Garrison Keillor at the Arlington

Radio Host Shared Personal Stories on Tuesday, October 27

Just beneath the dry wit he’s always been a big softie, but Garrison Keillor’s recent stroke seems to have focused him especially keenly on what it means to be alive. On Tuesday, October 27, he took his Santa Barbara audience on a semi-autobiographical tour, touching on many of the themes he so often does-Midwestern austerity, Lutheranism, and weather-and circling from his own childhood memories around to the experience of being a father. In his signature red sneakers and matching tie, he began by singing a Keillor-esque incantation: “Here I am Lord, and here is my prayer: Please be there. I don’t want to ask too much-miracles and such-but I sure would be pissed if I should have been an atheist; oh Lord, please exist.”

Garrison Keillor
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Garrison Keillor

The same tongue-in-cheek, wavering faith returned in his tale of suffering a stroke while in the produce section of the supermarket, and his ensuing visions of his own funeral. From that near-death experience, he surged back in time to memories of his Aunt Eva. “She was beautiful,” he remarked, going on to describe her shapeless body, her shoes split down the heel for comfort, the way she sat beside him and listened to the radio with one set of earphones stretched across the two of them. And just like that, what might have been an evening of lighthearted chuckles cracked open to something much deeper: a story of a boy saved from a fierce father by a loving aunt, by her sun-warmed, dusty tomatoes, and by her belief in him. “When you’re a child, you have no epidermis practically, and what is said goes straight to your heart,” Keillor mused. “She made my life.”

Next, Keillor whisked his listeners to the rooming house in New York City where he met Jessica James from Nashville, Tennessee, “with a liquid voice and long legs.” It was Jessica, he explained, who told him of the Grand Ole Opry and convinced him that people would be interested in stories about his hometown in Minnesota, setting in motion the writing that would lead to A Prairie Home Companion. “Life is just a gift,” he concluded. “It’s just a pure gift.”

As he wound to a close, Keillor began to speak of his 11-year-old daughter-of the way she gets such joy from swinging on a swing or eating a waffle with blueberries. “You try to give back to your child what was given to you by Aunt Eva,” he explained, “Love, a sense of belonging in this world, and the fabulous possibilities that lie just out ahead somewhere.”

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