Spellchecking the South

Spellcheck and my book manuscript don’t speak the same language.  Spellcheck can handle “y’all” and “ain’t” but  I write a conversation from the Deep South in the 1950’s and Spellcheck lays down squiggly red lines.

Evangelists outside a tent revival meeting look up at the crop duster they hired to drop leaflets and one of them says,

“Well now he’s just showin’ out.”  Spellcheck wants him to say “showing off” but of course he wouldn’t.

Another place Spellcheck and I tussle is when I type lyrics to songs Mother recorded, and I spell them out the way she sang them. I never saw anybody in an audience who didn’t understand what she meant, but Spellcheck would like them fixed.

All through the editing process,  we make a million stops together with Spellcheck asking are you sure and me saying, I really meant it.  I type the name of this song I’m about to link for you. Spelllcheck asks would you like to correct it?  I say no thank you. I ain’t messin’ with Sister Fern.  I didn’t mess with her when she walked amongst us, and I ain’t about to start now.

In this song,  she gets wound up and I can see Spellcheck about ready to give up. “Furthermore” is fuh’-tha-more and she’s got her own version of boogeyman.  You’ll catch it.

You Ain’t Got Nothin’

 

 

Morning Preacher on The Glory Road

Brother Ray’s mornings started with newspapers and moved
on to the radio station.

Arkansas, 1952

Daddy and Leslie Ray and I all woke before daylight in the parsonage, ready to face the day.  My brother and I got up early on purpose because it was rare quiet time we could spend alone with Daddy before heading to school. Since leaving his father’s house, Daddy had kept to their farmer’s hours when every child was a farmhand and every farmhand was out in the field before sunup.

Leslie Ray took his place at the table, bringing his breakfast with him, and the three of us shared a comfortable intimacy. From behind my cereal box, I watched Daddy read the morning paper. To be present while he read The Arkansas Gazette was to watch a food lover devour a favorite meal. He smiled.  He frowned. He exclaimed,

“Well I never!”

He savored every page and remembered all of it. This was evident in the many references to newspaper stories that turned up in his sermons on the radio and in church.

If someone who didn’t already love reading sat across from Reverend Raymond Jones while he sipped his tea and read his morning newspaper, that person would have to re-think the power of stories told in newsprint.

If we were quiet for a long time, he’d read out loud a headline or the first two or three lines of a story. Then he stopped. When we became intrigued and asked him to keep reading, we could see him make a determination right then and there about content. He scanned ahead before proceeding, editing out references he didn’t want us to see. He underestimated our curiosity. When we left the parsonage we would find out the result of any story he censored at home.

Editing as he read created an intriguing rhythm. His deliberation caused a delay of a couple of seconds, so in my mind I played a game, racing ahead, guessing how the sentence and the paragraph and the story might end.

My brother and I went to the stove for several cups of the coffee Daddy made first thing when he got up. We’d been drinking coffee since we were very small, mixing in copious amounts of sugar and thick, fresh cream, like Southern children do, to turn it pale. Daddy brewed the strong Luzianne coffee with chicory Mother liked.  It would be re-heated hours later when she woke. Her coffee was so dense by the time she got out of bed, Daddy joked he could slice it up and serve it with gravy and call it supper.

Without looking up, he admonished us every morning,

“Leave enough coffee in the pot for yore Mama.”

With his head still inside his newspaper and without a glance at the food I had on the plate before me, he chided me about my breakfast selections.

“If that’s all you plan to eat, Nita Faye, you’ll never get big like your brother.”

Then he questioned his son about the care and feeding of the outside animals, some of which were destined to become our meals one day soon.  Did you feed them, son? No matter what the truth might be, Leslie answered, yessir.

To any other questions Daddy asked while reading his newspaper, we answered in the affirmative and sipped our coffee. In that companionable time, Daddy was easily pleased, satisfied with the way his days began.

As we cleared our plates and made ready for school, we left him with scissors in hand, turning the pages back to where he’d inked notes in the margin of a story, cutting out the ones he wanted to share with his wife. Mother didn’t relish mornings, but she loved news as much as Daddy and they had an agreement that he would bring to her attention points of interest by placing clippings next to her coffee cup. Later in the day the two of them held animated discussions about current events.

A few minutes more and he was at the sink, washing the ink off his hands before grabbing his hat and heading out on his early morning pastor calls and then to the radio station for a morning sermonette. I wonder how many stories-worth of newsprint he must have washed off over the years.

 

 

 

New reward system. Carrot, meet stick.

By Anita Garner

The younger me thought I could do a bunch of things at once.   This is not a great time to find out I’m no longer a good multi-tasker, if I ever was.  I’m working or thinking about working or talking about working on several projects at once.  My reward used to be seeing the check marks on a to do list.  Today I am the owner of a single-task mind and a check mark isn’t so exciting.

I’ve started a new book, need to revise (again) a book I’ve already finished, and working on a play which has been seen onstage, but the director and I both know it needs fixing.

I’ve been using the following reward system:  Write a scene.   Brew a fresh pot of coffee.  Work on the outline for the new book. Eat a candy bar. Open original manuscript file on the previous book and stare at it. Cheese and crackers.  Or pie. No matter how numerous and how caloric the rewards, the work’s still there.  Carrot, meet stick.

Eventually my coffee and sweets and cheese system will either produce something good and relatable and shiny or else I’ll be the roundest little writer in all the land.

*Sheep and carrot above from artist Gina Taylor, Cambridge, UK.  Here’s where to find more of her work.  Thanks, Gina, for letting your chubby sheep visit here.  If I don’t change my reward system soon, she may become my self-portrait.

 

 

Aging Gracefully?

By Anita Garner

My teenaged Mother and her forever-boyfriend 

I learned nothing from my upbringing about aging gracefully. Mother’s  only advice about the passing years was to encourage the use of more moisturizer so boys will like you. She considered all men potential boyfriends. In her teens she married a man who, through some combination of mercy and grace, turned into a grownup husband who behaved like her sweetheart all the days of their lives. Daddy raised his wife along with us kids while she clung tenaciously to the role of teenager.

There was no talk, not one speck of advice about fulfillment, about health, about work, about relationships, about how all of that changes through the years.

As a Southern preacher, Daddy didn’t consider “old”  a condition that needed fixing or discussing.  He believed in keeping one’s old people at home alongside the halt and the lame and the merely odd. Many houses we visited had a bedroom occupied by someone who fit at least one of those categories.

Our California Gramma, the one we spent the most time with, transplanted herself from Arkansas and smoked and drank and danced and cussed and played the horses at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita ’til the end. There was no talk of age at her house either.  Paw Paw, the Louisiana Jones grandparent who lived into his 90’s, didn’t pass along that gene to his son, because Daddy left us way too soon.

I liked older people even before I became one. Younger friends say hush, you’re not old.  Well I’m certainly older than I was, and I’m not that upset about it anymore.  Every day I think to myself – better get moving.  Parts of me don’t move quite as well as they used to.  Every day this comes as a surprise.  Knees, I’m talking to you.  At first I’m ticked off but by the end of the day, I ask myself, what did you expect? Things aren’t brand new anymore.

I asked Mother once on a significant birthday if she felt any different. She said what we’ve all heard a million times – she still felt 18 inside.  Now I know what she meant.  She was also right about the moisturizer. Much more of it is required.

Shall we gather at the river?

By Anita Garner

When I was coming up, Southern preachers used euphemisms for death.  The older I get, the more I appreciate them.  People who believe in heaven may be the lucky ones because they’re comforted by specific words other believers say to them and the songs they sing.

So many ways Daddy talked about death – See you on the other side.  Crossing over.  Passing.  Meet you at the river.  And what my mother said to her mother at Forest Lawn – “I’ll see you in the morning.”

When Reverend Raymond D. Jones was the one speaking to the mourners, he’d get some music going behind him as we cogitated on all the ways people leave us.  His remarks always included, “The Lord calls us home.”  Then he’d have us stand up and sing about it. We shared many traditions with neighboring black churches and one I wish we’d borrowed is “homegoing.”  Our preachers continued to say “funeral” or “the service” as in “the service on Saturday for Sister Ogden.”

Everyone in our family sang at funerals. Daddy most often asked me to sing “Beautiful Isle Of Somewhere.”  Mother sang “His eye is on the sparrow” and “Precious Lord” and “Just A Closer Walk.”  Daddy invited mourners to stand and sing with us, “I won’t have to cross Jordan alone” and “Shall we gather at the river.” Two of his other choices, when he had the right singers and the right instruments, could go on for a long time: “Walk In Jerusalem (just like John)” and “Swing Down Chariot.”

The first song below is from the Kennedy Center’s “Let Freedom Ring” celebration for Dr. King.  Gladys Knight sings

“His eye is on the sparrow.”

And two of our family’s favorites

Elvis

“Swing Down Chariot”

Harmonizing Four

“Walk In Jerusalem”

Photo above and below: Little Brown Church in Studio City, California was
my church home for years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quadruplets on The Glory Road

By Anita GarnerThe Arkansas Ponder Quads

Settling in a small town after years of traveling with our family’s gospel show was something to celebrate.  Daddy was the new pastor in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, population 1075. When we arrived in 1952, he  cautioned my brother and me, saying the behavior of a preacher’s kids would be noticed. People were already talking about the way Mother sang (and looked) and the way Daddy preached, and how unusual our church services were.

Leslie Ray and I tried to disappear, which was impossible, especially since we were the only redheaded kids around and ours were unusual parents.  We hung around Courthouse Square where people stopped to get acquainted and after “How y’all doin’?” “How’s your Mama?” and “How’s your Daddy?” next came, “Where’d you two get that red hair?”

We were still standing out when what we wanted was to blend in. We hadn’t counted on being remarked about this soon and we didn’t like it, but Murfreesboro was on the brink of change and other diversions would soon be available.

Out town was about to get its own diamond mine. On a nearby farm, people discovered diamonds in the dirt and now the owners were selling tickets, turning it into an attraction. Anybody could go out there and search. You paid your fee and stayed all day. Of course we wanted to go, but Daddy said it wasn’t becoming for a preacher’s kids to be out there digging up dirt, looking for money. We said we would be looking for diamonds, not money, but he said it’s the same thing.

About a mile from our parsonage was the home of the Ponder family. On a day made famous in the newspapers and on television, the Ponders expanded by four when their quadruplets were born. Doctor Duncan delivered the babies where the Ponders lived with their eight children. Now their modest home would hold twelve children.The Ponder Quads’ first home.

The Quads were written up everywhere and a reporter from New York came to interview the family. When his story appeared, it said the Ponders didn’t have enough chairs to sit on, that they hadn’t had enough for their other children even before the quadruplets came.

Daddy read about it to my brother and me at the kitchen table. He laid down the newspaper and huffed,

“Well I never!  Somebody sayin’ a thing like that about poor people. We have got to go get that family everything they need.”

He said he’d speak to the county Ministerial Alliance and ask every congregation to contribute, but before he could get his efforts started, a new story came out saying now that the Ponders were instantly famous, businesses would provide everything they needed.

All the babies we knew drank canned milk mixed with water in their bottles until they graduated to soft foods. Dickey and Dewey and Danny and Donna Ponder were soon photographed with the famous Pet milk can with the cow on the label while the company built a new home for the family with a room in front featuring a wall to wall window for public viewing of the babies. Other companies gave the family everything from diapers to furniture.

The new Ponder home was near the road so cars could drive by, and a large parking space was alongside so we could get out and walk up to the window. If we were lucky, all four babies might be in their custom bassinets there.

The Ponder Quads did my brother and me a great big favor. While they were lying around being famous, we hoped to fade into the background. Instead of everybody talking about the new preacher’s redheaded kids, they could now drive down the road and look through a window at a bigger curiosity, four identical babies.

With the birth of the Quads, the whole nation was allowed to point and stare, without being considered unkind. Mister and Miz Ponder and Doctor Duncan went to New York to be on television. Those babies were all anybody talked about.

We’d finally achieved our dream of moving to a small town, one step closer to figuring out what normal might feel like. Now with the birth of four identical babies, Leslie Ray and Nita Faye Jones could slip and slide around and break some rules without always being the center of attention in Murfreesboro – new population 1079.

                                                         – – – –

A version of this story, excerpted from my book, The Glory Road, appeared in a recent issue of Reminisce Magazine

Curly Headed Singer on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

While choosing photos for my book, The Glory Road, here’s one that fell out during scrapbook page-turning.  Find a picture, tell a story. It’s the law.  If it isn’t, it should be. Here’s a story with a song from the 1950’s.

My curly-headed Mother, Sister Fern,  on the right with her bobby pins springing out all around, next to her wavy-haired Mother, Gramma K, whose hair did what she wanted it to. 

Curls were never going to be all right with Mother, when what she craved were some of those wide waves women made with giant metal wave clips.  No matter how many clips she used, within hours her curls defied her.

There might have been no performances under all those revival tents without Vaseline.   She greased up her curls and pinned then down with high resolve and after a short while, the bobby pins squirmed out again and she re-applied her Vaseline, sometimes several times on a particularly troublesome day.  Then the tears started.

Curly headed girls, she told us, were not presently in style. She took it as a personal insult that she was forced to remain curly-headed during a wavy-haired fashion period.  On the way to performances in the Deep South during the summer, sometimes her largest concern was frizz. Not what she would sing.  Not which musicians and quartets would accompany her, but how long before curly became frizzy.  The weather could turn on you just like that.

The remarkable thing was the amount of patience Daddy showed. No matter how many times she burst into tears worrying about her hair, he rushed to reassure her, his voice never showing a hint of strain.

As Leslie Ray and I became more proficient at saying things we didn’t mean, we imagined Daddy must have been answering by rote all those years. If so, he’d never admit it.  That wouldn’t be chivalrous. One of the traits that made him a popular preacher was his ability to reassure over and over again as if this was the first time he’d ever been consulted about a particular dilemma.

From The Glory Road play, here’s a glimpse of Brother Ray and his favorite curly-headed singer.

——–

1950’s.  Deep South.  Outside a big revival tent.  A quartet sings inside while Sister Fern waits to be introduced by her husband, Brother Ray.  But she’s not inside yet so he asks the quartet to keep singing while he goes to check on her.

RAY
                  There you are sugar!  I was
startin’ to get worried.  How’re you feeling?

     FERN
                 Honey, is my hair frizzy?  Because it feels frizzy.
All this humidity.

             RAY
   (moves in close, touches her hair)
No, darlin’ your hair’s not frizzy.  It’s curly is all.
You’re my big ol’ doll-baby with big ol’
doll-baby curls.

                    FERN
(takes out compact mirror, checks herself)
Are you sure? Because I can’t sing when my hair’s frizzy.

RAY
  (closes the compact gently, his fingers over hers)
I’m sure.


One of Brother Ray’s favorite duets with Sister Fern.

I Don’t Care What The World May Do

 


 

 

 

 

 


 

Growth!

By Anita Garner

I appreciate growth, even when it’s not me personally doing the growing.  Some years I look back and think I could have done more. I learn from friends. You keep growing and I’ll keep watching and maybe if I watch closely enough for long enough some of it will rub off on me.

A few Christmases ago, this baby amaryllis in a warm spot on the tall writing table by a window in my Mill Valley kitchen was obviously eager to demonstrate how it’s done.

If I recall, she turned out to be a tall redhead with a lot of attitude. I could learn a lot from her.

New Year’s Eve One, Two, Three

By Anita Garner

Three ways to celebrate.

The first one: Once upon a time I was a band singer, always onstage when the clock struck 12. I was married to a musician so at least we were together.  This is how we spent the holiday for years.

Second one: We decided to stop performing on New Year’s Eve and instead we hosted marathon parties at home with a vintage theme. We invited about a hundred people and covered every surface with potluck dishes.

We did the Stroll and the Mashed Potato. We slow-danced. Massive amounts of spirits were consumed, resulting in many sleepovers. Next day some of us put breakfast casseroles in the oven and some watched the games on TV. By afternoon, I was tired-er than when we’d stayed up ‘til 3 or 4 after a gig.

The current plan: Now the excitement centers around watching the ball drop in New York at 9 o’clock West Coast time. Then early to bed. This is my favorite option so far. The best part of the celebration for me is the dawn of another year, a chance to write entries in a fresh calendar. I do love a new calendar.

Anticipation is my favorite season.

By Anita GarnerChristmas Eve is the end of one of my favorite seasons.  It’s not the holidays I’ll miss, it’s the looking-forward-to part.

People have asked many times through the years, don’t you think it’s too early to start talking about that trip, house, project, job, visit, etc.?  No.  It’s never too early.  The best part about anticipation is that I can begin whenever I please.

Here’s why I love it so much.  Anticipation is the only part of an experience I can control, so when I think of an upcoming event, it’s the leading-up-to I concentrate on.

Here I sit surrounded by gift-wrapped packages and lights and provisions for a bountiful dinner tomorrow, and my thought is, I only have one more night before the Season of Anticipation ends. So, yeah, a little bit sad, but I’ll snap out of it. There’s a whole year full of new anticipations waiting.