The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

We Gather Together

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1988-2012

Issue: November, 1988

That long ago fall of 1954, I was nine years old. I was in the fourth grade and doing well with my studies and classmates; as the days grew shorter and cooler and the leaves changed colors and fell, we all turned our thoughts to the next upcoming holiday, Thanksgiving.

The windows at school were decorated with construction paper turkeys, pumpkins, pilgrims and Indians. I learned how to draw a cornucopia or "horn of plenty" that year and learned what it stood for.

My little sister's first grade class was presenting a play and my mother worked on her sewing machine at night making the gray Priscilla Alden costume with the big white square collar and matching plain white cap. I remember my little sister's very curly hair puffing out on all sides when she pulled the strings of that cap tight and tied it under her chin.

A big pumpkin sat in the kitchen floor awaiting the day my mother decided to prepare it for the pies she would bake to take to my grandparents' house on Thanksgiving Day. Those were the days before artificial whipped topping, so the pies would be piled high with mounds of real country cream, whipped and sweetened. You only got whipped cream on special occasions like Thanksgiving, and I loved it so much I would sneak and eat it with a spoon.

My father worked every day, Monday through Friday and came home promptly at 5:30. Mother had dinner ready at that time and we all ate together. After dinner my sister and I would finish any homework we might have, Mother would do the dishes, Daddy usually had a chain saw or a car that needed fixing and then the whole family would sit down and watch television (usually a western as they were Daddy's favorites). Promptly at nine o'clock everyone went to bed. The days, weeks and months followed the same schedule with little variation and it was soothing and secure. Groceries were always bought on Friday night; you got your hair washed on Saturday and went to church on Sunday.

Life centered around family and I was as happy as a child could be. There were only four in our immediate family   Mother, Daddy, my sister and me, but there were what seemed to be hundreds of cousins, aunts and uncles, all close knit and constantly in touch. If there was one thing that influenced my childhood it was the everyday sense of family, and holidays were extra special gathering times.

For some reason I was always very close to my grandmother on my mother's side. For years I spent whole weeks at a time staying with her in the summer. I loved her in such a special way and our relationship had a closeness I've never quite experienced again. Of course she spoiled me rotten, but it was more than that. It was as if we belonged to each other by some indefinable bond. So, as Thanksgiving approached, I looked forward to the big day at my grandmother's.

The day finally arrived and we prepared to leave around 9:00 in the morning. Mother put dish after dish covered in foil into cardboard boxes and my sister and I picked out a toy or two to take with us. I also gathered some of my best school papers to take with me to show. I knew that my grandmother had not been well and staying with my uncle whose house sat catty cornered across the dirt road from hers, but the whole family was going to be there together and nothing else mattered.

It was only about a twenty minute drive to my grandparent's house out in the country, but it always seemed to take forever. We didn't travel much in those days. The school which was about five miles away was as far as I was used to traveling and a nine year old doesn't have much of a perspective of time and distance. My whole world was practically contained in a 20 mile radius. Most of my father's family lived near us and most of my mother's lived in a small cluster of houses at the end of that 20 minute drive.

We arrived a good two hours before lunch would be served and I put the time to use by running from place to familiar place visiting first the relatives, then the farm animals and then my favorite places to play. I gathered a big sack of black walnuts from the tree near the road, climbed the hay loft, got an ear of corn for the chickens and did all my favorite things at my grandparent's farm.

I had not paid much attention before, but I think it must have been sometime during lunch that I noticed no one was laughing and joking as much as usual. Not even my teenage cousin who now gravitated more towards the adults. Everyone did the same things and said the same things, but something was not the same. Something I couldn't figure out was different. It seemed harder to spend time with my grandmother. Every time I tried to get up on her lap someone seemed to shoo me away or take me outside to play or something.

By the time we left, which was around sundown, I realized I had hardly spent time with my grandmother at all.

Shortly after Thanksgiving my grandmother went into the hospital for surgery. I was too small to go to the hospital and was only able to figure out what was going on by the snatches of conversation I heard from adults in unguarded moments.

Christmas that year was very sad. I was still not told anything as adults tried to spare the thoughts and feelings of children and protect them from sadness as much as they could. My family was not people who showed emotions outwardly and I still didn't really know what was going on.

I can only remember seeing my grandmother one more time after that. She came home from the hospital and we went by a florist and took her a bouquet of violets. By this time it was the middle of winter and violets were rare even from a hothouse. Even rarer was that we went on a week night, something that had never happened before. My grandmother was in bed and I was told it would hurt her if I climbed on her, just to stand beside the bed. Already there was an emotional barrier I knew I would not get through. I would not really be able to get close to my grandmother and feel the closeness again. My aunt and teenage cousin were crying in the kitchen. Soon my grandmother would be no more.

Now, nearly 50 years later, it is Thanksgiving again. I look back each year and see what it has given me and I think back to all of the previous years and their treasures. The treasure of my grandmother's love is still one of the very best. Every time I crochet I remember she taught me. Every time I look at my grandchildren I remember the example of what influence a grandmother's love can mean. I only had that experience for ten short years in early childhood, but it will stick with me forever.

Things we are thankful for are sometimes like that. We might only have them for a short time, but it doesn't reduce their value in our lives.

Thanksgiving should be a time to recall the things large and small that came into our lives and enriched us by being there; even a loss as great as death does not take that away.

The whole family doesn't get together for holidays any more, but I will forever be thankful for those years when we would gather together...