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.
Hers was the only television in the house for a long time. So, on Friday nights, my siblings and I would squeeze into her room, huddle around the TV, and watch “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Those weekly performances of Bobby and Sissy dancing, punctuated by bubbles and Geritol commercials, kept our attention.
Even more entertaining, though, was Grandma herself. A colorful character in her own right, she’d tell stories of days gone by, sprinkling them with strange but funny phrases like “I could sit on a dime and swing my legs,” and “I felt lower than a snake’s belly.”
On Saturday nights, Kaye assumed the weekly task of rolling Grandma’s gray hair in soft, pink curlers. This ritual continued Sunday mornings when, rollers out, Grandma proudly caressed the “natural crimp” in her hair then had Kaye apply her makeup. Finally, with her pearl earrings and necklace accessorizing her pale blue dress, she went to church looking like the Queen of England.
Grandma had a sweet tooth that Dad and many of us children inherited. This weakness played in my favor when, after picking out pieces of Brach’s candy at Safeway, I would offer to deliver Grandma's treats to her room. Of course, the trip upstairs gave me a chance to sneak a caramel, butterscotch, or coconut Neapolitan. But I wasn’t the only one who knew how to hide treats. More than once, candy cascaded to the ground from under Grandma’s apron when Dad went to help her out of her rocking chair. Caught in the act, she would first feign denial then become predictably indignant.
Unable to move easily, Grandma didn’t see us much unless we stopped by her room. There, I’d often find her darning socks for our family. Although I don’t remember actually wearing those socks, to Mom’s credit, mending was Grandma’s assigned job, which helped her feel needed.
She was too feeble to make much of a contribution to the family workload, but she had not forgotten her years in Utah when she did work hard. She was apt to brag about baking dozens of pies and hundreds of rolls for the men at the Kennecott Copper Mines where she and Grandpa Tanner lived and worked for a time. Inevitably, though, such conversations would trail off into her wistful longing to die and to be reunited with her husband Bill.
Occasionally, on afternoons with nothing much to do, Bryan and I wandered into Grandma’s room where she would entertain us with her harmonica. Swaying back and forth in her rocking chair and cradling her instrument with two hands, she would puff her wrinkled cheeks in and out, in and out for all she was worth. Bryan and I ran back and forth around her bed endlessly, laughing and singing as she accompanied us to a fast version of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” However, when she began belting out her horrifying lullaby, we giggled uncomfortably at the lyrics: “Oh, you take the hatchet, and I’ll take the saw, and we’ll saw off the leg of my mother-in-law!”
Eventually, Grandma got too heavy for Mom to lift into the tub. So, about the time I turned 12, we had to move her into a local rest home. Tanner Manor would be her last real home. We visited her often during the week and faithfully on Sundays, but I hated those visits. I hated how the place smelled. I hated the blank stares of the patients and their scary groans. I hated walking down the hall and, like a gauntlet, dodging their flaccid arms reaching out to touch me. I especially hated seeing my Grandma dressed in thin hospital gowns and eating colorless food warmed up from cans. But most of all I hated seeing her hair tied up in a ponytail with cheap craft yarn. Once so proud of her appearance, her dignity was now stripped from her. Part of me had to resist the urge to run away so I wouldn’t have to remember her looking so ridiculous.
Fortunately, I carry many positive memories of Grandma Tanner, even one from her time in that rest home. One Sunday after church, the family stopped in for a visit, and, circling her bed, we began singing the hymn “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” At that point in her life, Grandma couldn’t remember much, but she had not forgotten any of the words to that song. In fact, she joined in singing all four verses. Afterwards, more remarkably, she sat up straight and, in a rare moment of clarity, spontaneously bore a powerful testimony of Jesus Christ. Of some things, she was certain, and her belief in the Savior and His atonement were some of those things.
These days, with so many choices of elder-care facilities staffed with well-trained professionals, some question having an elderly relative live in their home. Clearly, that choice means added work. In fact, when Grandma Tanner came to live with us in Tanner Manor, Mom was still taking care of 11 of her own children. Yet, even during that extremely busy time of life, she welcomed, loved, and served her mother-in-law. That decision to bring Grandma to live at Tanner Manor would give me my one shot at knowing what it feels like to have a grandmother. During those few years, I would come to love and be loved by this one-of-a-kind, unforgettable woman.
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.