Thursday, November 26, 2020

Memories of Thanksgivings Past

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I don’t suppose that’s always been true; as a child, Christmas was probably my favorite. Or maybe Easter. But in my adulthood, Christmas’s commercialism finally got to me. And for the past several years, I’ve celebrated Easter quietly, usually with viewing the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean with my beloved little Henry-Dog. Thanksgiving though, that one has always been about family – whatever that family may look like.

My earliest recollection of a Thanksgiving is at my Wallis grandparents’ home in Arcadia. I don’t particularly recall any of the food; what I remember best is the great spectacle my grandfather – “Grandy,” we called him – made of honing his knife prior to carving the turkey. He made that blade sing!

As for the rest of the meal, I’m sure it was pretty fabulous. My “Meemaw” was a great cook … and she believed in making sure everyone was WELL fed. Surely her biscuits were on the table, and maybe my mother’s dressing. I’m betting that dessert was split between Meemaw’s absolutely divine chocolate cake, which I always referred to as her “black cake,” and my mother’s amazing pecan pie. I couldn’t have been very old, maybe eight at the most, because my grandfather died before my ninth Thanksgiving.

And so Thanksgiving changed, somewhat. For a few years, my mother was in charge of Thanksgiving. And man, did she do it up! Appetizers like celery stuffed with cream cheese and olive, and you had to be sure not to get too stuffed on the stuffed celery, mainly because the turkey – a slow-roasted masterpiece that took HOURS and meticulous basting – awaited, as did her beautiful dressing, mashed potatoes and dreamy giblet gravy, green beans, other fresh vegetables … whatever she dreamed up. Plus that amazing pecan pie.

But then Thanksgiving changed again, when we started to get together with local farm families, first, under the shelter of a vegetable stand operated by one of my mother’s friends, later, further away from town in someone’s pasture off of Hog Bay Road. These were no quiet pass-the-plate affairs; they were huge potlucks reminiscent of a church supper, with one large flat-bed trailer holding all manner of scrumptious side dishes and a slightly smaller trailer laden with decadent desserts.

Oh. And a HUGE cauldron of swamp cabbage. Always a prime feature for me: swamp cabbage sure ain’t much to look at, but it is dee-licious. You may know it as “heart of palm” from the menus of fine restaurants or maybe you’ve seen a can on the shelf of a grocery store. But we know and love it as the vegetable that helped many a rural Floridian survive during the hard days of the Great Depression.

Swamp cabbage isn’t the only thing that set those pasture Thanksgivings apart, though! There was no turkey served at these affairs, just an appetizer of pork ribs and the main course of fresh, local Florida beef. On one particularly memorable Thanksgiving, I saw the most magnificent Tom turkey I’d ever seen before or since, parading around the gathering as if he knew that, among these cattlemen and their families, he would never be the hapless guest of honor.

As fun as those times were, they came to an end. I’m not really sure why – whether it was just our family’s participation that ended, or whether some of the key organizers were finding the gatherings more difficult to manage. At any rate, Thanksgiving changed again, and in this next phase I was in charge. I managed the turkey well, selected really wonderful appetizers and side dishes, including making my mother’s dressing for the very first time … but had to use gravy out of the Franco-American bottle, because I have never mastered gravy. And I still depended on my mother for that amazing pecan pie. Sometimes the gathering would be at my house, sometimes at my best friend’s house; and although Thanksgiving had by this time become a sort of blended-families affair, it just seemed right and natural.

As my parents grew older, large gatherings with heaps of food and turkey leftovers that lasted for days and days were no longer attractive to them. And so Thanksgiving changed yet again; once we ordered a complete meal from Publix, and once while visiting in North Carolina we actually had our Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant. After my parents moved away from Florida, Greg and I sometimes had dinner at his sister’s house and once at his niece’s house – and I was introduced to turnip and potato mash and pierogi.

In 2015 Greg passed away and as Thanksgiving approached I realized how very much I loved the holiday and yet how very much I dreaded that day without him. I invited myself to a close friend’s house, and she and I went for Thanksgiving dinner to the Dillard House in the north Georgia mountains. We enjoyed the experience so much that we did it again the following year!

And then Thanksgiving changed again, and I actually spent the day all by myself. I was supposed to have gone to the Thanksgiving Bluegrass Festival at Sertoma Youth Ranch. Had my dish – my mother’s dressing, of course – all picked out and everything. But as much as I love bluegrass music, and as much as I love Sertoma Youth Ranch, at that time I did not expect to see anyone I knew very well … and I realized that I needed to be with family, or with friends who are like family.

Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really all about? Evidently, it always was for me, even though I did not always truly recognize that fact. The past couple of Thanksgivings have been extremely quiet ones, spent with two very, very dear friends/neighbors, their dog and mine vigilantly waiting for a morsel to hit the floor, hilariously jockeying and maneuvering positions as they sized up which of us might be the messiest eater.

And here we are. Thanksgiving 2020. Where any of the above-described gatherings would not be particularly safe. I’ve been “sheltering” with cousins in North Carolina since the end of March, and so our small gathering, with the Maine Coon, Gwen, yowling for more servings of turkey and the Henry-Dog strategically parked underneath the table, was as safe as can be reasonably expected. The food was prepared by a couple of friends from our small circle, to be distributed among about a dozen of the circle. We all had our own Thanksgivings, enjoying artfully-prepared food in the safety of our respective homes.

If I’m honest, I missed the gathering, the assembly of family and friends who are like family. But this is not the first hard or unusual Thanksgiving of my life, and realistically speaking, it will not be my last. It … changed … is all, and I’m so proud of the friend who came up with the concept of a shared Thanksgiving that – for what is, hopefully, the one and only time – we did not share in each others’ company.

For me, personally, Thanksgiving will change again in 2021. But more on that in a future post …

Monday, July 13, 2020

My Poetry As Art

I am so blessed to know so many wonderfully talented people -- musicians and glass artists, chefs and actors, makers of jewelry and carvers of wood, physicians and athletes, so many people -- who possess a stunning variety of gifts and and the determination to develop and refine those gifts. So blessed!

Today I celebrate an even bigger thrill: the completion of a commission by Spruce Pine (NC) artist Val Beck. I can hardly see the computer screen because I'm weeping for joy at how beautifully this turned out.


It is based on something I wrote a few years back. (Text below; some of you will remember it.) The white lines you see are actually just reflections of lights in the studio.

It is the gloaming,

The quiet time, before the fall of night.

My faithful dog lies quietly at my feet

While in the distance, others of his kind are madly barking.

Fireflies wink while unknown insects chirp.

A lone dragonfly zooms about.

An owl on the prowl hoots

While somewhere out there a peacock screams.

And Venus and Jupiter light the darkening sky.

These are the times I like best.

My world is quiet, save for the sounds of a thousand years, the sounds of eternity.

In the present,

The air is cool enough, though heavy with the eternal humidity of the South.

My South, and it is pleasant to me.

Even the mosquitoes cannot shake my reverie.

With the Henry-Dog.

In the gloaming.

The quiet time, before the fall of night.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Cane Grindin'

“Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work.”

Kevin Hassett, economist, Senior Advisor to the Trump administration
Wow. That's cold.
Puts me in mind of a cane-grindin'. For those who don't know, this is how juice was extracted from sugar cane: Freshly cut and stripped stalks of cane were crushed in a roller mill, and the mill was powered by a mule tethered to a pole, as you see in the picture. The mule would walk in a circle, round and round.
Sometimes they'd tie a stick to the mule's bridle; the stick would have a carrot dangling from it, just out of the mule's reach. The theory was that the mule would keep chasin' that carrot and keep walkin' in that circle, round and round.
The mule would walk in that circle, round and round, until the farmer stopped him. Or until he just dropped dead.
(Cane juice is extracted differently these days. The process is automated, and even those who like doing it the "old-fashioned" way use a tractor or similar vehicle. Nowadays, if you attend an old-timey event and see an actual mule powering the mill, the demonstration is brief -- for what I hope are obvious reasons.)
Kevin Hassett, and plenty of others of his ilk, see the working person like that old farmer saw his mule: as stock. You, like that old mule, are supposed to chase that carrot -- your “carrot” is a vacation, or an end of year bonus, or retirement ... but Kevin Hassett is not going to care much if you just drop dead chasing that “carrot.”
I’d like to think we’re better than that. I was raised to believe that we were worth more than that.
Round and Round.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Dog on Fire (Apologies to Alicia Keys)

It's still cool enough for a nice fire.

Although ... we had a bit of excitement a while ago! An ember jumped out and landed on Henry's coat. He didn't see/feel it, but Sally did. She started yelling. Then she jumped up to brush the ember from his coat. By now you could smell the hair burning, but Henry wasn't feeling it. Sally was yelling and waving her hand and scaring him, so he kinda snapped at her and I called him and he came over to me at which time the ember fell off his coat and onto the hearth rug. Lots of commotion!

I started rubbing his coat where the ember had been and it sure was stinking badly of burnt hair. But otherwise he seemed physically OK ... just a bit confused about why Sally had come after him, yellin' and wavin' her hands.

I cleaned him up a little bit. You can kinda see where the hair got burned away but otherwise he's OK.

End of story: When it was all over Henry picked up Squeaky Chicken and took him to Sally, to tell her that he was sorry for snapping at her.

Room is still a little stinky, but otherwise all is normal.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

One For Mimi

My grandmother, Marie Bloise Cowan, on her wedding day in 1917. Twelve years and four children later, she and my grandfather, Jack Funderburk, would be plunged along with the rest of the world into the Great Depression.

I'm thinking about her in particular today, as I hear people voice concerns over COVID-19. By the time the Depression came around, "Mimi" had already been witness to widespread and deadly outbreaks of influenza, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and yellow fever, and a War to End All Wars. I find myself imagining how she would approach today's situation, and find inspiration in her.

Particularly inspiring to me is that, during the Depression, she and my grandfather were approached by a man who just could not afford to keep his young son. The man knew his boy was bright, and needed an education, but he simply could not justify a household member who couldn't work to help provide for the household. Would they be able to take the boy in?

I wonder if they readily said yes ... or did they fret over the decision, saying, we already have four children and this man's asking us to take on a fifth?

My grandparents were generous people of deep faith, so I'm reasonably certain they unhesitatingly said Yes. Yes to the boy who brought his sole possession, a guitar, with him. I mention the guitar because among a lifetime of achievements, that boy was one of the founders of the Florida Folk Festival -- which is our nation's oldest state-run folk festival, 68 years strong. The boy -- the man -- remained devoted to my grandparents all their lives.

Our current crisis has not yet reached those epic proportions, and perhaps it never will. (Let us hope!) But in the meantime, there are a lot of scared people out there who may need help. I'm looking to Mimi's example. I may not have much, and helping may require sacrifice on my part ... but ... this one's for Mimi.