[A posthumous tribute I wrote on Dad’s 90th birthday]
As a very little girl, I used to love playing in a closet just off the back stairs. If I closed the door, I felt alone in a house otherwise teeming with people but safe in a world full of potential adventure and hidden treasures: hundreds of worn paperbacks, my mother’s colored array of high-heeled shoes, and stylish hats in hatboxes from another era.
Exploring in the closet one day, I played with the door’s heavy, brass lock and accidentally locked myself in. Suddenly, I didn’t feel safe anymore. My fun and adventure quickly turned to fear and isolation—feelings mostly foreign to me as a child. Even those dearest to me couldn’t help me escape. My mother couldn’t explain how to unlatch the lock, my brothers couldn’t unlock it from the outside, and my sisters couldn’t comfort me with their kind words.
Then my dad happened along.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t open the lock either at first, but, when I quieted down from crying, I could hear him saying some reassuring words. Then, unexpectedly, he pushed a shiny penny under the door, an awkward sort of attempt to comfort me. To me, the coin was more than a penny; it was a connection to my father who wanted to rescue me from my fears and somehow express his love.
Most fathers I know seem to have a powerful need to protect their daughters, to keep them from the meanness and dangers in the world. To shelter them, they often think and act irrationally. This protectiveness is not reserved for little girls either. Think of Steve Martin in Father of the Bride. With his now-grown daughter’s wedding fast approaching, he acts more and more absurdly, to the point of hilarity. One of the funniest scenes is when Martin’s fierce sense of protection for his daughter drives him to extremes. He snoops around the future in-laws’ house, examining prescriptions and bankbooks, and ends up in the swimming pool.
Although I was the last of his six daughters, he hadn’t run out of fatherly love and protection when I came along, and he made a conscious effort to pass on that protective concern to my brothers. He even had them role-play what to do when a woman was in danger. Dad made me feel safe as a child and continued to make me feel safe as an adult through his love, laughter, and convictions.
My mom tells me that as a very young child I was showered with physical affection from Dad. As a teenager, I also was often smothered by Dad’s whisker kisses and frequently treated to his famous “airplane rides.” Standing at all of 5’4,” he would swing me up on to his shoulders and twirl me around and around. He teased and tickled; he bragged and built me up. In short, he made me believe I could do or be anything I wanted to. If that’s not love, what is?
When Dad laughed, I felt all was right with the world. I used to love hearing him watch “Hogan’s Heroes,” his favorite T.V. show because he would laugh himself silly. Just the sound of his laughter could instantly dispel my worries and dwarf the world’s dangers. Just for fun, sometimes my brothers and I would launch “tickle attacks” on Dad. For my brothers, the physical conquest was probably the sport, but for me hearing him laugh meant victory.
My father’s firm convictions were legendary. He himself often admitted that he had “firm-fixed ideas, many of which [were] false.” Right or wrong, though, his strong beliefs gave me confidence and assurance, especially when I would hear him bear witness of God. Such a testimony gave me a deep sense of security, knowing that some things never change. Wise fathers know they can’t truly protect their children from every danger in the world. So, instead, they give them the ability to navigate life with their own courage and conviction. Such was the kind of protection my dad gave to me. On the morning of my wedding day, Dad asked if I would drive with him to the temple so the two of us could talk alone. Interestingly, his last words of counsel to me as a single woman had to do with protecting me and my future family from spiritual dangers.
On September 11, 2001, the world changed forever. Terrorists blew up the Twin Towers in New York City, and Americans began to know fear like never before. Almost instantly, people everywhere sought the shelter of precious family relationships, many of which had been ignored or neglected. Since that horrific day, we’ve been reminded that the world is no longer a safe place. Every time we board an airplane, our possessions and persons are scanned and radio broadcasts periodically report on unexplained “orange” and “red” alerts.
Almost one year later, on September 1, 2002, my father passed away. That was the day my world changed forever. Although I didn’t feel fear, I lost some of the security of my childhood and the safety of my father’s love.
Fortunately, much of Dad lives on in his posterity. Many carry his love for life, sense of humor, and courageous convictions. But I still miss him, and, until I see him again, I will continue to miss his kisses, his laughter, his approbation, and especially his adoration.
Every once in a while, I have a moment or a memory that is like getting my own “penny from heaven,” reminding me that Dad is just on the other side trying to protect me and trying to tell me he loves me.
Athelia Sears Tanner, age 99, passed away on January 16, 2020. She was born on September 12, 1920 in Bountiful, Utah, the seventh of ten children. She grew up in Salt Lake City, where she met William Coats (Bill) Tanner, Jr. in high school. They were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple on February 14, 1942. She graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in nutritional science while expecting her first child. She and Bill moved several times while he went to war and pursued graduate degrees. By the time he graduated in 1952, the couple had six children. They moved their growing family to South Pasadena, California, where they lived for the next thirty-four years and reared 13 children (seven sons and six daughters).
After sending most of their children on church missions, Bill and Athelia themselves spent the next decade and a half serving five missions together, including one as President of the Illinois Chicago Mission. Their love and service have touched the lives of thousands of people and have had an immeasurable impact on their posterity. Following Bill’s passing in 2002, Athelia served yet another mission for the church at the Nauvoo Illinois Temple with her sister Lue.
For the last few years, Athelia lived in the Inn at Barton Creek, where she enjoyed almost daily visits from her children and grandchildren. Her loving influence was felt not only by her family but also by the other residents and employees of Barton Creek. She was known for her warm smile and her contagious optimism. She loved life, learning, and the Lord. She was known for always saying, “Make it a great day!” Athelia Sears Tanner made it a great life!
Athelia was preceded in death by her husband, her eight siblings, and her parents (Athelia Viola Call and William Gailey Sears). She is survived by her sister, Lucille Sears Hofmann. Her direct descendants include 13 children—Roberta (Ray) Graham, Athelia (Ken) Woolley, Terri (Jim-deceased) Mitchell, William C. Tanner, III (Susan), John (Susan) Tanner, Richard (Shawn) Tanner, Mark (Ann) Tanner, Claralyn (Ross) Palfreyman, Kaye (Guy) Whitworth, Daken (Carolee) Tanner, Scott (Julie) Tanner, Janet (Ken) Perry, and Bryan (Renae) Tanner--as well as 78 grandchildren, 191 great grandchildren, and six great great grandchildren.
A funeral visitation will be held on Friday January 24, 6-8 pm at the downtown Radisson Hotel (215 W South Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84101). Family and friends are invited.
There will be an additional funeral visitation Saturday morning, from 8:30-10:00 at the Bountiful East Stake Center (650 E. 2150 South Bountiful, UT 84010). The funeral services will be held at the same location from 10:30-noon. Following the funeral, the family will hold a private interment at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests making a contribution to BYU–Hawaii’s IWORK program to support students from Samoa, where Athelia’s father served three missions: https://ldsp-pay.ldschurch.org/donations/byu-hawaii?funds=30208039
Tanner Manor boasted eight bedrooms and six bathrooms but only one shower. With several rows of perforated piping, the master bathroom “surround shower” was way ahead of its time. Sadly, though, we never used it because it leaked. So, in typical Tanner-fashion, we neither complained about it nor fixed it; we simply used our only other option: the bathtubs.
Tanners were first-rate bathers. We knew how to maximize the water and space in a tub. When we were younger, we bathed like pioneers, sharing bath water till it went murky and cold. Later, when we were allowed the luxury of having our own baths, we learned how to bathe quickly when needed and to take long baths (like Mom) whenever possible.
I was almost home from school. In fact, I was only a block away from Tanner Manor. There, at the bottom of the hill at the intersection of Foothill and Fremont, a girl about five years older than me glanced quickly as she crossed my path. Stopping dead in her tracks, she suddenly turned around and blurted out, “Hey, are you a Tanner?”
“Who?” I responded, doing my best dead pan. “Who are the Tanners?” Then, with Tanner heritage written all over my face, I told a flat-out, bald-faced lie. “No. I’m not a Tanner.” And, with that, I turned and walked away, laughing as if I’d really gotten away with something.
Some probably found it surprising that a family with so many rambunctious children could be tamed (at least occasionally), but Mom and Dad insisted we learn our manners.
Our training began at the front door. Dad, a psychologist who ran his counseling and testing business in the east wing of the house, had his clients come and go through that door. They might have preferred to slip in and out quietly, but we Tanners would have none of that, least of all Dad. He took full advantage of our ever-revolving door to help his children develop some professional polish.
Never ashamed of our hand-me-downs or homemade haircuts, Dad would pull us to his side and proudly introduce us as his “favorite seven-year-old” or his “favorite fifteen-year-old,” and so forth. We could usually count on him getting our names right, but “Don’t ask me to remember their birthdays,” he’d say each time, only half-jokingly. With each introduction, we were required to “Look ‘em in the eye!” while giving a firm handshake. With that kind of practice, we learned over time to be “free and comfortable in all situations,” just as Dad would train his clients to be.
Animals were not highly valued in our home.
Goldfish came…and went, usually by way of the toilet. Like most kids, we filled our share of Mason jars with fuzzy black caterpillars, none of which turned into butterflies. But those animals were more science experiments than actual pets.
Once, however, I won a pet turtle at the El Centro School Carnival. As sole owner, I was responsible for feeding and caring for the little critter, but I failed miserably. I can’t even remember actually feeding it. Although he was fun to play with, I soon lost interest. Worse, I lost my turtle. He escaped, and we couldn’t find him for days. In fact, we never found him. Weeks later, one of Dad’s clients found him crawling across the living room floor.
On our vacations, we never stayed in hotels. Instead, when Dad got tired driving, he would simply pull over to the side of the road. Out came the sleeping bags. That was our cue to pile out of the car and get comfortable in our makeshift “natural” hotel under the stars.
Once in Utah, we had even fewer reasons to book a hotel. Although no relative could handle housing all of us at once, Mom and Dad had yet another vacation strategy: separate the children into small clusters—sending a couple kids here and a few more there—until we were divided up like foster kids, imposing on several aunts.
Our family vacations were predictable. Every summer we made the straight shot on 1-15 from L.A. to Salt Lake City where both Mom and Dad grew up. So, a “vacation” to me meant a road trip to see the relatives. Even then, we usually only visited Mom’s siblings.
To get their whole tribe from point A to point B, Mom and Dad had a strategy. They would wake us all in the middle of the night. Then, half-asleep, we would squeeze us into the old station wagon and head for Las Vegas, our first stop before dawn. The purpose of this early start time was many-fold: beat the heat, reduce the decibel level, minimize touching, and avoid (some of) the inevitable bickering.
For many years, even until I was an adult, I thought that we Tanner children gave homemade sugar cookies as valentines because they were less expensive than the ubiquitous boxed kind. (Most choices in our household were filtered through the money lens.) You can imagine my surprise when, as a mother myself, I discovered those sold for about a dollar—even years later!
Grandma got the best bedroom in Tanner Manor. It was only one with a private bathroom, and it boasted windows on three sides and an ample walk-in closet. The room was large enough to hold Grandma’s own furniture, which included a mini-pantry; a bedroom set with a dresser, mirror, and queen-size bed; an upholstered green rocking chair; and a black and white TV.
I'm the twelfth of 13 children. I was born into a poor family living in a big house on top of a hill in South Pasadena, California. We called it Tanner Manor, and these are my stories of growing up there.