Traditions …

Time, it seems, has had it’s way with me for some of the details escape me. These past few days have been a mix of nostalgia and regret. Regret that due to this Covid-19 pandemic and the deaths of the last remaining aunts on my mother’s side of the family in the past couple of years that our annual jaunt to Missouri for Thanksgiving won’t happen this year. I thought we had gone last year, but I was reminded of the weather. Either on our end or their’s. So we didn’t go. Those are among the details escaping me.

Replacing the gathering back in my home country will instead be a Zoom trivia contest among family “teams,” one of which includes the expats, my son in Norway and a niece in Mexico. We’ll likely “zoom in” just to see the familiar faces. I’ll miss staying at my sister’s place, her glassed-in backyard solarium and walks in the nearby state park and the landlocked 20 acres of timberland as part of my inheritance. 

From my sister’s solarium a few Thanksgivings ago …

While I loved the inherited timberland, there were a few points in my life when I thought it would be a perfect place to settle into at my now age. There was a lovely deep ravine that if damed would have made a lovely little lake surrounded by woods comprised of spindly shagbark hickory and mighty oaks. A guy with a bulldozer wasn’t sure that the right kind of clay needed to hold water was present. As beautiful as those trees were, we lacked an easement and we had no way of actually knowing if the reticent neighbor who owned the three sides abutting the land closest to the gravel road would have been willing to an agreement. Lawyer fees on top of the costs of bringing in “rural water” and electricity were too concerning, so those dreams died this year when the other neighbor abutting the fourth side of the woodlot bought it … which more than paid for our new camper trailer. We’ve already had more use from it than I’ve had from the woodland in all these years. Count your blessings!

We didn’t make many of the Thanksgiving trips back from Colorado, although that changed when we moved to Minnesota in 1982. The trip down was half as far as the trip from Denver, and the weather (for the most part) was usually less of a risk. One year a blizzard ended our trip south about an hour into it, and another time we were stranded in an Iowa motel on the way home. Then there was last year. The blizzard on either our end or their’s. 

A maple leaf from the roadside fringe at Long Branch State Park …

I’m reminded of traditions within traditions, and one that was turned over to me years ago was the oyster dressing (stuffing). Sometime in the late 1800s my grandmother’s family would send a gunny sack of fresh oysters by train from the Boston area … well, to be frank, from Salem. These would arrive shortly before Thanksgiving and were shucked and used in the Thanksgiving dressing before they spoiled. Sometime in the 1950s my mother took over the making of the dressing, and then later, in the 1990s, the “chore” became mine. When I make it for the second year here on our farm, the tradition continues into its third century, and perhaps for 140 or so years within our family.

Admittedly, I don’t make it like my dear mother, who measured ingredients by pinches and fistfuls, monitored by solely by taste with the tip of a spoon. Well, that last part hasn’t changed. It’s all in getting the right blend of cornbread, chunks of dried bread and appropriate spices, although the spices are rather simple. Ample amounts of sage (remember her fistfuls?), a bit of pepper and salt and ample melted butter. Just enough eggs to mold it into a soupy mixture before adding the canned oysters. Onions were always added  … until I tempted tradition a few years ago to remove them so my sister and the husband of a cousin, once removed, could enjoy the fare.

My generation carried the old family tradition for several years even as moves from our old hometown began creating family separations. My adult cousins maintained a sense of “residence” while my aunts and their mothers charged on. Now they’re spreading out as well, and the “dinner” portion of the tradition was taken on by the daughter of one of my cousin’s daughters – the third generation to host the family gathering within my lifetime. These past two years the dinner was in Kansas City where the cousin-mother and daughter now live next door to one another. By now they might have even changed the menu to local KC-styled BBQ instead of the smoked and “straight” turkeys of our past. No one would have heard a discouraging word from me if this is the case. For you see, traditions are precarious and subject to change … or even come to an end.

One of the sturdy oaks in the 20 acre woodland I sold this summer, but which provided years of dreams and nice sauntering adventures through the years.

My mother began some of those by ending our Christmas traditions back in the late 1970s or early 1980s when all of her adult children and their families crossed the country to come home. My older brother’s family, including his three sons, drove in from Virginia as did my sister and her husband from New Mexico. Our baby brother came up from Houston with his partner, and we crossed the plains from Colorado. It was a joyous affair, and my sister had hand-knitted sweaters for all her brothers. Her husband helped the nephews put together their put-together toys. We shared great laughs and a wonderful traditional dinner, including the oyster dressing. We didn’t realize at the time, though, that this would be our very last Christmas together as a family, and it also was the Christmas that inspired mother to tell us it was time for all of us to start our own individual traditions. The stress she felt until she knew we were all safely home was just too much, she said. 

A few years after that Christmas our baby brother died of AIDs down in Houston, and my sister’s husband had a devastating “Monday morning heart attack” at work just before leaving on a business trip. I went through a divorce, remarried and moved to Minnesota to work as an editor for a publishing firm. 

And, now, Covid. Social distancing and warnings from medical experts to dial down the gatherings. It now appears our extended family’s Thanksgiving tradition has moved from a lively shared, in-home reunion filled with an incredible array of food, Scrabble and joyous stories and laughter to an international and out-of-town Zoom. Cousin’s Brad’s smoked turkey and the pumpkin pies, the crock of creamy chicken-infused homemade noodles, Cousin Nancy’s homemade pumpkin pies ladled with heaps of whipped cream, and yes, the oyster dressing will perhaps be no more. 

An interesting pattern of sumac in a prairie meadow at Long Branch State Park.

With one son in Norway, and another in a group home lockdown, it will be just the two of us here at Listening Stones Farm. We have our dark meat leg and thigh simmering over wild rice in the crockpot, and Mary baked  a great pie. She has some traditional staples she’ crafting now in the kitchen, and I have the zesty ingredients for the oyster dressing set aside for I’ll be damned if that tradition dies! Seems there is no snow in the forecast, and we have a lovely November day outside, which as a dear friend claims as when the “sky comes to touch the earth.” We’re looking forward to a quiet and shared Thanksgiving, one of many I am hoping we’ll share for years to come. That, too, is hopefully a tradition worth sharing and saving!

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “Traditions …

  1. Your grandmother’s family from Salem caught my attention. Bob’s mother’s family came from the Salem area, Danvers actually. The Putnams, the good and bad, of the witch trials and of The Crucible. Perhaps there is a connection. Or not. Thanks for the words. Enjoy your oyster dressing and day!

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