My Grandmother, Jeanette Garbes – An Inspiration

My grandmother, Jeanette Garbes (Mennenga) was born in December, 1925. Today she lives at Linn Haven Rehabilitation and Healthcare in New Hampton, IA not far from where she farmed and lived with my grandfather, Raymond Garbes for more than 50 years. Although her short-term memory is almost entirely gone, her past life is as vivid to her as when she lived it. The glorious outcome of this reality is that we are hearing wonderful stories about her life as a girl and young woman. The stories I particularly love are the ones about her music.

Grandma taught herself to play guitar and she would learn songs by ear from the radio. She entered a talent contest at the Bremer County Fair one year and speaks with great pride about the two boys who backed her up on their guitars as she sang “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” She was good enough to win a prize and always mentions how much the crowd loved her playing.

"Me and My Guitar - 1940"
“Me and My Guitar – 1940”

Sometimes Grandma would sing and play with the Leisinger girls who lived nearby. The three young women would get together on Saturday or Sunday night at each other’s homes with their instruments – guitar, accordion and fiddle and grandma would sing. Their mothers baked cakes and provided “lunch” (Iowan for an evening snack) and the girls provided the evening’s entertainment. Grandma talks about those nights of music making with a twinkle in her eye.

When Grandma and Grandpa started dating, Grandma joined in on the musical adventures of the Garbes family, too. Grandpa Garbes was one of 12 siblings who all played or sang. The Garbes’ were well known in their community and could be found on many Saturday nights playing in the Fisher Pavilion for community dances or in their home or a neighbor’s home singing and playing the popular songs of their day. Grandma joined right in and obviously loved every minute. She said once, with pride, “the Garbes’ always drew a crowd.”

I love these stories of a time when making music and sharing it with family and friends in living rooms and community dance halls was a regular part of life. I love it that my singing and music making roots are sunk into the deep and fertile soil of rural Iowa life. I love it that I come from a family where singing and making music was what you did after a long week of working in the fields – a way to relax and have fun with neighbors and the ones you love. Simple, fun, unpretentious, woven into the tapestry of day to day life.

I thank God for these musical roots and for the gift of song that has come to me through the generations of musical people in my family – from great grandparents to grandma and grandpa to my mother to me. It’s a gift I cherish and love to share.

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