I know it’s not the week for my regularly-scheduled blog post, but I’m offering this special edition as a tribute to very special person.
Reeling with grief when my dear friend John Tanasychuk died last week, I posted photos of him on Facebook, along with obituaries that were published in Florida and Detroit newspapers. Doing those things—and reading the comments from friends who were kind enough to take a moment to reflect on John’s life, whether or not they’d known him—was a comfort.
But there’s so much more I want to say and share about John, and HeartWood seems the right place to do that. After all, this blog was his idea.
It all started when he and his husband Steve visited Ray and me here in Newaygo about five years ago. Over lunch at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café, I groused to John about how authors and would-be authors nowadays can’t just write books, they have to create “platforms” to make themselves visible to publishing professionals and potential readers.
“I guess I’ll have to start a blog,” I whined. “Everything I read says to do that. But I have no idea what to blog about.”
John, in his characteristic upbeat manner, refused to buy into my glum attitude. “You’d be great at it,” he insisted. “And I bet you’d love doing it. Just write about your life here—all the interesting and creative people you know, the places you go, the things you do.”
Hmmm. He had a point. I thought it over, came up with the theme of “creativity, connection, and contentment,” and began to get excited about the idea. And so HeartWood was born, with John as one of its most loyal readers and cheerleaders.
That’s the kind of friend he showed himself to be all through our thirty-plus-year friendship.
We first met in 1985, when John was a reporter for the Windsor Star and I was the science writer for the Detroit Free Press. We were both covering a geography convention at the Renaissance Center and happened to sit next to each other at a press conference. I told him I found it hilarious that a group of geographers needed maps to find their way around the Ren Cen’s maze-like passages. He saw the humor, too, and laughed his delighted, almost childlike laugh. We traded business cards, and instead of throwing his into a drawer as I did most cards I collected, I put it in my Rolodex, hoping our paths would cross again.
That didn’t happen until three years later, when he showed up in the desk next to mine at the Free Press, having just been hired as the food writer. I knew I was going to enjoy being desk-mates when the first thing he did was tack a picture of Liberace on his bulletin board.
Before long, we were sharing laughs and confidences, so easy to do with John. Both fans of the Canadian comedy group The Kids in the Hall, we could crack each other up with a line or a gesture from one of their routines. He also liked to tease me about being such a compulsive neatnik about my work space. Many times I would return from a bathroom break to find mail strewn across my desk. It looked like an accident, but eventually I realized it was John’s deliberate work—a trick to see how long it would take me to straighten things up and put everything back in its rightful place. (Answer: About one nanosecond.)
John did silliness better than anyone I know, absolutely unselfconsciously, but he did serious just as well. He had a gift for putting people at ease and giving his full attention to every conversation—never distracted, always fully present.
And curious! Which made his visits to my house interesting. Not only was he constantly asking questions, some of them most unexpected and fascinating to consider, but he also had no qualms about opening cupboards to see what was inside or poking through my closet, bureau drawers, and file cabinets. If anyone else had done that I might have thought it nosy. But when John did it, it was just part of the who-knows-what’s-next fun of having him around.
Cooking for John was part of the fun, too. He knew and loved food and cooking, but he wasn’t a snob about it. He appreciated everything I made, from the simplest bean salad to the most elaborate . . . huh, now that I think about it, I don’t recall ever making anything elaborate for John. He was so easily pleased with simple fare, why get fancy?
Before one of my moves, I cleaned out a huge accordion file of recipes I’d collected throughout my life, including some I’d inherited from my mother decades earlier. Jell-O molds, casseroles, layer cakes, Christmas candies, that sort of thing. I mentioned the project to John—who by this time had moved with Steve to Florida—and said I hated to throw all those recipes away but couldn’t imagine anyone would want them. “Send them to me!” he said. So I stuffed them into the biggest mailing envelope I could find and sent them off. Soon after, he called, having gone through a good number of them, wanting to hear stories about the dinner parties where my mother served some of the dishes and curious (always!) why I had so many recipes for roast chicken and anything containing bananas, figs, or eggplant.
While both at the Free Press, we got in the habit of taking lunch-hour walks together. Sometimes it was to actually go to lunch—usually somewhere like Ham Heaven for bean soup—but usually it was just to run errands and talk about anything that came to mind or resulted from John’s incessant questioning.
Over the course of our friendship, we saw each other through staggering losses: the death of my husband Brian in 1989 and five years to the day after Brian’s passing, the death of John’s partner Joel. We designated October 15, the anniversary date, as “Widows Day” and made sure to check in with each other on that date every year.
So often were John and I seen together at the credit union and in shops and cafés, the tellers, clerks, and servers thought we were a couple. We found that assumption terribly funny, since John was gay and I, recently widowed and recuperating from cancer treatment, was about as interested in a romantic relationship as I was in flying to the moon. Which is to say not at all (unless John had been going to the moon, in which case I might have considered it).
Eventually, though, new romance came to both of us, and we both reacted as good friends do, thoroughly checking out the other’s suitor.
The first time Ray picked me up at work for a date, John and another dear friend, Emily, stationed themselves in front of the Free Press building, pretending to take a smoke break, but really scrutinizing the shady-looking guy in the black truck. And when John took up with Steve, I was perhaps a bit more discreet, but still did due diligence to be sure Steve’s intentions were honorable.
John and Steve’s wedding in 2014 was one of the most joyful marriage ceremonies I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. And one of the most interesting, blending John’s Ukranian and First Nation Anishinaabe ancestry and Steve’s Jewish heritage.
When John was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago, I was heartbroken at the thought of illness stealing his energy and élan. Yet I had a feeling John would handle cancer as he handled everything, with grace and even good humor.
He did. When he came to my book launch last fall, he was as vital and full of fun as ever. He didn’t just attend, he participated, helping out at the signing table, chatting up guests, and charming everyone he met.
I have a feeling that wherever John is now—and I want to believe he’s still somewhere—that’s exactly what he’s doing.
And in these uncertain times, instead of giving in to sadness and worry, I’m doing my best to channel a bit of John’s bright spirit.
Be sure to come back next week for part 2 of the HeartWood Author Expo.
Santa came to our house early this year. Though he arrived in an SUV, not a sleigh, and he wasn’t “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,” his long beard and the twinkle in his eye gave him away.
Truth be told, a visit from this Santa was high on my Christmas wish list. I’d often seen him around town and wanted to know how he ended up in Newaygo instead of at the North Pole. Turns out he grew up right here in Newaygo County and after a couple of decades away, returned to make this his home.
While he admits to owning a few red suits, and he’s been seen in the company of reindeer, this Santa, who calls himself “Charlie Johnson,” doesn’t claim to be the real Santa. Then again, he doesn’t claim not to be. He told me the same thing he tells children who press him on the question.
“Santa can’t see billions of kids all at once, at every mall, so he has helpers that help him out. It’s up to you to decide which one is the real one.”
There are so many of these surrogate Santas, in fact, they’ve formed a brotherhood, mingling (and jingling, no doubt) with one another at Santa schools and Santa conventions. Every October, Santa Charlie heads to the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland. There, some 300 Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and elves brush up on everything from the history of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus to proper dress, reindeer habits, radio and television interview tips, and other useful tidbits. Most of all, “it’s about the spirit of being a Santa,” says Charlie.
Of course, cookies are served, along with pointers on the do’s and don’ts of Santa-ing.
The number one no-no: don’t promise to grant a wish or bring a particular gift.
Santa Charlie has a few of his own rules of thumb, as well. “I’m more of a low-key Santa,” he says. “I think the kids respond to that better, especially the littlest ones. I won’t force them to sit on my lap. If the parents try and put them onto my lap, I’ll say, ‘No, hold them, or see if they’ll stand beside me.’”
In a venue where Santa can move around a bit—on the Santa Train that runs between Coopersville and Marne, for instance—Charlie resorts to stealth.
“I’ll sneak up behind them while their parents are holding them and do a photo bomb so the parents can get their picture of the kid with Santa.”
He laughs—more of a chuckle than a ho-ho-ho—and another voice pipes up from the corner: “Santa is the most-photographed icon in the world.” That’s Mrs. Claus, AKA Carol Nickles, who came along with Santa Charlie on his visit to our house. The couple met at Santa school three years ago and became an item about a year later. Now they’re “having a blast” making the Santa scene together, says Carol.
At a recent Santa convention they performed in the talent show, harmonizing on a swing tune called “Holiday Romance” while accompanied by a Mrs. Claus from West Virginia. Carol, a seamstress, wore a glitzy red ball gown she’d created, and Charlie was gussied up, too.
“So fun, so fun,” Carol recalls.
Also fun: Appearances at the Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm in Clare and field trips with busloads of other Santas and Mrs. Clauses from the Midland Santa school to the steam train in Owosso and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth.
“Can you imagine these big coach buses pulling up to Bronner’s and all of us getting out?” says Carol. “Now, we’re not dressed in Santa garb, but there are all the beards, and we’re wearing red and green.”
Santa-ing isn’t confined to the Christmas season anymore. “Christmas in July is starting to be thing,” says Carol. She and Charlie were invited to add their festive flair to the Star 105.7 radio booth at one such event. Charlie agreed on the condition that he wouldn’t have to wear his full Santa suit in 85-degree weather. Instead, he came up with a “Santa casual” ensemble of red shorts, a Santa-print Hawaiian shirt, and a straw hat, and Carol lightened up her Mrs. Claus-wear accordingly.
“Most people would say being a Santa is a calling,” says Carol. Charlie agrees, though Santa-ing doesn’t consume his whole life. He’s plenty busy with a variety of other activities, even after his recent retirement from TrueNorth, where he ran the LifeLink program and coordinated the Newaygo County Senior and Caregiver Expo. He’s often seen playing harmonica at River Stop Café’s open mic nights and running the sound board for Lion Heart Community Theater productions and concerts at Dogwood Center for the Performing Arts. This time of year, you’ll also find him caroling with the men’s chorus that strolls through Newaygo during the yearly Christmas Walk.
Alas, our house has no chimney, so I couldn’t put Santa Charlie to the test of exiting the traditional way. He just walked out the front door like anyone else. But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight . . . Oh, who am I kidding? His windows were rolled up; I didn’t hear anything. I’m pretty sure, though, that as he drove away, he wished us “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
What are your favorite Santa memories?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.