The very last secret in my father’s life came on slowly: teasing our family with that first shocking glimpse, leaving its clues scattered, then hiding so quietly we all forgot its existence. I thought it gone, anyway, but I was a child and hadn’t yet learned what pernicious meant.

Glimmers of that secret’s essential nature had started showing itself, first making its presence known to me when I was a young girl playing in a hospital courtyard, circling around and around a splashing central fountain, alone, waiting.

I still remember that sterile-feeling courtyard: how uniform the mottled red and pink bricks were, how sandwiched between them the thick, white grout that had solidified in mid-ooze like a cement Oreo center. How white the graveled ground was that crunched beneath my feet, gravel that crunched louder the few times I managed to jump really high. How lifeless that entire outdoor enclosure felt without one shade of living green, even with the fountain’s liquid song tumbling near by, even with the sliding glass doors on one side, closed, but showing my parents’ shapes beyond.

Jump, crunch, jump, crunch.

My new Mary Jane shoes pinched my feet. They weren’t the shiny patent leather kind I’d always wanted, so I wasn’t inclined to like them even if they hadn’t pinched. I thought about taking one shoe off and seeing if it would float in the fountain, but I remembered just in time not to be curious today.

Jump, ouch, jump, ouch.

I decided to sit down on the park-like bench and take both of those ugly, pinchey shoes off, watching my toes wiggle through too-long white tights, the last few inches that had crowded my shoes dangling at the end of my toes. I leaned my head back against the splintery bench boards, my listless gaze taking in the pale blue of a Texas morning sky, the rectangular view framed by the brick edges of this one-storey place where my father lay inside, on a bed that moved up and down. I wanted to get on that bed and make it move too, but my father was taking up all the room and I wasn’t allowed to visit in his room anyway, the hospital rules stating I was too young to stand inside.

So I waited while the fountain sang to me, while my mother sat by my father’s bed, while questions, edges of secrets, nibbled on my mind. Shadows of questions really, as the answers were too big for me to fathom.

Questions like why is Dad just lying there pale and why does Mom look so sad and what does a heart attack mean anyway?

Shivers of apprehension passed through me without my understanding why as I gazed up at birds flying high, flying by, not noticing me at all…as if I weren’t even there. I think some of that apprehension decided not to pass through after all, feeling as I still do those little grey shivers of doubt-toward-life that took up residence in my five-year-old self that day.

My father slowly got better.

His heart disease slunk back in its corner, its shadows kept at bay by grace and the stabilizing extraction of foxglove known as digitalis.

My parents had always walked, but now they started a new hobby, sailing on weekends at White Rock Lake, until my father got a promotion that moved us to Georgia the year I turned 7, years so far away they now seem misty to my mind’s eye.

Sailing became a much bigger part of our lives in Georgia; sailing and the lake were the new passions my parents lived for most weekends. Among new friends, they gathered their boats and raced around marked courses like madmen, all depending on the wind, some shouting and cursing with glee, some focused with sharp drive and intent, all skippering their scows and sloops toward an ever hopeful first.

These folks called this frenzy (or not, all depending on the wind) their favorite form of relaxation, although there was a reason for the favored refrain among them: Well, we ARE all just drinkers with a sailing problem….

But too much drinking was not the secret to my father’s problem.

This passion for racing structured our family’s seasons, usually scheduled our vacations and hijacked most weekends, with races, regattas, water, sailing, more sailing, swimming, fleet meetings, dinners and dances…

Parties, cocktails. Kids running wild everywhere.

Laughter. Good God, these folks could laugh, all political persuasions partying together, bound by their love for the water and the thrill of the race, loud shouts and choruses flaring up here and there, on docks and decks each summer Saturday night, well past the midnight curfew some paid no attention to.

I thought lake sailors were the happiest people on earth as a child, I knew I was a happy child when among them. The stress of my grownups’ lives vanished, the secret grey shivers about life fled, the nightmare of our family dinner table was temporarily forgotten.

At the lake was a different life, surrounded by people who loved water and sail, the sounds of slapping halyards, who pinned rudders and raised sails for a lark not a race, or who raced with a vengeance, charting courses, plotting starting line-ups and complex trajectories for their best potential finish.

I loved it all.

It was the finish my father missed, that early October day in 1971 that started with such promise, four years after our family had settled into the green Georgia hills and began calling them home.

That day, his secret came blasting into our lives, shape-shifting from heart disease to fatal heart attack, having morphed from vague thoughts of life’s ending number into the very specific point of age 54 and 229 days. It all happened in a split second that day; my father was racing toward ‘E’ mark, I believe.

That day, I had skipped the lake as it was my 11th birthday party and I wanted to go to Six Flags and ride roller coasters, eat cotton candy and have fun all day with my friends.

That day, my teen-aged sister was crewing for Dad, both of them excited as this weekend was our fleet’s big regatta of the year, with sailors from all over coming to race on our lake too. My sister’s lake friends were on their sailboats with their Dads, all vying for trophies and future bragging rights of first, second, third boat across the line, start and finish.

My mother and her friends, my brother (one of them anyway) and his friends, they were there that day too, likely all gathered at the shoreline as usual, watching the races with binoculars, warm drinks in thermoses, mugs and flasks being passed around to ward off the October chill…


I thought the power of number 54 would go away eventually, that it would fade into the mists like most of the detritus of life drifting on time’s current does. But it hasn’t. It’s not fear, that power, but presence. It’s just there, like an unwavering gaze from a stranger standing nearby who doesn’t bother to avert his attention, even upon being noticed with a frown.

That number 54 edges closer each year, testing to see if my own steely gaze has turned tentative (which it has not), checking up on those small grey shivers planted so long ago. It even chortled, that devilish sneak, when the doctor recommended a cardiologist’s appointment for next month to check on my heart’s small murmuring.

A faint whispering is all that I hear, the doctor said, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

Today is the day my father died, forty-five years ago, a lifetime ago....
I turned 56 last Tuesday. 

Views: 120

Comment by Julie Johnson on October 9, 2016 at 1:00pm


Comment by JMac1949 Today on October 9, 2016 at 4:19pm

R&L, I never expected to live to see my 30th birthday, almost didn't... but now I'm 67.

Comment by koshersalaami on October 9, 2016 at 9:16pm




Lots of factors

Comment by Anna Herrington on October 10, 2016 at 8:25am

Hey Julie -- it suddenly occurred to me sometime yesterday that it was the 9th.... I wrote this back in 2011, maybe? I spontaneously posted but didn't even re-read it 'til this morning - think I'd edit it differently now after so many years.... but it tells the tale, I guess. Glad I wasn't there. It was enough to come home from Six Flags and find out. There was a crater in the family ever since, to me.

Yesterday I found myself thinking of how much of a life is still possible after 54. He'd be 99 this year, literally a whole 'nother life. He'd be livid over so much, amazed at so much, of the world these days.

When we moved back to Georgia in 2000, many of his lake friends came up to me with stories about my father I didn't know. He certainly left his mark on his world, very extroverted, charming guy by all accounts. As dad, I remember a different sort of guy. Not much emotion about it all at this point, I guess, but thought I'd go ahead and mark the day.

Jmac, I hear you! I was never able to imagine getting older, either. Once I got past 54, the world felt lighter. I wanted to live longer than that. Still do  : )  Now I think of my mom who in later years practically chanted things like:  just let me go quickly, just let me stay at home 'til the end, just let me die with my wits intact.....

a good death.

I agree.

Kosh - ha! Yes, lots of factors. I do that incessantly, with dates, with time, with birthdays....

This birthday's equation of the moment: 3 cubed x 2 +2!  What's yours? You just had a birthday, too, didn't you?

Comment by Anna Herrington on October 10, 2016 at 8:28am

Yeah, this:  " It even chortled, that devilish sneak" has got to go!!!  Ha!

Comment by Julie Johnson on October 10, 2016 at 2:31pm

Hey Anna!  I think of you so often, and your kind words over the past few years.  I really did like this one, it resonated with me, our childhood selves and our grown up selves, how we're the same but different.  I've done a lot of research over the years on how these anniversary dates affect us as time goes by.  For me, it's in February.  I knew it was during the winter but believe it or not, I did not know the exact date until I was I was in my 30's.  Nobody wanted to talk about it, and I sure wasn't going to bring it up.  I thought, I was going 'crazy', every year about that time would be some sort of trauma going on, and my dreams would so intense.  She died when she was 26.  That is way too young, yet I wonder sometimes if she didn't have some sort of premonition, the things she taught me before she left, mainly how to be independent and take care of myself and my little brother. At first, I didn't really miss her that bad.  It was like she was on a trip, or something.  Some of the years were actually pretty fun, with a young single dad and a little brother, no body to tell us what to do, or how to do it.  Some people looked down their noses at us, and said my dad was raising us like 'Wild Indians'.  I took that as a compliment, back then.  Until my seventh grade confirmation.  I remember that day so vividly.  My step mom was trying to do the right thing, she'd only been in the family for a year.  She bought a big cake and all my grandparents were there.  One of my uncles had saved a letter my mom had written to him the day before my brother was born, that he gave to me that day.  I took the letter and went to my room to read it by myself. 

Alright, this is turning into a story, ...sorry.  Isn't that funny, how we remember our shoes? 

Comment by Anna Herrington on October 11, 2016 at 8:52am

Thanks for coming back, Julie ~ and your story.... wow. 26 is SO young, and such a long time to have her gone, for you!  My favorite friends were the ones whose other parents said they were being raised by coyotes, or they were feral (read: fun  : )). I'd have taken it as a compliment, too.

The moment a child realizes how different their family different they are.... yeah. Not easily forgotten. Did other kids think a parent dying was 'catching,' over your way, too? I was avoided like the plague after Dad died. I still think kids thought it might happen to them, too. It was more than not knowing what to say.

And shoes. Funny what sticks. I SO wanted the patent leather kind of MaryJanes. Mom thought them too flashy. of course.  ; )

I've been thinking of you, too. Lots going on with my oldest this year I don't feel like putting online, but.... the parent thing doesn't end. neither does its heartbreak. or joy, when it comes....

Comment by Julie Johnson on October 12, 2016 at 4:27am

Yes!  Anna, that is exactly what no one understands!  It's sort of 'funny' now, just looking back on it.  School, home, everywhere.  If people knew, especially all her brothers and sisters that I just adored at that time, and even my dad, they would go silent and get all sad, as soon as I entered the room.  Now, that will give a child a 'complex'.  I got very good at 'disappearing' in a crowd and not drawing attention to myself.  Until that day with the Air Force drill  I loved the reactions to that post, and your comments especially.  I saved it for my memoirs one day, maybe.  But it's been deleted here.  Even today, 50 years later, as soon as I start to get too much attention anywhere, I have a tendency to disappear. 

As far as putting things online, for me it's been practice to stop keeping 'secrets'.  Way, way back when, when it was all still totally anonymous, I just loved the internet.  I could laugh, cut up, just be myself.  Now, with every body and their brother being online, it's been a bit awkward at times so I totally understand. 

My sense of humor tends to be a bit dark, and not everybody 'gets' that.  Do you still have a website?  I clicked on the one listed on your page here, but it doesn't load. 


Comment by Anna Herrington on October 14, 2016 at 9:04am

Hmmm... attention and disappearing. Hadn't thought of that in terms of this. Thinking about it  : )  but something resonates.... I think I'm good with attention. until. Once I feel any sense of being drained by it or lack of balance in giving/taking, I'm off. The resonance for me is I notice many in my clan have a similar quality, the introverts among us, anyway... "Don't mind me over here by the punchbowl" has been said, as description of a few of us. Good with attention. like the social scene. for a little. until.

and don't use me. I need the ''thank you''s and the reaching out and the ''wanna come with me''s as much as I give them. Maybe not right to look at it that way, but I've learned what I can handle without getting resentful, over the years....

Will keep thinking on this, let it sink in soak in some more....

My humor is definitely dark. or can be. Quite dry. which is interesting/lonely, humor-wise being married to a punster, he rarely even gets when I'm joking.

I guess I've told plenty of stuff online but this is son's story, he wouldn't be thrilled with me talking about him - and I tend more to talk about things that are over and done. Silence more often when in the middle of stuff.... unless it's dull.

Like now!:  my dining room is completely taken over with boxes of tomatoes, had a great harvest this year, wishing I liked fried green tomatoes more than I do... but most of the green ones with ripen through the fall. Gardening and my budding orchard keep something solid and steady for me, in this world of weirdness and uncertainty. Plant, tend, harvest. Along with endless photos and nice chats with neighbors walking by.

Life is good. boring but good  : )

I love that you've come by again!


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