The Gilmer-Smith Foundation once again served Surry County a gracious helping of holiday cheer in a Victorian package with the annual Gertrude Smith House Day Before Christmas Eve storytelling Sunday night.
Gilmer-Smith Foundation Executive Director Ann Vaughn and foundation Chairman David Beal said this is the 17th year for the event designed to give families a respite from the mayhem of a contemporary Christmas. The evening featured musician Tina Smith, who led participants of all ages in traditional holiday songs, and local storytellers Brack and Angela Lewellyn.
Vaughn explained the event was moved to the day before Christmas Eve because so many participants were involved in family and church activities and couldn’t attend the event on Christmas Eve. She said the Lewellyns had been a long time feature of the event and Smith’s guitar talents were added three years ago. She emphasized that the staff goes all out with its Victorian Christmas decorations throughout the house to really set the tone for the season.
“We have designed this to be an event for the entire family,” explained Vaughn. “This is our gift to the community. It is a chance to slow down, sit back and appreciate what is really important about Christmas.” She said the event really stresses friends, and cited the large amount of return participants filling two rooms and the staircase as a good sign.
“This is a way to get away from the mayhem of the malls for a few hours of fun, food and fellowship,” summarized Vaughn. She explained the late Gertrude Smith was a great patron of the arts and loved local history and the preservation of downtown Mount Airy’s history such as making the house available as a historic site and a place to stage cultural events.
“Christmas at the Gertrude Smith House is my favorite time of the year,” said Beal. “I start getting excited about it in October. I’m usually one of the first in when the decorating begins, which is a four-day process. I like to see every stage of the process.” The home has a total of six Frasier firs
He said the decision to change the date of the story telling was a straight forward answer to an event focused squarely on family from the beginning.
“We moved it back. This year that makes the event fall on a Sunday which gives our participants a free day which I think is just great,” said Beal. “One walk around the house and you’ll see what it’s all about. If I had one wish at this house I would like to be here at Christmas, seated at the dining room table and looking out the window just as it begins snowing.”
Brack Lewellyn said he enjoys story telling at the home because it is a natural setting for sharing.
“Generally speaking, the crowds at this event tend to be very relaxed. It’s very intimate. The very house lends itself to this. Usually by this time of the season the holiday rush is mostly over and people are really ready to catch their breath. They can sit here two hours with us and listen but they are not obligated to do so. They can leave any time. It’s like a buffet where you can sample as much or as little as you wish.”
The couple says storytellers, for the most part, learn how to size up the audience and present what they would like to hear. Angela Lewellyn pointed to a variety of books she had with her to meet the interests of the audience.
“Angela and I were just over at a big box retailer that will remain nameless,” began Llewellyn. “I was amazed at how many people you can cram into on shopping aisle. We are at that point of the season when you can smell the fear. That’s the thing about story telling. Experiences are where you find your new stories.” He said the little boxes of striped sugar candy there reminded him of his “Aunt” Fran.
He told the group Aunt Fran wasn’t really anybody’s aunt but was considered one by many of the family and community. He explained Fran’s love of the traditional, white striped stick candy that is still a fixture in many Christmas stockings.
He said his story began when Fran was in her teens in 1943. America was in the midst of a World War at and the country was uncertain on its outcome. Fran, like many young girls in the area gravitated to the Elks Club dance to meet boys. He said many people like to do something fun in stressful times even to this day.
Llewellyn said Fran was the type of person who’d never met a stranger so she enjoyed the dances in spite of being under the watchful eye of her older sister, who chaperoned her.
He said this particular dance was the one where Fran looked up and saw Glen, a 20-year old with thick, curly brown hair. He explained Glen was good looking, even if his clothes were a bit big and hung off him. Llewellyn said Fran spent the rest of the evening trying to come up with an excuse to introduce herself to him.
The introduction happened when she accidentally bumped into him and spilled punch on Glen’s shirt.
“He didn’t seem to mind a bit,” said Llewellyn. “He’d seen her too. Things went from there. They danced every dance together that night and even though they didn’t know it they both were in love before the dance was over.” He said later the families approved of them being a couple. Glen told her he would marry her when she was 18.
Shortly after this, Glen was drafted. The last thing he told her was that he would be back and he would marry her. Llewellyn said Glen’s letters to Fran arrived fairly regularly. Fran became a fixture at the home of Glen’s family. She just wanted to be near those near him.
“Then one day, they got a letter that wasn’t from Glen,” recalled Llewellyn. “For the first time in her life Fran was truly afraid but she didn’t let on.”
He said next, the letter no parent wants to receive arrived for Glen’s parents. Glen was missing in action. Then came word Glen had been found but had been killed. He was 21 years old. Llewellyn said Fran stayed on with Glen’s family and eventually became Aunt Fran. She didn’t mind hard work and “could work from sun up to sun down.” He said she was one who never tired of sitting on the front porch watching the sun set like it was art work.
“That box of striped candy was the most perfect thing for Fran,” said Llewellyn. “She felt it was sweet, simple and who doesn’t like candy. Every Christmas everybody knew they would get a box of striped candy from Aunt Fran. Sometimes they’d joke with her about it.”
He said she lived into her early eighties. Her routine included working every day, visiting Glen’s grave and watching sunsets.
“Fran was as full of, as my dad would put it, spit and vinegar, on her last day as her first day she bumped into Glen,” said Llewellyn. “Her last day was like all her others. She did her chores, she visited her sweetheart’s grave, she watched the sun set. Then she went to sleep. Aunt Fran; wherever you are tonight thank you for the candy.”
Reach David Broyles at email@example.com or 719-1952.