My friends keep leaving.

By Anita Garner

Several friends died in one recent week and another just received word that she has probably spent her last Christmas here. Those of us of an age are reminded every day with every loss that we’ve used up more of life than is left to us.

Obituaries list accomplishments, relationships, family ties, travels, hobbies and service to the community.  I read them and am proud of the lives they lived but my memories are mostly about everyday conversations, back when we didn’t know what day they’d be leaving.

Every time I say goodbye to a friend the “why” ritual begins.  Why him?  Why her?  Why am I still here? Am I doing what I’m meant to be doing with whatever time is left?  I don’t think we consider purpose often enough in our younger years but now it’s a constant. I move on to prayers of gratitude for every blessing so far.  I commune with those who left.

I remember some of our last encounters. Most of our conversations were about small things, with the exception of Ed who was never anything but intense, therefore there were no small things.

Paulette explained to me repeatedly how she grew the extraordinary hydrangeas in her garden.  She offered pruning tips and feeding tips but remained puzzled that though I tried to follow her advice I was never able to replicate her success. I could manage a couple of plants with a modest number of blossoms.  For Paulette, hydrangeas grew halfway up the side of her house and showed off every time I passed by.

I remember the combination of turmoil and soul and business acumen that was Eddie.  Talented and driven and always swirling around inside some creative vortex, near the end of his life he was awed by the steadfast nature of his wife.  Kathy had passed years before but in every conversation before he left, he still wanted to talk about her, about how he hadn’t been nearly a good enough husband for her.

Memory replays conversations with a friend scheduled for surgery some years back.  Pete was apprehensive about the operation, but because he was so well prepared for the active future he envisioned, we all pushed back those fears. Over glasses of good wine (one of his passions) he held forth about his plans for the near future.  He was excited that he’d done well enough to afford to buy a sweet spot in California’s Gold Country because Sandra loved it and a new home they prepared to occupy at De Silva Island in Mill Valley. He didn’t move into either place. He was gone as soon as surgery began.

Losses remind us to get our own things in order but it’s the nature of the living to believe we have at least this one more day to do it.  We say goodbye to dear ones and also remind ourselves there’s no guilt in celebrating every time we welcome a sunrise. I hope it’s what they’d be doing if they were here.

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Blessed Assurance

By Anita Garner

“This is my story, this is my song…”
Lyrics from the hymn, “
Blessed Assurance”

I’m watching “The Black Church” on PBS and though I’m not Black, the Sister Rosetta Tharpe story is familiar, told over and over in my family.

My mother’s path is Sister Rosetta’s in reverse. Rosetta came up through the church, singing and playing guitar and eventually took her music into nightclubs where her church shamed her for it. My mother, less than a decade younger than Rosetta, came up singing in clubs and on the radio by age 12, encouraged by her mother to let loose with the blues.

But Mother married a Pentecostal preacher, became “Sister Fern” and took her blues from Saturday night to Sunday morning. Gramma didn’t like Fern leaving “worldly” music, where she felt a bright future waited. Rosetta’s and Fern’s circumstances remain a pure reflection of the times and the power of music to endure.

Here’s the same song sung, “Strange Things Happening” by Sister Rosetta and Sister Fern.

Rosetta: https://youtu.be/YDdQPId5HuI

Fern: https://youtu.be/CS6vKdNQHqA

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Is that really the way you say it?

By Anita Garner

The audio book is now in production.  Thank you for asking. It’ll release the same day as the hardcover and e-book, April 13th. I’m not narrating. I never planned to.  I’m eager to hear another voice tell this story.

Jesse, the production company’s (Blackstone) audio proofreader went through every page plucking out things that need to be spelled phonetically for the narrator and sent a word list to me to double check.  In the 1940s and 50s, there was the way country people said a word, then the way some others said it, and then there were places where southern accents varied so much they felt like different languages.  Our narrator, Pamela, is earning her keep on this one.

I was in the 7th grade in Louisiana when a teacher commented, “The king was not named Louise.”   Sliding over “Louis” turned into “Looz” and there are more ways to say New Orleans than there are Mardi Gras beads in the street after the parade.  We never said anything but  Noo-OR-luns.

When we landed in bayou country, our Arkansas drawls absorbed Cajun and Creole pronunciations with dollops of French stirred in.  French and Southern together create melodious conversations and going over it all to write this book, then reading the proofreader’s suggested phonetics pinged the senses all over again.

It’s lovely that 50-60 years later the audio book will replicate the quite specific language in my stories.  Today I listen to people saying Louise-e-anna and maybe that’s considered correct, but when we were there, it was Looz-e-anna in our  house.  I’ve asked our narrator to say it the way we did. The narrator’s mother is Georgia born and this daughter of  hers with the lovely alto voice knows to ask which of many ways I’d like to hear the word.  When I asked her if she’d just slide over a few middle syllables in specific words, but not eliminate them altogether, she knew exactly what I meant.

Book ordering update:  Again, thanks for asking. You can now order from your favorite bookstore. It’s available all over the U.S. and in other countries.  Since there’s not much in-store browsing happening right now,  go to your bookstore’s website or call them and ask for “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life” and they’ll find it in the publisher’s catalog.  (University of Alabama Press)  Amazon also has it available for pre-order now.

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Peace And Love and Desiderata To You


By Anita Garner

In the early 1970s we’d survived the flower child portion of life (see the home page of this very site) and some of us were embarked on real jobs and child raising in what remained of the touch-y feel-y atmosphere in Northern California.

Peace and love my brothers and my sisters.

In the Bay Area, Rod McKuen performed “Stanyan Street And Other Sorrows.”  We kept Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” on the nightstand. Werner Erhard conducted EST intensive weekends at Asilomar in Pacific Grove.  My friend, Eddie, a TV producer in the habit of showing up late for everything, came home from what he described as a scary EST weekend and announced, “I’m still late but now I take responsibility for it.”  Peace and tough love was Werner’s way.

We read and digested and discussed all manner of aphorisms. I found several that were useful inside the poem, “Desiderata.”  I heard someone quote a few lines and then sought out the rest of the text.

Once in a lifetime when the moon is blue, we radio people get to work on a spoken-word recording.  Les Crane, a Bay Area favorite, hit the jackpot in the 70s with his very dramatic rendition of  “Desiderata.”  The musical setting was created by Broadway composer Fred Werner and repeated the refrain, “You are a child of the universe, you have a right to be here.”

Les seemed more of a firebrand and therefore an unlikely reader of poetry, but now, though others have recorded the poem, it’s his voice I hear when I think of Max Ehrmann’s words. I first heard Les on KGO San Francisco in the 60’s.  He was an early controversial talk radio host, a good looking guy who left for New York and late night TV. His recording was released in 1971 and it suited the times perfectly. He won a Grammy for it.

Here are some of my favorite lines from “Desiderata.”  They still make sense as affirmations or whatever we are presently calling the feeling that comes with “There, there, everything’s gonna be all right.”

“Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
…Max Ehrmann, 1927

In other words,
Peace and love, baby. Peace and love.

Here’s Les Crane.  Click his picture to hear the 1971 version.

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Earthquake Anniversary – Remembering The Little Things

By Anita Garner

Italo ”Itsie” Orlandi in his workshop, Mill Valley, CA

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 1994 at 4:31 AM. when the Northridge earthquake changed our lives. I was awake and had just taken a few steps down the hall to work on a writing deadline when I was knocked to the floor. I’ve never been able to adequately describe the sound. The closest would be a train roaring through the house.

My condo on Valleyheart Drive in Studio City slid off its foundation, taking wires and plumbing and appliances with it, spewing furniture and the contents of cupboards and shelves over every surface.

Neighbors ran door to door shutting off gas lines, yelling inside to find out if we were trapped.  My front door was jammed. Men forced it open and when they saw I was okay they asked if I had anything they could use to break some glass to rescue my next door neighbor.  Bridget was screaming that she couldn’t get out. One helper directed his flashlight into my dark living room and located my chunky redwood bench. They used it to batter through Bridget’s sliding glass door. The last time I saw her, they were lifting her away from the broken glass and walking her out to the street.  I heard she moved back to France.

People gathered on the sidewalk and wrapped blankets around the ones who weren’t fully dressed.  I slept in a tee shirt and leggings and found sneakers just inside my front door.  Many were not so lucky.  Not everyone had shoes and the ground was already deep in debris.  Glass was everywhere.  The Valley filled up with sirens and random explosions. A building on one side of mine had very little damage while the building on the other side, a high rise, was seriously off kilter.  Neighbors rushed to carry injured residents down flights of stairs, securing them to straight back chairs for the journey to the sidewalk to await ambulances.

It’s 27 years later and the details are still shocking. Everyone lost something.  Some lost everything.  Reports said if it hadn’t been a holiday, if it hadn’t been before dawn, more people would have been out and about and more would have died.

Before the quake I was a collector of antique glassware, vintage goblets with slender stems and designs etched long ago in deep colors, elaborate depression glass table settings, Baccarat candlesticks, old lamps with delicate bases.  When I fell to the floor that morning I crawled to the living room, reaching for the built-in bar to hold onto.  As I approached, my brilliant glassware on shelves above the bar turned into projectiles, forcing tiny shards into my skin. For weeks I picked out colorful bits.  There’s a green one, now a purple one.  Much of what I owned and lived with and  loved broke, slivered, exploded, splintered, cracked, ripped, or shook to pieces.  A huge antique armoire fell across the bed I had just vacated.  I didn’t know that until a FEMA walk-through later.

After the house was red-tagged, when we were no longer allowed in because the ground kept shifting, I bought a few things, a set of dishes, a coffee maker, I don’t remember what all because replacing things was simply a reaction to loss and not a wish to own and preserve possessions. I have no desire to collect fragile things anymore and I’m wary of antiques.  You fall in love with them and they can break your heart

Now I’m drawn to rustic furnishings and pride of place goes to the short, stubby, redwood bench.  It was already old when I bought it in the 80s at Dowd’s Barn in Mill Valley. When I moved south  to do a radio show in Los Angeles, the bench came too.  After the quake, when I returned to Mill Valley, I lived a few minutes away from dear friend, Itsie.  A quick walk from my cottage in Blithedale Canyon took me over the Corte Madera Creek bridge to his hilltop home in the neighboring canyon.  Itsie’s house was built in the redwoods in the early 1900’s with multiple levels, including a fully equipped workshop on the bottom floor. He noticed my little bench was wobbly and took it home with him. The supports you see below the bench in the picture above were added from Itsie’s stash of redwood.

The conscious mind makes note of this anniversary every year then moves along but the subconscious still startles me awake during thunderstorms or when a truck rumbles by on a normally quiet street.  If one day the sound of a train roars through the living room and the floor moves so violently I can’t stand, if something like that happens again in my lifetime and I have to start over, I’ll begin with this bench.

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New growth. Old redwood.

By Anita Garner

Christmas Amaryllis, 2012

Years ago, after the holiday decorations were put away, I planted this Christmas gift and here’s what I posted that day.

“This Amaryllis took up a spot on my harvest table over by the kitchen window where it appears to be content.  This seems significant somehow.”

Today I planted my new Amaryllis.

Christmas Amaryllis 2020

New bulb.  Same old dearly beloved redwood table. In the first picture, the table was in the kitchen.  The red pot this year is on the same table, which is now my office desk.  Everything old and familiar seems friendlier and comforting these days.

The table was made by a carpenter in Bolinas, CA who collected old, fallen redwood and aged it. If you knew a friend of a friend of his in Marin County, sometimes he could be persuaded to turn the redwood into something  you requested.  First you indicated what you’d like.  He would decide if it was something he wanted to make.  Then you waited while he traveled, chasing waves up and down the coast, until he returned to wherever he parked his van.  After a while, a price quote came through the grapevine. Then you waited again until he felt the wood was right and until he was in a woodworking mood.

Months later, a friend of a friend delivered a rustic and slightly smoothed, beautiful hunk of history.  New winter bulbs thrive in proximity to this old growth.

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Looking forward to it is my favorite part.

By Anita Garner

I like Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day and Thursday night better than Friday (a holdover from when we used to work a five-day week.) I like the days spent making packing lists for a trip (remember when we used to travel?) and watching for the delivery truck to arrive, even when it’s something I’ve ordered for myself.

I cling to anticipation. It’s the only thing I get to decide and even that is iffy these days.  The days/weeks/months leading to any event are my favorite part and when Christmas has come and gone, it’s not the presents I’ll miss.   I’ll miss waiting for it to arrive.

Some people are superstitious about expressing a desire for something, fearing they might jinx it, but even when we try not to, of course we have expectations and with them come the possibility for disappointment.  It’s a chance I’ll take. Having no expectations would feel like  giving up, not something I’m willing to do.  If optimism is only for children who still believe, then put me down for that.

Before bedtime every night (shall I add “during these unprecedented times?”) I try to find the next thing to look forward to.  It might be as big as completing a project or as small as taking the first step to start a new one, or looking forward to tomorrow morning’s coffee.

Here I sit surrounded by gift-wrapped packages and lights and provisions for wonderful meals and my thought is, now I only have a few more days to spend in anticipation.  I’ll snap out of it as soon as I come up with the next thing to look forward to.

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Defending Fruitcake

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.  Sunnyland Farms added gluten free, light or dark cake, heavy on the pecans if you choose. All these fruitcakes are colorful and weighty and loyal.  They’ll stick by you for a long, long time.

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Magic Wand

By Anita Garner

Dave Williams and I started this blog when we were both new grandparents.  Mine called me “Hammy” and his called him “Bompah.”  Occasionally I go back to read posts about our grandbabies.  Caedan Ray, the little girl in the picture above, has turned into a sixteen year old. Her latest birthday wish was granted and her hair is short and bright red.

If you visit here often you know I have one daughter and one grandchild.   When the Grand came along in 2004 I commuted between Mill Valley, CA, where I lived, to Woodland Hills, CA, where they lived and we made the most of every visit.

This story below was from this green velvet dress/cool black boots and princess hair period,  when all kinds of magic was in the air and anything could happen.

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My Grand is disappointed with my wishes. She urges me to rethink them. She approaches with her magic wand. She isn’t tired of making that whooshing, wish-granting sound.  She keeps asking and I keep making wishes.  During these repeat performances, it’s hard to keep thinking of new things to want, a nice statement perhaps on how the presence of this child fills up so many places in a heart.

She complains that I haven’t been wishing for really important things, so I choose a wish I know will impress.  “Cake.”  That one brings a big smile. She waves the wand and whooshes. “Yes!  Cake!”  Then I name every toy I’ve heard her speak about.  “You want that?   Me too!”

Every time we go to Target she cruises the $1.00 bins and convinces me there’s something she needs.  We go to Target a lot when we’re together, sometimes just to pick up some of their great popcorn.  She checks the selection of magic wands.  I say, “Let’s get the things on our list first, then we’ll talk about wands.”  Up and down the aisles she keeps up  her sales pitch about why she really needs a new wand, chatting about the many things it can do to improve our future.  I say, “You already have a wand.”  Her response is yes, she has two but her favorite magic wand, the best one,  is broken.

A dollar plus tax and on the way out of Target she’s waving a new wand,  asking me and everyone she encounters to make a wish.  Just close your eyes, she says, and she whooshes.  The new wand goes everywhere.  It goes with her to Charlotte’s house, where the two of them spend time transforming each other.

A bit weary of the wishing, I warn her, this time I have a long list.  That’s okay, she assures me, she can make all of them come true.  I say,

“I wish to be smarter

And healthy

And kinder

And beautiful

And richer”

Then I close my eyes and tell her to go ahead.

She doesn’t whoosh.  She’s concerned.

“But don’t you want to be a princess?”

“I guess so.”

Her face is sad so I concede.

“Okay then.  Go ahead. Wave your wand.  I’ll be a princess.”

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I remain “Hammy” still, but as Caedan Ray got older and was concerned with being teased by her peers, when she introduced me, she corrected herself.

“This is Ham… this is my grandmother.

It’s actually “Princess Hambone” if you please. My status was elevated long ago when I received a tiara and a sash from my girls to prove it, but after all these years, at home I’m still “Ham.”

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Spring’s arriving a little early.

By Anita Garner

It’s pure joy to see the listing for my memoir, “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life” along with the editorial reviews on Amazon.   That means it’s really happening.  Spring will arrive if Amazon says so.  You can order right now for April delivery.

Everything accomplished this year feels like a miracle and I’m celebrating each step. The Kindle version and audio books  are coming soon and when that happens, I’ll probably have another piece of pie.  By the time we hold this book in our hands I’m going to be one round little writer.

Here ‘s the publisher’s (University of Alabama Press) description, followed by reviews.

“Stories and songs from a childhood spent in a vanished world of revivals and road shows

Anita Faye Garner grew up in the South—just about every corner of it. She and her musical family lived in Texarkana, Bossier City, Hot Springs, Jackson, Vicksburg, Hattiesburg, Pascagoula, Bogalusa, Biloxi, Gulfport, New Orleans, and points between, picking up sticks every time her father, a Pentecostal preacher known as “Brother Ray,” took over a new congregation.

In between jump-starting churches, Brother Ray took his wife and kids out on the gospel revival circuit as the Jones Family Singers. Ray could sing and play, and “Sister Fern” (Mama) was a celebrated singer and songwriter, possessed of both talent and beauty. Rounding out the band were the young Garner (known as Nita Faye then) and her big brother Leslie Ray. At all-day singings and tent revivals across the South, the Joneses made a joyful noise for the faithful and loaded into the car for the next stage of their tour.

But growing up gospel wasn’t always joyous. The kids practically raised and fended for themselves, bonding over a shared dislike of their rootless life and strict religious upbringing. Sister Fern dreamed of crossing over from gospel to popular music and recording a hit record. An unlikely combination of preacher’s wife and glamorous performer, she had the talent and presence to make a splash, and her remarkable voice brought Saturday night rock and roll to Sunday morning music. Always singing, performing, and recording at the margins of commercial success, Sister Fern shared a backing band with Elvis Presley and wrote songs recorded by Johnny Cash and many other artists.

In her touching memoir The Glory Road, Anita Faye Garner re-creates her remarkable upbringing. The story begins with Ray’s attempts to settle down and the family’s inevitable return to the gospel circuit and concludes with Sister Fern’s brushes with stardom and the family’s journey west to California where they finally landed—with some unexpected detours along the way. The Glory Road carries readers back to the 1950s South and the intersections of faith and family at the very roots of American popular music.”

Editorial Reviews

Review

“This is a story so central to the origins of country music: the marriage of Saturday night and Sunday morning, and the literal marriage of two musicians, sometimes at odds with each other creatively and personally. The song written by Fern Jones ‘I Was There When It Happened’ was performed around the world by my dad and the Tennessee Three, became the title of the memoir of Marshall Grant (the bass player in the Tennessee Three), and was revived yet again when I performed it every night on a recent tour I did with Ry Cooder. Anita Garner was ‘there when it happened,’ and her book tells us what we ought to know.”
—Rosanne Cash
The Glory Road takes us to an important cultural crossroad of America––where gospel met rockabilly, and Saturday night collided with Sunday morning in the late 1950s in the Deep South. It’s also a very personal family story of a deeply religious preacher, Raymond Jones, whose wife, Fern, had a big voice and even bigger musical ambitions. Anita Garner’s recounting of her parents’ lives––their tensions and travails on the ‘gypsy road’ of tent revivals and recording studios––echoes one of her mother’s most famous songs: ‘I Was There When It Happened.’”
—Dayton Duncan, writer/producer of Ken Burns’ Country Music

The Glory Road touches several bases: southern culture, family life, the evangelical ethos, commercial music, migration, and spousal relations. It will appeal to both a general and specialized audience.”
—Michael T. Bertrand, author of Race, Rock, and Elvis

“I’ll admit I didn’t know the music of Sister Fern and The Joneses until now. So, The Glory Road has introduced me to some exciting and important music. But, even more than that, the story itself will stick with me. I don’t expect to forget these characters.”
—Burgin Mathews, coauthor of Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man

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