I was a nephew to the Queen last Saturday

J. H. Osborne • Jul 5, 2019 at 3:04 PM

FAIRVIEW, Va. — For a few hours last weekend, I was related to royalty. My aunt, Gracie Tankersley Wallen — widow of my maternal uncle “Mitchell” (named Moses Richard by my grandparents, in honor of his two grandfathers) was named “Queen for a Day” at the 26th Annual George R. Tankersley Family Reunion.

At 90, Gracie was the oldest Tankersley in attendance. But she clearly has long held a cherished spot in the hearts of her kinfolk, based on their words, as one after another took the microphone to share memories about her, from way back when to right up to present day.

Mom was 14 years old when her brother married Gracie and brought her home. The newlyweds lived with Mom and my grandparents until they built their own home “next door.” That’s in quotes because in rural Lee County “next door” isn’t the same as next door her in the big city. Mom had been invited to the Tankersley Reunion several times in recent years, but hadn’t been able to make it for one reason or another. This year she told me way ahead of time to clear my calendar for June 29 so I could be sure to take her. I will admit at first I was not exactly enthusiastic. I’m not a Tankersley. What would I do there?

Well, I can’t tell you how glad I am I got to go. I learned a lot. About the Tankersleys. About Fairview Community Center. And even about Osbornes — I might have some relatives down in Whitmire, South Carolina. I knew I have some in Pacolet, a city not far from Whitmire.

Fairview Community Center

The reunion was held at the Fairview Community Center, a former Scott County elementary school. It was closed as a school nearly 30 years ago. But the county deeded it to a non-profit that formed to convert it into a community meeting place. It seems it took several years for the group to gain its footing, but let me tell you the facility is fantastic and regularly used to host numerous activities and events. It is, in my opinion, a model for what should happen to closed elementary schools. 

The Tankersleys

The reunion is hosted by the George R. Tankersley Family Reunion Association. Their first reunion was held on July 4, 1994 at Gracie’s homeplace (everyone went home with chiggers). The association publishes a newsletter to keep everyone up to speed and to share family stories and information. The newsletter promoting this year’s reunion urged recipients to “Spread the word and invite all relatives, and don’t skip anybody. Include the Maness’s, Waltons, Hurds, Robinettes, Inmans and all other relatives. The list is long: you know who they are! Also invite friends of the family —they’re welcome, too; they don’t have to be blood-related.”

The association’s historian, Clyde Ray Tankersley, gave a brief overview and introduction of the family’s history and how their branch ended up in Lee County. He mentioned that one line of the family moved west and two sons were train robbers, and some Tankersley’s (through the Robinette bloodline) are related to Jesse James. Later in the day I had a chance to talk with Clyde Ray and he told me the family can trace its origins back to Yorkshire, England in the 12th century — and somewhere there’s a potential link to King James I. It makes for a good tagline: “We’re related to everyone from King James to Jesse James.”

The gathering officially got under way with a chance for everyone to attempt to shake hands with every other person there. It was a “$20 handshake,” in which one person secretly had a $20 bill — to award to the 10th person to shake their hand. That was a new one on me. Things turned more serious afterward, with a prayer and some scripture reading. Then there was food. Lots of food. Finally, Gracie was called up and crowned. And several folks lined up to take turns talking about her many attributes.

Mom and Gracie

Mom (Wanda Wallen Osborne) and Gracie each say they are as close to being sisters as is possible. They have much in common, including that each is the youngest in their family. So they both ended up doing more housework than farm work growing up not far from each other. When Mitchell and Gracie married, Mom’s and Gracie’s adventures began. Mom, to my surprise, eagerly took the microphone and told tales to the large group of people. First she told about having to teach Gracie to pick greens. They’d been invited by a neighbor to “pick a mess” of their just-coming-in mustard greens. Mom went down an aisle, carefully selecting and pinching off mature leaves. A few minutes later she looked back and saw Gracie’s bag was much fuller ... and that Gracie was pulling the plants up, roots and all. And then, Mom said, they both had a good laugh. Next Mom told about she and Gracie once heading off, on foot, toward church. Just out of sight of my grandparents house, a family they knew — father, mother, daughter — stopped to see if they’d like a ride. Mom said they couldn’t decide if they wanted to ride, because they’d have to sit in the back of the old pickup. As they debated, Gracie put one foot on the running board. Thinking they weren’t getting in, the man began to pull out — and Gracie, towing Mom by hand, began to run/hop alongside the truck. And Mom tried to keep up. But within a few moments the mother in the truck’s cab saw them and told her husband to stop. They got in and road on to church, laughing all the way and trying to hide their laughter from their benefactors.

Mom has lots more “Wanda and Gracie” stories. I can’t write them all here and now.

As for being “Queen for a Day,” Gracie said she enjoyed it and was honored and humbled. But she did not like wearing a tiara. I wonder why Mom didn’t help her with that.

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