Christmas Tree Shopping In My Mind

Friends in snowy places are posting their decorations already so it must be time for Christmas tree shopping.  It gets cold here in Northern California, but the snow falls only at higher elevations so choosing a tree isn’t quite so picturesque. If we go after dark, there might be coats and scarves and maybe mittens involved, but it’s not exactly like your snowy scenes.

I have a picture of how it should be and I don’t want it spoiled. It’s Christmas movies, Christmas commercials, Christmas ads, Christmas specials on TV.  They mess with my expectations. Everything looks like the inside of a snow globe.

Of course there should be snow at the Christmas tree lot, but it’ll be the dry float-y kind that makes everyone look good.  The snow won’t make your hair or hat soggy.  At all.   Music will waft from the trailer/shed where the people who run the tree lot stay warm.  Two people over by that giant fir will all of a sudden start dancing.

Nobody’s nose will get red in the cold. No one will be  impatient because you can’t make up your mind. When you find THE tree, here’s what happens next. This is all real.  It happens at every Christmas tree lot where there’s snow.Once you decide which tree, you’ll find the gloved hand of a pretty lady/handsome man is already holding onto the other side and the two of you will decide to settle your tree differences over a cup of cocoa with marshmallows or bourbon stirred in. I have no idea what you people in tropical climates are going to do for romance this season.

 

 

Whispering Hope on The Glory Road

Here’s Mother’s new pastor’s wife costume. At Daddy’s request, she’d already raised her plunging necklines and toned down the amount of cling in her skirts, but this was as far as she was willing to go.  She left honky tonks behind to follow him, but she never renounced her fondness for clothes that were shiny.

My brother and I heard Daddy’s carefully chosen words about the proper apparel for each church occasion and when Mother stepped outside the parsonage to go to the funeral that day, we caught a glimpse of his expression in the second it took him to hide his surprise with a compliment. He told her she looked so beautiful he should take a picture.  She beamed.  He clicked this one and off we went.

It was a summer funeral on a day hot enough to require the use of the paper fans provided by the funeral home.

Past rows and rows of men in dark suits and church women wearing black and brown and navy, Sister Fern, a beacon glowing in satin and perspiration,  stepped near the coffin to sing.

One of the songs requested often for funerals during the 1950’s in the Deep South was “Whispering Hope.”  Mother loved a church organ, but not many of our churches had one, and when she recorded her first album this is the only song she  recorded with an organ.

Here’s “Whispering Hope,” written in the early 1900’s and interpreted here in the 1950’s by Sister Fern Jones with The Revelators Quartet.

 

Watch for this in every Hallmark Christmas Movie.

1945 movie, Christmas in Connecticut.
Famous entertainer learns to decorate a tree while not wearing flannel.

Today’s movies acknowledge that expensive clothes could be ruined in the weather. So we get beautiful and country-fied cold weather wardrobes.
Stylish coats and mittens and scarves are crucial to the plot.
We’ve come a long way.

All this unfolds in a charming cabin or an inn. Oh but there are problems in the country too. The heating at the inn might quit or the owner is days away from eviction. Worse yet, the visitor from the city is actually a scout from some big, cold-hearted company that plans to change things.

As these movies move along, cell phones are thrown away, big job offers are turned down, snow storms create white-outs that bring commerce to a halt, forcing our hero or heroine to slow down and learn some Christmas lessons; how to toast marshmallows, trim a tree.

There will be baking, and flour may be tossed around in a getting-to-know-you romantic way. Hands will meet over cookie cutters.

Everyone is happier wearing plaid.

Turns out people in the little town are the kindest, most generous folks anyone’s ever met. Our main character falls in love with the town and also with a former sweetheart who stayed there all this time and is miraculously single.

It’s happening again right now. Christmas movies with happy endings.  Fine with me. I like my holidays predictable.

******

 

Revival tents on The Glory Road.

We evangelists’ kids were curiosities even back then.  I still get the most questions about 1) The tents 2) The music 3) The tents.

Our family’s revivals started with tents seating a few hundred people, and eventually held about 3,000. That was as big as Daddy was willing to get.

This tent resembles some of our earlier ones. Most evangelists didn’t own their tents. They were rented and arrived in a truck for local assembly.

By the mid-50’s, a different kind of tent revival appeared. Brother Oral Roberts was out there on the same path we followed, with a huge difference. Instead of the two and three-pole tents most of us rented, he owned his own,  billed as “The world’s largest fireproof tent.” It seated close to 20,000.

 We visited his tent the night a storm in Amarillo lifted up the heavy metal center poles and set them swinging, the biggest fear of evangelists in the Deep South.

Here are excerpts from The Glory Road (both the book and stage play) about getting ready for a tent revival.  This was repeated countless times by The Joneses in many states all over the South.

******

Our gospel caravan was fueled by Hershey bars and snow cones, Co-Cola and Dr. Pepper, Moon Pies from every gas station, Royal Crown Cola on the road to Oklahoma, Peanut Patties in Georgia, Orange Crush in Mississippi, biscuits and grits in Arkansas, tamales in El Paso, Po’ boys in Louisiana and baloney sandwiches all over the place.

Daddy went off to meet with the ministers of the region and the construction crew and the electricians and the people who rented us folding chairs, and a couple of roustabouts, strong men who earned their keep as soon as trucks carrying the tent and equipment rolled up to the edge of the field.

He supervised every detail of our tent going up. Leslie Ray and I could go along with him all day if we wanted to, over to a church office, to a midday dinner in a cafe with local backers and then out to the field, where sponsoring ministers floated around the site watching Reverend Raymond Jones, the charismatic evangelist, swinging a mallet and driving tent stakes into the ground alongside the crew.  We’d seen and heard all these details many times, but we went along to remove ourselves from the case of nerves that struck Sister Fern Jones before just about every revival.

That first day while Mother unpacked at the motor court, the field where the tent would be was already buzzing.  Trucks arrived filled with people who drove out to watch the tent go up. Children stayed home from school to see it. A circle of onlookers surrounded the proceedings all day.

Workers would lay the tent sections flat on the ground, push them up with big tent poles and stretch the guy-wires tight.  Before departing , roustabouts taught volunteers how to work the flaps every night, some flaps up, some down, employing a specific choreography intended to outsmart the weather.

Daddy and Mother always conferred about how everything would look, the sign out in front, the cross behind the podium, the altar, and Daddy had specific measurements he was comfortable with for the platform.  Several steps were needed and a ramp was built for loading sound equipment and a piano. A generator was concealed behind a tent flap. Our car became our own backstage area. Every night, Leslie and I carried music and instruments and helped set up.

Another truck would roll up and unload a piano. Daddy would direct them to place it at a specific angle so the crowd could see Sister Fern  and also so the music-makers could see the congregation.

A bunch of kids, including us, sprinkled sawdust on the ground under the tent.  When we heard the putt-putt-putt of a small crop duster, we looked up as handbills about the revival floated down from the sky. The pilot swooped away, going on to drop the brightly colored fliers all around the area.

Rain or shine, by late afternoon long before the service began, parking fields filled with carloads and truckloads of families eating the food they packed for their trip.  Crowds were already milling about even before Daddy made his last stop on the platform to check the sound. No matter how many times the sound system was checked in the afternoon, he always made one last check as the seats filled. He asked a sponsoring pastor,

“You got us some people working the flaps tonight?  Sky’s mighty dark.”

“Got volunteers standing by.  They’ll open every other flap if they need to.  Keep it cool in there ’til we have to close ’em.”

Daddy looked up, gauging the clouds.

“I reckon we’ll just have to let the mosquitoes and lightnin’ bugs in with the sinners.”

“That’s right.  If we close those flaps and a good wind comes up, y’all will all be lifted up to heaven way ahead of schedule!”

******

 

 

Winter gardening, Northern California Edition

Not quite yet, Meyer lemons.  Soon, camellias.

Mother Nature knows her stuff, sending us color outside just in time for Christmas.

A few more chilly nights and while we’re pulling on winter sweaters, this tree already covered with baby green lemons will be decorated in bright yellow. Then the pink and white camellias by the bedroom window will join in.  It’s  magic to see all these glamorous glossy things ready for close-ups in the back yard while the trees out front are losing their leaves.

While trading weather forecasts with friends in other places, I’m hearing about early snow in New England, healthy doses of rain in Texas, and I’m watching in appreciation of all of it.

Church Ladies cook their way into heaven on The Glory Road

Bogalusa, Louisiana 1955, a church under construction.

On the left, back row, are Brother Ray and Sister Fern Jones, Daddy and Mother.  In the front row are deacons and farmers in their Sunday clothes, but it was the women in the back row holding everything together. Church Ladies helped raise my brother and me

Pioneer pastoring is what Daddy was good at. He conducted tent revivals, found followers, raised funds, built churches, grew congregations and then we moved along, back to the revival circuit where Mother sang for large audiences.  Whether we were criss-crossing the Deep South or settling in one town for a while, church ladies were the constant.

At any gathering, an All-Day Singing or a regular Church Supper, the food was magnificent.  Giant pots of soup and covered dishes with treasured family recipes, biscuits and risin’ rolls and cornbread and Jello molds and tables of baked goods and washtubs full of sweet tea at the end of each table.

Daddy’s sermons mentioned how we need to work down here to gain our rewards up in heaven.  He told churchwomen they were earning extra stars in their crowns with their fine cooking.  I gave an extra star to the ambrosia. Leslie Ray picked the platter of crispy chicken wings and deviled eggs on the side. Daddy hugged a woman over a pot of pintos with ham hocks. Mother, owner of the family’s most ardent sweet tooth, always started with dessert first.

Our Church Ladies didn’t have  Costco or Crock pots, but they turned out food that fed multitudes of believers  with plenty to share with backsliders.

*********

Here’s Mother with a song that surely has some Church Ladies in it.

Fern Jones/The Glory Road
When I Meet You

The Musical Tax Man

Scott, the family tax expert, declares himself a proud Okie, travels back and forth between his California and Oklahoma homes and if you ask nicely he might sing you a song.  He’s a big-hearted man. Tax extension deadline 8 AM and my ominous blue tax folder waits on the desk.  But first, a little Leonard Cohen.   Hallelujah.

 

 

The Singing Cowboy on The Glory Road

Gene Autry & Champion, The Wonder Horse

                                                                ————

Daddy was a Pentecostal preacher in the Deep South with a list of sins as long as your arm he intended his children to avoid.  Too late. We were already sinners. We’d been to California.  We saw a picture show. Gramma K dropped us off at the Alex Theater in Glendale where we stayed for hours.  She knew Daddy preached against it, but she didn’t care. Now we were back home in Arkansas, dreaming of how the rest of the world might be as soon as we could get there. My brother, Leslie Ray, was at the point in our church where a person is meant to declare himself and get baptized. He had no intention of doing that. Here’s a scene from my book, The Glory Road, which also appears in the play.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Murfreesboro, Arkansas 1951
Population 1,075

Behind the parsonage, past the back yard and the weeping willow, our garden sprang forth, Reverend Jones’ agri-painting spread out in rows of different colors. Daddy’s years of living on farms taught him everything he needed to know about planting and tending and harvesting and he was determined we would also learn to grow and cook what we needed. This was the first time we’d had space for growing and we used every inch of it.

A chicken wire fence enclosed three sides, with climbing vines already moving up and a row of Marigolds around the base. He said Marigolds discourage unwanted pests. The fourth side, closest to the house, had a picket fence with a gate. Adjacent to the garden was a shed where Daddy kept tools safe and dry.

When he called us to come work in the garden, we raced to the back porch to put on our gardening shoes, which were last year’s school shoes. Daddy didn’t own casual shoes either. He gardened in his oldest hard-soled preacher shoes and pulled galoshes over them.  We went straight to the shed to pick our implements.

Daddy said,

“Nita Faye, that hoe’s too big for you.  Easy now.  Maybe we’ll give you this trowel instead.  Son, did you feed your rabbits?”

Even when the completion of an assigned chore was more a future plan than an actual fact, Leslie Ray answered the same way every time the question came up.

“Yessir, fed ’em.”

Daddy took the trowel from me and demonstrated.

“Don’t slice into things like that. Turn the dirt over real gentle. You gotta work with intention, girl, like this.”

He reached around and brought up a clump of tiny potatoes in one swoop.

He asked Leslie,

‘How about the chickens?”

“Fed ’em.”

“Son, tell me, what were you thinking, lettin’ those pigeons out on Sunday?”

“I wanted to see if they’d come home.  See if they’re homing pigeons.”

“You know where your pigeons went, don’t you?  They flew straight over the congregation just when people were leavin’ church.”

Daddy was trying not to laugh.

“The whole situation could-a been avoided if you’d-a been in Sunday School class where you belong.”

I said,

“He hates Sunday School.  Leslie Ray’s a heathen.”

Leslie said,

“Shut up Nita Faye.”

Daddy responded,

“Boy, I don’t want to hear ‘shut up’ come out of your mouth again.”

We weren’t allowed to yell at each other or hit each other, so we slung around some language to make a point. We called each other the strongest names we could think of, words that sometimes showed up in Daddy’s sermons, therefore I got away with ‘heathen’ for a while but Daddy kept tightening the rules.

“Son, you know what those pigeons did right on top of the congregation, don’t you?”

He burst out laughing and we joined in and had to stop digging, we were laughing so hard.

“You should-a seen Sister Anthony!  You better hope they come home a different way than they went!”

Daddy strode up and down the rows, a satisfied man plucking a weed, tapping a cantaloupe.

“Leslie Ray, bring in some-a them green onions.  That row over yonder’s about right. Nita Faye, you’re not doin’ so good with those potatoes. Here, dig ‘em up like this. Give ’em a little pull. Just a little. See?”

He got down on his knees again and unearthed more of the prettiest   potatoes. I copied his technique.

“Daddy, can we have new potatoes and creamed peas and cornbread for dinner?”

“We can if you don’t chop those poor little things all to pieces.”

He started to whistle, then hum, then he sang,

 I’m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend

I sang too.

Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly jimson weed
I’m back in the saddle again.

Leslie taunted,

“That’s Nita Faye’s boyfriend’s song.  She loooooves Gene Autry.”

“Yes I do.  I’m gonna marry Gene Autry and sing on the radio with him and move to California and live right by Gramma K.”

Daddy said,

“Well now, Nita Faye, you can’t marry Gene Autry.”

Leslie added,

“Yeah because when you grow up he’ll be too old to marry you by then.”

Daddy kept collecting vegetables, putting them into the basket we used so the dirt could shake out before we took them into the kitchen.  He was  serious when he said,

“Naw – cause I’m not sure he’s right with the Lord.  Don’t matter if a man’s famous.  He’s not goin’ to heaven unless he gets down on his knees and gets saved first.”

“Uh huh!  I bet he’s saved!”

“Well he’s not usin’ his voice to sing the Lord’s music out in public like he ought to.  The Lord gives you a gift like that, you got to use it only for him.”

And just like that, after withering my dream of being Mrs. Autry, Daddy picked up the basket full of beautiful baby potatoes  and headed to the back steps, where he took off his galoshes and went whistling into the kitchen.

– – – – – – – – —

Here’s an old recording of my future husband singing
Back In The Saddle Again

 

 

Saturday Night Versus Sunday Morning on The Glory Road.

See those rhinestone clips on Mother’s dress in the picture? She snuck them into the studio for this 1940’s publicity photo of “The Joneses” and they weren’t seen again.  She  promised Daddy she’d give up makeup and jewelry when they took a church to pastor but her love of all things shiny remained undiminished.

Gramma K told Leslie Ray and me Mother’s necklines were a lot lower before she found Jesus.  Gramma never forgave her daughter for leaving a promising music career to follow a country preacher around the South.

Here’s a rhinestone excerpt from my  book, The Glory Road.

– – – – –

Glendale, California 1955

When we set out on this trip it was with a dual purpose. First, because Gramma K lived in California, we visited when we could, and second (or first, depending on who was making the list) Mother would be performing . She was booked on the bill with several Country and Southern Gospel stars at El Monte Legion Stadium, where Cliffie Stone broadcast his Hometown Jamboree.

Daddy said yes to the show, even though it was on television because his wife was using her music to testify.  And also because he was crazy about her.  Since they’d found Jesus, their agreement was that no matter where she sang she would carry forth the banner, witnessing by singing only gospel. She’d already stepped in front of cameras when she sang over at Brother Daly’s Tabernacle in New Orleans.

Raising his wife required all the reassurances Daddy could muster and so far it was taking up a good deal of his time on this trip.  Gramma was thrilled her daughter would be singing on television in California but no amount of church music was going to be enough for her. Gramma said gospel would never make Mother famous.

Mother was wound up tight about the TV show and that was no small problem. She was high-strung during the best of times.  Added pressure sent her spinning off. Her latest concern on this trip seemed to be what to wear.

Since becoming a preacher’s wife, Mother’s sweetheart necklines were raised a bit higher.  She brought out one of the dresses under consideration to show Gramma and hung it on the back of the door.  Too plain for television,  said Gramma, who plunged into a jewelry box on her vanity table and pulled out rhinestone clips.

The two of them continued picking through all the sparkle. Mother grabbed an especially large piece and attached it to her dress, using the clip to gather the fabric downward to a greater dip. She looked in the mirror and said,

“Could you just D-I-E!”

Gramma held out matching earrings.  Big earrings with so many stones they would tax the earlobes of a timid woman. As soon as she saw the earrings in Gramma’s hand, Mother snapped,

“Mother! You know I can’t wear jewelry.  I gave Raymond my word.”

“You’re not dressing for church right now. You’re singing on a program where a lot of stars wear custom outfits. I guaran-damn-teeya every woman there will have on something like this.”

There was no denying how much Mother wanted to wear them. Here was my thinking.  What I’d have done in her place.  I’d have taken that jewelry with me and clipped them on just before singing.  Then anybody who wanted to say something about it could just go ahead.  It’d be too late.  Mother didn’t do that.

– – – – –

Mother often sang this with gospel quartets backing her.

‘I Am A Pilgrim And A Stranger”

Fern Jones with the Sunshine Boys from the album
Fern Jones/The Glory Road (Numero Group)

This version was recently featured on NBC‘s new show, AP Bio.

 

 

 

 

Memories and music stick together.

Mother was our scrapbook keeper, saving stories about us and our evangelist and musician friends during the 1940’s and ’50’s. These books were much too big to travel in the car on The Glory Road.  They stayed on a shelf in the apartment we rented in Texarkana while we toured the South.

When we made a quick stop before hitting the road again, she tucked  clippings inside, often adding handwritten captions. Something about watching her work with them set her apart for a few hours from the mostly unsentimental person we knew.  Always nocturnal while the rest of us were early risers, you’d find her at the kitchen table long after we’d gone to bed, still drinking strong coffee, adding stories with her scissors and tape.

Every time I turn a page now, edges crumble, leaving a trail of scraps on the floor.  I’ll preserve these using whatever technology works best.