The Thanksgiving Lesson
Granny Ninna told me a story long ago, one that she had heard from her childhood. She called it "The First Thanksgiving Dinner" and she told it like this:
The pilgrims come across the big waters to their new country in the summer of the year. They tried plantin' seeds they'd brought with them from the old country, but it was too late in the season, the moon wasn't in its right place, and there wasn't much to put up for the winter. They tried to ration their food, and on some cold days they was only enough for five kernels of food for each of the people. They'd have five beans, or five kernels of corn, and sometimes 5 berries for dessert. The weakest didn't make it through the winter.
But them that lived, planted food early in the spring when the moon was right, just like the Indians told them how. When that fall come, them and the Indians shared what they had growed all together and they was thankful, and that was the first Thanksgivin'.
From them times on, ever Thanksgivin', the pilgrims put five kernels of corn on everbody's plate, just as a reminder of the winter they had nuthin' to eat. The first kernel was to remember to thank the Creator. The second was to remember that they all worked together to make the food grow. The third one was to remember to take care of each other. The fourth was to remember to love. And the fifth is to remember that they was free.
They say old habits are hard to break, and I have a few that have remained unbroken. Take food for instance. It all started with the earliest Thanksgiving I can remember.
I had seen my Gramma Ell kill a chicken to cook for Sunday dinner. That chicken, even after death, put up quite a fight. When it came time to eat, I could not eat any part of that chicken. A few years later sometime around the end of summer, Dad brought a live turkey home. It was a little fellow, and I was allowed to feed it. Pretty soon, little Tommy Turkey would eat out of my hand. He grew to be fat and he followed me around the back yard, gobbling for a bite to eat. I didn't know I was feeding him so that he would be our Thanksgiving dinner.
When Tommy Turkey disappeared out of my backyard, and suddenly appeared on the Thanksgiving table, I swore then and there I would never eat again. Nothing my mother said or did would make me change my mind. I went to my room and I was going to stay there forever. Ninna came to my room. "We've all got to eat, little'un, ain't nobody gonna grow big, if you don't eat," she said. "Frogs eat flies, then your cats eat frogs, then coyotes can come in and get hold of a cat before you know it, and tigers'll eat coyotes, and on it goes. It's just the way of things."
I wasn't buying any part of it. "Ninna, they ain't no way I can eat a animal. I'm just gonna not eat."
Oh, I got lectures, I was punished, I was sent to listen to Aunt Bett, but I had made up my mind. I wasn't going to eat. There is nothing worse than a stubborn kid, and I guess I wear the crown for that. But I gleaned something from the talks I got from Aunt Bett and Ninna. Aunt Bett could always get me to take a bite of whatever vegetable or fruit that she was cooking, and Ninna kept reminding me of the pilgrims who only had five bites to eat for a whole day that winter long ago. My mother was so frustrated with me it's a wonder she didn't put me up for sale right then and there, but I think she decided I had no value and would be hard to get rid of. She was making me sit at the table for every meal while everybody ate, even though I would not eat a bite. This probably went on for only a couple of days, and during that time I remember drinking a lot of water and doing a lot of thinking.
I decided if I had to live in that family I was going to have to eat. Kid's minds work in funny ways. We learn to negotiate and we learn to compromise, even before we know what the words mean. It was the Friday after the Tommy Turkey Thanksgiving and I had not eaten, but my tummy was rumbling. I combined everything Granny Ninna and Aunt Bett had ever taught me, and I put my best face on. "Mama, I been thinkin'," I said. "I just can't eat meat, no kinda meat, 'cause meat usta be alive, an' I can't eat no livin' thing. So if it's awright with you, I'll eat five beans, or five bites of corn, or five bites of carrots, but please don't make me eat any animal."
My mother stood still as a statue. I thought the wrath was going to fall upon my head right then. But Mama said, "I'll tell you what, if you eat five bites of beans and five bites of one other thing that I cook, and if you eat a grilled cheese sandwich that you make by yourself, will you agree to that?"
"Where'd that cheese come from, Mama?" I wasn't about to be tricked into eating anything that was part of a living, breathing animal, but I really did want to learn to cook.
That ended our Thanksgiving standoff, thanks to the women in my life who taught me to compromise and allowed me to think for myself. It taught me a lesson in life as well. I still don't eat meat, but like my mother, I respect the rights of others to do so. And I learned that five bites of most things are just about enough for anybody, if there are enough "things" around to select from.
This story happened maybe sixty years ago, and it was told at every family Thanksgiving gathering that I ever attended for many years. But I grew up, married, had children of my own, and didn't always get to be with the rest of my family. The last Thanksgiving I spent with my Mother was more than ten years ago. My husband and my two children were there, as well as my brother and his family. My mother said, "Sharon, tell us Ninna's first Thanksgiving story, do you remember?" And so I told the story that my children had never heard. Last Thanksgiving my children and my three year old grandson were here with me. My grandson had decided he wasn't hungry, and he would rather play than eat. My son said, "Mom, tell Ethan your Ninna's first Thanksgiving story." And so I did.
When Ethan visits me now and decides he would rather play than have dinner, he will stop and think for a minute, and then he says, "Nana, is it OK if I eat just five bites?
All photos are from Public Domain and Public Domain ClipArt, except the plate of heirloom tomatoes, which is my own.
And during this Thanksgiving Season, I am truly thankful for the strength and knowledge I gained from the strong, smart women who raised me, and for the years I had in my beloved mountains in southeast Kentucky. I am so blessed. May the beauty of blessings also be yours.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 27, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)