It was probably 22 years ago when I made the comment that would follow me the rest of my days. I was a 13 year old kid riding in the back seat of my parents car on the way to West Virginia for Thanksgiving.
My mother, always the astute observant one, said, “well today is the busiest travel day of the year.” Her son (me) not to be trumped by her astuteness responds, “What? Wednesday?” My mother looks at me like the idiot I am, the 13 year old boy who was as clueless as he seemed, and said “No you knucklehead, it’s the day before thanksgiving.”
Now, flash-forward 20 years and 2 degrees of higher learning later…I am sure I will be reminded this year, as every year, of what is apparently my dullest intellectual moment.
But this is what partly what holidays are about: those moments of memory making that get lodged in familial consciousness and become part of a larger narrative. Moments that help us re-member the moment when its gone and provide a connection and place of belonging long after.
Last night I watched the Thanksgiving episode of the new TV show, This is Us. If you have been missing this, stop doing so. I rarely watch TV and never saw an episode of Friends until it had been off the air for 5 years…but this show is excellent. The elements at play and the multiple narratives in this family unit transcend the screen and speak to all of us.
Aside further commentary on the show, last night’s episode was about (among many substories) the making of family traditions and how those influence the present. The episode pitched present practice in light of historical happening. We saw characters doing things particular to that family such as the traditional Thanksgiving walk in the woods, hot dogs wrapped with melted cheese and rolled in crushed saltines, and the infamous Pilgrim Rick. We scratched our heads and wondered how this family got here with these forms of life.
The episode unfolded and gave viewers insight into the peculiarity of this family and how they became who they are, how past practice shaped present life. It was also a catalyst for the future, an open ended uncertain one (just like all of ours) but I’ll refrain from going further.
This episode took my back to Thanksgivings I will never again live. They are the dead living Thanksgivings that shape the present yet still provide an entrance into an unknown future.
For the majority of my life, until the passing of my grandmother in 2012, Thanksgiving was always spent in West Virginia. I remember riding north on Interstate 75 to the 64 West junction, the Lexington to Ashland corridor, on the way to West Virginia.
As we would near the end of that stretch of 64 and pass over the river into W.V. I would look up at the interstate sign that welcomed us. It read “ Welcome to Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia.”
As a child, I always understood the “wild” part but it was much later that I understood the “wonderful.”
We would arrive at my grandparents the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
As we stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door, my grandpa would stomp through the house as only he could; it seemed the pictures inside were most likely hanging on for dear life with every step he took.
He’d open the door with a billowing southern drawl and would say, “Come on in, come on in.” Then, almost like a religious tradition, he would yell at my grandma, “Mom, Mick and them is here…are you hungry? Mom, go to the kitchen an fix’em sumthin.”
My grandma would usually hop up, straighten her shirt, give us a hug and ask, “Are y’all hungry? You’re probably hungry. I’ll go fix ya sumthin.”
My grandpa wasn’t a huge fan of wearing shirts, so he’d often make this greeting shirtless.
Did I mention he liked to give hugs?
We’d walk through the door and the heat from the wood burning stove would smack you in the face. He’d ask if you were cold and if he needed to add wood to the stove. No one ever indicated they were cold…because that was impossible in that home at this time of year.
The evening would ensue with conversation, hugs, grandma making some hot cocoa or perhaps even making the hamburger you didn’t ask for and eating it anyway.
We didn’t stay up long because the next 3 days would find us in the woods. We’d crash wherever we could crash and for kids my age that meant the floor or couch.
You see, my grandparents lived in the woods. It was the kind of woods that lived in the woods, not the kind of woods you could drive out of and be at Wal-Mart in 15 minutes. It took work and a good dose of Imodium to want to go into town from their house.
As my grandpa was not want to say, “You can kiss yourself driving around these hills.” There isn’t the slightest bit of hyperbole in that phrase.
So when we got there for Thanksgiving it was to stay, in the house, in the woods. Most of our time would be spent in the woods as well.
Early Thanksgiving morning we would get up around 5am, put on our coveralls, gather the shotguns, and head into the woods, the cold pitch black night behind their home.
My grandparents lived in a “holler,” a small grassy flat in-between 2 mountains. We would literally walk out of the house and within a 50 yards be walking up a hill. There were no flat places to walk really and no way to use a 4 wheeler either. We did it all by foot, often a 45 minute walk with the ice bitten weeds crunching beneath our feet. We were going into our part of the pitch black where we would sit as the sun rose, hoping to not only see deer but maybe even bring one down the hill.
I’ll never forget those walks up those hills, Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving. It was brutal. I always thought I was in good shape until early Thanksgiving morning every year. Often it made me question my sanity for doing so and it certainly made me wonder how my grandpa got up these hills when my 15 year old body was thinking of a billion other things it would rather be doing at the moment.
Usually my dad, myself and an uncle or two would walk together and then part ways in the dark…being careful to tell one another where we’d be.
And then, as if reaching the pinnacle of Mount Sinai, we’d arrive. Then, we would sit. It was a little anti-climactic. We didn’t use fancy tree stands or fancy hunting covers. We wore camo and sat on the ground or stood beside a tree.
Daniel Boone would have been proud.
Those mornings were characterized by the wind howling through those mountains, shaking the trees overhead. Squirrels would litter the forest floor, making your head turn in multiple directions in hopes that it was a deer. We would sit in these woods for hours, on that hilly 100 acre farm that was my grandparent’s home.
As the sun slowly rose, and the dark gradually give way to the light, there was often a chorus of gun fire as hunters would fall upon unsuspecting deer. The realization that if we didn’t have a deer now, we most likely wouldn’t, had set in…but stay in the woods we did. Hope springs eternal in two places: Baseball spring training and in the mind of hunters.
Then, around 11am if nothing was happening, like Moses we would descend the hill.
It was time to eat Thanksgiving dinner.
Above my grandparents home, on top of the hill, was a large clearing where cattle used to graze. It was a large open field that you could literally look all the way across, several hundred yards long and it least 200 yards wide. My family and I often meet up in that clearing, survey the grassy plain and surrounding woods. We’d discuss how the morning went and would accompany one another down the hill. It was usually a time of laughter and genuflection.
We’d descend down the washed out road, overgrown with thorn and thistle, that led to the house. In earlier days, when I was younger, this process also included dodging the occasional cow pattie.
We’d arrive at the bottom of the hill, pretend we were wrestlers and hold the barb wire fence for one another as we passed through it and trudge to the house.
Climbing onto the porch, coveralls and boots would be removed, loaded guns would lean against the house, and we’d enter the house greeted to the smell of homemade biscuits, canned green beans and turkey.
Grandma had gotten up around the same time as us. We went into the woods; she went into the kitchen. Her time spent working with her hands had usually been more productive than our time in the woods.
We’d congregate in the living room, a small 12×20 space if I can recall, with a stained spackled white ceiling and worn hardwood floors. We’d share stories of what we saw, didn’t see and what we’d hope to see later in the evening when we went back into the woods. My grandpa would then chime in and rehearse the deer equivalency of “big fish” stories and fill our heads with impossible images of bucks with 12 point racks making fun of us as we pretended to be ninjas walking through the leaves.
My grandpa would sit in his recliner like a teenage boy, shirtless, with jeans that hadn’t been washed in a week. He’d have one leg slung over the arm of the seat and the other on the floor usually chewing on a saltine cracker or with a coffee cup in his hand.
He’d smile, laugh, tell us of all the deer sightings he’d had in the past year..or 10, and then grin as only he could and say “yes sir, those deer are up there a watchin you…rolling around laughing at ya as you walk right by em.”
Grandma would then come into the living room, her hair often stuck to her forehead matted from the heat and perspiration generated in their tiny kitchen. She’d say, “foods ready” and then she’d sit on the sofa, relaxing and holding a cup of coffee, as we all entered her office to enjoy the fruit of her labor.
There would often be about a dozen of us or more at their home for Thanksgiving. As my grandma got older (to make it easier on the clean up) we would use Styrofoam plates and eat Thanksgiving dinner in the living room or on the front porch if it wasn’t too cold.
Grandma would ask about how we liked the food and we would eat our fill. She took great pleasure in taking care of her family. She was a child of the Great Depression, so certainly the stereotypes of that era worked their way into my grandparents home, so for better or worse she understood herself as a caretaker. She loved her kids and grandkids. She loved taking care of them, spending time with them, and as she got older and more bold, calling my grandpa on his crap a lot of the times (grandpa was known to exaggerate just a little).
There was nothing better than hearing my grandma laugh as she’d tell an old story or correct my grandpa as he was telling his usual “whopper.”
After supper we’d get redressed and make our way back into the woods, hoping for that illusive Buck we missed earlier that morning…and we’d sit until dark, often times letting the lamp near my grandparents shed guide us back down the hill when the sun was no longer able.
The evening would be filled with stories about what we’ll do differently tomorrow and what parts of the hills need coverage. We’d rehearse what we learned (which was really not much) and how we’d hunt the following day. We’d talk about the gun shots we heard on hills on the other side of the holler or those that were in close proximity. We told lots of stories because that was really the whole purpose of this tradition: continuing the story of Us with each other.
In retrospect, the goal was never bagging a deer; the goal was time, spending time with one another, sharing stories, and being in nature. If we got a deer, great, if not, we still had the experience…and many times the experience is what matters most.
After story time, the next family tradition would begin: cards.
We never used money or real life peanuts, we just kept paper score. Back then, playing was the point. Winning or losing incidental.
Gathered around the kitchen table would be myself, grandpa, my dad, uncles and cousins. On occasion an aunt would play as well. We’d all gather in that tiny kitchen with a hutch too large for its space, and a table that somehow was crunched between a refrigerator on one side and stacks of food on the other. There wasn’t enough room for 6 grown people to sit around a table but there was always room for 6 grown people around the table.
Grandpa would usually begin the ritual with, “You boys want to play cards? Mick, mom’s got the table cleaned up lets go on in there and play some cards. Come on boys.”
My dad would usually shuffle the first hand and he was always the score keeper.
The games of choice: Hearts or Bid 10. Hearts is common enough; it’s the opposite of Spades. Bid 10…well, I’ve never heard of anyone else playing it. Maybe it was made up, maybe it was a thing and isn’t any longer, but for us it was ritual. It was a classic card game dealing cards, revealing the trump suit, and trying to win as many (or as few) hands as possible.
The animation was never lacking at the table. We were all in it for the fun but my grandpa, I think he was in it for the glory.
As for hearts, there was nothing more funny than watching a game of hearts unfold with my grandpa. He’d start out fine. Everyone would be playing nice. A heart here, a heart there. It was as if Oprah was giving out hearts to everyone.
Then, my grandpa would do what he always did: he’d try to shoot the moon. And often it was a success. I don’t believe anyone shot the moon as much as my grandpa…
But, if he tried to shoot the moon and didn’t get it what would ensue would be a dangerous spiral of self destruction. He’d shrug it off, demur its importance and we’d resume play…but then somehow he’d end up getting way too many hearts. His game would fall apart; He’d shoot for the moon again and miss…by 1 card. And we all would just keep feeding him the cards…and he’d get hotter by the moment. (this is where I’d insert an emoji of LOL).
If he was playful, he’d give you a wily smile and say, “Don’t you worry about ole pawpaw, pawpaw will take care of himself.” He’d shrug off the loss and we’d move onto Bid 10.
Bid 10 was a game of chance, skill and pure luck. Chance and luck not being the same in this game. Here, the object was to predict how many hands you would win. If you won that many hands you got positive points. Failure to be a prophet meant negative points. To complicate matters, each game was composed of 20 hands and 20 alone. You start with 10 cards, then 9 and so forth, until you get to 1 card then you go back to 10. Along the way you predict if you will win or lose hands along the way.
My grandpa loved Bid 10. When he was hot and on a roll, he’d even try to cripple the table with the thud of his giant hand against the table placing his card at its center. It was his way of asserting his superiority of the present situation.
My grandpa loved to win but he also loved to see his boys lose.
When he was in it for fun he’d laugh whenever Lady Luck frowned on any of our nights. He’d play it cool, sit in his chair at the tables end, chew his tobacco and laugh. His chair was always close enough to grab the door that led outside, pull it open, spit and resume play. The cool breeze into the tiny kitchen usually didn’t hurt either.
After 2-3 hours of play the card games would come to an end. It was time for bed, time to get rest before we made our way back into the woods.
Thanksgiving Day was over but the Thanksgiving weekend had just begun. The next 2 days would be likewise: Morning walks into the woods, afternoon lunches, front porch or fiery furnace living room conversations, walking back into the woods, then back down the hill for a nightly round of cards.
Throughout our time there aunts and uncles would stroll in and out of the house. Cousins would come and go. Even distant relatives that lived in hollers 10 times removed would make a cameo over the weekend.
If a person could survive staying in woods that were in the woods, in a house that would dry out your sinuses and skin yet keep you warm, and didn’t mind a steady stream of watching Westerns every evening…then you’d love this kind of Thanksgiving. I know I did…and I wish it was the kind I was having this year.
My grandpa never met a stranger and my grandma never harbored ill will. We’d talk about politics and we’d talk about religion. But we never hated one another over either. That’s not to say the family was absent drama; we had it, just like everyone else, but it wasn’t over politics or religion.
These were our rituals. These rituals had the actors of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We are part of a large family. I have 8 aunts and uncles so I never understood what it was like to have a small family get together. Each person was unique, offering their own sense of dry, wry humor.
As I got older, had my own family, and started staying closer to home with my kids, I slowly began to miss out on these Thanksgivings. It was one chapter of my life that gave way to another. I took my kids to my grandparents house a few times but my kids staying at a house in the woods that lives in the woods is a recipe for mental breakdown. Not to mention the house wasn’t large enough for adding humans on top of humans. It was crowded enough growing up…without bringing my newly created clan to the party.
I hate that life does this, that it merges into different tributaries keeping you connected yet slowly creating a distance. I knew growing up that one day would be the last, that one Thanksgiving would be the last one shared with my grandparents in that small house that sat between two mountains.
I knew that a day was coming when I couldn’t rely on an uncle for narcissistic wit or an aunt for long lost hug. I knew there would come a time when my grandma would make her last homemade biscuit and my grandpa throw down his last card. I knew it would happen…but honestly, it sucks even though you know you can’t stop history from making itself.
I knew that one Thanksgiving I would say goodbye to my grandparents for the last time. I knew it and now I live with it.
I miss those days. I wish I could get them back, bottle them, secure them in my memory. I wish I had one more holiday in that house, with those people, and that I’d make more of it than I probably did.
But I can’t go back. We can’t go back. Those days are gone. My aunts and uncles all have grown kids. My cousins have their own families, who have their families. Someone else owns my grandparents old farm. My grandma was buried in 2012 and my grandpa in 2014.
Pandora has left the building.
To my family, those that helped make these Thanksgivings and memories, I say thank you. My life would be much less without you and my memories more anemic. We have created rituals, lived them, and now re-create them as history has taken us here.
I am sincerely thankful for all of you and the rituals that have shaped who I am and what matters most.
This Thanksgiving I give thanks for all of you, all of us, and all that we have shared.
As I close, I want to share the closing lines I spoke at my grandmother’s funeral. I had the honor of giving the eulogy at both their funerals. I am thankful that my family placed such confidence in me. I have not shared this publicly before but perhaps there would never be a more appropriate time to do so than now.
The hardest part of telling stories and rehearsing rituals is that parts of the story will inevitably come to an end. Endings are endings…it’s hard to give them a more apt description. We know what they are even as we wish they weren’t.
Saying goodbye to this part of the story, to Thanksgivings past, is saying goodbye to the two people that held it together: my grandparents. This is how I said goodbye to one of them for the last time.
“As we say goodbye today, there is an image that stands out in my mind of mawmaw. It’s an image that’s not just mine, its all of ours in her family. It’s an image that we share as children and grandchildren. It’s an image that she would often share with grandpa by her side.
The most difficult thing about leaving mawmaw’s house was seeing how much she loved her family…seeing how much she longed for you to stay longer. And she would always say, “Come back and see me,” “Are you sure you can’t stay longer?” Then, reluctantly, we would all say “yes grandma…yes mom…we’ll come back. We’ll see you again.” We would give her a hug, kiss her on the cheek, and she would hold your hands as you pulled away from her hug. We would carry our luggage to the car, shut the door, turn on the engine and begin to pull off that country property surrounded by tall grass, old hollers and the dense woods that we all grew up associating with mawmaw and pawpaws house.
We’d pull out of the back driveway, hoping our cars had good shocks as we would get a vehicular jolt as our car pulls up onto that narrow road that would slowly ascend in front of their house. We would roll down the windows, look back at the house, and there we would see it. We’d see that image…there she stood, with grandpa’s arms around her waist and her’s around him…there she stood…waving. She was waving goodbye. We’d honk our horn, wave some more, and she kept on waving. And the thing about grandma was…she was never the first one to stop waving. We’d always stop waving, but as I often looked back as a child, grandma didn’t stop waving…I never saw it. I imagine she stood there waving, until we were far out of sight…she may have even walked off the porch and looked down the road, just to make sure we were gone before she stopped waiving. Those times we left, we always had a tear in our eye. It would slowly run down our face as we said goodbye to our grandma, our mother. We drove off, turned to the person beside us and talked about when we were coming back to visit her. We were sad to leave her, she was sad to see us go…but we always knew that there would be another visit.
As we leave this place, I think this is the image grandma would like us to remember. Only today, she is the one that stopped waiving first…but that’s ok grandma. We understand…because we know that you really didn’t stop waiving. You may not be standing on the porch this morning waving goodbye; but we all know why…You just went inside for a while to rest. But we know the end of the story, just like so many visits before…we may not know when we’ll see her again. We don’t know when life will bring our paths to cross once more, but just like the road that always led us back to mawmaw’s house…we know that eventually the road will lead that everlasting countryside…and if I know grandma and if I understand how much she loved her family…I know she’ll be standing on the front porch waving when we visit her once more…only then, we’ll never have to say goodbye again. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev. 21.4)
I wish all of my family a Happy Thanksgiving and want you all to know I am thankful for each one of you…and for those who are no longer with us.