Sunday, November 26, 2006

The First Thanksgiving (That I Remember)

It was war time, those winters of the early 1940’s when I was a child. We lived in the little house at 7328 Washington Street in Waldo, not too far from the end-of-the-line for the streetcar. My father took it back and forth to work downtown in the Dierks Building. Mother was a housewife (even wearing Nellie Don housedresses!) and I think things were economically a bit tight. My sister was married and living in New York so it was just the three of us, eking out our lives as the war raged on two fronts.

The Thanksgiving I remember was not during the first winter after the attack on Pearl Harbor when patriotism flared brightly, nor the second winter when people were willingly making the sacrifices asked of them. But later…1944, I think. Gas was rationed and tires were difficult to replace so my parents drove the car rarely and carefully, only on special occasions.

My mother was still grieving the death of her mother, my grandmother, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. She wanted, more than anything, to spend Thanksgiving with her Aunt Addie, her mother’s sister who lived in Wilder, Kansas. After much discussion over cups of coffee at the kitchen table, my parents decided to get the 1936 Plymouth out of the garage and make the drive over narrow, hilly back roads to the ancient tilting farmhouse where Aunt Addie lived.

For a child of seven, it was a trip to the end of the earth. Much ado was made about what I should wear and eventually I ended up in a plaid dress under a scratchy snow suit with leggings and a hat with a chin strap. In a paper grocery bag, my mother packed some items for my entertainment. A book to read (I believe it featured a little girl named Honeybunch) was essential for the car ride. In a shoe box were scissors, colored paper, scraps of fabric, paste, and cardboard to keep me busy once we arrived.

The meal was at Cousin Cora Lee’s house (a stone’s throw from Aunt Addie’s) and the place was crowded with family. Aunt Addie, of course, and Cora Lee lived in Wilder. Aunt Ethel, an unmarried school teacher came from Topeka. Aunt Nadine and her husband Uncle George who was a minister made a long drive from Baldwin, Kansas bringing their grown daughter, Dorothy Fay. Cora Lee’s son Lawrence and his wife Wilma were there with their three children Mary Beth, Brian, and Gloria who all lived in a trailer in Bonner Springs and walked the two miles as they did not have a car. Ten adults at the big table and four of us at the children’s table.

While the women cooked and the men sat smoking and talking about the war, the Baker children ran wild outdoors and I played paper dolls on the rag rug on the floor of the bedroom. My mother was very critical of the behavior of her cousin Lawrence’s children. So I was separated from the bad influence and set to making my own dolls from the materials she had brought for that purpose. I still remember the smells coming from the big country kitchen, the fire in the wood stove and the circles of increasing chill as you moved away from it.

Like every meal eaten during war time, every morsel was to be devoured and a clean plate sent to the kitchen after the dinner was over. The meal was fried chicken (from Aunt Addie’s hen house), potatoes, beets and turnips from the root cellar, and vegetables “put up” during the bounty of summer. Biscuits and gravy and my mother’s famous cranberry salad. Mince pie for dessert. Or pumpkin. Or apple. Whipped cream from the milk cow out back in the barn. A country menu of sturdy food for folks who produced most of it. I believe the flour and the berries were all that were purchased in a store. Today my Aunt Addie’s farm would be called “sustainable.” Back then, she called it “everthing I need.” Not much “store bought.”

After the coffee and pie and washing and drying the dishes, the family continued to sit around the table talking of the war and Roosevelt and rationing and all were interested in how Frances was doing living in New York where they had blackouts and shortages and no farms nearby to provide for their needs.

Somewhere around 7:00 p.m. the sleek silver Santa Fe Chief roared through town on the way to California. The signal that it was time to start the journey home. Aunt Addie filled bags with jars of fruits and vegetables from her orchards and gardens for us to take home. She promised to come to Kansas City for a visit, but Lawrence would have to drive her. She was in her 80s then and had never owned a car but drove her horse and buggy to Bonner Springs when she needed to go which was about twice a year.

We drove back to Kansas City in the dark, late in the day, satiated with food and groggy from the intense family experience. As we drove through the night, a few snowflakes began to fall and by the time we reached our little house, the lawns were white and gleaming. That would be sixty two years ago and I can still remember it so clearly. It is my earliest Thanksgiving memory and one that still stands out as a time of family and love and warmth and bountiful food. And how, despite the dark years of the war, we knew we had each other.


Post a Comment

<< Home