In the Ozarks of my childhood, Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the cozy season. After long, hot days spent planting, cultivating, harvesting and canning, the holiday was the beginning of a winter rest.
My mother used to say, “When nights begin to lengthen, cold begins to strengthen.” She looked forward to the colder days of the year, knowing there would be more time for visiting with neighbors, piecing quilts, and attending meetings at the church.
The men in my family looked forward to putting their hunting dogs to work and/or trying out new guns in the tattered corn fields and layered hills surrounding their farms.
Thanksgiving meant a lot of things for the children, too. For me, it meant there would be a family reunion at my grandparents’ home, and it meant the beginning of a sort of magic that wouldn’t end until after Christmas.
Before the holiday, children at my two-room school heard the story of that first Thanksgiving, and the windows were gaily decorated with cut-out pilgrims, turkeys and pumpkins. When at last, the teacher reached for the bell that summoned us to put away our books for four whole days, we were already on our feet. Other times she might have made us sit down for a less hurried exit, but it was Thanksgiving eve, and she was as eager to go as we were.
On the way home, I noticed that all the purple leaves had fallen from the gum trees, and October’s scarlet leaves had turned to brown. There was a crisp, frosty smell to the woods now, and in my excitement my feet skipped over the crunchy, leafy carpet on the forest pathway. Thinking about the family gathering on the following day, I joyfully whispered a poem that my teacher had taught the third-grade class that day: “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandfather’s house we go …”
That night, I could hardly go to sleep just thinking about the fun that was only a few hours away. When morning finally came, breakfast was eaten and the cows were milked. Then Dad hitched our mules, Bell and Kit, to the wagon. In 1933, there wasn’t much money for gasoline, and besides, most roads in the Ozarks were more suited for a team and wagon.
When Mother’s contribution to the dinner was loaded, Dad spread a quilt on the wagon bed. We children climbed in, and then another quilt was tucked around my younger sister, brother and me. Dad helped Mother into the spring seat, then he climbed in, and the mules joggled the wagon forward. There were no worries about traffic jams or accidents, and we were completely unaware of the white mist our breaths made in the cold morning air, as over bridgeless creeks and through the woods to Grandfather’s house we went.
At the gate we were greeted by aunts, uncles and a score of cousins. But Grandma, in her starched, print apron, dared not leave all the good things cooking on the woodstove, and she kissed our cold cheeks when we entered the back door. The warm room was pungent with Thanksgiving smells. From the side table came the spicy goodness of pumpkin pie, and the oven could not hold back the smoky fragrance of a baking ham.
Our presence had brought all the grandchildren into the kitchen. In the confusion, Mother shooed us into the front room made cozy by flaming, fireplace logs. Amid the excited conversation of the men and the children, Grandpa — a tall man with a white, handlebar mustache — came through the front door with an armload of firewood. He put it in the woodbin, then took from his mackinaw pockets a scarlet apple for each of us kids.
In no time it seemed, Grandma was calling us to dinner. The adults gathered around the dining room table, and we children gathered around one especially for us, complete with long side benches. From previous years we knew to bow our heads and listen as Grandpa began his Thanksgiving prayer, in which he thanked the Lord for our food and the good crop year that gave the cooks most of the ingredients in the Thanksgiving meal. Then he asked God’s blessings on our depressed nation, and asked the Lord to give our president and other leaders the wisdom needed to solve our national problems, and he prayed for the millions of Americans who had neither land nor jobs to help them feed their families.
Too young to appreciate Grandpa’s concerns, I waited for his prayer to end and the meal to begin. And what a feast it was. One did not know whether to take Grandma’s baked ham or Aunt Lela’s golden baked hen. There was Mother’s candied sweet potatoes, Aunt Lottie’s Kentucky Wonder green beans, hot bread, fresh-churned butter, and a lot of other homegrown dishes to my liking.
When the meal was over and the dishes cleared away, the women gathered around the fire to sort through a stack of quilt patterns clipped from Grandma’s summer editions of The Weekly Kansas City Star. The men, needing a breath of fresh air, decided to take a walk across the pasture. Older children tagged along, knowing we would find some mushy-ripe persimmons under the trees in one corner of the rail fence. On the way, I heard an uncle say, “I am predicting a long, cold winter. The fuzzy caterpillar is showing more black than brown. I’m told that’s a good sign.” Laughing, the other men gave some Ozarks predictions of their own. But Grandpa showed no concern — he knew there would be meat in the smokehouse, canned goods and potatoes in the cellar, and Winesap apples in the straw.
On our walk, we looked at Grandpa’s Jersey cows and an assortment of young stock before heading back. By then the sun was setting behind the purple mountains and the wind had taken on a sharper bite.
Later, Dad hitched up the mules and we were once again tucked inside the wagon quilts. Dad picked up the lines, we kids yelled our last goodbyes, and the mules, without being prodded, headed for home.