This joyous harvest festival has always been a family day celebrated with a big dinner and heart-warming reunions. Ninety-six-year-old farmer Webster Howe’s recollections of his favorite Thanksgiving is a bit poignant, but full of family warmth.
The best Thanksgiving I ever had was when me and Mother was workin’ the farm in southern Missouri, south of Joplin. It was in ’34 or ’35. Our kids had all left home lookin’ for work in California and in Kansas, takin’ all the little ones with them. Draggin’ the grandchildren all over the country, probably to starve, Mother always put it . Those years, there wasn’t no one left on the farm but me, Mother, and John, our youngest son.
In those days, there was want all across this country. Where we was you couldn’t hardly make a thin dime. We milked our string of cows and couldn’t sell the milk, and fed it to the pigs and couldn’t sell the pigs, but Mother and me and John was blessed with food and work. That year we put up more dried and canned stuff, and put down and smoked more meat than we ever done before or since. You’d of thought we was squirrels, puttin’ away nuts for a hard winter. I guess knowin’ about want everywhere and thinkin’ it might come to you and yours makes a person a little scared.
Anyway, it got to be one week before Thanksgivin’ and we didn’t hear nothin’ from any of the kids, not our two youngest families livin’ in southwest Kansas or the two older boys in California. Mother had writ them long letters, tellin’ them she missed them and wonderin’ if any of them was comin’ home for the holiday.
When she didn’t hear, she jest went out one mornin’ and killed two big tom turkeys and dressed them. Then she set about making apple, mince, and pumpkin pies. by evenin’ the bread and baked stuff began to pile up til I asked her who she was cookin’ all that for, me and John? She never even answered me.
I tell you, it got to me. Mother was workin’ hard and lookin’ tired. I was gettin’ bitter at the kids who hadn’t even answered their mother’s letter. John, he put in every bit of extry time he had helpin’ her-when she’d let him. I could see it was botherin’ him too, you know the way she was takin’ on, as if all her cookin’ and wishin’ would bring them other kids home.
Well, it didn’t get no better and by the time we was doing chores the night before Thanksgivin’ me and John was feeling low too. I still had two cows to go, when I heard a car drive up. John left the feedin’ and went out to look. He come runnin’ back and told me to come quick, he’d finish up later.
When I stepped out of the barn, there was my son Ken’s old touring car loaded with women and kids and Jack, my son-in-law, jumpin’ out of it. I jest turned around and went back into the barn. John, he come after me and told me they’d jest come down after me if I didn’t come on up to the house.
At the house there was a lot of laughin’ and talkin’ and everyone was huggin’ Mother and John and me. When we went inside, John, he poured coffee for the grownups and icy cold milk for all the children. Mother and the girls went to the pantry for somethin’ to eat and we could hear them teasin’ and laughin’ about all the stuff she’d made.
Then with both hands full of cookies, the littlest grandchild come out to lean against my chair. She was a purty little redheaded kid. She told me that up in Kansas they didn’t have no cookies like her Grandma made. I looked down at her and seen right away that she was as scrawny as a lamb whose mother didn’t have enough milk to feed it. Mother and Daughter walked out of the pantry about then and seen us. Mother give a knowin’ look at me and then at Daughter.
Daughter has always been the bravest of all my children, but when she looked straight at me, I saw fear in her eyes. Never sheddin’ a tear, not waver in her strong voice, she told us how they’d been broke most of the time in Kansas and they’d sold everything-even most of their clothes-to get the money to come home. Without asking for an ounce of pity, she made me a deal to work out their keep till things picked up-as thought I wouldn’t a taken them in for nothin’.
My boy Ken, he never said nothin’, neither did his wife they jest let Daughter talk. Jack, our son-in-law, never said a word, jest sat there with his head kind of down and his elbows on his knees. Mother seen he was feelin’ shamed for not bein’ able to take care of his own, so she told him how much we was needin’ help and how his comin’ was a real godsend.
The next day was Thanksgivin’ Day. The boys helped me with chores, then we sat awhile in the barn and talked about how we was goin’ to make it. And about how bad it was in Kansas and on up north. The women spent the whole mornin’ puttin’ dinner together. Then about two o’clock we ate.
Sittin’ there at the crowded table, covered with plates and food, the family all spruced up and smilin’, Mothers lookin’ like the Spirit of God had descended on her purty face, put me to mind of my own pa and ma and brothers, and I remembered the old, old prayer my father said at our table.
Well, I’m ninety-six, ninety-seven my next birthday-and since then I said that prayer, maybe fifty times over Thanksgivin’ dinners, but it never give me the joy it did that first time.