Thanksgiving at the farmhouse was a time to treasure

Justin Isherwood
Thanksgiving on the farm for Justin Isherwood meant long, sacred prayers by a long-winded grandfather and home-cooked food that drew relatives for miles.

My father was a single child, alas no uncles, same for aunts. My mother was one of nine, meaning uncles, lots of uncles, both blood and borrowed, aunts likewise.

Uncles, of course, are a necessary regimen for any kid, if more explicitly so for a farm kid.  Marooned as farm kids are by circumstance and chores, if mostly chores, to have that occasional uncle come to relieve the burden. Uncles who came to help pick potatoes, pick rocks, fill silo, even uncles as were less distinctly useful as a spiritual presence, a teller of tales, a bearer of apples or Oreos, a messiah of mirth, these were my uncles at haying, roof shingling, barn cleaning. If to say with utmost gratitude those uncles who visited at rock picking deserve a place in heaven among the elect, never mind any durable history of sin.

Thanksgiving, that extended extravagant event, was conducted at the farmhouse, as codified in Leviticus, meaning the Bible. The real reason for this less Biblical as the farm’s sheer amplitude, meaning turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens. Add potatoes, peas, beans, corn, followed by tomatoes, cabbage, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, kidney beans, navy beans, white beans, pinto beans, carrots, radishes, not to forget rutabagas, artichokes, cherries, apples, pumpkin, squash. 

The farmhouse was the Norman Rockwell version, that Plymouth colony version of agriculture at surplus, and the Indian village at its most magnanimous, yet to include a milk cow coupled with that crank ice cream machine, Thanksgiving that sort of feast. 

Besides, my mama could cook. I mean open frontier cook, I mean kill and gut before supper kind of cook, I mean raw ingredients cook. The ability to deliver a meal hot to the place setting for an out of pocket cash cost at pennies per chance. Exactly what a right thinking kind of farm is supposed to do, to live both cheap and divinely.  To the end that Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, summer picnics were at our house, the well-fatted calf kind that could at the drop of a hat feed any Union regiment, or two of the Confederate kind, including dessert and if there was ice in the stock tank the chance of ice cream.

From that four square fortress of a farmhouse did descend on Thanksgiving the host of our family, most of whom were useless to barn chores. They saying something about the smell being intolerable, alas, they were family, never mind how useless.

That farmhouse was so inflated by this family at Thanksgiving that the walls of that house swelled out like a cow in bloat.  Sawhorses and planks were arranged for extra tables, the table settings were miscellaneous, the good silver plate mixed with rummage sale debris, good table plates mixed with the chipped plates.  Maybe some noticed, maybe not. Probably not, since the gist of Thanksgiving is to cover that plate with farm surplus, chipped china or not.

What I remember is the Thanksgiving prayer, how it seemed at this one meal of the year that prayer had real isotopic weight. As for prayer, my grandfather rarely prayed, he really didn’t have to ‘cause he was almost as old as God anyway. At that Thanksgiving table it was our grandfather who prayed, prayed the farmer’s prayer, which is not about heaven or Jesus or the saints but about the fields and the summer past, about the heat of July and the drought of August and potato bugs and early frost and somehow Early Gems at 200 hundredweights and oats at 35 bushel an acre, and a barn full of alfalfa hay and timothy and brome grass. 

My grandfather said the prayer of the full chicken yard, the ample granary, the swollen corn bin.  When my grandfather prayed forth his gratitude, it was to the clouds and jet stream mechanics he prayed. His gratitude for morning deer, and morning dew, for tilth, angleworms, pitcher pump water, soft rain, hard rain, and for Orion in the sky to stand guard over potato picking.  He prayed for the kittens and the voles, the red-tail hawk and the lightning rods, the full silos and the woodshed too.

"This with some precision where all the human stories came together, this one single still moment of that blood bond around the table, about to enjoy the grace of another summer, another harvest."

Justin Isherwood

I have noticed that most prayer is lacquer prayer, a thin, fast-drying coat, not like our grandfather’s Thanksgiving prayer, wound into this moment of season and family that he held as the most sacred hour of our lives. This with some precision where all the human stories came together, this one single still moment of that blood bond around the table, about to enjoy the grace of another summer, another harvest.

My grandfather’s voice was a muted kind, he never would have made it as a rock star or auctioneer neither. He didn’t need a priest to tell him God was a neighbor. His prayer didn’t exactly thank God so much as God’s tools, grandfather thanked nature’s machinery, nuclear physics, the atoms, the quantum, the Big Bang, gravity, photosynthesis, microflora, the warm sea, the rain, the cumulonimbus.

When he finished at last with Amen, his voice trailed off.  For a moment the spell of that prayer held us in a divine envelope, we felt held. Not exactly hugged but close. We were momentarily, fleetingly, suspended in the mist of godliness, and I, that farm boy, to know words were holy which has been my sense ever after.

And then to break this spell my father, as was his right, reached for the mastiff bowl heaped of mashed potatoes, complete with a township square of butter melting on top. With scoop-shovel flourish my father dug into that snow-capped mountain of taters with the relish stroke of a deserving farmer. The chaos of plenty had begun.  Thanksgiving at the farmhouse.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.