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

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Glimpses of Heaven

Happy Fathers Day! I love reading all the Facebook posts with pictures of dads with the captions,
"best Dad ever!" What a world we would have if every child could say that about their dad. I am blessed, thankful and have never taken for granted the fact that I can say that about my Dad.

This father's day my family has gathered at home to spend my father's last days with him. He is 81 years old and has lived an amazing life. His body has been ravaged by Parkinson's Disease, heart disease and arthritis, but his spirit and joy in life is a force we all marvel at. My mother often says to me, "Don't expect me to have your father's attitude when I'm sick - just warning you." Thankfully Mom is healthy and happy.

This morning I read a brief article about the five things people regret in their last days. As I read the article it occurred to me that my father will have none of those regrets. He lives a life true to himself with love and joy. He has valued family above all and expresses his love for us with ease every time he sees us. He shares his thoughts, feelings and wishes allowing us all to know him. With both family and friends he holds back no love, and he greets all with hugs.

He absolutely adores his wife and has treated her with love, respect and kindness for 60 years. My sons hold him up as their role model for how to be a husband, dad and grandfather. Who could ask for more?

As for me, he has given me glimpses of heaven all my life. When my heart has been hurt or troubled he has shown me the miracles of each day found in family, nature and faith. When I hear people talk of heaven as a place where the streets are paved with gold, I think not for me and not for my dad. Our heaven will be filled with trees, water, sunsets and the sounds of loons. I dreamed of that place this morning. My dad was there sailing a beautiful boat. I woke with a happy heart knowing I have been blessed with glimpses of heaven all my life thanks to my dad and his adventurous spirit.

My hope and my prayer this morning is that all children will have a dad who brings them glimpses of heaven, whom they can celebrate as "the best dad ever" and that all dads live with no regrets in their last days. Oh what a world that would be!

(c) 6.16.2013 Martha Reed Johnson

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Waffle Madness

How is it that it takes five kids, two visiting nurse-aids, one physical therapist, one maid and numerous adult grandchildren to take care of two aging parents, when those same two parents managed to take care of five kids, two live-in grandparents, three exchange students, various runaways and then eight grandchildren without ever batting an eye?

I don’t know how, but my life this week is absolute proof that my parents are far more gifted at caregiving and multi-tasking than I. And while it may take a village to raise a child, it takes a small city to take care of aging parents.

Wednesday morning was all it took to realize I am not in the same league as my dad. My brother Chris (introduced earlier in “The Brat” story) and I decided that we would make my dad waffles for breakfast.

Waffles are a tradition in my family. My dad takes waffles so seriously that 40 years ago he began tapping our maple trees in order to make his own syrup for our waffles.  Saturday morning was always waffle morning and Dad made it look easy, so it seemed like a perfect idea when Chris suggested we make waffles for dad.

We got him out of bed and wheeled him to the table so he could be with us as we prepared breakfast. Neither Chris or I have lived at home for a very long time. We visit often but are not always sure of where items are in the kitchen. And so the fun began.

Chris found the waffle maker (or so he thought) and placed it on the counter. When looking for a can of Pam we only found an unlabeled can that appeared to be “Pam” but could also have been WD40. I let Chris do the taste test and he declared it “Pam”.  But as he was not 100% certain he decided to just pour a little Canola oil on the waffle maker. He looked somewhat perplexed when the oil slid onto the counter. He was just about to pour his very watery waffle mix on the waffle iron when I realized it was not a waffle iron but the sandwich grill press.

I considered not telling him but figured I’d be the one cleaning up the mess so I quickly pointed out his error.  He looked back down at the grill press and suddenly it dawned on him what would have happened if he poured the mix on that.  We chuckled as we got the real waffle iron out of the cabinet.

Chris then carried on with his mission. Dad was watching our antics with great amusement. When I
saw him laughing at us, I said to him, “Dad how did you make feeding all of us look so easy when together we can’t seem to feed you.”  He just looked at me with a big grin and said, “Are you going to do this show again for your mother when she wakes up? She needs a good laugh too.”

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Lost in the Fog

My dad is a sailor, a very good sailor. I’ve been told that as captain of the Tufts Yacht Club in the early 50’s he was good enough to make the Tufts sailing team a force to be reckoned with in the racing world. As a child growing up I remember vividly the intensity in which my father took racing. Race day on the water was the only time I can ever recall being yelled at or hearing dad curse.  Thankfully, we won more races than we lost so his smiles far outweighed his cursing. However, the intensity of racing really did not make me love sailing.
My dad always had a dream of sailing around the world with his family. To me this sounded like more of a nightmare than a dream. I’d spent weeks in the family station wagon traveling every summer with my brothers and sister so the idea of months on a sailboat seemed like a terrible idea. However, my dad was sure that he could convince us that it would be an exciting adventure.
In order to convince us that this would be fun he decided that during our cross country camping trip he would read us a sailing adventure at night as we all snuggled into our sleeping bags. Survive the Savage Sea was the book he chose and probably was a lesson in the fact that “pre-reading” is probably a good idea when choosing books with a mission in mind. The basic summary of the book, as I recall 40 years later, was that a family set off to live the adventure of their lives. They sold the family home, bought a boat and set sail for their yearlong adventure around the world. They didn’t make it. Instead their boat was attacked by hammer head sharks and sank. The family survived in a raft in the middle of the ocean for weeks by drinking each other’s urine. That didn’t sound like a fun adventure to me! Needless to say, the family was not convinced to set sail around the world.

But when I graduated from high school I did agree to go on a weekend sailing adventure with my dad, as long as I could bring a friend. He agreed and RuthAnn, Dad and I set sail out of Manchester Massachusetts. We headed north up the coast to an area off the New Hampshire and Maine coast along the Isles of Shoals in our Rhodes 19. This was a racing boat, not a yacht. There were no sleeping quarters, kitchen or bathroom on board, just a small portable pot and an old canvas picnic tarp from our camping gear, a cooler and our trusty Coleman camp stove. We packed sleeping bags and foam mattresses to sleep on under the bow of the boat. The foam pads were not a good choice and quickly became sponge pads not suitable for sleeping.
The day we set sail was perfect. Blue sky, white puffy clouds, warm sun on our faces, I knew it was going to be a beautiful weekend. And then the fog and rain moved in and settled all around us.  The awesome rocky coastline of Maine disappeared, the wind died down and we were immersed in the dense, still quietness of the surrounding fog. And there we stayed for two days. I remember feeling bored and disappointed that my friend wasn’t having much of an adventure. She’d heard the stories of my summer adventures with dad for years and was excited she was finally going on one with us. Sitting in the fog didn’t seem like much of an adventure to me.
But while I was bored, she was in awe of the beauty of sailing. The blue skies, rocky coastline and the quietness of the water as we sailed captivated her. She loved the wind on her face and the feel of gliding through space and time. Well, intitially anyway. But then the fog rolled in and it all changed. She was no longer in awe of the beauty, she was terrified.
She watched my dad sail the boat with a small compass that fit in the palm of his hand determining the direction we would go. We had no visual cues as to our location, just the fog and a small compass.  She had no idea where we were or if we would ever see land again. It never occurred to me that any of this was even odd. It was just life with dad.
 Eventually we did see land again. We landed at Star Island. Well we tried to land anyway, but were not allowed to get off the boat onto their private island. We dropped the anchor and camped out on the boat, but at least knowing land was nearby and seeing the lights of the island provided some comfort.
The next morning with compass in hand, Dad set sail heading south toward home. He seemed to know what he was doing and where we were going until we finally came upon a larger, well equipped yacht. Dad sailed up very close to the yacht and much to my surprise, asked directions from the captain of the boat. I was surprised he asked directions; RuthAnn was surprised he didn’t know where we were.
I didn’t know she was scared. I never felt scared or even worried. I had no experience of fear with my dad. I was just glad we hadn’t been attacked by hammer head sharks and I wasn’t drinking my friends pee.
Memories are funny things. My memories of that weekend sailing adventure are vague. It was one of many adventures with my dad. But for RuthAnn, the memories are much more vivid and exciting. I love hearing her tell the story of our sailing weekend. I guess fear cements experiences in our brains with much greater detail.

 (C)  Martha Reed Johnson 06-01-2013