Before we moved to town for school years, my family almost always spent Thanksgiving Day alone on the farm.
We moved at the start of my third-grade year, so my memories of farm Thanksgivings are a little sketchy. I’ve been thinking about that as Thanksgiving has grown near this year. I usually have a pretty good memory for the old days, but Thanksgiving way back when is hazy. Maybe that’s because my mom made four- and five-course meals every single day. We feasted all year round. We just didn’t verbalize our thanks. We should have.
Thanksgiving probably meant turkey replaced a roast or fried chicken. I vaguely remembered cranberries, which I never liked. They looked funny. Maybe my mom whipped up some sweet potatoes. I’m pretty sure I would have taken one look and declared them unfit for humans.
Somewhere in my deepest memory, I see shadowy images of a Thanksgiving dinner at a café in a hotel in Reliance, eight miles from the farm. I can’t imagine why we’d have done that. It’s just a thing stored somewhere in my personal cloud. I can’t say we did that. I can’t even guarantee that Reliance had a café in a hotel, although I have a picture of where the building would have been if it existed. And, for some reason, I’m pretty sure it would have been a great place for a Thanksgiving dinner.
Anyone who grew up on a farm in this region in the 1940s and 1950s probably had Thanksgiving dinners at home with just the family around. In those days people didn’t just pop into town at a whim. A trip to town, unless it was Saturday evening in the summer, required a reason – a broken fan belt, you know, or a tie rod snapping on the grain truck. And neighbors, the ones I grew up around, didn’t just invite each other’s families over for a holiday meal. Maybe it was only two miles to Kistler’s place, or Hamiel’s, but two miles was two miles in those days. And family was a pretty limited circle except for weddings and wakes and the church picnic in the park.
A Thanksgiving I can remember in the old farm days happened when we piled into the Nash sedan and traveled to Kansas City to visit my dad’s oldest brother, George, and his family. George had escaped the farm as a young man, enrolling in engineering school in Iowa and establishing his life in Kansas City. He loved to bring his family home to the farm for short visits, but his world was the city.
The trip took forever. People who are used to interstate travel would look at a map and say, “Well, hop on I-90 east to Sioux Falls, then take I-29 south past Sioux City and Omaha, and there you are in Kansas City.’’ Yeah, no. It didn’t work that way when we traveled. It was all two-lane roads, some with curbs, dozens and dozens of small towns and the absolute minimum number of stops my dad could get away with. I recall going through Yankton, maybe Norfolk, somewhere near Lincoln and that’s about it.
It seems like we traveled through the actual municipality of Kansas City for hours before we reached Uncle George’s place. I never saw such a big town. I was 6, maybe. I’d been to Chamberlain a number of times by then and to Mitchell a few times. I don’t think I’d even been to Sioux Falls, but I might have been to Omaha once to visit a couple of my dad’s aunts. Kansas City was something else.
Of the visit itself, I remember only a few things. One of my young cousins stuck a fork in an electrical socket and was knocked across the room, “just like a bowling ball,’’ as my mom would say whenever the incident came up. I watched my first actual television. We didn’t have a set on the farm. We didn’t have a station close enough to draw a signal. Uncle George tuned in a professional wrestling match, and I saw a high-flying wrassler named Antonino Rocca escape a choke hold and pin the villain.
The day after Thanksgiving, we drove downtown. Stores were frantically decorating for Christmas. One store had an outside speaker hooked to a record player. I heard a song called “Silver Bells’’ for the first time.
Ever since that trip, when I hear “Silver Bells,’’ I think of Kansas City, my Uncle George and Thanksgiving.
Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.