The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Wishin': A Thanksgiving Memory

By Sandra Vail © 1987

Issue: November, 1987

Hog killing Halifax County Marion Post Wolcott 19391939 photograph by Marion Post Wolcott from the U.S. Farm Security Administration, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection.Momma always said she wished we could have Thanksgiving like normal folks. You know, with turkey, cranberry salad, candied yams and three different kinds of pie. She'd bemoan our plight every Thanksgiving morning while we kids sat huddled and yawning in the back seat of the car and Daddy drove silently through the early morning darkness. You have to understand, she wasn't complaining, just wishing, like we all do. But there it was, Thanksgiving would come and off we'd go to Pikeville, us shivering and sniffling, and Momma wishing.

The reason for this pilgrimage was a tradition of its own. An ancient country one, with a little modern times thrown in. You see, every Thanksgiving Pap–Pap butchered hogs. Not pigs – not the pink, chubby, curly–tailed characters in children's books. HOGS. Beady–eyed, ridge–backed Hogs. The killing of animals may sound cruel, but on a farm, animals are not meant to be pets. They are meant to serve. Some in the field, and some on the table. So every Thanksgiving, three hogs fulfilled their mission in life, and all Pap–Pap's children, Jimmy, Maxine and Daddy, and their families would turn out to help. We always got there last, living the furthest away. By the time we'd pull into the yard it was already a flurry of activity. Uncle Jimmy and Pap–Pap would be off to the side of the chicken house with a huge cast iron kettle of scalding water bubbling beside them and the hogs, shot neatly between the eyes, hanging head–down before them. They worked in silence, father and son, dipping mugs of hot water and trickling it over the hide, then scraping it clean with mason jar lids.

We'd fall out of the back seat and scramble to find our cousins while Daddy'd saunter over to the chicken house and Momma'd head toward the kitchen, dragging my little brother, Hank, by the hand. There were a lot of folks around we didn't know, but they acted like they belonged there so we never much cared.

Sometimes now Pap–Pap'll be reciting the litany of relations ("You know, Beulah Mae's youngest had his leg cut off in a bush hog last week. Andy, I think it is. You don't remember? Well, you know Granny was a Hinnant and her sister, Flora (she was the one they just closed right back up 'cause she was just eaten up with it), she married Henry Sasser's oldest boy. Well, Beulah Mae married Henry's second cousin Rudolph...") and Daddy'll nod and turn to me and say, "You remember Rudolph, he used to come every Thanksgiving" and I'll be trying to figure out if he was the tall, gaunt man with moles or maybe the stubby one with the thick glasses and black–rimmed fingernails.

But we never much minded what went on with the grown–ups; we'd go find Darlene and Keith and Pam and Bruce down by the tobacco barn. They'd be leaning on a pile of tobacco sticks with their hands stuffed in their pockets, scuffing the toes of their sneakers in the dirt. It was always a little awkward at first – we lived in a different world that was only an hour away. But pretty soon Bruce'd start teasing Pam about the boy he saw her with last week at the junior high prom, and just how long did she think it would take before his head grew to fit his ears, and did she think their kids would have wings like their daddy, and we'd laugh, and my oldest sister, Beverly, and Pam would look at each other in disgust and walk away together, secure in their advanced maturity.

It's strange how well we all got along, considering how different we were. My sisters and brother and I lived in Garner, just south of Raleigh. Although our house was in the country, we lived in a world of universities and men in business suits commuting from city to suburbs. Our cousins lived in Wayne County, home of dirt farms and old yellow school buses bumping down rutted gravel roads in a cloud of dust. We never talked about our lives much ... but Bruce never teased any of us either. We'd just take things the way kids do, alternately finding joy and boredom in the same place.

By now activities in the barnyard would have picked up, and we'd shuffle up the path to see what was happening. Keith side–kicking Darlene's ankle to trip her as we walked. The hogs hung beside the chicken coop, and all the men usually hung around there, too. The women were always in motion, though. They'd scurry around the yard carrying large metal mixing bowls covered with damp cloths. I never really knew what was in those bowls, but it was always disconcerting the way the steam would rise through the cloth into the crisp autumn air. One bowl, though, was different. At a certain point Daddy would yell, "Wootsie! We're ready!" and Aunt Maxine would come out of the kitchen with a plastic bowl, bearing it almost ceremoniously as she approached the large wooden table under the shed. I never witnessed the great event except from behind, but everybody knew what it was. Uncle Jimmy'd raise the hatchet high above his head and bring it down quickly, cleanly splitting the hog head with a sickening crack of metal against bone. My grandfather was a very generous man, but the brains were his. Just as well – I don't recall anyone else ever wanting them. "Scrambled eggs and brains for breakfast," he'd say, winking and smacking his lips, then chortling at my wrinkled nose, he'd bend down laughing and tickle me, teasing, "You don't want to have breakfast with me tomorrow?" and I'd squirm away, shy and unsure, but smiling.

Pap–Pap had nine grandchildren, and I was never really certain he knew which one I was. He knew I was one of Edward's, but I doubted beyond that. Aunt Maxine had Bruce and Patty, and I knew he knew them because Patty was the first grandchild and Bruce was the first male grandchild. Patty didn't come to Thanksgiving or most anything else, for that matter. She'd been an invalid since adolescence and Uncle A.B. usually stayed at home with her. Uncle A.B. was a Lutheran minister/mail carrier who I was never real comfortable around. First off, I didn't know what a Lutheran was, because we were all Baptists and were vaguely suspicious of everybody else, but he always seemed to be frowning. And in his flannel shirt and slippers he didn't look like any mailman I'd ever seen, so I kinda steered clear. He did, however, have this wonderfully booming voice that could take a Christmas eve grin off a kid's face in a heartbeat.

Uncle Jimmy's children Pap–Pap knew, too. Maybe it had something to do with their living right down the path and the fact that he saw them most everyday. Pam was the oldest, Beverly's age; Keith and Darlene were my age, just about, Keith being one year older. They were our favorite cousins, because we were so close together age–wise and because they had goats and pet roosters, but mostly because they liked to play with us.

So Pap–Pap knew them, but I was never too sure about us. It wasn't that he was addled or senile, or even unconcerned – I think it was just the way it was. Pap–Pap was like no one I'd ever known. He was a quiet man, living his life in the way he thought right, doing things at the times he thought right. He seemed to live such a clean, simple life; he had his hogs and his farm and his family, and for him, that was aplenty. He'd been blessed by God with everything a man needed and, accepting that, I doubt it ever crossed his mind to purely want.

Beyond the brains, that is.

But Pap–Pap's on Thanksgiving – the sights, the smells, the sounds were enough to make a kid giddy with excitement. All those folks, all that activity! The men walking purposefully with their saws, the women scurrying around like the flies looking for a place to light, the black women behind the chicken coop cleaning entrails into a pit..........

Ah, yes, the black women. Of course we were brought up calling them "colored." And they were brought up silent – at least, so it seemed. They never spoke, never smiled, not even among themselves. My memories of those solemn women who worked behind the chicken coop are tingled with... I'm not exactly sure. I didn't think of them as black or white or anything – just more people I didn't know. I recognize now how it smacked of the old South, and how I should have been angry, but it just wasn't that way. Or at least, they didn't show it. And I didn't know it. But there they'd stand for hours, the cast iron kettle brimming with boiling lard, the heat making their bare forearms and faces glisten in the sun. I remember the spitting sound of the chitlin as it hit the hot fat, sinking, then sputtering, bubbling as it floated back up to the surface, the smell of it as I stood over the pot, stirring slowly with a board, the odor mingling with the smoke of the wood smoldering under the pot. When a batch was golden brown, one woman would hold a length of cheesecloth while another dipped a slotted gourd into the pot, ladling the sizzling chitlins on the extended cloth. Then they'd each take an end, fold the sides of the cloth over the chitlins to envelope them and twist the cloth, squeezing the grease out on the ground. A drop would hit the wood and tsst! a bright flash of flame would shoot out. Then they'd empty the cloth into a cardboard box, the limp chitlins steaming in the air as they cooled.

As the shadows lengthened the number of people lessened, and before you knew it, it was twilight. The men hung bare bulbs over the rafters of the shed, their bright spots of light dissipating into the night. Moths fluttered in the glare making grotesque shadows on the ground. My father stood at the table chopping meat for barbecue, Aunt Maxine beside him mixing red pepper and vinegar into it, her bare hands stirring and turning the meat in the bowl.

In the corner, Pap–Pap and Momma were making sausage. The casing floated in a bowl of water as Momma filled the hopper with the mixture of meat and pepper and sage. Then, very gently, Pap–Pap would fit a length of the delicate membrane over the nozzle and slowly, slowly turn the crank of the grinder. I watched in fascination as the sausage oozed out, the casing filling and curling into a smooth fat coil until, the length full, the end was removed and deftly twisted into a knot.

Uncle Jimmy would be off to one side, salting and seasoning hams, a kerosene lamp glowing dimly beside him as he sat in the doorway of the smokehouse. He'd turn them over and over again in a big box, patting the pepper and salt into the meat, then stringing thick, stiff bear grass between the tendon and bone for hanging. The shadows of the meat hanging inside seemed to sway as I watched him heft the ham up, the grass hoop hanging from a hook in the rafters. The smokehouse was old, as old as the tradition it housed, its seasons marked off by the scores of paired rabbit feet on a nail in the door posts, by the smell of the meat and soil that seemed to permeate the very wood.

They worked in silence, everyone. Nothing needed to be said; it was a play they'd performed all their lives, as did their parents, and their parents before them. A cool wind made the few remaining leaves rustle as I watched them work in the warm yellow glow, their motions strong and sure, choreographed by time.

Well, Momma finally got her wish. Pap–Pap got older, my cousins and I grew up, and now we have Thanksgivings just like on TV. I rarely see any of them anymore – my cousins still live down there, only now they're married and have children of their own. They live in trailers in the same gray dirt fields that Pap–Pap farmed, with pick–up trucks in front and a dog chained out back. Pap–Pap walks a lot slower now... He has to watch his diet since he had the heart attack; no more pork or salt. And we have Thanksgiving in all it's traditional splendor, turkey and dressing and pies and dozing over football games by the fire. But the thanks I give is for the other tradition – the rhythm of life on a simple country farm.