Thursday, 10 October 2013

Give Thanks

I wrote this piece long ago when my kids were very young. It was the first article published in the now-defunct Edmonton Journal column “Voices” and simultaneously, in the Ontario based “Rural Roots” magazine. A lot has happened since then. I no longer live near the family farm; my dad is gone; my mom has dementia and sometimes does not recognize me; one of my own daughters lives in England. Thanksgiving dinners are much smaller. It’s my cousin Kerry who now brings the sweet potatoes, I make the Harvard beets, and there are no homemade buns. And I will give thanks.

                    THANKSGIVING HERITAGE 

Granddad carves the turkey:1959.
Every Thanksgiving weekend my parents used to take us to buy potatoes.  We would drive down a winding gravel road to a market garden not far from my grandparents' farm. Mr Guest would start up his potato digging machine and we would follow along behind, filling our burlap sacks with cold, hard potatoes. The air was crisp and the sky intensely blue above the translucent yellow of the poplar leaves. When the station wagon was loaded and Dad was settling the bill, we would race down to the Wapiti River to skip stones, our hearts full of childish joy. The last rays of the sun filtered over the stubble in the wheat fields as we drove back up my grandparents' place, dreaming of the feast to come.

We don't make the trip to Wapiti Gardens anymore, but this Thanksgiving, family and friends will once again gather to share a traditional turkey dinner. Sarah will bring the sweet potato casserole, Doris will bring her freshly baked buns, Sheila will bring her Harvard beets. We'll exchange small talk and "stuff ourselves most shocking," as my great-aunt Isabel says, just as we have done since my ancestors first came to the Peace Country as pioneers in the early part of this century.

Thanksgiving is not entirely good memories for us, however. Several years ago the customary meal was almost cancelled. Our close-knit family had been struck by one tragedy after another that year. My grandfather had died in the spring, after a long and painful struggle with his heart. A few days after his death, my aunt died suddenly following surgery to repair a ruptured aneurysm. Then my brother, just seventeen, got into serious trouble with the law and was treated most unfairly by the justice system. In late September, my cousin Geordie was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live. He was thirty-four and had two small children.

My grandmother, Marion Martin.
My aunts, who had hosted the harvest meal for many years, decided to not to have it. "We don't feel that we have much to be thankful for," they said. The rest of us agreed, until my grandmother set us straight. Like her Scottish forbears, my grandmother was a woman of few words. She was not prone to emotional outbursts or harsh judgments, but when she spoke, we listened.  "We will have Thanksgiving this year," she said. "Every day is a gift."

I don't remember that Thanksgiving dinner, although we did have one. I do remember Geordie's funeral two weeks later, so many people in attendance they had to stand on the lawn. I remember neighbours and relatives working late into the night in order to harvest what was left of his crop. My heart was full on that day.

My grandmother died the January after Geordie. She was not rich in material things, and I received no cash settlement, no antique jewels, or real estate. Yet this year, as I look at the ever-changing configuration of faces around the supper table, I will be giving my thanks. Not for money or possessions, or the bountiful harvest, not for the pumpkin pie, or the Harvard beets, but for my family and for every day we have shared. That thankfulness is my inheritance from my grandmother, and I could wish for nothing finer.