Late November. This is the perfect season for a day of thanksgiving – at least in Minnesota. Autumn is over, except on the calendar. The day for giving thanks comes at the end of harvest, as it should. Now the season’s harvest of corn, oats and soybeans – the fruits of considerable cost, risk, and sweat – was secure in the bins and cribs. Unless snow came early, we usually finished plowing most of the stubble. November days are cold, the sky is cloudy most of the time, occasional skiffs of snow blow through and winter lurks just over the western horizon. It’s the kind of weather that draws us closer to each other. Thanksgiving Day punctuated our year far more than did Christmas.
Throughout the 1950s and into the mid-1960s, my family celebrated alternate Thanksgivings with our cousins in town. I liked that because they had a television and, later, a color set. Besides my cousins, our families and two great aunts, we included our bachelor dentist. Sometimes, 15 or 16 people sat at two tables; adults at the big table, kids at the card table.
Thanksgiving morning on the farm began like any other day. Dad always got up first – far too cheerful – and then came to see that I was awake (I faked sleep). Then I dressed in jeans and flannel shirt, put on my jacket, cap, and mitts, and followed him out to the barn.
From an early age, I was in charge of feeding 250 Leghorn hens, collecting their eggs, and then packing them into cardboard crates for sale. Dad went about feeding the steers and the hogs, forking hay and hauling pails of grain to their troughs. After that, we ate a quick breakfast because Mom needed to start cooking the bird.
Both of my city-born parents grew up in New Jersey in middle class households. At the end of World War II, at the age of 26, Dad wanted to be his own boss and decided to go farming in Minnesota. We hadn’t had a farmer in my family since 1866, and no one to pass on agricultural lore. Farming wasn’t easy at first but Dad learned quickly – a doggedly determined man.
“I need your help with something,” Dad said after breakfast. That’s how he usually framed his requests. Rarely, if ever, did he gave me a direct order. Yet, his way of asking ruled out saying ‘no’. He considered sacrificing one’s personal interests to help someone else the greater good; he modeled this virtue and instilled it in me before I knew it. I couldn’t say ‘no’ without feeling I was letting him down – if not violating the moral universe. This meant sacrificing my time indoors reading or finishing a model airplane to work in the cold wind.
He wanted me to help pick a patch of corn he didn’t reach with the machine. “It’ll only take an hour,” he said. (I knew that Dad’s ‘hour’ was usually 90 minutes – at least!). We took a row apiece and went along it, ripping ears of corn from their husks, and tossing them into the grain wagon. Dad whistled show tunes as he worked, a sure sign he felt contented. I didn’t.
Dad liked working and enjoyed completing one task after another. Maybe he learned that during the Depression growing up in a household with a Puritan’s ethos that one should always be doing something ‘useful’ to honor the life God had given them. (Mom’s family lacked this Puritan ethic so life balanced out.)
“That’s enough picking for today,” Dad said, checking his watch after nearly two hours. “We better go and clean up for dinner.” Welcome news – mostly – because ‘enough for today’ implied more picking tomorrow. I would rather hunt pheasants instead.
Our food budget had its limits in those days, and our local grocery stocked only the basics and few extras. Fortunately, Mom was an excellent cook and her talent shone on Thanksgiving. When Dad and I returned to the house, we saw steamy kitchen windows from boiling potatoes. And then we smelled the aromas of pie, turkey, and vegetables.
Mom and her apprentice, my sister, made it clear they wanted us “out – of – the – kitchen!” Dad and I had solidarity on that one and went off to shower and change clothes. Afterward, we went to the living room, built a fire of oak chunks in the hearth, and read or listened to the radio.
Then the guests arrived, their composition changing little, except as a member died or grew up and moved away. The family core held for many years, and Mom’s cousin John, our banker, a good man with a soft heart within a rogue’s shell, teased me mercilessly until the day he died.
With everyone around a large table, Dad thanked the Almighty for the blessings of food and family. After that, it seemed we passed plates and casseroles for 10 minutes before we could take a mouthful. It was worth a year’s wait for the first taste of mashed potatoes and Mom’s gravy – silky, caramel-colored, salty, piquant with meat juice, and unlike any other. I cared less about the turkey than the gravy. Dinner ended with the green-tomato mincemeat and pumpkin pies topped with a dab of a hard sauce called ‘John’s delight’.
Sighing with satisfaction, the adults paired up for rubbers of bridge while we four youngsters went to the living room to watch television. Sometimes we caught a broadcast of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Or, if there wasn’t anything we liked on TV, we played Monopoly – my sister usually always won.
Thanksgiving always marked the end of our crop year, punctuating a cycle that began in April with tilling the plowed fields, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and then plowing. By November, we knew how much money we would make that year. Even as a kid, I knew from the harvest what kind of Christmas we might have – whether there would be lots or few presents.
The harvest cycle ended in 1997, our 50th year on the farm. When Dad gave up farming in 1961, he rented the land on shares to a neighbor. Now the neighbor was retiring. From now on, the familiar fields would produce only prairie grasses and oak trees under a perpetual conservation easement.
We gathered that Thanksgiving: my parents, my wife and two daughters, my sister and her husband. At the age of 80, Mom was still in her glory and my sister her peer and no longer an apprentice. Sitting at the table of plenty, we ate our fill, as we always did, but this year felt different.
I looked out the windows at the plowed fields stretching half a mile to the river and woods. A little snow dusted the furrows. With the sadness that follows the end of good things, I realized this was the last time I would see our good earth plowed up, ready to grows crops.
Land conservation is good, but I mourn losing the visible connection between our fields and the very real sense of well-being those fields provided, and I miss the youthful years Dad and I worked together (even when I didn’t want to), and our conversations while working.
Until now, I hadn’t questioned or thought about the crop cycles and rhythms that had been an innate of my formative years. They vanished with an easement. Now, nearly 70 years after we arrived at the farm, some deep part of me still moves to the rhythm of that annual cycle. I feel the emotional tug of my past and give thanks for the memories of that time.