Nelson County, Virginia
For several years during the infancy of Blue Ridge Life Magazine (back then Nelson County Life) Earl Hamner wrote poems and stories for us that we luckily got to include in the pages of the magazine. We remained dear friends with Earl until his death back in March of 2016.
One of our favorites Earl shared with us back in 2006 was his Thanksgiving Memory. We share it with you this Thanksgiving weekend.
A THANKSGIVING MEMORY
In the beginning Schuyler was a company town, the home of The Alberene Stone Corporation, which quarried and milled soapstone. We lived in company built houses and bought our goods from the company store. Schuyler had been a prosperous little village but when the Great Depression came the mill closed. My father found work in Waynesboro and could only be home with his family on holidays and weekends.
I remember a Thanksgiving from those years. Mornings were strangely quiet because the whistle calling the workers to the mill no longer sounded. On this Thanksgiving morning the sound that woke us was that of my father, home for the holiday, building a fire in the wood-burning cook stove. He drenched the wood with kerosene and when he lit it with a match the flames mad a whooshing sound as they roared up the chimney.
Shortly, he called down the hall to my mother, “Sweetheart,” which was his name for her till his dying day. My mother answered, “I’m on my way,” and joined him in the kitchen. They spoke quietly to each other, sharing private moments. Soon the sound of coffee percolating and the aroma of sizzling bacon would drift up to our rooms.
We descended upon them, eight red headed brothers and sisters, crowding around the stove to warm up. Breakfast was served at a long wooden trestle table my father had built and while we ate he would admire his brood and call us his “thoroughbreds.”
Each of us was assigned chores. The girls helped our mother wash and dry the dishes, make the beds, washing and iron the clothes. The boys tended to outside chores. There was the cow to be milked. She was a brown and white Guernsey. My father had bought her from Miss Dolly Hall for forty dollars. Miss Dolly had named her Chance because she gave a “good chance” of butter. The chickens had been up before us and were waiting for the grain we tossed to them on the frosty ground. Feeding the pigs was a melancholy chore. They had intelligent eyes and looked up trustingly as we poured slops into their tough. I knew, and it pained me, but they were unaware that they did not have long to live.
Our Father had brought home the turkey the day before. He had shot it over on Wales Mountain and my mother was already preparing it for the oven when company began to arrive.
We were part of two great clans. In addition to my mother’s family, most of whom lived close by, my father’s people, aunts and uncles and cousins would arrive from Richmond and Petersburg. We were in awe of the city cousins. They used slang words that were new to us such as “guy” “jerk” or “kiddo” which made us feel naïve and countrified. We children would travel in packs, playing the old games of Hide and Go Seek, Olly, Olly Oxen Free, and in the nearby school yard we would shoot baskets or play baseball, or find a plowed fiend where we searched for arrowheads and fools gold.
At home the conversation grew in pitch and volume as everybody talked at once. Hardly anybody heard what the other was saying but everybody knew what was going on. We are a family of story tellers. No event is without significance to us, and all that happens becomes a part of our history. We keep and share every detail. Our reunions become a verbal history of birth and death, of failures and accomplishments, of hardships and good times and just celebrating the joy of being together again. Being an aspiring writer I kept notes!
At one point everybody piled into cars and went to the graveyard where we paid respects to our dead. The more recent graves were marked by stones with names and dates carved or engraved on them. In the older section we came to earlier graves marked simply by a single primitive stone with no lettering to tell the name of who rested beneath it.
On the way home one of the uncles made a detour down to Esmont to visit the Staples Sisters who made bootleg apple brandy. He brought a bottle back with him and it was surreptitiously passed from one of the uncles to the other. If she caught sight of it one of the wives would disapprove but her scolding did not last long for someone moved to the piano and soon all the grown ups had their arms around each other, swaying back and forth while singing “In the Garden” or “Down by The Old Mill Stream” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
In the late afternoon dinner was served. If my grandmother was there she would say a proper grace, but if she was not my father said, “Look out, Lord, we’re gonna eat!” What a feast ensued! The turkey, golden brown, had a minimum of birdshot left in it. The applesauce was made from fruit we had gathered from an abandoned orchard down on Mt. Alto. The butter beans, the corn, and the peas came come from our summer garden and canned by my mother. The potatoes flavored with Chance’s rich butter were not mashed but creamed. Finally desserts. The sweet potato pie, still warm from the oven, was encased in a crust so crumbly and sweet that it alone could have been a dessert. And then came the pumpkin pie, steaming aromas of brown sugar and nutmeg, and all laced with generous portions of whipped cream. All of it was accompanied by milk for the children, coffee for the adults and if requested iced tea as sweet as sugar cane.
At sundown out-of-town guests drifted off to whatever relative had taken them in for the night. Others, sated with food and companionship, gathered around the radio for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving message. Sleepy, exhausted children were carted off to bed. It was a family custom that we would call goodnight to each other from room to room and finally, we would drowse off to sleep secure in the knowledge that we were home, safe and loved.
They were challenging times, those Depression Years. They seem so distant now. We thought we were poor, but in them we were richer than we knew.
The house where we lived is quiet now. No one lives there any more except for a family of dirt daubers and ghosts that move from room to room behind the empty windows.
In memory I go there each night. I stand beside the gate, look up to the house, and once again I hear the voices of my mother and father, my brothers and sisters as we call goodnight to each before we rest.