November 23, 2023

Thanksgiving: Savoring and making memories



How does this holiday resonate with you?

For me, it’s savoring memories and making memories.

As a skinny boy with buzz-cut hair, I squirmed for 175 miles in the backseat of our family’s first new car. The 1950 emerald-green Dodge sedan had no heater, so sisters Sandy and Sheila and I huddled to keep warm.

I’m not sure what my big and little sisters were thinking, but I couldn’t wait to get to Nanny’s farm. Rattling the single-lane, erector-set-looking bridge—arching the Flint River—meant a left turn in Newton and then just 4 more miles down Hwy. 91.

Growing up on a quarter-acre in town, I thought Nanny’s 300-acre farm was a dreamland. I wouldn’t understand, until years later, that the big patch of mortgaged dirt was a bale of cotton on the 52-year-old widow’s back.

I have three faint memories of her husband. We called him Big Daddy. Once, I sat in his lap while he plaited a Lash LaRue leather whip. I don’t know where the whip went, but I remember the beep, beep of his Ford truck’s horn.

Out the back door, Nanny hollered, “Howell, what is it?”

“Come get this boy!”

“Why, Howell?

“I can’t get my work done.”

“Why, Howell?”

“He asks too many ding-bob questions.”

And then there’s the last memory. My dad helped me stand on my tiptoes so that I could see 56-year-old Big Daddy stretched out in his casket. I could mark that spot in the farm’s Baker County dirt, but I’d have to plow through the brambles.

Their compact white asbestos-shingled house—the one with a screened-front porch, where I soaked up Nanny’s stories—burned in the 1970s. That’s another story, but here are some memories that weren’t charred in the flames:

§  “Nanny, why don’t you have grass in your yard?” “Snakes, Honey. Don’t want no snakes around the house.”

§  Nanny was a country-fried wizard in the kitchen. Her cathead biscuits were heaven-sent. My grandmother’s table and sideboard sagged at Thanksgiving. Her menu wasn’t complete without rutabagas. From the snake-less yard, I could whiff the unmistakable odor.

§  The smiling-eyes woman would stand at the end of the table watching, drying her hands on the apron around her fluffy waist. I would rather have had a marble-size wart on my nose than disappoint Nanny. That’s why I always endured one helping of that smelly orange cubed clump on my plate.

§  My uncles, Joe (we called him Bubba) and Billy, didn’t have sons. I was their little boy. Thanksgiving was quail season, too. I bounced in Uncle Bubba’s World War II Willys Jeep over farms of relatives. One morning, they handed me the keys. In leapfrog fashion we hopped along, as I learned the mechanics of a clutch and a stick shift. Bless their hearts, they laughed with every jerking lurch.

§  The outdoorsy brothers let me traipse through the pines and wiregrass, behind them and their bird dogs. It was a toss-up on covey points. Which quivered more, me or the dogs? Today, with every bite of fried quail, I think of Bubba and Billy, the best uncles any boy could have.

That was then.

How about now?

I’m not a skinny kid anymore. I’m a gray-haired grandpa who quivers with anticipation, thinking about our eight grandchildren who will spill out of cars and trucks onto our backwoods grassy yard. With glee, they’ll shout, “Cousins!”

We’ll traipse in the woods, hunt and fish. There’ll be oysters to shuck and stories to be shared around a potbellied stove. And there’ll be plenty of leapfrogging and laughter for first timers behind the wheel of a 1959 Willys.

Sixty-five years from now, I wonder what 2023 memories will resonate with Wyatt, Hayes, William, Henry, Fenn, Bayard, Smith and Stella. My wish is that they, too, will savor the warmth of a family filled with unconditional love and gratefulness.

And when the bell rings for the holiday feast—just as in the 1950s—they’ll find the table and sideboard sagging with traditional favorites.

But the menu will be missing one item.

Forgive me, Nanny.

No rutabagas.