Thanksgivings Past

by Terry Hogan

It seems to me to have been a different time. A time when the clocks ran slower, the days were longer and the sun was observed at sunset. It was a time when the stars filled the sky with brilliance, and the Milky Way was a watercolor brush stroke against the black infinity. It was a time when farming was still done with the hands. It was a time when farmers helped farmers, neighbor to neighbor. It was a time when families were close; not spread to the winds. It was a time, nearly a half a century ago.

I was just a lad and looked forward to the hubbub of Thanksgiving at my grandparents. They lived and worked at Munson Seed Corn, south and west of Galesburg. My Grandpa Wes worked with his hands, large and swollen from years of work, too big for his wiry frame. His hair had even then silvered. Grandma Nina was in charge of the kitchen. She was a kitchen pro, knowing most of what she cooked from when it was a seed.

On Thanksgiving Day, we would arrive at the farm, full of anticipation of a mid-afternoon Thanksgiving dinner. Aunt Doris, my mother's sister, and Uncle Verne would also arrive about the same time. Food was brought to add to the over-laden dining room table, bearing the weight of turkey, ham and an assortment of home grown foods, and a few, very few, purchased items. Pickles, both sweet and dill, were in display. They had been cucumbers in the garden visible outside the dining room window, not long before. Watermelon rind pickles were also available, made by Grandmother's hands.

Potatoes, brought up from storage, washed, pealed, boiled and mashed, were about to meet their end. Remnants of the potato plants were still in the garden, suffering the decay, the frost, and the early season snow, in the process of returning to garden soil.

Pumpkin, cherry and apple pies lay waiting to tempt the overfed. These were homemade pies, with fragile homemade crusts, displaying carved or punctured designs. Grandma's homemade Swedish rye bread, lay sliced, close to the sliced cheese, a perfect match.

As the women worked in the kitchen and dining room, preparing the final touches, the house would heat with the oven and moisture would cover the windows, as if to hide the overabundance of the day.

The fathers, uncle, and sons sat in the small living room, savoring the aroma of the meal that was about to be. Three generations had gathered to share the bounty of the fine Knox farmland. If I had been observant and thoughtful as a child, I could have looked at our family and seen the future. My grandparents were farmers. They lived close to the soil. They grew what they ate, and ate what they grew. They lived on the farm soil they toiled. My grandparents had little money, but were never hungry. My father and my uncle were not farmers, although my uncle was closely dependent upon the local farmers for his profession. My brothers and I were destined to be even more removed from farm life. Two of us had to leave Illinois to find our jobs, both remote from toiling the soil. We were to become financially wealthier than our grandparents, but not without a price.

But we knew none of this on the Thanksgivings of nearly a half a century ago. As the youngest son, I had no idea of the uncertainty that life would bring. I don't think that I even recognized that this would not go on forever. Grandma's rye bread, her collection of hundreds of salt and peppershakers that lined shelves along the living room, all seemed beyond change.

Traditions were set and maintained. We ''men'' (including me), would make periodic swings through the kitchen or dining room to grab up a bit of turkey or ham, or pickle. We fully expected, and received, stern orders to get out of the way and to wait for dinner. We were an odd mix of soldiers who made these early raids. Grandpa Wes, thin, small, with gnome hands, participated least in these raids. He would sit in his chair, with his pipe, smoking Prince Albert tobacco, his legs crossed, and sitting, leaning to one side. He often wore a clean blue work shirt and coveralls for the occasion. Uncle Verne was a little rotund, had a baldhead for as long as I could remember him. Verne's shiny dome and his propensity to fall asleep and snore after the meal was over, were a continuing source of family tales and humor.

Verne would usually lead the group for the official filling of the plates. As the dining room was small and the table was covered with dishes of food, it was served like a buffet, with dinner eaten in the living room. Some balanced food on laps, some ate on card tables, and there were even a few ''TV tables'' spread around. Surprisingly, I do not remember major spills. Eating was mingled with stories, weather, how the crops went, and the like. No radio, no TV, no external distractions worked the perimeters of this rural Thanksgiving family gathering.

Of course, this may read a lot like a verbal painting for the Saturday Evening Post. It is not intended to be, but it was viewed and is now recalled through the mind's eye of that child. It is certain that parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle had problems, had worries, but those problems and worries were not visible to me, nor were they part of Thanksgiving.

These family gatherings helped set a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a sense of history for a young lad. Farmers will be the first to tell you the importance of good roots.

As I grew older, I lost my grandmother and grandfather, but I gained a wife. She was a Warren County farm girl, but from just across the line. I used to tell her that I thought I was marrying her, not adopting a clan. Her father and brothers were farmers and lived near one another. Family traditions, get-togethers, oral history and humor were at an entirely different level. It made my clan look a little like slackers. But they made me part of the family and made me welcome. I couldn't have asked for a better father-in-law or brother-in-laws. In time, I learned some of the old family names, and some of the geographic shorthand that farmers use- the ''Dunn 80,'' ''the angling road'', etc. I learned that my wife had deep roots in this Warren County soil. Her ancestors lie in the rich Warren County soil, in the rural cemetery, just down the gravel road from her family's homestead. The cemetery fence protects the trees that provide summer shade for the very markers that their roots tilt.

I became a part of their family history, and a part of their Thanksgiving Day, that was held at my father-in-laws. There was much in common, although theirs had more generations present and more branches of the tree. They enjoyed telling ''Swede jokes'' when I was the new member of the family. I knew it was in good jest, as many of the extended family had found those Swedes attractive and there were a number of small, blue-eyed children buzzing around the table, heaped with food. In time, our own blue-eyed blond daughters joined into the Bedlam of Thanksgiving Day at the Browns.

If these remembrances of Thanksgivings past have any value, it is because they are not unique. Farm families throughout the Midwest were gathering in similar homes, with similar foods, home grown, and creating their own family histories. It is our shared humanity, our shared experiences that bind us together and make us one.

Backtracking, many of these family members are now gone, living only in our memories. With this Thanksgiving, my wife and I hope to have four generations at our home. It will not be at a farmhouse, nor will we be as familiar with the origins of our food, other than from which superstore it came from. But we will have Great Grandma, Grandpa and Grandma, Mom and Dad, Aunt and Uncle, and Nathan, who is two years old. The young lad of Knox County Thanksgivings long ago and his Warren County bride now wear the clothes of Grandpa and Grandma. We find them comfortable.

I wish you and yours, health, good cheer and happiness this Thanksgiving.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online November 22, 2000

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