I don’t know about you, but there have been times, and more than a few, when I’ve been thoroughly ambivalent about Thanksgiving, wanting nothing more than to avoid all the expected ritual. Several times, back in the seventies, I found myself outside the U.S., in places where it is just another work day. And too, I remember that I observed my first Thanksgiving after moving to New York City by taking a meandering walk through Central Park. The nonconformist in me resists the thought of eating a set menu on the fourth Thursday of November, just because everyone else does. In short, Thanksgiving and I have not always been on the friendliest of terms.
And yet, now that I’m in my “golden” years, I see the value of family and friends taking time to gather around a table and eat a home cooked meal together. Which brings me to the photograph above, where you see all the close relatives of my maternal grandmother’s family gathered one chilly Thanksgiving day more than sixty years ago. The setting is the dining room of the drafty house on the family farm where my grandmother was born, reared and married, and where my siblings and I also grew up.
This iconic family photograph (with turkey front and center), as far as I can tell, was taken by my father on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1950. I don’t know for certain that the year is 1950, but I appear to be about six years old and my sister about two, which would make it 1950 (I’m the smaller of the two boys in front of my mother who is standing in the rear and that’s my little sister in the red dress). This Norman Rockwell-like scene, now seems so distant from me that it’s hard to fathom that it happened in my lifetime. I find it poignant that all the little kids in this photo are now senior citizens, and all the adults, with the single exception of my mother, have long since passed on. My mother, a 28-year-0ld housewife in 1950, celebrated her 91st birthday this year.
I can scarcely imagine what was going through her mind on this day when she was charged not only with supervising two little kids, but with cooking the year’s most significant meal for the elders of her mother’s family. At the head of the table, sits my mother’s great uncle, Thomas Jones who died within a year or two, and to his right, my great, great aunt, Mary D. Jones, who was born the year the Civil War ended, and who died in 1966, just short of her 100th birthday. At the table also, are my mother’s parents, her brother (and only sibling) John, his wife and three of their children. The woman on the far left, we knew as “aunt” Rosella, although we were not actually related. I should note that we kids were brought around this table only for the sake of picture taking–for dinner, we were relegated to a kid’s table in the kitchen.
This November day is likely one of the few times all these folks gathered in one place. Soon enough the elders died, my aunt, uncle and cousins moved to South Dakota and then to California. And I fled for parts far away as soon as I could. But I love how this photograph captures a moment now long gone and one which was never to come again.
And so, although I have not always rigorously observed this holiday, I am grateful that I grew up in a household which did. I am grateful that my mother willingly took on the consequential task of entertaining her extended family. I’m grateful that my father took the time to make this photograph. And I’m grateful that my parents kept us connected to their families, thus giving us kids a better sense of our place in the world.
As for me, and this Thanksgiving day, a small group of friends are gathering around my dining room table. The menu, I suspect, is strikingly similar to my mother’s on that day so long ago.
Photo above: Siblings of my grandmother’s mother, my great, great uncle Thomas Jones, and great, great aunt Mary D. Jones arrive at the family farm November 23, 1950. In the background are cribs used for storing and drying field corn. Photos by Edward Alinder