My Dad has asked my sisters and I to start coming up with ideas for Thanksgiving and family traditions. Since the baby of the family just turned 19, it may seem strange that we’re JUST NOW getting around to creating traditions for such a common holiday… Our former Thanksgivings were almost all spent at the family farm in the Ozarks (minus the few years we lived on islands and one or two others where the drive was longer than 9 hours- thank you Navy :)
Thanksgiving used to go like this:
The family would bundle into our minivan, later our suburban, and finally just take two cars and drive to northern Arkansas- a small town called Heber Springs. The tree leaves would have lost most of the radiant red and orange colors and be down to the yellows and browns. The air would be crisp and cool allowing sounds to seem sharper. I LOVED arriving late in the evening when it was dark because we had to drive down and around the mountain into the little town. There were twinkling lights and the car’s windows would be so cold that my breath would fog them up as I savored the view.
The little town is so full of memories because both of my parents had relatives that lived there. We’d stay with my Dad’s parents and spend Thanksgiving day at the farm with my Mom’s extended family.
When we were younger, we’d pile into my grandparents’ house with the long single hallway that connected the main living space to the den/office. Three bedrooms and a tiny bathroom opened up into that long hallway where my sisters and cousins and I played football, monkey in the middle, bowling, did puzzles, and generally got in the way of any adults trying to get anywhere. Occasionally we’d get to commandeer the tv and watch one of the 4 or 5 Disney movies my grandparents owned (my favorite was Bambi), but usually the menfolk watched football and the womenfolk would go shopping and antiquing, leaving us kids to fend for ourselves. We’d often get kicked outside to play where most of our games involved imagination because other than a tire-swing and the old boat by the fence, I don’t remember any toys. The nearby middle school track and playground were a great attraction and the pretty downtown park- but we usually needed an adult and a vehicle to get there.
Thursday morning would find us in front of the tv watching the Macy’s Day parade while Mom brushed and fixed all four of her daughters’ hair. Once we were sufficiently bundled, brushed and staticky, we’d pile into one vehicle, wave goodbye to my Dad’s relatives for the next 7-10 hours, and drive 15 minutes to the Holland Farm. Here anywhere from 85-120 cousins, aunts and uncles gathered to spend the day together. We’d arrive around 10-11am and immediately greet grandparents, before running to play. The Farm is HUGE. The kids would be scattered on the old bag swing, hanging on the fences looking at the cows and mule (and later horses), petting the dogs, watching the guinea fowl and chickens, climbing into the big red barn’s hayloft for some hay fights, poking at the tractors, tossing a football, catching up with cousins from the other side of the continent, walking around the old tennis court, searching through the empty small house used as a storage space, and daring each other to mess with the old white bull that hated the color blue instead of red…easy to do since most everyone was wearing bluejeans!
Once most of the relatives had arrived, the kids would be summoned from all points of the farm for the prayer and the meal. Thanksgiving was a time to be thankful and so Uncle Tommy and Aunt Mary (my Granny’s big brother and his wife) would start by mentioning family members that couldn’t join us or had passed away that year and then any new arrivals: spouses, babies, or even boy/girlfriends (how embarrassing for them!). Then someone would be asked to pray before we formed a line for the delicious potluck meal. I never paid enough attention to which family member brought which dish. Aunt Mary cooked all the rolls and kept them in a large cooler wrapped in dishtowels to keep them warm. There were several different sides and some that were almost similar but not quite so that you never had enough room on your durable Chinet paper plate. The tiny kitchen counter would be hidden under all the dishes which meant desserts had to go on a completely separate table at the window behind the little dining table (which was reserved for Uncle Tommy and his siblings and their spouses…and didn’t used to be big enough).
Most of the family would eat outdoors at long folding tables with metal folding chairs. The big front lawn had plenty of room and it rarely ever rained on Thanksgiving- only 1 or 2 times that I remember. Those years the tables were squeezed under the carport and we managed. :)
After the meal, the tables would be folded away and the men would have their annual football game (the old men vs. the young)! The women would sit in the folding chairs along the front of the house and cheer on their spouses and sons. The girls and any boys too young to play, would climb onto the roof of the storm cellar for a better view of the game. I rarely watched, because usually we’d saddle up Old Sally (the mule) and later our cousin’s horses during this time. I preferred to ride. One year I rode a particularly stubborn tall black horse. She decided that she wanted to go the opposite direction I was pointing her and tripped herself. When she started to stumble I thought: “Oh she’s fine” but that quickly changed to shock when she fell over on top of my leg. The stirrup kept my foot from being crushed, but my knee suffered some trauma and every once in a while when I’ve been running too hard or worn heels too long it flares up in pain. I spent the rest of that afternoon watching the men’s football game while icing it and the next day in the ER getting x-rays and a pair of crutches. :)
After the football game, the tractors are attached to the long trailers and hay bales are loaded onto the edges of the trailer to form seats. Many mothers have packed quilts and blankets that are brought out as padding and insulation from the chilly November evening. The family then piles on for the long ride around the farm. We go through many gates and the ride takes about an hour as we go through several of my uncle’s pastures which once were full of cattle but now are mostly tree farms. The cows follow us and eat the hay we throw to them. One year we grabbed my cousin’s hands just in time as the bale he was sitting on was ripped from the end of the trailer by a couple of very hungry cows! There are also deer quietly watching us through the trees and we cross some beautiful brooks. The Ozarks are just stunning.
We get back to the farm as the moon is rising and partake of our second or third helpings for the day before families slowly begin to depart for the evening. The fireplace and the outdoor fire pit are some of the most popular places for the adults while the kids grab some flashlights for fun variations of hide-and-seek or tag.
Eventually our parents bundle us up and take us back to our Dad’s parents' place where we are spoiled with hot cocoa and our parents try to keep any hay from making a mess- impossible, since their four little blonde daughters have been rolling in it, stuffing it down each other’s shirts, and sitting on it for the hay ride.
The following day includes more fun with the cousins, a trip to see the giant trumpet swans, and possibly fishing. The evening includes another get-together at my Mom’s cousin’s house where we have snacks, a light dinner, and play Catch Phrase, Pictionary, and Charades. Usually there’s a dog inside that doesn’t mind cuddling and a cat or two on the porch willing to accept a scratch or two behind the ears. The stairwell wall is covered in stuffed birds and animal heads.
I will miss those many years of tradition. Both my Dad’s parents are gone and that house with the long hallway has been sold. My Mom’s mom is gone and the farm isn’t the same without my precious Granny. The horses have gotten wild because the cousins are in high school and college and don’t have the time to ride them. The little kids are now the men playing football or the young women sharing secrets with their cousins as they walk around the farm. My cousins are too grown up to play and often sneak away to nap or make phone calls or chase down their own children. The babies I held just a few years ago are now kids wrestling in the hay loft, swinging on the old bag swing or chasing the chickens. But most different of all is the tiny graveyard that now exists halfway down the main pasture and down a straight lane between tall trees. There, surrounded by quiet, minus the tiny brook babbling nearby and the wind through the leaves of the trees, rests the body of my Granny. Her headstone is a giant Arkansas rock covered in lichen and moss with a bronze placard. This is a special place where only she, my Grandad, and my Uncle Tommy and Aunt Mary (the owners of the farm) will be buried. My Uncle had the place legally designated as a cemetery plot after the bones of Native Americans were discovered there. She is the first of the four to go. It’s bittersweet.
So now that my Dad has asked what I want to do for Thanksgiving and how we should create our own family traditions I have no idea. Thanksgiving this year will be the single day off in the middle of one of my best friend’s wedding preparations. Perhaps as the years progress it will not matter so much.
I think most importantly it will be nice to still get to spend the day with people I love and reflect on the many things I have to be grateful for! So…
What are some of your Thanksgiving traditions? Do you go somewhere, play something special, always eat a certain dish? I need ideas…