My grandmother – Mamaw, we grandkids called her — cooked for days. By the time we arrived on Thanksgiving morning, the freezer in the back entryway was covered with pies. I can remember always having a couple of pumpkin pies, chocolate crème, apple pie, and often a blueberry pie to round out the bunch, just in case somebody wanted something out of the ordinary. She also had at least one cake sitting up high on a cake plate out there on the freezer, more often two.
When our family arrived, after driving an hour through the dingy landscape of Southwestern Virginia, my grandparents’ house was like an oasis of light and fun. We would drive through the long driveway and stop outside the gate. I would run ahead into the house. “Mamaw, Mamaw, we’re here.”
And there she would be, in a house dress, her old black shoes and stockings rolled up just above her knees, an apron around her waist. She was a large woman, tall and stocky. She would always be sweating – something went wrong with menopause, I heard later – but I always just thought it was her way. When I asked her once why she always seemed so hot when the rest of us were cold, she just answered, “Oh, pshaw, I guess God just made me that way,” and she would laugh loud and long at herself. Remembering now, I wonder if she was miserable and never mentioned it. Often she would have a smear of flour on her nose, and her eyeglasses would be speckled with grease.
When she saw me her face lit up, and she would yell to my grandfather – Papaw – “Buddy, they’re here.” When I was little she would sweep me into her arms and press me against her large bosom, and I would sniff in her grandmotherly fragrance as my feet dangled off the floor. When I was older, she squatted down and enveloped me with the same vigor. I will never forget how her face brightened when I came in the door. Later, I realized her excitement wasn’t for me personally, but I was just the first one in the door.
My parents came in and my brother, and there were hugs and exclamations of how good we all looked. My grandfather usually didn’t get out of his chair in the living room, and we all trooped through the kitchen, through the dining room, and into the living room to say hello. We were met with a much restrained greeting. He often shook my hand formally, but I do remember him smiling.
After a while the rest of the family came. My aunt Wilma, her husband Bob, and their daughter Bobbie Jean were usually next. Bobbie Jean was only a year younger than I was, so we played together. My Uncle Curtis and his wife and daughter usually came last. Connie was about the same age as my brother David, seven years younger than I, so the two of them played together.
When everybody was there, the sound level was very high. Years later, when I brought my five year old son Joel to Thanksgiving dinner, he was so intimidated by all the chaos that I found him hiding under the bed. People told jokes, played board games, watched television, and cooked, all at full volume. Kids ran in and out of the rooms playing. We had to watch out not to fall on the grate above the coal furnace, though. Once when I was very young I did fall, and not only skinned my knees and hands but burned them as well. My grandmother felt so bad about that that she got rid of the coal furnace and covered up the grate.
At last the food was ready, the table set, and everybody gathered round. My dad asked the blessing, and we all dug in. We kids had to eat in the kitchen, and that wasn’t any fun at all. The real excitement was in the dining room, where everybody talked and laughed uproariously. Our family was storytellers. I remember my dad telling about how during the war he and my uncle Bob drove over a mountain and had to patch the tires about fourteen times before they made it home, because rubber was in short supply. Or my uncle Curtis telling how things were going in the company store at the coal mine where he worked. Everybody was happy that he had gotten out of the mine and into the store, and I heard my first tales about “scrip” from him, along with stories of unions and hard times. Of course, we kids could hear everything from the next room – probably they could hear them the next farm over, more than a mile away. What a treat it was to finally get old enough to be accepted at the grown-up table.
For food, we had a huge turkey and a ham, with the obligatory gravy made at the last minute by my sweating, flour-dusted grandmother. That gravy was wonderful, and she taught me how to do it, and by the time I was a teenager I had taken over the gravy making. We had dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas and onions, cranberries, some kind of fruit salad, and Mamaw’s famous green beans that she grew and canned for just such occasions. There were rolls and corn bread, a tray of tomatoes, onions, and pickles, and more. We ate on her old flowered china, and consumed gallons of sweet iced tea and perked coffee. The food was so plentiful that it covered not only the 10-foot table but the sideboard behind it, and some woman was always getting up to bring in fresh bread.
We ate until we couldn’t eat another bite, and still Mamaw would urge us, “Why, you didn’t eat enough to keep a bird alive. Why don’t you have some more turkey?” She was impossible to contradict, so we usually ate whatever she suggested, hoping she would turn her eye to someone else so we could stop. But eventually she had to give up. We were stuffed.
The men would ease out into the living room to turn on the ball game and talk politics or farming. And after all that work to prepare the food, the women would be left with dirty dishes. All of us would bustle around and try to make order out of the chaos. Aunt Lucille busied herself cleaning the plates of food, Aunt Wilma put food away anywhere she could find an empty space, often stacking bowls or platters two or three high, and my mother would bring us the dishes to wash. My grandmother always washed, and she sang while she washed. “Oh the old rugged cross, on a hill far away,” in a warbly, old-fashioned voice. I always dried the dishes. I was also supposed to inspect them to make sure they were clean. With everything going on, my grandmother frequently missed dirty spots, so these dishes were returned to her. Anybody else would have apologized for being sloppy, but not her. She would just laugh and tell me her eyes were getting too old, good thing I had young eyes, and that she would “give it a lick and a promise” and maybe do better the next time.
At last the dishes were done, and our stomachs had digested enough to have room for dessert. We ate pie in the living room, balancing the plates on our laps, groaning from the exquisite pain and joy of forcing another morsel of food into our mouths. Of course, then we had to wash those dishes.
By this time it was dark. Night came early, but our house was rocking. Curtis’ family would leave, but the rest of us played games, at least those who were willing to leave the football game. Mamaw was the first to suggest that we play a game of Scrabble. She was hands down the best Scrabble player I have ever known, and she nearly always won. Or we would work a jigsaw puzzle, or play the card game Uno. For a few years the most popular game was Chinese checkers. Somewhere between three and six of us would gather around the now empty dining room table and play for hours. Papaw would nod off in front of the tv, sleeping through all the bedlam.
At last the evening drew to a close. I always got tired of playing before Mamaw did, and that was true until she was in her 90s. My parents said goodbye several times before we were able to pry ourselves away and actually walk out the door. My brother was often asleep and had to be carried, but I stayed awake until the ride home.
What a great day it was to be with family, to hear the stories, eat the food, and have the fun we did every year. Traditions are made of this expected structure, so that we can sink into what we know. My parents moved to Florida when I was 15, so these occasions were not as regular after we moved as they had been before. My immediate family developed our own traditions and they were fine, but never quite as vivid as the ones with my grandmother and all the extended family. She made Thanksgiving, and every day, magic. I am grateful to have known her, especially on Thanksgiving.