By Eddie Whitlock
I called my sister before I wrote this. Cathy is five years younger and a hundred times better than me. If I ever want to know the right thing to do, I can reflect on the phrase “What would Cathy do?” and find my answer.
So I called her because I wanted to be sure that I was remembering our childhoods accurately and not through some cynical adult lens. At least in this regard and on this topic, she backed me up.
Thanksgiving. It’s not my favorite holiday. I tried to make a list of holidays based on my enjoyment of them and Thanksgiving was nowhere near the top. (The top? Halloween, of course.)
The same day that I called Cathy about this, I had an appointment with my therapist. I told her about my dislike for the holiday. She asked me why I felt this way.
I shot from the hip and replied, “We never thank the right people.”
Wow. That was profound. It was so profound I will set it aside for now and get back to it later.
We had two living, loving sets of grandparents when we were kids. On my mother’s side were Grandma Rosie and Papa Mack. On my father’s side were Grandma Evie and Pop.
There was no animosity between the two sides. My grandfathers had worked together making and hauling moonshine decades before I was born.
Every woman had a job outside the home. My mother, my aunts, and my grandmothers all worked textile jobs.
On Thanksgiving, they were expected to come home from work on Wednesday night and have a feast by mid-day on Thursday. And they did it. Over and over. Every year.
Feasts in our families weren’t Norman Rockwell-inspired turkey-centric affairs. On daddy’s side, we had multiple fried chickens. On mama’s side, there was usually a ham.
On both sides, there were lots of vegetables and lots of desserts.
There was a shitload of stress.
My parents fought – verbally, not physically, for what that’s worth – on major holidays. I think they stored away the anger and brought it out for big events along with decorations and uncomfortable clothes.
So we got up to find my mother struggling to finish the side dishes she was bringing. My father was, more often than not, trying to be sure that the car we were driving at the time would be able to make the two holiday journeys without conking out somewhere along Highway 16.
Once the food was ready and loaded, we took off for Grandma Evie’s house in Senoia, Georgia. There were four boy cousins near my age, so I generally spent most of the time there playing in the yard with them.
We’d be called in when the food was ready. On that side of the family, the men and boys ate first. As soon as we wolfed down what we wanted, the men moved to the living room as the women came in to eat.
At the time, I thought this was because there was just the one table, and it could only hold a maximum of ten at a time. The reality is that despite the work being done by the women to make all of this happen, we were still a patriarchy. Hindsight is – well.
Two hours later, we were rushed into the car and Daddy drove us back to Griffin like a bat out of Hell to the get-together at Grandma Rosie’s house.
On the way, we stopped out our house – conveniently located on Highway 16 – and grabbed different covered dishes to take with us.
We would be the last folks to arrive there. They waited dinner for us. We were already stuffed, but it was Thanksgiving. If you didn’t eat a little bit of everything, you were being disrespectful to one of the aunts.
This side of the family didn’t segregate by sex. It was every man and woman for themselves. Plates were loaded and seats were found wherever there was a low, flat surface.
A second large meal in six hours did us in. We would conk out pretty quickly, mentally if not physically. The evening usually ended for me by being awakened and told to get in the car.
The drive home would be quiet. The red tip of my father’s Camel floated in the dark interior of the car. We would drag ourselves into the house and crash into our beds, leaving my mother to put away all the food and dishes.
The next morning, she went back to work at the textile mill where she sewed waistbands into ladies’ underwear.
There was one other thing at those Thanksgiving get-togethers: laying the groundwork for Christmas.
Thanksgiving was limited to a single Thursday, making it a floating holiday that was contradictorily immovable. Christmas, on the other hand, was on a fixed day with celebration opportunities all around it.
We generally spent Christmas Eve with my mother’s family and Christmas evening with my father’s. This was not always the case as efforts were made to accommodate other in-laws’ schedules.
Our mother, our grandmothers, and our aunts sketched out the schedule for our gatherings like Ike, Monty, and Joepreparing for D-Day. That was the advantage Christmas had over Thanksgiving: a little more time to plan.
Besides setting the clock for the Christmas, there was another annual Thanksgiving event: the drawing of names.
After the Thanksgiving meal was done, one of the aunts would come around with a basket filled with tiny slips of paper. A name was written on each slip. You would reach in and draw out a name. If you picked your own name or that of a sibling, you put it back. If the last person to draw a name picked their own name or that of a sibling, all the slips went back into the basket, and we started over.
This was a BFD.
One year, I recall that I lost my slip of paper before I gave it to my mother. The poor woman had to spend the next Saturday on the phone, calling my aunts to narrow down the list and figure out whose name had been on the errant slip.
After that, I think my mother drew names for us. She wasn’t going to let that happen again.
I thought this was going to be a personal story of why I dislike Thanksgiving. I thought it was going to be a snark-filled rant. I’m good at that. Or maybe I’m not.
No. I think this has turned out to be about exactly what I told my therapist: “We never thank the right people.”
I think back now to those horrible stress-filled Thanksgivings. I think about the rushing and the driving and the eating and the arguing.
And I think about my mother and those other working women who came home from an eight-hour shift in a cotton mill to make food to share with family. They made sure we were there, that we were fed, that we were loved. A few hours of sleep later, they returned to the mill for a full day of work on Friday.
These days, I lament the way Thanksgiving has been turned into an unofficial kick-off of Christmas shopping and all the negatives that go along with the materialism. The last few family get-togethers I attended ended early so that the younger folks could get in on Black Friday sales that were starting on Thursday evening.
I need to think back, though. I need to remember those women who worked so hard in years past to put family events together because family was important. It wasn’t the food, of course. It was us, coming together, seeing each other, talking, learning, knowing, loving.
And they did it all between two days of hard work.
Women of my past, thank you. I didn’t say it before. I didn’t think it through before.
Eddie Whitlock is a Georgia native, a graduate of UGA, and wannabe writer. He retired in 2021 from the Athens-Clarke County Library, where he worked as coordinator of volunteers, community service supervisor, and vending machine scapegoat.