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Thursday, Nov. 28, 2002
Let me just say that Thanksgiving, well, it sure ain’t what it used to be.

When I was a wee small lad it was so lavishly Currier and Ives that I fear to even attempt a description. ”Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go?” Yep, that would have been me. And my parents and assorted siblings. There really was a river to cross, and plenty of woodland scenes. Although you would have to cross out the horse and sleigh as a conveyance and replace it with a Chrysler. But we often had a smattering of snow and red woolen scarves were considered necessary rather than ornamental.

Grandmother’s house was a neat cottage kept in the way that only Grandmothers’ could do. When you were born before the turn of the last century and raised in the quiet world of the Mennonite farm community there is a certain air of manners and reserve that go far beyond the plain clothing and white bonnet perched on top. Grandfather too, he had plain clothing. Black suspenders for black pants and a blue shirt. He had the dignity of age, the patience to listen while children described their ”over the river” ride in breathless words, listening all the way to the end and chuckling and perhaps finding it all delightful enough to offer a smiling, “Is that so?”

Sitting to a table heavy with the larder of the farm family. When the seating had ceased and chairs had been moved close together to accommodate all and the scraping of chair legs on hardwood floors had died down, Grandfather would bow his head, and Grandmother and parents would follow suit. In the way of their faith, no words were spoken. Man needn’t sully the reverence he had for his Creator by speaking words aloud, Man would bring embarrassment to himself for uttering the very things best kept close to the heart. It was a silent prayer, a quiet no small boy would dare intrude on, a quiet so complete that the ticking of the big clock in the hall seemed to be the only indicator of things still alive in the small house.

When Grandfather felt it was complete, he would raise his head again and unfold his cloth napkin and offer a twinkling grin to me, and I knew it was all right to breathe again. And he probably knew that I had peeked and not closed my eyes and prayed but it was not in his nature to say so. It was my job to learn how to do this, and his to capture my attention by doing so.

A place on the table was kept open for the big turkey plate. Grandmother would keep the turkey in the oven until the moment was right, like a bride before a wedding who was not allowed to be seen until the walk down the aisle. The expectation was made palpable since we had all smelled the aroma that only happens when wonderful things were being cooked. It had lured us in from the cold outdoors, stomping snow from black boots and leaving them in the hall on rubber mats. It had stayed with us for the hour of talk in the living room, the smells of rolls and butter and pumpkin, the almost wispy breath of mashed potatoes, of a small ham just for my father who would not eat turkey. Of beans and squash and cinnamon, apples and blueberries and chestnut dressing. Milk, whole and drawn right from the teat of a cow just hours before. But always, high above all others, the turkey, glazed and snug in the oven with the door ajar to let just a little goodness float out. It was a spicy, sensuous smell that clung heavy to the pine walls and wool rugs and simple window drapes.

When Grandmother brought the bird to rest on the table it was a signal to start. My mother would sit next to me, keeping a hand at the ready in case a heavy bowl was looking to fly from my hand. Plates were not made big enough for all of the bounty, and rolls sometimes had to perch perilously on the rim, teetering with each scrape of knife and fork. There was always a delay in waiting for the turkey to arrive, it had to be carved, and sometimes I would forget and just not leave room for it as other things came by too tantalizing to resist.

A reverent man or not, Grandfather would make good on the offerings given him by his wife as well as his Creator, and busy himself to the task at hand. The man could surely eat. A head bowed in prayer was bowed similarly over a steaming mound of food, hands that had shoveled snow just hours before were flying over his plate with a sure and knowing touch, and at a speed that left small boys in awe. I could tell he had made the same impression on my Dad, who bent to his plate in much the same way, with elbows pumping and cheeks full with the effort of leaving not so much as a morsel left on the china. It was a matter of pride to scrape the plates clean enough to see the painted horse and buggy, the blue swirl of ivy. To wipe the last of the gravy with a roll and drink the last of the coffee with a long gulp that was a prelude to pie and perhaps a bit of heavy cream.

It was all so much, it was the quiet contentment of being exactly where you were supposed to be on a cold Thursday, of being taken from the brick and steel world of school and worldly friends and television cartoons. Going to my Grandparents was going back in time, it was black steel coffee grinders and wooden bowls. It was straight-backed chairs and clocks that chimed on the hour because someone had wound them with a key the night before. It was a smell of Grandfather's pipe, the gray and swirling clouds that would come from it. It was farm catalogs and a chicken coop out back. A curious absence of mirrors. Or radios, and certainly televisions. It was clean windows and small beds and coal to be shoveled, if heat is what you wanted.

I would come home from Grandfathers and feel oddly empty after having been so full. I would turn on the television and find no joy there, or see a jet plane and not understand. Face a Monday back-to-school with none of the giggling antics that small boys wear just underneath plaid sweaters.

It made me solemn. To have worshipped at the house of things done in the old way and drank of the dignity found there. Where thanks was given every day, and grace was a moment of head bowed silence and shame was not found in the contentment of having just enough.

It was good to be small then, it was a glad thing to be small. My Grandparents still make me feel the smallness that life can be, and they are long dead, and there is no bringing back the smell of a big turkey from her oven, or the biting cold of a fall day that made one glad to come in to the warmth that they called home.

In still moments, I can still see what Currier and Ives painted. Maybe mine is the last of the generations who could feel that ageless thing that they had, because it was already passing when I was young, and small or not, I could sense it going away and when life in the quiet way passes it goes with but a whisper of what it stood for. It leaves with a sad smile, drawn by a horse with weary steps. It passes over a snow covered rise and disappears forever with not a hint of how much it was cherished by those who lived in it.

Today I’ll go my children’s Grandmothers house where mixers whirl and microwaves spin. There will be large men playing a game of encroaching violence on a television with large speakers, and children will run in and out and dogs will bark at the unsettling things brought real to their world.

And the blessing will be out loud, and lengthy. The Creator will be acknowledged for the first time since last year. The drinks will be carbonated and the rolls will be store bought. The house will have that heat which is made far, far away and shoveled in by the hand of technology. A heat which leaves you cold even when you know it is not cold.

I have my children, and I have my wife. And somewhere I have that place I can retreat to when things bustle and shrill. It is only a memory. It was better, but it is better when left unsaid. A quiet life spoke best when it said nothing at all, when it gazed on graying barns and frost born wraiths of birds clinging to a single telephone line.

Like silent blessings, it carries more feeling than all words ever could.

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