Monday, November 18, 2013

Over the River and Through the Woods...

...........may be the beginning of the iconic Thanksgiving song, but when I was growing up, we got up even before all the moms and grandmas putting the turkeys in the oven and drove south through the Illinois prairie in darkness so far from morning that we could not even see the silhouettes of barns and silos. Gradually, as we got south of Kankakee, the lights of the farm houses would glow dimly across the bare ground and I would picture the cooks in their robes and slippers warming ovens and wrestling the birds from the refrigerator, then heading back for a quick nap before rolling out dough for rolls and pies after breakfast. There were no fast food restaurants or quick trips or other convenience stores back then so we looked out the windows and listened to our stomachs growl, making do with whatever my mother had packed. The fields were empty of grain and quite often cleanly plowed and put to bed for the winter, but I wasn't a farmer then and could be mistaken.

Our destination was usually Hannibal where my aunt and uncle and cousins would host Thanksgiving dinner, weather permitting. But I also remember eating with my cousins on Granny's back porch, with steam condensing on the louvered windows and the little succulents lining the sills in glazed pots of various shapes.  Grandpa would say grace and we'd load our plates with canned beans and frozen corn and pies from fruit of Grandpa's orchard; sweet potatoes and red skinned potatoes from his garden; not just traditional meats, but maybe some squirrel or rabbit pieces unrecognizable in its gravy brought to mind the platters and pots of the Pilgrims' did the risk of finding some buckshot with your teeth....We ate off real plates: play, whether active football or armchair football, had to wait until all the dishes were done. By hand. Washing was my dad's job; he didn't trust anyone else to clean sufficiently, but all of us ladies would dry. It was certainly more fun to do dishes with the chatter of the Renken women than with just my sister at home! Granny and Grandpa's house was a drafty thing ,but the kitchen was a mere alley and all the humidity from the ovens, the dishes, the pots on the stove and the quantities of chatter made getting out of doors a refreshing relief. Later, while some of the menfolk watched football, we'd play 'Hearts' or 'Spades' and have to suck it up when we were firmly trounced by any of the adults. We learned at a young age that if one was going to play with the grownups, one had to pay the price. No quarter!!

My father would bring his clarinet and uncle Terry, the music director at Hannibal, would bring out a stack of music for them to try out.  After a while, I was recruited to make a woodwind trio.  It was terrifying for the first year or so as I struggled to keep my place and not embarrass my father by getting lost.  Uncle Terry was always kind, but then I'm sure he was used to it!  

Usually we went out to get our Christmas tree over Thanksgiving as well.  The pastures of central Missouri were fertile fields as far as cedar trees were concerned.  If the weather had been just right, the needles would still be green and not the reddish brown hue the cedars would wear through the winter.  Our old cars had commodious trunks, so the luggage would ride in the back seat with Laura and me while the freshly cut cedar was bent and fitted carefully into the trunk. We might not have been comfortable, but we enjoyed the fragrance all the way back to Illinois with the additional anticipation of putting up the tree in a week or so after it soaked up water and unfolded in the garage.

By the time I was in college, the Renken family Thanksgiving had settled comfortably at Aunt Anne's and Uncle Tony's gracious home in Columbia.  Each family brought its special dish, eagerly anticipated from the previous Thanksgiving, up to and including the baked beans which provoked a friendly rivalry about whose beans were the best beans.  I would never take sides or pretend to judge...Who eats baked beans on Thanksgiving?  I knew I liked my mother's the best!  Rather, fill up on stuffing and rolls and cranberries and broccoli salad and try to carve out a bit of room for pie.   The tables were always set with creative place cards and the weather always seemed to be just right for a leafy afternoon stroll those years. 

When our kids were little, we reprised the pitch black early morning drives south, packing something to drink and a few donuts from home.  Lee, Ann, and then Ben were the only grandkids/great grand kids in the family then and were spoiled commensurately with new books or toys and full and complete access to the pinball machine downstairs and the hot tub on the back patio.  My younger cousins played football and shot baskets with them.  They played cards with their Granny, just like Laura and I had done a generation before.  I can assure you, she was much less cutthroat than some of the other family members!

We are a big family now with bits and pieces of family connections near and far.  In years past, turkey was followed close by with farming as we strove to bring in the last wet corn or the last frosty beans or to finish up running anhydrous on a particular field before rain, or snow, or freeze shut down field work. We have offered Thanksgiving on still chill days after covering a greenhouse in ideal conditions and celebrating our grand good fortune with a big beef steak.  When we partake of this particular type of Thanksgiving meal, we echo our forebears in a small way, praising God for every measure heaped atop survival, for allowing us to approach the long winter season without fear and with a great hope and anticipation.  We count our blessings in so many ways on Thanksgiving Day: by the weight of the turkey in the oven, by the number of plates on the tables, cars in the driveway, pies on the counter, frequent flyer miles....but none so sublime, so intangible, so righteous, as the gift of giving thanks itself before, during and after the day itself has past.  

This year it is our turn to hit the road, to cross the brown prairies bare of crops, to join the other travelers following their own personal GPS like homing pigeons of the past.  Traveling east this year to cook, to hug, to celebrate, to count our blessings.

Thanksgiving has always been our movable feast



  1. I loved reading all about your family! You are a blessed woman! I've loved joining you on Country Fair Blog Party!