“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
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
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
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
Gin-Nie Tanner Smith
High Point NC