The image above is, of course, from the remarkable Norman Rockwell and his 1943 drawing “Freedom From Want.” For so many, Rockwell captured the essence of people, their actions and emotions, in a way no one else could. My senses and emotions are all involved when I see this drawing and recollect on so many wonderful memories of Thanksgiving with my extended family. I can feel the love of my family envelope me, the wonderful smells of the turkey, cornbread dressing and giblet gravy, along with all the various conversations going on simultaneously.
On this day, three years ago, my dear, sweet Momma passed away and I haven’t been, nor do I ever expect to be, the same person ever again. Rather than focus on this gut-shredding pain and soul-felt loss, I wish to relate some of the emotions and feelings I experienced with my family over the years. Thanksgiving was, without a doubt, the favorite Holiday in our family and continued to be my Momma’s, which makes for a sad irony, as her funeral was the day after.
My mother’s family all grew up on my grandparent’s farm in North West Louisiana about twenty five miles East of Shreveport, La. on U.S. Highway 80. It was a wonderful farm and a little piece of Heaven on Earth. It was a working farm with cotton and corn being the cash crops, and a huge vegetable garden which supplied us with an enormous quantity of vegetables and everything from it was preserved or frozen for consumption all year long. Of course there were animals such as chickens, cows, mules and a few pigs. The pigs were for the wonderful hams and sausages that we enjoyed all year round, as there was a big smokehouse on the farm; the chickens were used for their meat and eggs and the cows for their milk, which we also churned into butter. Even with so much work that needed to be done, my grandmother kept us busy and made the tasks seem fun. She was the sweetest, kindest woman I have ever known and she passed that on to my Mom.
Thanksgiving at the farm was a huge undertaking which my grandmother always looked forward to, as it was the one time each year that all of her children and their husbands, her grandchildren and great grandchildren would all be together at her farm and she spared no expense or effort to make her family happy. Not only did there need to be enough food for everyone, there had to be enough left over for everyone to take some home.
Family started arriving on the day before Thanksgiving and the excitement of seeing all of our relatives again and the spirit of the holiday were invigorating. There were typically twenty to thirty people gathered for the festivities. The adults would all gather in the main kitchen, with the cousins all gathered in other rooms, but mostly in the living room, even though there wasn’t much to watch on television back then (we only got the big three networks). The farm house was big, but only had four actual bedrooms, so they all got doubled up while the living room was transformed into a barracks at night, with wall to wall kids sleeping on fold out beds or on pallets. It was fun and an adventure, with lots of laughing, giggling and admonitions from the adults to “go to sleep!”
On the morning of Thanksgiving, all healthy males above the age of about ten were awakened just after dawn and instructed to get dressed in their outdoors clothing. The men needed to get out of the way. So we did and got in line to take turns in the one bathroom in the huge house. As we slowly and sleepily trudged through the house, being semi-respectful of those still sleeping, the men that had them grabbed their shotguns and shells from the gun cabinet. We got a cup of lukewarm instant coffee and a piece of toast, with instructions not to return until about 09:30a.m. for breakfast. The men would all go out into the woods on the farm and usually break up into groups of three or four, and God help any wild critters that crossed their paths. It was these moments with my male relatives that I was indoctrinated into being a Son of the South. Stomping around in the woods with a gun, as well as with good company, is an experience I will never grow tired of. It also taught me a great deal about some of the characters in my family, the joke tellers, the practical jokers and of course the quieter, gentler men, who laughed easily.
One year, as a very young boy, I asked my grandfather if I could carry his shotgun back to the house, as we were headed in. My grandfather, a big, tough looking rascal, with the biggest squishy heart in the world, loved his John Browning designed Remington Model 11 and he looked at me with a serious look on his face and reluctantly agreed, with a strong caution not to drop it. I proudly carried my Pappaw’s shotgun home without a problem, as I was a big boy, now.
Returning to the back kitchen door, we stomped the mud off of our boots and quickly dispersed to get dressed for breakfast. The women in the family had been very busy, not only preparing all of the food for the Thanksgiving dinner, but the massive breakfast, as well. As we excitedly and hungrily sat down for breakfast, when my great grandfather was there, Pappaw David, he always said Grace, but when he wasn’t one of the children were generally asked to give the blessing. It gave us pause, to appreciate all of the blessings we had received, with family and food.
Then the breakfast would commence.
With as many as thirty mouths to feed the quantities were enormous, with large platters stacked high with my grandmother’s heavenly buttermilk biscuits(yes..she used lard), platters of fried quail, platters of ham and sausages, platters of scrambled eggs, huge bowls of grits, huge bowls of cream, brown and red-eye gravy, along with other assorted items, such as the Louisiana classic table accoutrement, Steen’s pure cane syrup, for sopping our biscuits. The milk and butter, were of course, all fresh from the cows.
After everything was devoured, the kitchen was cleared, the crowd dispersed and the women took charge once again in preparing for the dinner meal. The Thanksgiving dinner was even more enormous than the breakfast and consisted of two twenty pound plus Turkeys, an untold number of dishes of dressing, gallons of gravy, candied yams, English peas, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls and numerous side dishes.
Of course, thinking of the food is a fond thing to do, but you reading this, certainly you understand, that the quality of the ingredients and the seasonings don’t effect the taste of the food nearly as much as the love that was put into each and every morsel. The love at these gatherings was so enveloping, it might as well have been a swimming hole and you just jump in head first, it was that powerful and surrounding.
Those days can never be recreated and I hope I have taken you to a place that existed once and was nearly as picture perfect as Rockwell’s drawing.
I loved all of those wonderful people, from all of those wonderful memories and they shall remain with me to my end.
*addendum* I will forward the link to this story to some of my relatives, and hopefully they can share a memory of those wonderful days, in the comment section.