FRANKF0RT — Although her house is filled with wreaths and candles and snowmen, Jane Smith's favorite Christmas decoration has to be her Dickens Village.
The first pieces were a gift from her mother, and with additions from family and friends, the miniature town grew to the length of a dining room table over the years. Displaying it marks the official start of the holiday season.
But for the last several years, the village has gathered dust in a basement corner with Smith's tree and assorted candles and bulbs. Life got in the way of tradition. Smith's time was consumed by caring for her husband, Stan, who has Alzheimer's.
She put up a small, tabletop tree last year. It was what she could do, not necessarily what she wanted to do.
This year is different. An unlikely friendship that crosses generations resulted in the village artfully arrayed and a living room tree glistening with ornaments, no two alike and every one with a story. The good cheer extends outside to a front door adorned in green garland and white lights.
Smith's "elves" say they were just giving back a small bit of what they've received.
"She has a heart that's not like anything in the whole entire world," said Gracee Oaken, 7. "She's really special to me."
Gracee came to know the woman she calls "Granny Jane" when Smith decided she wanted to get her nails done for her 50th anniversary celebration this summer. The woman doing her nails was Teena Oaken, Gracee's mom.
Smith, 72, and Oaken, 40, started chatting as people do over nail polish and buffers, but soon were sharing more than idle chit-chat. Oaken talked about her children; Smith talked about her Stan. Their friendship grew out of those conversations.
When Oaken's oldest daughter, Hailee Rogers, 17, started her senior year at Frankfort's Western Hills High School this year, Oaken took it hard. Smith knew it was coming, so she called Oaken.
"Come over for coffee," Smith said. So between dropping Gracee off at school and going to work at the salon — before she went to night school for nursing — Oaken stopped by. She talked, and Smith listened; now Oaken stops by several times a week.
"We solve the problems of the world" over coffee, Oaken said, with a laugh.
Granny Jane soon met Oaken's three daughters and made it a point to attend their important events, Hailee's beauty pageant, middle daughter Madee's archery tournament.
Oaken calls Smith a throwback, an "Aunt Bea" in the best sense. Smith's house is just what a grandmother's house should be, warm and cozy and filled with fresh baked goods, Hailee said. Smith has taught the girls how to make pulled candy, and they've accompanied her on some of her daily visits to see Stan, who is in a nursing home now.
Knowing Smith, said Oaken, "has just been the best Christmas gift because she gives of her time and her heart. People don't do that anymore."
The Christmas decorating was a small way to say thanks, Hailee said.
"Her heart is just so big and warm, and you just want to love her," she said.
The decorating team included Hailee's best friend, Alyssa Meece, 17, and their boyfriends, Matthew and Caleb Johnson, who are brothers. And, Oaken said, in what is perhaps the biggest miracle of all, they all put down their cellphones to do it.
It took them about five hours to decorate Smith's home, and they promise to come back to take it all down. Smith intends to continue to make the most of her role as Granny Jane but can't quite express enough gratitude for what was done for her.
"They let me have Christmas," she said.