The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

An Aunt Alice Thanksgiving

By Kenneth M. Hawks © 1988

Issue: November, 1988

Thanksgiving Day in my boyhood was a time for the men to hunt and the women folk to visit, gossip and prepare the big meal of the year. My family did all those things by visiting Aunt Alice and Uncle Whit who lived high in the mountains in the heart of rabbit hunting country. It was there, many years ago, that they tended crops, milked cows and raised their children on a diet of hard work, love and wild greens seasoned with fat back. An occasional wild possum added interest to their suppers.

A day at their farm was an adventure we looked forward to each Thanksgiving to celebrate the holiday and escape the boredom of our farm chores. Yes, life on a Depression farm was an endless series of days filled with sameness, doing work the same way generations before had done it and for reasons long lost in time. For example, we had to hoe the corn three times a year before "Lay-it-by" whether it needed it or not. I've always heard it said that hill people were slow to acquire new ways and slower still to retire them. They do, in fact, take on new ways slowly not because they are stubborn but because they are uninterested. Hence, the ones they end up with and pass on to the next generation are like Grandma's left over corn bread...stale and hard to stomach.

So it was in November, as sure as the birds migrate to Argentina, we loaded into Papa's pickup and climbed the mountain along Piper's Gap trail to spend Thanksgiving with Aunt Alice. As Mr. Frost said, "The leaves were all dead on the ground, save those the oak trees were keeping." We knew, as the old truck labored along in low gear, that it would be a day of good eating, new stories and some of the world's best rabbit hunting.

The fields along Coal Creek were still white with frost as we made the last turn and climb, through the draw bars, to their white clapboard house. A pack of hounds and children welcomed us with shouts, growls and curious glances. Like a ragged band of itinerant cotton pickers we jumped from the truck and made ready to hunt and eat.

We stood around shivering in small groups adjusting to the colder mountain air all the while blowing steam and stomping the frost-white turf in a losing effort to restore feelings to our frozen toes, numb since passing Jim Cox's store two miles back. The dogs sniffed, growled and set their pecking orders for the hunt. Soon their voices awakened the grey hills and valleys.

"Jerome," Uncle Whit said, "take old Blue and your boys down by the creek and my dogs will jump a few rabbits along that far ridge."

Few sports offer the ritual, magic and tradition of rabbit hunting. The reason we go has more to do with the enjoyment of the countryside, the sound of dogs running and the refreshment of a frosty morning than the shooting of rabbits. There is something in our old age that makes us remember those happy times, something only a hunter can understand.

I leaned against a sagging, chestnut rail fence and watched them coming - first the rabbits, their long legs reaching past their laid back ears, then Uncle Whit's beagles Pat and Mike, shoulder to shoulder but steadily losing ground. Two shotguns stood ready between me and the action. The first one was my brother Dale who missed a clear shot. The next was brother Beryle who had grown up with Popa's double barrel twelve gauge shotgun in his hands and stood poised with youthful reflexes and an overwhelming amount of squirrel hunting experience. These factors joined in reducing the rabbit's chances for survival to zero and I knew I wasn't likely to get a shot.

The blast of the twelve gauge roared through the hills as dust and fur rose in a small cloud. "Nice shot," I called to Beryl. "Thanks," he answered. "Did you see him? I'll bet he was doing forty."

I smiled, listening to his nervous chatter and moved a few hundred yards down the frozen branch to wait for the hounds to jump another rabbit. Along the way a covey of Quail darted for cover. As I grow older I seem to become more and more distracted from the business of hunting. Nature's small creatures usually distract me and rather than looking for something to kill I act like a graying old man at a Yard Sale.

Later, after bringing down three or four rabbits for supper we called the dogs and headed back for Aunt Alice's Thanksgiving dinner. Oh yes, brothers Dale and Harold did manage to kill one each but Beryl told me, on the way back to the house, that both rabbits were setting still when they shot them.

My mother Zula and Aunt Alice always believed that somewhere in the darkest clouds there were rays of sunlight. For example, they believed that without the hard times of the 1930's folks would not of had so many "Made from scratch" foods. Chicken fried steak, for instance, came to be as a small piece of round steak was pounded into enough meat for a small family. Gravy was on the table morning, noon and night to make the lard biscuits taste good and to liven up a few pieces of fatback. In fact, good gravy smothering hamburger is better to some of us than prime rib. Aunt Alice knew these things and many other unique ways to feed her family and friends. Like my mother she was a master at preparing leftovers, building a meal with such innovation that we couldn't remember when the original dishes were served.

We gathered around the seven foot pine table, eleven there was altogether. Bowing our heads over the pine planks Uncle Whit had prepared with a hand plane, my mother offered our thanks to Deity for the blessings of the times. I sneaked a look at sister Audrey who was also checking for unbowed heads and open eyes.

Fried ham with red eye gravy, peas, pot liquor, boiled cabbage, chicken and dumplings, green beans, pone corn bread and other tasty things passed before our hungry eyes; this was our annual feast, banquet and eat out all rolled into one glorious hour of eating.

Later, after soft crust peach cobbler, we gathered around the pickup reluctant to admit the day was ending. One hound was still barking over a cold trail as a brisk wind began bringing winter to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Uncle Whit and his boys were calling the cows and on their way to milk. For sometime the large pine cones and the wide black bands on the wooly worms had been telling us that another hard winter was on the way, possibly as bad as the blizzard of 1936 when the snow reached my waist during the mile walk to school. That February morning is forever stamped in my memory when my mother wrapped Herold, Dale, Beryl, sister Audrey and me in our warmest coats and pushed us out the door. The howling wind caught her final orders to us, "Go to school or freeze to death."

The things I remember most about those times were the smell of wood smoke from the cabins near Uncle Whit's farm, the aroma of apple pies baking in Aunt Alice's kitchen and the quiet settings of mountain farms nestled in protected hollows to await the whiteness of winter. In my childhood these things were free and I know that the people who survived the hard times of the 1930's were eternal optimists.

Back in the thirties a goodly number of folks in my part of Carroll County, Virginia were destitute and receiving some kind of help from the County. We called it "Being on Relief." My father helped hand the government flour, dried milk, cheese and now and then a few cans of evaporated milk to those who were hungry and in some cases close to starvation. But those strong, proud mountain people always saw hope in hopeless situations and found happiness when sadness ruled the times. Grandma Violet once said to me, "Boy, folks are always trying to please God. Well, I'll tell you right now all you have to do is look at the wild flowers, song birds and the autumn leaves and see that God is also trying to please all of us poor folks."

It is a fact that happy times were always with Grandma Violet, Aunt Alice and my mother Zula. The hill people of those dark days buried their cabbage for winter, helped their neighbors and always said, "There are better days coming." Burt Ward once told me, while resting in the morning sun, "Harold (never could tell me from my brother), people have more fun than anyone." That pretty well described the mountain people of my boyhood, whether it was at a Saturday night corn shucking, a Primitive Baptist Foot Washing or just spending Thanksgiving with a favorite Aunt and Uncle.

Yes, there will be many more Thanksgivings celebrated by country people around Lambsburg, Virginia and the dawn will break bright over the Blue Ridge Mountains this November just as it has for generations. For some of us not so promising, beautiful and tranquil as yesteryear perhaps, but somewhere in those hills, folks will be there to meet it. They always have and always will.

When I think back to those autumn days, times and places, I know that what we love most in our hearts is the place where we were raised and even though many of the old landmarks, along with our memories and home's shortcomings have faded with time, the longing for home never leaves the heart. We carry it deep in our souls and like the birds that return from Argentina each spring we also migrate back to our roots in reality or memory. We know that there the fallen down out houses, leaking barns, rusty plows and dry wells are our life's landmarks. I still see them as they once were and wonder why strangers cannot.