked out of my trunk. I now had a story to tell, a healed heart and inspiration to tell the “Naked Cowboy” story on stage for the first time. God is good.

Rescued from my own stupidity, and given a reprieve from the grief consuming me, the weather may have remained gloomy but my heart was filled with the wonder and power of the stories that surrounded me. I love a God with a sense of humor.

 And if you’ve never been to the Hagood Mill Storytelling Festival, I must say it is worth the trip! A perfect setting nestled in the hills of Pickens, SC. This year I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Ellouise Schoettler, Derrick Phillips and John Fowler. Great stories and a beautiful location – mark your calendar now for the third Saturday in October 2014 . . . See you there!
(c) 10.20.2013 Martha Reed Johnson


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lessons From "The Wayback"

“The Wayback” does not refer to stories from “way back when” but instead refers to the pre-minivan place where many of my generation spent our childhood. “The Wayback” of the family station wagon was the place where the youngest family members were positioned for family road trips - long and short. There were no seatbelts, or seats for that matter, no DVD screens or game consoles. We were simply dumped back there to bounce around for the journey and figure out a way to entertain ourselves.

It was a place where you either learned to get along with your siblings, or didn’t. But either way it didn’t matter, you were stuck back there with them. Often it was hot, and no amount of pillows or blankets could make it comfortable, especially when your younger sister spent all the time in the “wayback” chattering nonstop.

My life in the wayback began in a playpen and lasted well into my teen years. It was there that I learned to get along with my sister, that you don’t leave family behind and that littering is not tolerated.

I was recently reminded of the “no littering lesson” as I a drove down a country road on my way to a storytelling gig. On the side of the road for a quarter mile stretch there were beer cans, fast food bags, super size drink cups and other assorted trash strewn carelessly amidst the grass and scrub trees. Obviously someone had not learned the “no littering” rule. It is simply baffling to me that someone can throw their trash out their window and not give it a second thought. I mean really! Who do they think is going to clean up their trash!!

I remember vividly the day I learned NOT to litter. I was eight and my sister was six. We were in the “wayback” of the family station wagon somewhere between Massachusetts and California. We’d been back there for weeks! We (my brothers) had tried to leave my sister in Utah but had been unsuccessful. That was the moment we learned “you don’t leave family behind”! But I digress – back to littering.

My sister and I were playing around in the “wayback”.  It was a hot day and all the windows were open. The wind was whipping through the car blowing our hair everywhere. She handed me a piece of Trident gum and I quickly unwrapped the piece and popped it in my mouth. The gum wrapper slipped through my fingers and sailed out the back window of the wagon. Some how my father saw that wrapper flicker in his rear view mirror and sail away.

Immediately he pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car and walked around to the back window. He leaned in and asked us, “Whose wrapper was that?” We both pointed to the other one and said, “Hers”. We then watched Dad walk to the camping gear we towed behind us in a small sail boat. He pulled the canvas back revealing the camping gear and pulled out a Hefty trash bag. He walked back over to our window, handed us the trash bag and instructed us to pick up the trash on the side of the road.

While Beth and I walked along the side of the road picking up trash, Mom, Dad and the boys sat by the side of the road drinking lemonade. When Beth and I had filled most of that trash bag we walked back over to Dad to ask if we were done. He looked at us and asked, “Did you find your gum wrapper?”

Are you kidding me! We didn’t find our gum wrapper, but we did learn a valuable lesson that day. I never littered again – even by accident.

Twenty-five years later it was a lesson I taught my sons along a country road in West Virginia. You don’t leave your trash behind. I sure wish everyone had learned that lesson when they were young. What a beautiful world it would be . . . .
(c) 10.06.2013 Martha Reed Johnson


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mirror, Mirror . . .

“Mirror, mirror on the wall who’s the fairest of them all?” Well apparently it’s not me. I realized this one morning as I sat across the kitchen table from my Dad. He looked up at me and said, “You need to get your hair cut today.” Wow! I thought, my Dad never says anything about someone’s outer appearance that is not complimentary; my hair must be REALLY bad.

 And so began the saga of my three-haircut week . . .

 I had just gotten my hair cut two days earlier and I thought it was looking pretty good.  The feud between me and my naturally curly hair has been a long-standing one. I can recall vividly being called “Brillo Pad” in sixth grade which set off the lifelong battle of the curls, well frizz really, in my hair. But truth be told, with the wisdom of my years I have pretty much stopped worrying or caring – that and the wonders of keratin have evened the battle field. So imagine my surprise when suddenly I cared very much what my hair looked like because my dad thought I needed a cut.

Since I was a thousand miles away from my stylist,  Deanna whom I adore, I went to my mom’s salon. Now here’s a tip – unless you are, yourself 80 years old, don’t get your hair cut by an 80 year old who only cuts the hair of his 80 year old clients. Seriously! I left the salon thinking that it wasn’t quite right but that when I got home and washed out the crazy amount of hair spray he’d put on my head, it would be better. It wasn’t.

Thank God my sister was home, and she promptly escorted me upstairs to the bathroom to see if she could fix it. It was like we were teenagers again locked in the bathroom with a variety of hair products in an epic battle against “The FRIZZ!” But even with the modern flat iron and smoothing/straightening products available to us today, it couldn’t be fixed. I could tell by the look on her face reflected in the mirror that hair spray overdose wasn’t the only problem.

Thankfully my sister is pretty smart and immediately looked at me and said, “Who do we know around here with good hair?” It only took a second for us both to shout, “Regina!” Now, Regina is my sister-in-law, and her hair is always perfect!  Within 10 minutes my brother had called Regina’s stylist and begged for an emergency appointment.

This is how it came to be that within 24 hours of my second hair cut in one week, I was on my way to a third appointment.  This was ridiculous, and I was having serious doubts - I mean really, who gets three haircuts in one week?! ?

As I walked into the salon, Regina’s stylist, Dean looked up and said, “You must be Martha.” Really? Was it that obvious? Perhaps I wasn’t being so vain after all. Beth and I laughed and sat down to wait for my turn. A woman waiting in the salon lobby looked at me and bluntly asked, “So did you cut your own hair?” WOW! This was, indeed, an emergency requiring serious crisis intervention.  I was not simply being vain.

I wish I could describe, or had asked Beth to video record the hair cut that rescued me. Dean wielded a holster full of tools with incredible speed and accuracy in a manner that simply looked like a dance. My sister and I sat stunned as he rescued my hair without having to shave my head and loan me a wig. It was truly amazing to be in the presence of a master craftsman in every sense of the term.

My dad, who was, himself, a master craftsman in life, passed away during the week of my three haircuts. I must say that if my dad had been alive to see the results of the third haircut, he probably wouldn’t have noticed or cared. Because really, in Dad’s world view, how important is hair? But I’m quite certain he would have loved to meet Dean. He would have admired his tool belt, and the mastery with which he used the tools of his trade. Dad had a great appreciation for a fellow artist.

I appreciated the fact that when I stood up to honor Dad at his memorial service the day after my third haircut, I didn’t give my hair a second thought. And now when I look at the family pictures taken that day, I’m thankful for a family honest enough to tell me that I needed an “extreme hair makeover”, and for a master craftsman named Dean.


 (c) 09.22.2013 Martha Reed Johnson


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Slow Learner

In today’s “micro-wave”, instant gratification, drive-thru culture it is very out of fashion to learn slowly. But truth be told, I am a slow learner. Thankfully, I had a slow teacher.

My dad had a rule in our family that said, “If you want to play a game, ask me and I will stop what I’m doing and play.” He stuck to that rule, even with five children who liked to play games. It is a small wonder that Dad accomplished anything other than playing games. He also had another rule: “I will never LET you win – you must LEARN to win.”  And believe me; Dad was hard to beat at any game. We have long thought that he had a close connection with the “game-gods”.

Learning to play chess, and play it well, has proven to be a life long journey. I started when I was six and Dad never let me win. The first time we played he had four pieces on the board while I had all of my pieces. He taught me how the pieces moved and a little bit about strategy. He beat me over and over again with his four pieces. Sometimes he would have his king, a bishop and two pawns other times he’d switch the bishop for a knight or a rook. But he always had only four pieces on the board until I could beat him with the four pieces. Then he would add two more, and then two more . . . you get the picture. This went on for hours, weeks and years of my childhood.

He also played with my brother Chris. I would watch them play for hours too. Chris was seven years older than me and had been playing much longer, so I got to watch “real” games. We never played with a timer. We just sat staring at the board contemplating our next move for as long as it would take. Dad always stuck with us.

Sometimes after I made a move Dad would say, “Are you sure about that one?” I’d stare at the board some more to determine whether or not I was sure. His asking didn’t necessarily mean that my move was wrong; he just wanted me to be decisive in my thinking and not second guess myself. So he’d challenge my thinking until I was certain I’d made the right move. Sometimes I was right and other times I was wrong, but either way I learned to stick to my answer and learn from my success or my mistake.

By the time I graduated from high school and went off to college I was finally playing Dad with all of his pieces on the board. I just couldn’t beat him. I found this incredibly frustrating! But in college I found Margie. She played chess, and we were more equally matched. We played a lot, and we each continued to get better. Sometimes she’d make a move and I’d ask, “Are you sure about that?” You see, I’d learned something from my dad along the way, and even my friends gained the benefit of his patient teaching, through me.

Christmas break of my sophomore year in college I arrived home and called out to my Dad, “Let’s play chess!”  He quickly picked up the board and asked, “How many pieces do I get?” I answered, “All of them.” He looked quite surprised as I set up the board.

I don’t remember how long the game took but I remember asking him a time or two, “Are you sure about that?” He laughed and said, “Yes. I am sure.” I then promptly beat him. I was 19 years old. It had only taken me 13 years to beat him with all of his pieces.

I wish I could say that I continued to beat him, but that would not be the truth. We continued to play for years until his Parkinson’s disease made it too difficult to manage the pieces. He beat me far more times than I beat him. I was a slow learner and he was a patient teacher.

So here is what I know from learning to play chess with Dad:

Being a slow learner is not a bad thing.
Think things through.
Plan your strategy.
Be decisive.
And if you’re wrong, learn from your mistake and try again.

Perhaps Dad’s rule to always play a game with his kids taught us more than just how to play a game.


© 09.08.2013 Martha Reed Johnson



Sunday, September 1, 2013

Loons & Lumber

A small one room cabin sits in the woods overlooking a small lake. It’s been there nearly 40 years. It’s two thousand miles away from me and yet if I simply close my eyes and take a deep breath I am there sitting on the dock watching the sky go from pink to purple listening to the songs of the loons signaling the end of another day. I am at peace.

There are few things in life that last. Life and people are always changing so when you have something that lasts it is a precious gift. Our cabin is a gift that came from the dream and vision of my father, the fortitude of my mother and the “child labor” efforts of my brothers, sister and me. 

We built our Nova Scotia cabin in 1974 and enjoyed it as a family each summer until we were all grown and gone from the nest of our nuclear family. Mom and Dad continued to spend summers there until 1994 when my father’s Parkinson’s disease made traveling to the remote cabin an impossibility.

Last week my sister visited the cabin and sent me a picture of the floor with a patch in it. She and I had put that floor down in 1975. I was eleven and she was nine. Tears streamed down my face as I looked at that picture and remembered sitting next to her banging away with our hammers as Dad brought us board after board to finish the floor. Dad is gone now, but the cabin, our floor and amazing memories remain.

The floor boards for the cabin were the only significant purchase made during the building of our cabin; all other materials for the cabin came from our land or were scavenged from a nearby dump.  In order to get the floor boards we had to sail across the lake and drive 20 miles to visit the lumber yard. Dad took his time selecting the kiln dried lumber for our floor and we loaded it into the back and on top of the station wagon. When we arrived back at the lake we loaded the lumber into the sailboat and our canoe and began the trip across the lake. Strangely enough, my father who was an avid and skilled sailor tipped the boat over and all the kiln dried lumber began to float away.

As a family we kicked into high gear and began swimming in all directions to gather the lumber and swim it across the lake. It was close to sunset as we dragged the last board ashore. The sounds of the loons that night sounded more like laughter than songs. Perhaps they watched us as much as we watched and listened to them. The next day we dragged the soaked boards up the hill to the cabin and began laying the boards in sunny spots outside the cabin. It took awhile but eventually we succeeded in gathering all the boards and setting them out to dry. I’m sure if there had been anyone else, other than the loons, watching us we would have been a sight to see. It’s a memory that still makes me laugh.

But today I wipe the tears from my face as I re-read my sister’s text message, “Our cabin still looks good, just a few holes in the floor that someone patched.” We don’t know who patched the holes, but we have always known that when we’re not there, the local people enjoy our cabin. They take good care of it and know that it is a cabin built with love, laughter and more than a few mishaps along the way. 

Love is like that – filled with mishaps, sometimes in need of patching but it lasts, leaves a legacy and spreads out farther than we can ever really know.
(c) 9.1.2013 Martha Reed Johnson   
Additional Nova Scotia Cabin Stories:
lake and floor photos by Ted Johnson (dad) 1975
cabin photo by Beth Adams (sis) 2013




Sunday, August 25, 2013

Be Still

“Stop being busy being busy!”  The words of my friend, LaTasha Brand, ring out in my ears as I go about my busy life writing “to do” lists long enough to send the most motivated person back to bed. Multi-tasking is the way of go-getters, right? Perhaps not.

Currently I have three jobs. This is not unusual for me. As a junior in college I also had three jobs, in addition to being a full time student. I remember getting on my bike on a rainy day to ride off campus to work, but as I rode downtown I couldn’t remember what day it was or which job I was supposed be working that day. My first stop was the wrong job. The boss laughed at me then told me what day it was, and off I rode to the job of the day. Life hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years.

Today I woke early and sat on the porch with my coffee to write the “to do” list. As the list got longer, my spirit got increasingly more restless. It was a beautiful morning and the sun, the breeze, the trees and the creek all called my name. I had to answer. Ditching the list, I put my sneakers on and off I walked down the street toward the creek. With each step and each breath, my worries retreated, the list faded from my mind and my spirit was lifted.

As I arrived in the park and walked along the paths by the creek I felt the sun and breeze on my face and relaxed as I headed down the paths into the swamp. Quickly the mosquito’s found me as appealing as I found the swamp but no worries, I am no amateur in the woods. Bug spray is victorious and I spend hours just walking and sitting. I listen to the leaves whisper their secrets and watch the woods, creek and swamp come alive all around me. I am still. Life is good.  My mind quiets and God is all around me.

For today, I will stop being busy being busy. I will sit in the woods and breathe. I will remember what matters most to me: faith, family and friends.  With that in mind, my list is significantly shorter. So today, rather than a story I will share my moment in hopes that you can put aside your “to do list”, stop being busy being busy and get outside to breathe long enough to find out what matters most to you. See if it changes your “to do” list.
(c) Martha Reed Johnson 8.25.2013



Sunday, August 18, 2013


Students are returning to my school tomorrow. As I watch teachers preparing their classrooms,  I tune in to the energy and enthusiasm of a new school year and I can’t help but think of bones.
Bones? What do bones have to do with school and teachers? In my opinion, everything!

It is at this time every year that I think about the teachers I’ve had in my life. The very first one who comes to mind is my father. He was a science teacher, but he wasn’t just a teacher from 8:00am to 4:00pm, he was a teacher ALL the time. And true to his scientific roots, he taught us through experimentation. Whenever we had a question he would guide us toward finding our own answers. He believed the questions combined with our process toward learning were far more important than the answers we’d eventually discover.

I remember when my three older brothers asked Dad if it was possible to actually dig to China. Dad just studied them for a long time, and finally asked, “How can you find out?” The boys decided digging would be a good start. Together with my father, they went to the cellar and came back up with three shovels. The boys headed for the back yard and started digging. When the holes started getting deep and filling in with loose dirt they sent me into the holes with a garden trowel to help. We dug and dug and eventually all the kids from the neighborhood were in on the digging game. The holes became tunnels that took over the back yard.

Eric became especially obsessed with the tunnels and digging his way to China. He dug on weekends, afterschool and even early before school began. He was so obsessed with digging that Mom gave up even trying to keep the dirt out of his fingernails and off his knees. The only time he wasn’t digging was when he was actually in school.

Eric was in the second grade at Magnolia School in Mrs. West’s classroom. (You may remember from an earlier story, that when I had her years later I dubbed her the, “Wicked Witch of the West”.) Mrs. West got so sick of Eric’s dirty fingers filling out her nice clean worksheets that one day she yelled at him, “Eric are you ever going to be clean?”

Well, Mrs. West, you’ll be happy to know that Eric is now the cleanest man you’d ever want to meet. He may not have dug himself to China back in grade school but now as Vice President of University Advancement for Tufts he will finally get to China this year, on a plane not through his hand dug tunnel.

But let’s get back to bones. While digging tunnels in the back yard we managed to discover bones and various fossils. This got my Dad very excited and over the course of the next few years he took every opportunity to teach us about bones. We went on hikes in search of bones, we murdered a chicken in the back yard (refer to “Fowl Play”) to learn about bones and we created bone puzzles to put our various critters back together.

The very best bone puzzle began when I was in second grade. My oldest brother was in junior high taking a human anatomy class. Dad decided that if he could put a human skeleton together he’d have a better understanding of human anatomy. So “Sam the Skeleton” came home in big bag.

Dad dumped the bones on the dining room table and Chris got to work. We all became fascinated with “Sam”. Kids in the neighborhood thought it was cool that we had a dead guy on our table and the adults in the neighborhood, well they didn’t say too much about it!

Chris had just about managed to get “Sam” put together when I walked by the dining room table all clean and dressed for school. I don’t know what possessed me, but I reached up to the table and slipped a few finger bones into my pocket. I walked to school with my dad all the while clicking those bones in my pocket. He dropped me off in Mrs. West’s classroom with his usual parting message, “ask good questions today”.

He didn’t know that Mrs. West found my questions quite annoying and I found her answers boring. I had a difficult time containing my energy in her class. So I just couldn’t help it that the clicking bones in my pocket eventually found their way to my desk. Mrs. West was used to me tapping, drumming, and doodling with my pencil and was quite adept at stomping over to my desk to confiscate my pencil at any chance.

Imagine her surprise after stomping over to my desk with her furrowed brow when she expected to find my pencil in her hand but instead found two human finger bones.  She screamed flinging those bones far across the room. When she finally calmed down enough to ask me where I got those bones. I told her, “they’re my brothers.”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look of complete and absolute horror on her face.

I am as thankful as Mrs. West that we only had to deal with each other for one year, and I am very grateful that I had 48 years with a Dad who taught me to ask questions, be curious and to find my own answers.

I am thankful that as schools open across America,  there are teachers who will open the minds and expand the curiosity of the students they encounter.  My hope and my prayer is that eventually we will have an educational system dedicated to mentoring and cultivating the curious, creative mind rather than simply focusing on test scores, and that we will have a society that values the work teachers do each and every day, in their classrooms and beyond.

(c) 8.18.2013 Martha Reed Johnson
- certain details and names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent, and not so innocent ;)

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Mostly I’m nice, but sometimes I’m not. My little sister can attest to the “not nice” label better than anyone. After all I did conspire (after the fact) with our older brothers to leave her behind at a gas station in Utah when she was six. That was definitely not nice!

Until I was eight I shared a room with Beth. I did not like this. I loved the room. It was on the second floor of our Magnolia Terrace home. The room had a fireplace, wall paper with little apple trees and big windows on two sides. One of the windows was over the porch and I loved to sneak out the window and sit on the roof of the porch where our nosy neighbor Mrs. Gilman couldn’t see me and rat me out to my mom.

The room was perfect. Sharing it with Beth was not. My brothers had their own rooms on the third floor so I didn’t think it fair that I had to share with Beth. So being the problem solver that I am, I set out to fix the problem. I rearranged the furniture in such a way as to clearly define whose side was whose. That didn’t work. Beth was forever jumping on my bed and begging me to play with her baby dolls. I hated baby dolls as much as I hated sharing a room with Beth.

My next step was to pull out a roll of duck tape and roll out a line right down the middle of the room. I of course took the larger half of the room, the side with the front window over the porch.  Amazingly it worked. Beth stayed on her side of the room!

But Beth was smart, even at 5. She immediately informed me that since she had to stay on her side, I had to stay on mine. That was fine with me, until I had to go to the bathroom. The door to the hall was on her side of the room and I was not allowed on that side. Climbing out the window to sit on the porch roof to watch the neighborhood was one thing, but having to use the window as my access in and out of my room was another. I was out smarted.

Soon after the duck tape room divider debacle we moved and each had our own rooms. Instead of fighting over space in our room we took to sneaking into each other’s room to “borrow” clothes. We’d both deny “borrowing” and would fight over whose clothes were whose. Fighting was our language; it was what we knew how to do.

Eventually I went off to college and moved 500 miles away. Then I married Sam and ended up a 1000 miles away from Beth. Sam didn’t like Beth, and Beth didn’t like Sam. I left my sister behind.

Twenty years later, Sam left. It was Beth who came to my rescue. She hugged me when I cried and made me stop crying and get busy living. She traveled one thousand miles to help me move. She kicked my butt into action and helped me turn my new house into a home. She has been my very best friend every day since. Even though it is no longer duck tape that divides us but 1000 miles, she is still my best friend.

Her birthday was Friday and I was sad to not be with her. Sad to not be able to celebrate with her, but more sad that she had to celebrate her 47th birthday with a follow up sonogram to rule out the possibility of breast cancer, rather than doing something fun. It broke my heart to not be there. I would have gladly have even played dolls with her, but instead it was text messages and phone calls that created the connection across those miles - and the celebration when all news was good.

Sisters. We learn to fight with them, sometimes we want to leave them behind but if you’re as blessed as me, you eventually learn that life is just easier with them than without, even if they are one thousand miles away.

©Martha Reed Johnson 8.11.2013

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Wisdom, like stories, is all around us. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has advice to give. In fact most of the self help and professional development books which now fill book store shelves are written with story and personal narrative in order to grab the attention of the reader. But is their advice anything new? I think not. And after a recent discovery of a journal entry written by my newly- wed grandmother in 1928, I now have proof that those shelves contain very little new information.

So I’ll let you decide if the wisdom of 1928 still holds true. In her own words – please remember that in 1928 people wrote sentences, paragraphs and complete thoughts, they did not text, tweet or post status updates.

“If I were given fifty thousand dollars to use in any way in which I might see fit, but with the thorough understanding that it would be my only resource and that I need not expect any other aid in any way, shape or manner, I would, of course, use great care in the way in which I invested and distributed its use. I would consider and endeavor to estimate the probable length of time over which that sum must tide me. I would weigh carefully all methods of its use to ascertain whereby I would receive the greatest good and happiness from it. I would try, at least, to map out a course for its use or disposal and make a terrific effort to follow that course rather than let it dribble away, hit or miss.

But I have not been given fifty thousand dollars, or even fifty cents. But I have been given that which many, myself included, would value greatly in excess of any amount of dollars and cents. Namely: good health, the true love of an honest man, a whole family who truly loves me, a comfortable though not luxurious home, freedom from debt, a steady though modest income and the privilege of investing these gifts to the best or worst of my ability.

It is my aim to invest them so that they will pay the largest possible dividends to us all. I want to make the donors of these gifts glad and proud that they bestowed them upon me. They must pay increasing dividends in comfort and happiness to me and all those surrounding me. I am bound to be responsible for our welfare and independence for an indefinite period of time. I would even like to leave to those who survive me a bit of an inheritance. Perhaps a bit of wisdom purchased with experience, a philosophy containing much of faith in god, an understanding of the true value of the things that go to make up true and lasting happiness, a belief that I have been successful and that they too, can be successful even though their material resources are no greater than mine. If I keep intact the principle of these gifts and live happily and comfortably from the dividends they yield, who can say that I have not been successful or that the world is not better for my having been here?

First, then, I must consider health for on it the very existence of the other gifts depend. If I am well and strong, I have a better chance of being happy, and if I am happy I will radiate happiness to those I love and to all those with whom I come in contact. I will have the energy necessary to keep our home attractive. I will have an active mind capable of managing the small income economically and possibly be able to add to it occasionally. Health will certainly help to keep us out of debt. In a word, health for all of us is one of our greatest assets.

Next, but to me not less important, is to keep the love of this honest man and to continue loving him as I do now. Time must not dull the joy of it. For I do not want a lukewarm affection or just a dutiful but indifferent loyalty. Our love for each other must become deeper and stronger, more and more companiable. Quieter, probably, but just as keen and beautiful. I must remember the unimportance of the little things that are apt to annoy me and also remember that I have just as many little irritating ways about me that will be just as hard for him to stand as he has that may be hard for me. I must keep in mind that in all the big, really important things he is my ideal of true manhood and the man whom I chose to love, cherish and make happy for my whole lifetime. I am going to try not to infringe too much upon his own personal liberty, make him feel like my willing companion rather than like an unwilling prisoner. I am going to give him credit for having just as much common sense as I flatter myself into believing that I have. I shall give him enough attention, but not too much. I want to keep unnecessary worries away from  him, make him comfortable, proud of himself, his family, his home; make all his burdens as light as possible without depriving him of his share of the responsibility. I don’t want to make a mollycoddle of him by trying to be good to him, for he has excellent ability and I want to give him plenty of opportunity for exercising it. I want always to be attractive to him and not slump down into a mere housekeeper. I want to be that ,and a sweetheart and companion combined. I want to interest him and have him value my opinions. We must progress together along the same road, not on widely separated ones as so many do. We must accomplish much together.

And with those others whom I love and who love me I must use just as much thought and tact. For this gift is also very essential to happiness for us all. With our dear mothers especially we must exercise much care, patience and wisdom. To them we must remember that we are still children, and they like to feel that we still need them and surely we do. They have accumulated much wisdom which will, if we let it, avail us a great deal. We think ourselves very wise and efficient, but we have much to learn and if we learn willingly from them it will be a source of great satisfaction to them. They will still think themselves necessary to us and will then be contented and happy. We must also let them have just enough work to keep them occupied for no one is happy idle.

Then there is the dear home that I have put so much into and love so much. One of the hardest things for me to do will be not to put too much of my time and money into it. It is sort of a hobby with me and I glory in it. I could very easily put too great a proportion of my resources into its making and neglect other things entitled to their full share of my time and thought. I must not forget my other gifts to lavish upon this one.

Freedom from debt I am sure may be classed a great asset in starting a new adventure. And if it’s humanly possible WE SHALL NOT HAVE DEBT. Thus shall we do much to preserve our youth, comfort and save much worry.

The modest income is also a blessing for we shall not on its abundance become selfish, over ambitious, extravagant. As it is comparatively steady, barring accident or ill health, we shall know upon how much we can depend and arrange our living scale accordingly.”

                                                                                -Esther Ferguson,  1928

I did not know my Grandma Esther. She died when I was very small. I know she was a storyteller and a painter, and now I know she was wise beyond her years. After reading her words to my son, I know her wisdom still speaks to the new generation born into our high tech world.

It makes me wonder, after my year of weekly blog posts, will a great-grandchild of mine someday read my words or hear my stories and find them relevant, wise and important to their generation?  Hmmm – that’s a thought to ponder.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Travels with Mom

The last time I checked Vermont was not located between Massachusetts and South Carolina. However, traveling with Mom this week I have discovered that according to her travel plans, or lack of plans, Vermont fits nicely between the two, with a few extra turns along the way.

And that is the way it is traveling with Mom. We sort of mapped out a route to my home in South Carolina from hers in Eastern Massachusetts, but have gone off course more times than I can count. I think that by the time we arrive in South Carolina I will have driven well over 1500 miles. Yikes! But along all those extra miles there have been stories . . . lots of stories.

I have heard stories of her childhood growing up in Springfield, stories of my great-grandmothers journey across the border into Vermont from Canada, stories of her 60 year love affair with my Dad, stories of their early years scraping by on a teacher’s salary of $2000.00 per year while raising four children and stories of friends along her journey of life. We even got to spend some time with an old friend along the way and ended up at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

In the wise words of Arlo Guthrie, “You can get anything you want . . . “.  My Mom’s response, “I have all I could have ever asked or dreamed for.”  Her life stories reveal her character, for even in her struggles in life, she can say she’s gotten more than she ever hoped for. How many of us can say that? Perhaps more of us could if we measured our life by friends, family and stories rather than material possessions.

This evening I am writing my weekly blog entry from a cabin at Big Meadow on the Skyline Drive. In October of 1954 Mom and Dad came here on their honeymoon.  They did not have money for a cabin and were tent camping in the midst of a cold rainy week in Shenandoah National Park. In an effort to stay somewhat warm and dry they snuck into the lodge and used the dining room restroom facilities to change into warm dry pajamas and wring out their sleeping bags. They stayed in the lodge as long as possible and then headed back to their campsite and dashed into the tent between down pours. They listened to the rain all night on the roof of the tent.

Tonight Mom and I listen to the rain on the roof of the cabin as we sit by the fire. We ate dinner in the lodge and didn’t have to sneak into the facilities. I think my mom would rather be in a soaking wet tent with Dad by her side than warm and dry in a cabin and missing him. But she’s happy to be traveling again and revisiting the stories of her life. I am privileged to be here with her, hearing her stories and sharing her memories. Time is a precious thing, and for me, family and the stories we share are everything.

So driving over 1500 miles from Massachusetts to South Carolina via Vermont, is it worth it? Absolutely!

(c) 7-21-2012 Martha Reed Johnson


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bridge of Flowers

The last time I took a road trip alone with my mother I was 14 years old. We boarded a bus in Boston and headed to Washington D.C. for an “Equal Rights Amendment” march at the Capital. While on the bus an older man began to take far too much interest in me and I was amazed at how quickly and efficiently my Mom handled the situation. I felt safe, she was in control.

My Mom is like that – she quietly and efficiently takes care of everything. The past several years she has been a wonderful caregiver for Dad helping him to remain at home living a full life right up to the end of his days. It occurred to me recently that had Mom passed before Dad, he never would have been able to stay home.  Mom did the work of an entire nursing home staff, and she did it with grace, love and humor.  At times it is hard for me to imagine Mom without Dad by her side, but that is where the cycle of life finds us today. Dad is gone and Mom remains.

She is still in control and is finding her way on a new path. Although grief is a constant companion, she looks forward to the next phase of her life. Traveling again was high on her list of things to do and so 35 years after our DC trip, Mom and I are on a road trip south again heading from Massachusetts to South Carolina.

I have spent every day of the past six weeks with Mom. A friend recently asked, “What do you and your Mom find to talk about and do all the time?” Another friend chimed in, “I could never spend that much time with my mother.” For me, time with Mom is easy. We talk, we laugh, we cry some, and we play games, read and share stories. Now we’re traveling.

As we pulled out of her driveway with the car all packed she turned to me and said with a twinkle in her eye, “We’re going far, far away!” Her excitement was contagious. In that moment I realized that perhaps all these years I’ve given my Dad far too much credit for being the adventurous leader of our traveling clan; Mom is every bit the adventurer that Dad was. What a pair they made. So now Mom and I are adventuring off together on a 10 day road trip.

We hadn’t gotten far when Mom exclaimed, “Turn off here – I’m going to make this day interesting.” I did and she did. We detoured to The Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. What a sight!

As I walked across that beautiful old bridge with Mom it occurred to me that in our youth crazed culture we are quick to throw out the old and replace with the new.  We are a culture of consumers wanting only the newest and the best. But our world is full of old treasures – human and human-created. Why are we so eager to abandon the old? Why aren’t more old bridges turned into garden walkways, fishing peers, community gathering spots? Why aren’t our elders treasured, respected and heard? They have so much to say and we have so much to learn!

As we walked across the bridge we watched a man standing on a board paddling down the river. My mother observed, “That looks fun. I want to learn to do that when I get strong again.” She’s right. It did look like fun and Mom will get strong again. Being a caregiver takes its toll on the giver and I know she wouldn’t have done anything different.  But now it’s her time to live, explore, get strong and have some fun. I look forward to the journey and adventures with her.

Time with Mom is easy. I am blessed. Stay tuned . . .
(c) 7.14.2013 Martha Reed Johnson

Sunday, July 7, 2013


We all must overcome challenges and limitations, some of which have haunted us for years. Today I write my 49th blog post – each has been a challenge for me. I set a goal a year ago to begin writing my stories. My dad had set the challenge after my first CD was released when he asked me, “What’s your next goal?”

Writing is a challenge for me. As a girl I wrote all the time and still have my old journals tucked away. I sometimes bring them out and read them to the middle school girls I work with in my capacity as a school counselor.  They usually get a kick out of the fact that I was not much different from them – similar worries, fears and hang-ups.  But I essentially stopped writing after a college professor told me I had no talent for it until my Dad challenged me with, “What’s your next goal?” I decided I wanted to write again.

Each week as I write I hear those long ago spoken words of my freshman English professor, “no talent”.  I write anyway, drowning out her voice with that of my father’s, “What’s your next goal?”

Last week I had dinner in Portsmouth, NH with four college friends I had not seen in many, many years – other than on Facebook. We had a great night of laughs remembering some of our crazy Hood adventures (probably best not shared on a web blog) and sharing our current lives.
When I arrived back home my mom had been going through my dad’s desk and had found a letter I had written to them from college in February 1984. Curious as to why Dad had saved the letter, I read it right away. I was quite surprised by the letter and by my ability to “write to persuade”.  So here’s my letter from 1984:

Dearest Mommy and Daddy,

First let me say that I love you both very much and I know that you love me too and care about my welfare I would never ask you for anything if I thought you didn’t care. I guess I’ll get right to the point- I need money. I figure approximately $200.00 (or $100.00 each) ought to do fine for the semester.
Before you decide to disown me let me explain. You see my problem is I didn’t earn any money over Christmas to bring back with me. Last summer I earned money which helped me out with my financial woes last semester. This semester I have no savings account to draw from to buy such necessary items as soap, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, tampons, laundry detergent, contact solution and such. To add to my financial burden, I have (mistakenly) convinced Brad that it’s not terrible for me to pay for a movie once in awhile (mom I know you’re happy about that).

Of course, if you think it will build my character to live without the necessities of life (as listed above with the addition of change to do laundry), I’ll be glad to oblige and get kicked out of school for body odor in the most offensive degree, at least that’ll save you from next year’s tuition increase.

Finally, if you decide to disown me rather than send me money, could you first send me any spare quarters or dimes you find floating around my room so that I can do my laundry so I’ll have some noncrusty underwear for next week.


‘Smelly & Spoiling in Maryland’ L


P.S.  Enclosed is a self addressed stamped envelope for either the check or the spare change.
In case you’re wondering, I did not get kicked out of college for offensive hygiene. I did get a second job shortly after this letter was written, and I still have friends willing to have dinner with me 30 years after college.   Perhaps if I had submitted this letter to my English professor she would have changed her mind her mind about me– or at least given me some spare change.

As I think back to the years I didn’t write, I regret that I let two little words, “No Talent”  haunt me and stifle my voice – my mistake. But for today, blogpost # 49 is up and I’m still writing (and thanks Dad for saving that letter)!
(c) 7.7.2013 Martha Reed Johnson

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Naked Cowboy

My Joel turned 20 last week. It’s hard to imagine that time has sped by so fast – and yet with Joel everything moves fast. He came into this world so fast I barely made it to the hospital to have him and he’s been moving fast ever since. In fact at this very moment he is somewhere between South Carolina and Massachusetts speeding down some interstate with little regard for speed limit signs. That’s my Joel.

His wit and temper are equally quick. He keeps me on my toes. Recently he informed me that as a teenager it was his job to annoy me. He’s a hard worker and always takes his work seriously. But alas he’s no longer a teenager and he needs to find a new job – annoying me is no longer in his job description. I must remember to send him a memo to that effect.
As is typical for a parent, I find myself reflecting on Joel’s earlier years.  Joel has always loved speed,
motion and freedom. During his first year on this earth he quickly progressed from crawling to climbing. He skipped the walking phase and cruised right into running. In order to sleep at night we had to throw a loosely knit blanket over his crib and clamp it down with vise grips to ensure that he would stay put in his crib and not climb out and wander off. It worked sometimes.

Joel had three favorite things as a toddler – all belonged to his older brother:  a cowboy hat, boots and a red big wheel tricycle. It was his mission in life to steal those three items from Russell.  Joel successfully completed his mission at the age of two – he has the scar to prove it.
On a summer day in the woods of West Virginia, wearing nothing but his brother’s cowboy hat and boots (Joel hated clothes as much as he loved speed), Joel stole his brother’s big wheel tricycle. He carried it off the deck, down our hill and across the dirt road to our neighbor’s steep, paved driveway.
It was always a mystery to me why our neighbors would drive down miles of dirt roads to their home and then pave their driveway. But perhaps that is what D.C. city slickers do when they buy a house in wild, wonderful West Virginia. But I digress . . .  Even at two Joel understood that pavement equaled speed.
Joel started at the top of the hill, shoved off with the oversized cowboy boots and started down the hill. Initially his feet were able to keep up with the pedals but very quickly his boots were sticking straight out parallel to the pavement and the pedals were spinning uncontrollably in front of his feet.  Speed, serious speed! Squeals of delight turned to terror as the tricycle gained speed on the final stretch. Joel tried to slow himself down by grinding the heels of his boots into the driveway. Heels smoking, the smell of burning rubber, cowboy hat flying off his head with the neighbors chasing him down the hill yelling, “JOEL!!” – It was quite a sight to behold. As the big red tricycle hit the dirt road it came to an abrupt stop. Joel did not. He simply went airborne and landed head first on the other side of the road. 18 stitches later, the day was done. Mission complete.
Joel no longer sports a cowboy hat but the cowboy scar remains and he has a great story to tell. He remains the, “Fastest Naked Cowboy in West Virginia”. . . and still hangs out with his brother.

(c) 6.30.2013 Martha Reed Johnson


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ted, Dad, Pappa

It is Sunday night and I wonder what my “Story of the Week” will be. It should be posted already, but it is not. I considered taking the week off.  It has been a week like none I’ve had before and perhaps it would be understandable to not get the writing done this week. My father died at home surrounded by his family on Monday.  He passed with dignity, strength and on his own terms - just as he wished. I wrote about his last days, “Glimpses of Heaven” last week.  Our entire family gathered and stayed with my mom in our childhood home for the week as we prepared for the memorial service on Friday that would celebrate dad’s life. Certainly it would be understandable to not get a story written this week.

But that is not how my dad rolls. He taught me to set goals, work hard and push on through the tough stuff. When I was eight years old my family built a log cabin in the wilderness of Nova Scotia after dad had declared that his family was no longer fit for public camping. The most difficult part of building that cabin was creating the foundation. Day after day we carried rocks up from the lake to the cleared cabin site. We heard dad’s voice constantly yelling, “Bring A Rock!”

For all of us that has become our mantra for getting through the tough stuff. So today I write and “bring yet another rock”.

When people ask me how I became a storyteller, I say it was no accident. My mother was a wonderful storyteller and my father was a story.  I used to think we were a normal family until I started sharing our stories, then I realized that thanks to my father’s adventurous spirit and my mother’s trust in him, I grew up in a tall tale.

In addition to my father’s death this week, it was also my youngest son, Joel’s twentieth birthday. There has always been a special bond between Joel and his Pappa. I believe it started with a watch from the 1930’s. One of my dad’s favorite stories to hear me tell was, “The Watch” which is a story of trouble, love and forgiveness. It is a story that binds my son, Joel and my father.

Years ago when Joel’s dad left us, I decided to return to my maiden name. I was worried that my sons would want me to continue to share their last name, but when I talked with Joel his answer was, “Pappa loves me, can I be a Johnson too?” My heart broke, and I understood his bond to his Pappa.

My dad had an amazing capacity for love. He valued people – friends, family and acquaintances. He took the time to love and taught all he connected with the value of time. Love is spelled, T I M E.

So I think my post this week will simply be a highlight of some of my favorite dad stories. Click on a link, above and below - enjoy a laugh, ponder a lesson and take the time to love this week.

Favorite lessons from dad:
"To the Trees!"   How to sooth the soul - it's way cheaper than therapy.

"Don't Leave Family Behind"  Dad on the importance of family.

audio recording of "The Watch"

(c) 6.23.2013 Martha Reed Johnson