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.

Men In Overcoats

By Anita Garner(Caption below)

Men in overcoats are one of the best parts of winter.  I live on the West Coast where overcoat sightings are rare, but when I’m East I’m living the life.  I’ll follow a good looking coat down the street. Extra points for grownup shoes.  And hats and scarves and gloves. Here in California we don’t see these often.

I wish it could be winter all year and I wish all men owned coats  – for warmth, of course, but mostly for my enjoyment.  Here’s a starter gallery.  I’ll be adding to it so if you send a picture, I’ll put it here for overcoat oglers to enjoy. After exhaustive research, which consisted of shopping at Target, it seems something more all-encompassing might be fair.  Maybe just Men In Coats.

This opens the subject to all kinds of coats. Men who work outside and need to bundle up.  Firemen. Cowboys in cowboy jackets. Basically all men in all coats. I am personally acquainted with men who own spiffy coats and I want them to know how much I appreciate looking at them.  Here are some of them.

(First photo above) Dan John Miller, you’re an inspiration.  That’s him in the middle.  I met him when he was in the movie, Walk The Line, which featured a song written by my mother.  Dan John played Luther Perkins, guitar player in Johnny Cash’s band, the Tennessee Two. Based in Detroit, he’s a busy actor and musician and lately picked up a nice award for voicing audio books.  Extra points for the hat.

Here’s Greg Zerkle (North) actor, director, singer, all around Broadway Baby, and my other brother.  

 

Onstage ensemble

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When The Daughter heard about this week’s topic, she suggested it wouldn’t be complete without John Cusack. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then The Grand got involved, nominating Brendon Urie.  With The Grand, it’s always going to be Brendon Urie in any category.

I’m closing this first edition with Peter Coyote. Because it’s Peter Coyote.Oh and Peter also seems to own suits. 

Christmas Newsletters

It’s time for holiday newsletters. Stories are what I love. I even like newsletters about people I don’t know. I always looked forward to the mail during the holidays.  Envelopes carried details about what life brought and what it took away during the year.

I used to write a holiday letter every year to tuck inside a card, then made a mad dash to Kinko’s at the last minute to copy enough to fit my list.  (We didn’t all own copy machines then.)  At Kinko’s in Studio City, the staff was made up of sleepy but helpful band members working between gigs.

In San Francisco, I bought boxes of cards from a fancy store, cards so heavy and gorgeous I hated to part with them, waited ’til the last minute to write a newsletter and made the dash to PIP (Postal Instant Press) the North Beach version of Kinko’s, to plead for a rush from more sleepy band members running machines.

Then I stopped sending them.  Now I miss them.  I figure if I want to get some, I’d better send some and I’m starting up again. I’m emailing this year with pictures included.  I wonder if the band members working at copy places will miss me.

I still have some of the fancy cards and I’ll send them to people who don’t have computers, seniors who’ll appreciate the fuzzy Santa’s hat or the glittery snowfall on special paper that requires extra postage.

Mine are going out today. Send some, get some. Any holiday greeting you send will receive a warm welcome here.

Defending Fruitcakes

By Anita Garner

Every year about this time I have to come over here and defend fruitcakes.  If I didn’t, some of y’all would be using them to build tiny houses.  They’re heavy, yes but sturdiness is part of the charm. A chunk of fruitcake should offer some resistance when you pick it up.  A stomach should know it’s had some fruitcake. What’s the point if it looks and tastes like other cakes? I like the loaf shapes, heavy as bricks.

I like the ones in a circle with chunks of candied fruit protruding. I like them all.  I tried to make fruitcake at home a couple of times. Mine didn’t have the heft and the mysterious bits of things like the ones you can order. I don’t even know what all those chunks are.  Don’t care.  Old or new, a fruitcake looks and tastes the same after weeks. Somehow words make this sound like a bad thing, but my mouth waters and I’m about to begin my once a year fruitcake sampling festival.

My family has ordered from Collin Street Bakery in Texas, Sunnyland Farms in Georgia, Harry & David in Oregon and Vermont Country Store. All their fruitcakes are colorful and weighty and loyal.  They’ll stick by you for a long, long time.

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas got groovy in Northern California.

By Anita Garner

We know every word, every scene and every song in A Charlie Brown Christmas by heart.  Sure we could watch it anytime on DVD but it’s fun to gather around our electronic hearth to watch together every year, even if we have to record it for later playback when everyone’s available.

This year, A Charlie Brown Christmas is on ABC tomorrow, December 6th.

The soundtrack’s so familiar now, it’s hard to believe the producer had to fight the network to hire Vince Guaraldi to do the music.  The network  and the sponsor who was paying for the whole thing hadn’t heard of Vince and didn’t believe jazz would be the right fit for a show about kids.

In The City By The Bay, musician friends who worked with Vince told me he kept going out on gigs, the way they all did, playing every spot available, sometimes with his own Vince Guaraldi Trio, sometimes with the more-famous-at-the-time, Cal Tjader.

In the early 60’s Vince had a moderate hit with “Cast Your Fate To The Wind.”  Bay Area Producer Lee Mendelson heard it on the radio in his car while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on his way to Sebastopol in Sonoma County for a meeting with Peanuts creator, Charles Schulz.  Lee liked Vince’s style.  He thought Vince would be the perfect fit for the show. Boy, was he ever!

Somebody on You Tube made a sweet little montage of scenes set to “Christmas Time Is Here.”