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 was raised on stories of honesty, some of which became legendary over time. For example, one time my Grandma Tanner was mistakenly given too much change by a shopkeeper. Making every effort to be scrupulously honest, she ended up paying more in bus fare to return the money than the worth of the extra dime she was given.
With such family lore, I should have known better than to pick roses from our neighbor’s front yard. As a small child, I had merely wanted to give my mother a gift. But, instead of responding with the delight, Mom met my expectant gaze with disappointment.
Up to that moment, it had not occurred to me that I had been stealing. I was a thief!
One of the hallmarks of my parents’ parenting style was an optimistic attitude toward whatever life brought by quickly recognizing and consistently acknowledging God’s blessings. Their positive approach began long before I was born and continued for as long as I can remember. One dramatic example of such fortitude came during a near catastrophe just after moving into Tanner Manor when a fire, almost undetected, broke out. Instead of dwelling on the hassle of having to move out or the myriad of other inconveniences they suffered, Mom and Dad would immediately and forever after frame the story of “The Fire” in light of God’s mercy, miracles, and protection.
In Dad’s own words, this is what it happened:
I knew early in life what it felt like to be hungry for work. If we kids wanted pocket change, we had to earn it, and we knew we weren’t going to get paid working at home. So, at nine years old, determined to make some money and apparently unafraid of rejection, I set out with Bryan and began combing the streets of our neighborhood. It’s a wonder our parents didn’t stop us, two young street urchins, from knocking on the doors of perfect strangers and begging for work. But those were different times. Besides, Mom and Dad strongly encouraged us to be financially resourceful, often overlooking apparent dangers.
Our home did not just have an open-door policy; we had an open-everything policy. Our windows had no screens, and our doors were never locked, even when we left on vacation. With at least six different doors, several large bay windows, and two balconies not off limits to tree climbers, Tanner Manor was very permeable, making it nigh unto impossible to lock up.
Built in 1912, Tanner Manor had no intercom system to help us communicate with quiet gentility or discretion. Consequently, when the phone rang or someone showed up at the front door, we’d just yell through the house, “Answer the pho-oone!” Each command was delivered with an exclamation point planted firmly at the end, splitting the final syllable into two. “Get the do-oor!” By yelling, we hoped to save ourselves the hassle of hunting for someone throughout the entire house. If we had to, we would continue to holler from room to room until we found the person being called upon.
When I read the book The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, I knew Mom and Evelyn Ryan, the protagonist, would have been fast friends. The two of them, in many ways, are peas in a pod. Both raised big families during the 50s and 60s. Both were brilliant women who chose to pour their intellect into family rather than fortune. Both loved words and had a knack for stringing together rhymes almost effortlessly. And both faced pending financial disaster with pluck and optimism. I’m sure Mom would have had fun channeling her creativity into marketing ditties, but, unlike Mrs. Ryan, she didn’t make any money with her jingles.
In 2012, Tanner Manor turned 100 years old. During that century, many families owned and occupied the 7200-square-foot mansion on top of the hill at 1133 Buena Vista Street in South Pasadena, California. However, you would be hard-pressed to find another family that used every square inch of it and loved it as much as my family did during the 18 years we lived there.
But before we could move in, my parents needed a miracle—a big one.
I don’t think I was even three years old yet when it happened. My earliest childhood memory is slipping on a wet, wooden kitchen bench and knocking out my two front teeth. Oddly, I can’t remember crying or being in pain, although I vaguely remember being rushed to the car to see the doctor. Or was it the dentist? The family could only find one of the two teeth with the second remaining a mystery until I had x-rays. Apparently, I had fallen so hard that my missing tooth was embedded somewhere up by my nose.
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.