As of June, 2021, I’ve lived longer than anyone else in three generations of my family, longer than grandparents, longer than Mother and Daddy, longer than my sisters and brothers. None of them got to be 80, the number I’m now celebrating. Getting to be 80 years old doesn’t feel like a random event. It feels momentous.
I’m not the only one among my kinfolk with hopes and dreams and plans and I’m mindful of many opportunities the people who came before didn’t have. I was present at the end of the lives of some of them and heard first-hand what they wished they could have stayed around to accomplish.
One of the last things Mother said to me was, “You’re lucky you were born when you were. You have choices I never had.” Both those things are true. I remain in awe of all she accomplished during her time, in places and ways no one could have predicted. I hope somehow she knows how it all turned out.
At the end of Daddy’s life, he exhibited no restlessness about his closing chapters. He spoke only of gratitude. “I have had me some beautiful morning walks.” I wish he could have had many more.
During my 80th year I have the privilege of holding in my hand a book just published. My family lived it but I was the one who lived long enough to write about it.
I’m a person of faith so none of this feels accidental or coincidental. Wherever the stories come from, in whatever form they want to take, written or spoken, I’ll keep putting them together, though perhaps not as driven as Mother and a bit more grateful like Daddy.
Al & Gerry Beach buddies, Southern California. 1960s
Facebook memories pop up, reminding us of previous posts and for me that’s often just the start. One of Facebook’s reminders triggers another and another and I’m off down different paths for the rest of the day.
The picture above is from an earlier post of mine. I’ve written before about first love, Al. He’s on the left with his best friend, Gerry on the right. Gerry dated my roommate, Linda and introduced Al and me. Our first date was a double date to Lake Arrowhead for the day, listening to AM radio playing Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles.
Not long after came another Facebook reminder – this one showing it was posted by Al in 2015.
Gerry and Linda married in Glendale, California in a beautiful wedding. I’m the bridesmaid with the sunburn, fourth from left. Al is Gerry’s best man, standing right there beside the groom. The dresses were pale green taffeta. Shoes dyed to match. Bouffant hair, the better to anchor those headdresses.
Oh yes, we danced! Coming from a non-dancing pastor’s family, I had no dance floor experience. Linda’s dad, who treated me like one of his own, taught me a few moves in their living room before the festivities.
The best part of this story: Gerry and Linda are still going strong, traveling much of the time then returning to their nest in the redwoods in Northern California.
The next memory takes another direction. Al left us soon after posting the wedding picture from his home in Concord, Massachusetts. When I look at these pictures, my first thought is there was a good man. UCLA engineering major who went on to follow his career passions, married a nice lady, had children and grandchildren.
For me, it was first love among other firsts. First man I ever dated who quoted Shakespeare often, who took me to my first performance of The Messiah, who brought me home to meet his parents, whose table was set with more cutlery than I’d previously seen around one plate.
Thank you, Facebook, for the memories of lifelong buddies. the best roommate ever, a romantic wedding and a good man gone too soon to his rest.
The tall lady on the left is the pastor’s wife, my mother,
Sister Fern Jones.
When we’re ready to gather again, a potluck is worth gathering for. Potluck meals are the best reason for church basements, community centers and multi-purpose rooms everywhere to exist. Any space that’ll hold rows and rows of folding tables covered with makeshift tablecloths is instantly inviting. And over there, along that wall, more rows of tables laden with the best food in the world brought by home cooks.
Growing up in the Deep South, bouncing back and forth on tour with our gospel singing family then settling down briefly while Daddy pastored a church, potlucks were the highlights of every stop for my brother and me. Daddy was a great natural cook. Mother, who didn’t bother with preparing day to day food, was a superb baker during her middle of the night creative sessions but both our parents were as excited as Leslie Ray and I were to meet local cooks.
Churchpeople brought their specialties. Washtubs were filled with sweet tea or lemonade. Tables like the one in the photo above featured all kinds of desserts. Kids swarmed while cooks soaked up praise for their best recipes.
In New England, where every picturesque town seems to have one or more equally picturesque churches, I heard about bean nights. Though they started in the basements and social halls connected to churches, they weren’t intended only for church-goers. They were also important fund raisers. Anyone could buy a ticket and eat their fill (two sittings per night) of beans and franks, salads and breads and, of course, desserts.
The New York Times ran a story featuring
community potluck nights. This is their photo.
That picture looks like many church basements I’ve visited since leaving my parents’ traveling ministry. The churches Daddy was in charge of were either small or in the process of being built. Growing a congregation was his specialty so we didn’t always have social spaces inside. Our potlucks became “Dinner On The Grounds,” providing opportunities for kids to run around from table to table asking for samples. Ambrosia for me. Fried chicken and deviled eggs for Leslie Ray..
Potlucks were already perfect the way they were decades ago and they don’t need much changing, though many churches I’ve attended now have big sparkly kitchens. I’m still a fan of crepe paper streamers if you’ve got them and if you can get able bodied volunteers to drape them. An old piano in the corner where anybody can play, and there’s always someone who can.
The best part then and now is joining the people around the buffet lines carrying our plates to our tables and stopping to ask, “Who made this?” then seeking out the cook to get the recipe. There’s a good chance you’ll see multiples of that casserole at the next gathering and every casserole dish will be carried home empty by a satisfied cook.
I can’t wait for the next time we’ll be standing around talking about how good these beans are.
Sister Fern’s California dream
Not her actual car, but one like it
Here are two things that happened for the first time when we moved to California in the 1950s. Daddy pursued recreational gardening. Mother got a Cadillac to celebrate her recording contract. She never wanted to drive but she wanted that car so she got a driver’s license.
Brother Ray pictured a delicate dichondra lawn –
– planted right up to the edges of the driveway. Those two-lane designs were called “ribbon” driveways.
A bit of background. Daddy, the oldest of ten, was recruited to work the cotton fields with his sharecropping family all through his childhood. After he became a parent himself, when we stayed in one place for a while he planted vegetables to help feed us. When we got to California he indulged in the joy of growing things just for the beauty of them.
We didn’t see much dichondra In the South. We saw lawns with hard-working grass like St. Augustine, so sturdy a farmer bragged, “You can park a tractor out there, move the tractor and that grass pops right back up.” But Daddy wanted the fragile stuff and that’s what he planted around their Glendale, California home. Dichondra isn’t really like growing grass. It’s more like raising a baby. Grown adults down on their knees trimming it with tiny clippers. He was willing to put in the work.
Picture that giant pink Cadillac operated by an uncertain driver, approaching lanes even thinner than the driveway pictured here. My brother, Leslie Ray, and I had moved into our own apartments but when we stopped by to visit we speculated about how the struggle between dichondra and Cadillac might go. We felt sorry for the green stuff. We figured If you were an innocent lawn growing right up to the edge of the driveway and you spotted that giant pink fishtailed hunk of metal coming at you, you’d probably be terrified.
It’s a wonder the dichondra didn’t die from Cadillac fright. It was obviously in some distress. Examples of previously missed driveway attempts by the Cadillac were starting to show when Mother parked. There were streaks of brown dirt where green once grew. Tires had wandered a bit. Mother didn’t mention it. Daddy didn’t mention it. We stopped by to visit, saw the damage and we didn’t mention it either.
Daddy took to watching the driveway when he expected her home. As soon as the pink chariot approached, he was out the door, gave her a big smile and held up his hand to stop her as she was about to turn in.
“Just a minute, Doll-Baby. Let me get that for you.”
She pretended it was normal to exit her car at the far end of the driveway out by the street. He pretended it had nothing to do with his lawn. He drove the car all the way to the rear when garages used to be behind the house. Backing out again? She never did. If there was no one around to back out for her, she’d wait.
Later, as she drove less, he finally persuaded her to sell the Cadillac and when she did she stopped driving completely. That seemed to work for both of them and the dichondra and we never heard Daddy complain about taking his Doll-Baby anywhere she wanted to go.
Mahalia Jackson, Born 1911, New Orleans, Louisiana Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Born 1915, Cotton Plant, Arkansas Fern Jones, Born 1923, El Dorado, Arkansas
These three women have much in common. The one pictured with a fan, bottom right, is my mother. Each of them, not far apart in age and born into poor families, sang church music in ways it hadn’t been heard before and took a lot of criticism for it. They moved obstacles to make things happen by force of talent and conviction, strong will, and once in a while a skillfully applied dab of charm.
I’ve recently watched profiles of two of them. “Robin Roberts Presents Mahalia”and from PBS, “American Masters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Godmother Of Rock and Roll.” Observing them at work brought familiar memories. Though I never met two of those ground-breaking women, our family heard much from mother about Mahalia and Sister Rosetta and we witnessed the one we were raised with displaying her own spine of steel, standing firm about every detail of her dream.
All three of them knew exactly what they wanted. Where did they get the gumption? The surety? The belief that the way they heard a song was the way a song was meant to sound, before anyone else sang like them? Each of them faced a combination of challenging circumstances: Poverty. Segregation. A recording industry that released only specific styles. Radio stations that didn’t play their kind of music. Fern moved straight out of honky-tonks in the Deep South into marriage with a poor country preacher and still she held onto her style until congregations eventually embraced the way she sang songs about Jesus
Fern didn’t sound like a white woman singing church music. She sounded like a Black artist and her gospel was infused with something about to become rockabilly or rock and roll, whatever the world would name it next.
Mother moved circumstances around to get every situation as close to what she envisioned as possible, all of this with no money and no connections. My brother and I watched her chatting with musicians, asking them to change something they were playing. No detail escaped her. Before letting loose with a song, she conferred with announcers and radio hosts and MCs about the exact introduction she preferred.
This display of willpower from a person with no power still surprises, but maybe it shouldn’t. Looking back at gatherings where our family was preparing to sing, I remember many times a musician would play something new, a changed tempo or a nice little run he’d thought up and Fern, employing both looks and charm, would place a hand on an arm, lean in a bit and compliment the player, then pause and say something like this,
“I like it. But let’s just try it this way first and see where it lays.”
“See where it lays” was Fern’s version of “Bless your heart, but we’ll be doing it my way.” She was committed to singing a song the way she said it “came to her.” Through the years she absorbed licks from other talented performers, of course she did, but they were always going to come out sounding like Fern.
Mahalia, Rosetta and Fern sang some of the same songs, “Precious Lord,”“Strange Things Happening” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Mother said after her Nashville recording sessions in the 50s, her record company president wanted the first single from the album to be one of the spirituals recorded earlier by Mahalia and Rosetta. Mother reminded him they had an agreement that her first release would be an original, one of the songs she wrote. As a result of their battle, nothing was released. The album was shelved in the late 50s and she fought the rest of her life to regain her masters. She won. We have them. Numero Group now handles all her music.
Here are these three women singing their versions of “Didn’t It Rain.”Rosetta takes out after it on guitar. Mahalia just flat lays it out for us, her way. Sister Fern’s having a great time with Hank Garland on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano.
We just clicked “live” on the new website built to introduce my book, “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life.” It’s less than three weeks til release date. I hope you’ll check out anitagarner.com and let me know what you think. If you read this blog regularly you already know bits of the story, but there’s more over there now and we’ll keep adding. Thanks to Steve Bradford and Authors Guild for their help.
I’m vaccinated and ready to travel if the good Lord’s willing and the crick don’t rise. I’ve been planning a trip from California to the east coast this fall to combine book appearances and visits with friends in New England. Rent a car in Boston and ramble around for a few days. I had in mind taking the train one way and then flying home. I pictured me in a little roomette on Amtrak with lots of magazines and coffee and snacks and waving out the window at places I used to live and working when I feel like it. It could be a leisurely and productive and celebratory kind of journey all in one.
Then I learned from Amtrak that wifi isn’t consistent on the train. They make that clear. I like my work and with all the connections I need to pursue, wifi is necessary.
My relatives were all train people. Gramma K migrated from the Deep South to Southern California making several trips by train before enlisting all her Southern relatives to drive cars and trucks in caravans to move her belongings. She never hired a moving van. We were the van. Every fall, she trained back from Glendale, CA to Arkansas to be with her kinfolks during leaf season. Arkansas trees are spectacular and worth the trip. She came off the train at Union Station in L.A. every time with a list of names and addresses and phone numbers from people she met onboard.
Mother never flew either, even when it would have been expeditious to do so. We moved to California when she signed a recording contract, then the record company sent her back to Nashville to record with the backup singers and musicians they’d selected. They said get here as soon as you can. She said, sure, I’ll be right there – on the train. Later she went out on a tour but got homesick for Daddy, quit part of the way through and cried all the way home – on the train.
Here I sit with my hopes for making this book launch/friend visiting trip, but no set plan for travel yet. No sense buying a super-saver airline ticket months in advance if the savings will disappear due to travel insurance and change fees.
I’ll get there in person one way or the other. Meanwhile there are virtual appearances to plan, which is how most books have been launched recently. Mother was an early adopter of innovation (except for airline travel.) She’d have been the first to understand my wifi dilemma.
My brother, Leslie Ray, and I were the new kids in school all our lives. We’d enroll, stay a short while, then hit the road to tour the gospel circuit with our parents, sending homework back in the mail. At every new school, I’d stand in front of the class while the teacher introduced Nita Faye Jones, just moved here from…fill in the blank.
In California, 1957 I was new again but this time shouldn’t be as hard since Leslie Ray had been there a year already, living with Gramma K because he and Mother couldn’t occupy the same house without eruptions. Similar dispositions, Daddy said.
Mother signed a record contract and we headed out west. This time it wasn’t just a new school. This time the language was also unfamiliar. Nobody else drawled. The clothes were different. Even tougher to understand was California culture, where teens seemed to have so much control. No yessum and yessir. These kids were in possession of more than just spending money. They were confident. By the time I arrived, Leslie, who was already tall and good looking to start with, had shed his Southern accent, was a big man on campus and evidently expert at assimilation.
Observe the ritual of Senior Spring Break, 1957. The talk in the halls among seniors was, “Are you going to Bal?” That would be Balboa Island (also Newport) where groups of seniors piled into rented houses for a full week of drinking and tanning all day, partying all night, and capped it off at the end of the week by bleaching their hair blonde to prove, on returning to class, that they’d really been to Bal.
Leslie Ray and I were both redheads with fair skin. Not meant for tanning. Not safe on California beaches. In the Deep South, tanning wasn’t done on purpose. It happened because of work. We saw tans in churches and in the crowds at revivals and Singings, hard-working tans with shirt-sleeve marks.
Tanning for a redhead happens only through a lengthy process, if at all, and often involves a couple of trips to the ER on the way. Both of us had over-sunned more than once and paid the price. It must have taken Leslie a long time to build up that color a little bit at a time, but he did it. The very thing we’d avoided in the South was his Southern California Senior Spring Break badge of honor. Of course he bleached his hair. He had to prove he was at Bal.
I was invited over to Balboa just for the day if I could find someone with a driver’s license and a car to get me there. I lied to my parents about where I was going. Leslie’s friends treated me like a mascot as long as I didn’t cramp their style or tell stories later. For my day at Bal, I didn’t even pack what we then called suntan lotion. I packed a hat.
Leslie Ray and Nita Faye Jones. Senior Spring Break, 1957
I never tanned until self-tanning lotion became manageable years later, and then I applied it mostly for events. But I bleached as soon as I got out of high school, blonder and blonder for several years. I think the bleaching part made me half-assimilated and you can shorten that last word if you want to.
I go to the thrift shop to donate but can’t leave until I check the bin full of castoff art. Is this a paint-by-numbers piece? Is it from a student? Or from a professional painter whose early work was given up too soon? Are these flowers from an artist momentarily adrift in a garden of self expression?
I own several other pieces that look like they could have been done by a person who went home early from the community center art class. I say this with love. I admire the gumption it takes to make a picture of anything, any time.
I rescue abandoned canvasses and wonder, were they created with love and given away, then secretly discarded by the recipient? The only two things we know is that someone made these and someone didn’t want them.
I’ve seen stories on TV about people who collect old paint-by-numbers canvases and many narrow their search to a particular subject – horses or trees or dogs or boats or barns. I’m not picky about subject matter, though I do seem to have several examples of flowers painted with varying degrees of verisimilitude. (I’ve been hoping to use that word all week, ever since I convinced the Grand it’s really a word.)
My knowledge of odd collections comes from “CBS Sunday Morning” which often takes us to meet people who own many examples of an unusual kind of thing. If I had the space, I’d keep going. Mine are now sprinkled around the house, in the kitchen, the office, and these two new pieces with the black backgrounds are looking great in a bathroom.
This one’s signed, dated and titled “Self Portrait.”
As I paid my $4.99 and $1.5o at the counter, the checker, a beautiful young woman dressed head to toe in vintage chic, smiled as she rang them up. She said, “I love it when they’re signed.” Me too. Then she told me she plans to start painting. I expressed what I hope was the proper appreciation. But there’s more, she said. She has a specific plan for her art. She’s going to sign them all and give them names and then donate them. They won’t go to anyone she knows. They won’t hang on her wall at home. They’re going straight to the thrift store where she works, eliminating a middle person who may not have fully appreciated them anyway. I get it.
How could anyone give away a bicycle with golden wheels?
My photo doesn’t do it justice. Those wheels are shiny.
If my new vintage-loving acquaintance’s plan to paint and donate comes to fruition, every time I pick up a castoff canvas I’ll get to wonder if its one of hers.
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.
“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.