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.
The day she arrived at Tanner Manor is the first time I remember meeting Clara Sutton Tanner, the one and only grandparent I ever knew. Breaking a hip necessitated her relocating from Utah to California where my dad, her only surviving child, lived, and where Mom would shoulder most of her care for the next several years. I must have been about six years old when, from my bedroom window, I watched the car pull into the driveway. Then Dad, with his customary chivalry, helped Grandma out of the car and let her take his arm. She shuffled into our house where she would live for the next several years.
Mom wasn’t exactly nocturnal, but no matter how early I got up, she was already awake. However, unlike other mothers who sat in their bathrobes while quietly reading the morning newspaper and sipping coffee, Mom would bounce out of bed, ready to “race through the day.” But before taking care of us, she took care of herself.
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.