I love Thanksgiving, for I have much to be thankful for.
Driving home to Virginia today, I kept thinking of how large a role Thanksgiving played in my early development. I was born in 1947. I grew up in the Deep South, the Gulf South. Each Thanksgiving, in the late 40s to early 50s, my family traveled about 70 miles north to a small rural town to have a traditional family Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ farm.
My grandparents lived “out from town.” Their simple frame farmhouse had a tin roof and a large front porch with rocking chairs and a bench swing hung on chains. The house was about 100 yards down from my grandfather’s general store, the lone landmark at a crossing of gravel roads. The only other building was Antioch Baptist Church which sat in a grove of trees across the road from my grandparents’ house.
There was a collection of barns and cattle pens behind the store. My grandparents also had free-range chickens and a milk cow behind the house.
Thanksgiving was a huge family affair with four generations packed into that small, cold farmhouse. Heat was from wood burning fireplaces. We kept warm at night under stacks of thick homemade quilts.
For Thanksgiving dinner, we ate in shifts because there were too many to sit around the dining table. Kids ate at card tables in the hallway.
There were at least three kinds of meat; turkey, of course, but ham and assorted wild game were available, too. Cornbread dressing and giblet gravy, vegetables, casseroles, plus several kinds of desserts topped it all off. It was enough to make Paula Dean cry. My favorite dessert was/is pecan pie. The pecan pies we had at Thanksgiving were made from fresh pecans from the many trees surrounding my grandparents’ house.
The simple Southern cooking was divine. But what I loved most was homemade biscuits and fresh hot coffee. My grandmother made batches of buttermilk biscuits in an ancient wooden bowl. My country latte was plain strong coffee in a chipped Blue Willow cup with sugar and fresh cow’s milk. And I do mean fresh, from the milk cow to my cup in minutes.
My grandmother always left biscuits for me on a Blue Willow plate stored in a pie safe in the kitchen. The thought of that coffee on a cold morning still warms my heart. I would later fall in love with cafe au lait at the Cafe Du Monde in the New Orleans French Quarter. And decades later, I would view the drive-through Starbucks across from Towson’s campus as a sign from God that I should teach there, a coffee-loving paraplegic’s heaven.
Just as nothing will ever taste like that country coffee and fresh biscuits, neither will there ever be another woman like my grandmother. You didn’t receive your life lessons from her in a warm and folksy way like on the Waltons TV show. No, you learned by watching this 100-pound woman live successfully by hard work and resourcefulness. She could make or do anything necessary to live on that poor farm.
She would walk across the road to Antioch Baptist Church every Sunday and sing every verse of every hymn without ever opening a hymnal. When she wasn’t preparing huge meals for farm folk, she sewed and repaired and cleaned and fixed and built about anything that was needed for simple daily living. When she had time, she played her piano.
Grandmother kept going long after others died off or just plain quit. She would say, “I may wear out, but I will never rust out.”
I got my love for photojournalism from reading the lifetime supply of Life and Look magazines that my grandparents saved. I read and re-read those magazines until I memorized entire issues and their photo layouts.
My grandparents never owned a television. We sat by the fireplaces and talked, read newspapers, magazines, and books — adults in one room, kids in another.
I stayed in the woods and pastures from daylight until dark. I came in for meals and to let the folks know I was still alive. This area was so remote that, in my wild ramblings, any number of things could have harmed me, and I might never have been found. But I was never afraid.
Part of what shaped me was the time I spent alone in those days. I loved the woods and pastures. I’d ride every farmer’s horse I could catch, climb every tree, play in every creek and pond, and explore as deep into the woods as daylight would allow. I was Davy Crockett with 410 single shot.
My most vivid memories are of my grandfather’s store. It was a typical Southern general merchandise store with a big red Coca Cola sign on its false front. The store was a social gathering spot for people from miles around. In warm weather, local farmers would finish dinner at home, then come to the store’s wide front porch, sit in rocking chairs, and whittle and talk for hours. In cold weather the same ritual was repeated in the back of the store around a cast-iron, wood-burning stove. The men sat on an ancient homemade bench or rocked back and forth in cain-bottom chairs.
I can still hear echos of their conversations about crops and livestock, the weather, government, and how the world was going to hell with all the fast-paced changes. Remember, it was the early 50s, so it must have been rock and roll that frightened them.
These men were not gentlemen farmers with large land holdings. They were poor farmers who scratched out a living in bad soil usually owned by someone else. They wore bib overalls and stained work shirts and work boots, topped off by dirty felt hats in the winter and sweat-stained straw hats in the summer. Their ragged dignity speaks to me even now. Their unfailing good humor in the face of hardship is a vivid reminder of Faulkner’s words that “man will not merely endure, but prevail.”
Most memorable was a man named Poe. Poe had a voice about two octaves lower than Kris Kristofferson’s. When he told stories (which was all Poe did), the windows rattled. His voice was the earth itself, older than old, with a gritty resonance that was impossible to ignore.
It’s been said that the South produces so many good writers because Southerners are natural storytellers. Perhaps in some way listening to these men tell their stories influenced me to become a communicator, just as the wonderful photojournalism of the Life and Look magazines partially accounts for my love of photography. Or, it might have been the total of all the sensory impressions — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes — of that time and place that contribute to who I am now.
As a doctoral candidate, I am now a trained ethnographer. If I could go back in time, I could conduct qualitative research in this setting. But I’d rather have the memories as they are. These people need no further study. Walker Evans’ work best chronicles the lives of such people. No, it is better for me to remember these people and this place as the formative experience it was.
Every Thanksgiving, I do remember. Then, I give thanks for it.