Arnita Matthews: 1941 – 2013

Arnita Matthews
Courtesy Photo

Charlie Chaplin wrote, “Nothing lasts forever … not even our troubles.” For my friend Arnita Matthews, the troubles of this world ended on August 26, 2013. Prior to her death and as she was slowly being evicted from this mortal coil, subject to the vagary and lewd woe of pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t help but feel the universe was lapping at the soul of the wrong person. Arnita was a mere and dear 71 years old. Only 13 years older than me. In human years that is. Certainly, there is no way to calculate the broad scope of her wisdom and or to illuminate the depth of her sensitivity and perceptions via any algorithm limited by the parameters of a 24-hour day and a seven-day week.

I first met Arnita Matthews in the summer of 1985. I had come to Santa Barbara from Memphis, Tennessee. I was 29 years old and fleeing my “Lost Confederacy.” In March my own father had succumbed to cancer, and I was being deployed, more or less, by a rattled family to the Jesuit Novitiate in Montecito. I was there to assume a spot in Father Nick Weber’s quarter-ring touring company of the Royal Lichtenstein Circus, a sawdust-and-brimstone ministry of sorts that traveled a corkscrew consortium of college campuses, cow towns, and city halls … in a crazy caravan of cattle cars and chuck wagons … okay, enough of the circus alliteration … you get the picture. It wasn’t that I didn’t like being there. I didn’t want to be anywhere.

My one break in the action was a noon meeting in downtown Santa Barbara … that got me off the hill every weekday. This is how I met Arnita. I became friends with her only son Tracy … who is now an editor for films and major motion pictures in Los Angeles. Tracy introduced me to his mother when it was suggested I could use a trim. Arnita was the proprietor of a very popular boutique hair salon, Miss Arnita’s. She gave me my very first California cut. It was the cut by which all others would be judged.

Arnita was very generous with her time and her scissors. It didn’t take long for me to see how Arnita reached out to so many people. Limping and peg-legged characters from every side of life who had gone astray or had completely missed their mark … were welcomed by her. Even genetically abbreviated circus clowns.

The circus didn’t pay me, and I had no alternate resource. This did not, however, stop me from jumping ship and abandoning the circus somewhere in the Great Pacific Northwest … when I was informed, and ever so rudely after breakfast one morning … that I was to brush my teeth on my own time. I only had one place to go. I only knew two people there. I jumped, and miraculously the net appeared.

I was back in Santa Barbara, where Arnita and her family broke my fall and essentially took me in. Arnita found me my first long-term place to live. I stayed with the family of a friend of hers near the Mesa for nearly six months. I experienced my first earthquake in that home and in that house … which is sturdier still today than all of what nature could hurl against her. I think Arnita knew this about the house. I think she knew it about the home. I hope she came to know it about me. I would come know it about her.

Noting I had a severe Southern accent and an even more decided desire to parade it … Arnita once asked me if I wanted to be a writer. “Why, no, ma’am … might you ask because you think I harbor a talent for it?” “Possibly Eugene … but I was noticing … how if you were doing a lot of writing … you wouldn’t have to do so much talking. Everybody knows how smart you are Eugene … (volume lowered to a whisper here, so as to focus the message and avoid any unnecessary spill and minimize the collateral damage) … but people don’t chew or think their mouth open.”

I am not certain I have even yet fully metabolized her gentle but incisive admonishment. But I know I have been much quieter for some reason now that my friend Arnita has died. I owe more than modesty and refuge to her. Arnita found the classified ad in the Santa Barbara News & Review. The paper was looking for a classified ad salesperson, and she thought I’d be perfect for the job.

The job came to me and changed my life. I had been placed firmly in the company of writers. And what a company it was. Russ Spencer, Nick Welsh, Martha Sadler, John Raymond, Glenda Shaw, Kerri Burton, Josef Woodard and Kief Hillsbery, who gave me my first writing assignment ever. It was on Pato Banton kind of a rogue reggae artist. I remember because Arnita and Tracy were the first two people I shared it with. Maybe the only two. Everything good that has ever happened to me in Santa Barbara and in my life from the summer of 1985 I owe in a large part to Arnita.

On Saturday October 5, a beautiful memorial service was held for Arnita at the Vedanta Temple on Ladera Lane. Interestingly, the Jesuit Novitiate where I began my life in Santa Barbara is less than a mile up the hill from there. When the service concluded, Tracy gave tiny vials with a portion or Arnita’s ashes to some of the guests with a provisory request for us to scatter her ashes as we saw fit … in the places we travel to … in the places Arnita never got to visit. I was thinking the beaches at Normandy … where I had been several times. Maybe in the Loch Ness … where I had bobbed for a monster and almost drowned.

Three days later as I was driving back to L.A. to catch a flight home, I took a little detour. I went back up Ladera Lane past the temple and into what was once a beautiful Jesuit Novitiate. It wasn’t the same. Evidence of the circus is long since boarded up and packed away. The Jesuits, as had all the clowns, had been dispersed to every corner of the globe. I wandered the grounds … like it was my old battlefield. I thought it was my past … it had been my beginning. I took the vial from around my neck and scattered the ashes of my friend. They disappeared in the split of a second … the blink of an aye … in the time it takes to be born … to live and to die. I dropped to my knees and said a prayer for Arnita. “No matter where I go … or what I see and do … no place will ever be more beautiful or more important to me … than this very spot. I will leave you here so I will never forget … you helped me to see just how much I really wanted to be somewhere. I wanna be somewhere, even if I never return.” Arnita … I think she saw this. I think she understood it, too.


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