I learned nothing from my upbringing about aging gracefully. Mother’s only advice about the passing years was to encourage the use of more moisturizer so boys will like you. She considered all men potential boyfriends. In her teens she married a man who, through some combination of mercy and grace, turned into a grownup husband who behaved like her sweetheart all the days of their lives. Daddy raised his wife along with us kids while she clung tenaciously to the role of teenager.
There was no talk, not one speck of advice about fulfillment, about health, about work, about relationships, about how all of that changes through the years.
As a Southern preacher, Daddy didn’t consider “old” a condition that needed fixing or discussing. He believed in keeping one’s old people at home alongside the halt and the lame and the merely odd. Many houses we visited had a bedroom occupied by someone who fit at least one of those categories.
Our California Gramma, the one we spent the most time with, transplanted herself from Arkansas and smoked and drank and danced and cussed and played the horses at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita ’til the end. There was no talk of age at her house either. Paw Paw, the Louisiana Jones grandparent who lived into his 90’s, didn’t pass along that gene to his son, because Daddy left us way too soon.
I liked older people even before I became one. Younger friends say hush, you’re not old. Well I’m certainly older than I was, and I’m not that upset about it anymore. Every day I think to myself – better get moving. Parts of me don’t move quite as well as they used to. Every day this comes as a surprise. Knees, I’m talking to you. At first I’m ticked off but by the end of the day, I ask myself, what did you expect? Things aren’t brand new anymore.
I asked Mother once on a significant birthday if she felt any different. She said what we’ve all heard a million times – she still felt 18 inside. Now I know what she meant. She was also right about the moisturizer. Much more of it is required.
By Anita GarnerWhen 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
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 1951, 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! 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 appeared in Reminisce Magazine
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’
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)
One of Brother Ray’s favorite duets with Sister Fern.