Mother Tanner's Christmas Tree

 Stories of Boone County Residents
Mother Tanner's Christmas Tree
35 Shelby Street, Florence, Kentucky 41042
by: Gin-Nie Tanner Smith


Index by:

Story Name:
Mother Tanner's Christmas Tree
My Great-Grandpa Charles
My Mother and Santa Claus
Boone County Cemetery
The Little House on Russell Street
Transistor Nights

Main Character:
Ashbrook, Thomas L.
Griffith, Charles Logan
Lockbaum, Alice Virginia (Finnell)
Shears, Robert Lee "Pappy"
Tanner, Bill
Tanner, Grandpa and Mother


“Aunt Bert, is it time yet?” Bert Davenport, no relation but the gracious, loving and most patient saint that God sent to care for me, rolls her tender eyes towards heaven and tolerantly states, “Child of grace, nearly time.” I had been packed for days in childlike anticipation; for the Christmas holidays were not official until my father's old jalopy pulled up in front of my caregiver’s house in North Vernon, Indiana, to take me home for the Christmas holidays. For that meant I was going to be with his people in Florence, Kentucky and Mother Tanner's house.
I can still hear the familiar bump, bump, as the car bounced onto the ferryboat’s steel ramp at Aurora, Indiana.

After we loaded unto the aged carrier, my little daddy, Dad Toad, and I would always get out of the car no matter what freezing temperature greeted us. We then would greet the captain for the crossing over from Indiana to Kentucky, and breathe the fresh crisp winter breeze.

As we made the lazy trek across the beautiful Ohio River the cold crisp air would awaken me from the drowsy daze of miles rolling past and listening to the dull drone of the engine as we made our way southeast over the flat lands and hills of southeastern Indiana. We would exchange Christmas greetings and make small talk with others on the ferry and share country humor. All the while I was aware of the soft slosh, slosh, slosh of the ferry gliding through the strong current of the old man. It was a familiar, lovely concert that my frozen ears and senses welcomed each journey made during those many years.
My excitement would begin to rise as we began the docking process on the Kentucky side. For that meant I soon would be walking into the warm and welcoming arms of my grandparents Tanner, my people and kin I was so sore to experience once more.

In turn we were slowly waved off the ferryboat, bump, bump; bump, bump. Each car bounced off the ramp unto the blacktop and gravel of the Kentucky landing. I was on Kentucky soil, we made it over.

We slowly make our way toward home along the two lane blacktop roads, as to drive over forty five miles per hour would waste precious gas at fifteen cents a gallon. Progressing over the hills and rills of the countryside we often met ourselves in turn after turn. I would become aware of this strange contentment, not often experienced in my young years. I was so content and at peace it would frighten me. I would worry, perhaps it wasn’t real, but just another fond dream I would awaken from.

Familiar farms and crossroads passed by beautifully set within the rolling pastures and fields void of their bounty of summer corn, tobacco, wheat and wildflowers. The hills and valleys were dotted with dairy and beef cows as they watched us travel by with questioning eyes, chewing their cuds with little concern. As we passed mile after mile Kentucky Blue Grass peeked from under mounds of snow under the hooves of fine bred racing horses that would jump and sprint along side the stretches of white fences. The crunching ice and gravel under our worn tires alerting their fine senses.

As we enter the vicinity of the quaint village of Florence, back in the day nee Stringtown on the Pike, the familiar roll of that sweet land of my ancestors with its tree-lined, side walked streets gave me comfort and a feeling of security not felt and so longed for during the rest of the year. We pass by Hopeful Lutheran Church where we will honor the traditions of generations past by worshiping there each Sunday and on Christmas Eve.

Turning onto Shelby Street and seeing the small white clapboard house, 35 Shelby Street, sets my happiness. Stepping onto the wood planks of that humble porch would find Mother Tanner peering through filmy white curtains from the small window within the door. Her soft blue eyes sparkling with delight from behind overgrown glasses were a vision, as if an angel appearing to my searching eyes.

The door would open to the sweet embrace I had waited long empty months to feel. This angel standing there in her cotton house dress, her porcelain plump face adorned with the proper earrings, peeking from under her soft halo of white cropped hair; and her soft hands touched with a bracelet, Mother Tanner herself. Ada Frances Phillips Tanner. Taking my cold hand into her warm gentle hands, worn with years of keeping the proper home, was a healing of the heart and a balm to my young soul.
Warm comforting smells and familiar sights welcome and wrap around me like a comfy shawl. Familiar scents delight my senses, that of her ever present coffee brewing, cherry pie, clean linoleum floors, ivory soap, sparse amenities and Mother Tanner’s Christmas tree right next to the door at my left. Behind her sat Grandpa Tanner.

Arthur Tanner Senior, tall and lanky with a shock of snow-white hair atop his rather gaunt face, with round spectacles perched on his hook of a German nose. My father’s same nose. Grandpa patiently waits there in his wooden rocker, his arms upon the arms of his perch, his hands curled around the ends of those arms. Clad in his clean white shirt and simple cotton pants held securely and comically too far above his small waist with his ever present suspenders. His leather opera slippers peering from the frayed cuff of his gray faded pants completed his constant presentation. As he found my attention with his crisp blue gaze we hugged so sweetly that I could barely breathe from my joy. To complete this Rockwell type scene, there too awaiting his turn at the circle of love is my Uncle Bill; Billy Dale Tanner, my mentor and dear friend. Uncle Bill, smiling so broadly from his handsome face and so full of the Christmas spirit that it exuded from his every pore. I swear the very aura of Christmas was in his beautiful smile.

Looking into the clear blue eyes of my kin was as if I was looking into a mirror reflecting the generations of familiarity handed down by love, genetics and chance of nature. More hugs and laughter fill the humble dwelling as we all slowly settle down while putting things in their proper place. Grandma would head for the kitchen to serve up her coffee to the adults and hot chocolate for her adoring grand daughter.

Uncle Bill would then point out the Tanner tree; resplendent with vintage strings of lights and ornaments. Well, one string of the old fashion lights, those vintage depression style of large red, green, gold and blue type that would get so hot they could burn a hole in a piece of hickory but still radiated the joy of the season; as well as turn a fresh country tree to dry tinder within hours. Also intertwined within the dark green boughs was another string of just as used and worn out bubble lights that would fascinate me to hours of pleasure. Those of colorful plastic globular bases that heated the liquid inside causing “bubbles” into the narrow clear tubes, glowing with warm light.

Of course there were shiny ornaments that have seen better days, at least ten or so assorted. To complete the festive ensemble atop of the sweet cedar would be a fine star made of an old pie tin Uncle Bill had deftly fashioned with his most talented artistic hands, his most vivid imagination and best of all styled with love. To add to my delight, there were gifts wrapped in red and green tissue paper secured with scotch tape, with my name on each one. There among the treasures I would place my meager gifts to these lovely kindred of my heart. It was the most
beautiful tree in the world, Mother Tanner's tree; for it represented the symbol of family, security and generations of my being.

Grandpa would call me to sit next to him upon his worn upholstered stool that was placed before the small wooden, black and white console TV. I was quick to join his side where we watched his favorite wrestling show; although I hated wrestling, there were only three local channels to view and choose from, but I adored Grandpa Tanner. This was our bonding session as it were. Once in a while the long fingers of his hands coarse from years of labor and providing for over a dozen or so youngins’ would reach over to pat my hand. Perhaps this simple action demonstrated the ultimate expression of affection from this generally quiet, often stoic, but loving man. Where upon I would grab him with both arms around his stiff neck and assault him with a gentle snuggle.

After the TV was cut off, to save electricity, Mother Tanner would call me into the kitchen with its Spartan clean white enamel sink, tiny stove and oven, a white pantry of the depression era, and small table with chairs. After donning my child sized apron, just like grandmas, secured with a tight bow by her nimble hand; Mother Tanner, Uncle Bill and I would begin our cookie making session of holiday delights.

Fresh, hand churned butter and eggs, real vanilla, flour and sugar were brought out of the pantry room. Then mixed and kneaded with her fine hands in her well-worn dough bowl. Then her clumsy but eager pupil would roll out the dough. Soon I would be covered in flour and various other foodstuffs from the homey procedure.

As the progression of cutting out stars, bells and other holiday styles to be baked; the humble home would abound with such sweet smells the men folk would gather round the tiny heart of the dwelling at the back of the house. Uncle Mokie, my bestest buddy and pal would often appear at the back door to join the festivities smelling of cigars and fresh winter air. Yep, you know it, more hugs. He could make you laugh at the drop of his ever-present ball cap.

As the delicate Christmas cookies were baked we would gingerly remove them from the tiny oven and thin aluminum baking sheets to place them upon the cooling racks. When they cooled, Uncle Bill would supervise the decorating of the sweet morsels with red, green and blue frosting with sprinkles of holiday hues and very patiently guide my willing hands. Mother Tanner would be at the ready with her dishcloth at the sink with lots of soap and hot water for the inevitable spills and splots. Hours would pass as the production wrought interesting and yet fine holiday delights to share among the family, along with freshly brewed coffee for the adults.

Dear old bachelors, loners that they were, Uncle Joe Tanner and great Uncle Clarence Phillips, grandma’s elusive brother, would come around to join in on that wonderful hugging, cookies and coffee. Uncle Joe with his wonderful stories of Christmas past and tall tales, and then of course he would lead us in singing “Roll out the Barrel,” “as the gangs all here.” The Tanner boys had wonderful full singing voices and shared those with friends and in our Hopeful Lutheran church. Uncle Clarence joined us with his quiet manner and large sad droopy eyes under a green cotton cap with the bill slightly turned up and askew to one side. A hesitate smile would emerge from his deeply lined face as the singing and laughter overtook us all.

Uncle Art and Aunt Wanda, Uncle Mokie and Aunt Rita, Uncle Dave and Aunt Doris, Aunt B and Uncle Al, cousin Bub and other assorted beloved cousins, aunts and uncles would drop round or be visited during my stay to my utter delight. It was indeed a grand and diverse parade of kindred Mr. and Mrs. Tanner brought forth from their union, sharing the spirit of love and joy of the season that secured the bond of this large family I deeply loved; that family whom without I would have been long abandoned to a dire fate.

Bedtime would come round far too soon as all went to rest upon soft feather beds, with crisp, white, cool, sun-sweetened sheets to snuggle into. As we settled in you could hear the sighs of comfort from each room of rest. I would quietly say my prayers after good nights, sleep tights and don’t let the bedbugs bite were shared. I prayed for God to not take me from this idealistic haven ever again but fully aware only a couple of weeks would remain for my blissful stay.

Mother Tanner's tree illuminated the quiet dark night through the living room opening to the bedroom as I basked in its glow from my iron framed, feathery cloud of sweet peace. I breathed deeply the cool night air and found the stars in the dark night through the windows. Unable to find sleep behind bleary eyes, I watched the brilliant winter moon stretch silvery fingers along the linoleum floors, eventually reaching my waiting right hand with fingers outstretched peeking from under the mound of covers. And I thanked God as I eventually and blissfully drifted off into the deep slumber of the innocent and wishful dreams children dream in the cold seasonal nights. Yes, this is the love yearned for, the elusive peace and phantom security not known to this one child, God had intended for his children’s children to be nurtured within.

Gin-Nie Tanner Smith
High Point NC



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