Following the Thanksgiving tableau that formed in my living room on Thursday, I found myself comparing our celebration to those of other times and places. I decided to view Norman Rockwell’s iconic representation of an American Thanksgiving but became delightfully sidetracked by a website displaying an entire century of Thanksgiving, one photograph at a time.
It was not surprising that football photos from several eras were included as were parades – after all, this year Macy’s presented its 95th extravaganza of balloons, marchers, and entertainment. Scant reference, however, was made to the Pilgrim-and-Indian story we thoroughly discussed in grade school: I saw a church pageant or two with pictures of Pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses made and donned by children. Conversely, I noticed too many photos of Chief Executives granting silly turkey pardons.
As for November’s national bird, there were turkeys galore: cooking and carving instructions, humorous depictions on sitcoms. Roasted turkeys and stuffed turkeys and dressed turkeys, along with savory poultry successes surrounded by families in prayer – or with hungry expressions.
Particularly heartwarming were photos of our military troops partaking of Thanksgiving dinner during deployments far from home – sometimes in the company of their Commander-in-Chief. Lovely, too, were pictures of community Thanksgivings in huge halls and tiny soup kitchens, aided sometimes by celebrities but mostly by just plain folks caring for their neighbors on a special day.
Also on my way to Thanksgiving’s most well-known picture, I detoured to flip through online copies of the beautifully-illustrated Ideals magazines many of my elementary teachers kept on their desks. These volumes were filled with lush photographs as well as seasonal poems and readings I was often asked to recite or read at school, Grange, and church programs.
Nostalgically-sweet photographs of little white churches in the wildwood, autumn-hued trees reflected in crystal-clear mountain lakes and streams, pumpkins from patches and ears of Indian corn: each successive depiction elicited deeper satisfaction than the one preceding. And just as I prepared to write that the only cornucopias I ever really saw were in Ideals magazines – there was Zoe Faulkner’s entire family around a table adorned with a cornucopia centerpiece!
And then, there it was, in all its fame and renown, just as it had appeared on the March 6, 1943 cover of The Saturday Evening Post: a carefully-appointed table surrounded by eight guests of varying ages. Central, however, to the composition are the family’s patriarch and matriarch. That lady, who could be anyone’s grandmother, the one to which so many traveled over the river and through the woods to visit, presents the bird in all its culinary glory. Norman Rockwell’s painting somehow seems not as outdated as the gap in years suggests. For me, the artist’s concept continues to represent all that Thanksgiving has meant for a very long time. Often referred to as The Thanksgiving Picture, – the actual title is Freedom from Want. It is the third in a series of four paintings by illustrator Rockwell based on FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech known as the Four Freedoms address: freedom of speech, of worship, from want, from fear.
The iconic painting exuding Americana flipped my mind through seventy or so Scott Family Thanksgivings. Honestly, Christmas was a bigger deal on both sides of the family, with major Yuletide celebrations joining people and potlucks. I have only vague memories of a big November meal on River Road – when we probably ate chicken. Later on Ford Road, our celebrations increased in size and tradition when my sisters started bringing home husbands and grandchildren. My mother frazzled herself with a holiday menu as stuffed as the turkey she and my father prepared. But she was also the happiest camper of all, surrounded as she was by her family.
And then it was Thursday of this year, complete with personalized placemats created by the youngest three members of the family. My sister and brother-in-law assumed the positions of matriarch and patriarch presiding over their offspring, who now live adult lives in far-flung places. Those former children clapped for dance performances and gymnastic feats as performed by the children who have replaced them in the family order. Steady conversation with tablemates and across the room was punctuated periodically by eruptions of laughter.
I am obviously still experiencing an inner glow from Thursday’s festivities. I realize no picture we might add to the slide show would duplicate those historical snapshots – and would certainly never appear in any Ideals magazine. Our traditional day, however, would match perfectly, if compared in spirit.
No holiday observation can ever really remain totally unchanged from year to year. Each participant is a year older with occasional changes in employment and residence. The world at large never ceases its incessant drumbeat of intrusion into our lives. But the paper plate filled with traditional dressing and updated potatoes, turkey and ham prepared in modern stoves and smokers, one of Mother’s many renditions of cranberry salad – and her pumpkin pie baked in a store-bought crust represented a comfortable and charming combination of old and new. Of course, the two family members responsible for all this tradition, disappointingly could not be in physical attendance. They were, however, monitoring celebrations – quiet and raucous, heartwarming and hilarious, traditional and not – in West Virginia, Ohio, South Dakota, Arizona, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Chicago. From their special vantage point, I am certain they enjoyed every moment…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.