I had heard of her before, but the first time I saw her was in my yard on a warm summer day. She walked around, casting a critical, but not judgmental eye on our place in the country that we call Bar Nun Ranch. It’s not really a ranch, of course. Not big enough. But I think Annie liked what she saw. I was expecting her and hailed her from the metal-roofed building I call my office. Jan calls it the White House.
She drove the few yards in her new bright-red Ford half-ton with fancy wheels and all the accessories that cowboys tend to prefer. I found out later that her hair had been jet black, but it was now white and pulled back in a severe pony-tail. Tall, but beginning to stoop slightly, she wore jeans and a white western shirt and ivory ostrich boots with riding heels. I don’t pay much attention to jewelry, but I recall she had on a lot of turquoise. When she extended her hand and shook mine firmly and warmly with a bright smile, I knew we would be friends, but I didn’t know the half of Annie’s story. Still don’t, but I know more than some.
Her reputation preceded her. My in-laws knew her and a lot of folks just older than me remembered growing up with her around Fairlie, Yowell, and Commerce. The mere mention of her name to any of those people always elicited a smile and a story or two of her young and wild days as Ann Milford (Anna Mac, Little Mac, etc..). Her brother was the famous Dallas weatherman and later congressman, Dale Milford. Everybody around here was proud that he was one of our own when we saw him on television every night. But five minutes into our conversation, I suspected Annie was nothing like her gentlemanly brother.
Annie loved my rustic office because, of course, it is about as cowboy as I could make it. She handed me a business card that said “Painter of Portraits, Poet/Writer, Umbrella Fixer, Goat Roper, Fry Cook, Grandma, Bootlegger, Part Time Cab Driver, Full Time Texan. I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t. I was particularly interested in that part about painting. The red pickup just happened to hold a couple of large portraits she had painted. One was of a 911 first-responder that would bring tears to a grown man’s eyes. I’m no art critic, but I knew she was talented. That first meeting planted the seeds of a friendship that has blossomed over the years. I knew she had owned at least two night clubs, but did not know she had performed in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” at Casa Manana and that she was a nominee for the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
Annie was coming to see me about a manuscript she had written. Terry Mathews, now Arts and Entertainment Editor for the Sulphur Springs News Telegram, caused our paths to cross. Annie had participated (that word is too lightweight) in what became known as the Great American Cattle Drive of 1995. Her manuscript told of her adventures as the only woman drover on that drive. She had held her own with cowboys (all younger than her) all the way from Fort Worth, Texas to Miles City, Montana, a journey of some eighteen hundred miles and six months. As a veteran of my own horseback and covered wagon trip across Texas, I was impressed. We had traveled less than a quarter of that distance and we didn’t have 300 head of longhorn cattle and over a hundred horses to keep moving. And Annie was nearly sixty-four when the drive began.
I suspected that her drive was well-financed and that the participants were borderline coddled on the trip. I learned better. They endured rain, sleet, hail, high winds, a tornado, extremes of both heat and cold, and lack of funds. Worse, they endured homesickness, frustration, disappointments, and dissension. We had none of the latter and few of the former on our trip. Bad weather pales in comparison to dissension. But Annie persevered.
Annie is an unabashed lover of cowboys and everything remotely related to their lifestyle—makes no bones about it. She told me later that such unconditional love had delivered a lot of joy but also more than a few heartaches and trouble. I learned that she was once-divorced and twice-widowed. Done with changing her last name, she took the name Golightly on a dance-floor whim. I don’t recall who her dance partner was when she made that decision. She lost one house by flood, another by fire, but still managed to get all five kids raised.
During the time that we worked together on her book, I learned that she was not only famous in our small corner of Northeast Texas, but it seemed that almost everyone in the town “Where the West Begins” knew her, too. Her father was Cherokee and the heritage is so evident she became known in Fort Worth as “The Singing Savage”. She had performed for two American Presidents and two foreign ones, Governor and Ms. John Connally, Arnold Palmer, Nelson Rockefeller, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Slim Pickens, Chuck Connors, to name a few. She had performed with Tom T. Hall, Rex Allen, Rosemary Clooney (for you young folks—that’s George’s aunt), Ace Reid, Arthur Duncan, among others. She completed her degree in English and Creative Writing at Texas Wesleyan University at age sixty-three.
She was also one of the most cooperative authors I ever worked with. And she knew how to market her work. Her friend Mike Cochran wrote the foreword to her book. Mike is a journalist retired from Associated Press and the Fort Worth Star Telegram who has been nominated for the Pulitzer three times, authored five books, won six Headliner awards, and the Texas Institute of Letters Stanley Walker Journalism Award (twice). Another friend of Annie’s and columnist for the Star Telegram, the late Jim Trinkle, said of Annie, “There is a happy, vibrant quality to songs as Annie sings them. Audiences . . . are moved by her personal magnetism.”
When Dreams and A White Horse was published less than a year after that first meeting, I learned that Annie knew folks at Billy Bob’s (world’s largest honky-tonk) and arranged a signing there. She generously requested (make that insisted) that I bring along my own books to sell. I needed no persuading. I had listened to her CD’s, but finally cajoled her to sing a song or two that night in Billy Bob’s, a night I will never forget.
It was to be the last time I would hear her sing and play. A stroke stopped all that. It affected her peripheral vision and she had to stop driving. She has trouble with one arm working like it used to. She had to give up the pickup of her dreams and leave her beloved Fort Worth to be near her daughter. She can no longer paint and has to hunt and peck on the keyboard.
I dropped by to see her in Corsicana a short while back and spent a terrific afternoon. She talks frankly about her health problems but refuses to let them get her down. She’s filled with gratitude for the life she had and the life she has left, for the love and support of family and friends. She still possesses that dogged determination that caused her to rise to the challenge of participating in a long trail drive after being told that women would not be allowed to serve as drovers.
And did I mention she’s a good cook? I keep a jar of her plum jelly in my office refrigerator, saving it only for special occasions because Annie told me there would not be any more. I hope she’s wrong about that.
Postscript: I write my postings days, sometimes weeks, even months, in advance of publication. I wrote the rough draft of this one on February 24, 2012. I put the final touches on it at 3:30 PM February 28. I planned to called Annie and read it to her before posting the first week of March. At 5:22 PM on February 28, I got an e-mail that appeared to be from Annie, a very rare occurrence. It was her address, but not from Annie. The e-mail was from Annie’s family. She died at 3:23, seven minutes before I finished the final edits on the article. She insisted that there be no funeral, no memorial service, only to be remembered by family and friends. She will be. She donated her body to science. That’s so Annie. She knew, I expect, when she told me there would be no more jelly.