Nov 25., 2016 / Being Southern
Trimming the Thanksgiving Trees
“Trimming the Thanksgiving Trees” may sound like a strange title since we most often think of trimming a Christmas tree, not something called a Thanksgiving Tree. And truthfully, this is just a term I assigned to a couple of trees in our front yard years ago. Keep reading, please. You will soon see why I did so.
I just watched the local tv news and they were covering a 10K race called “The Turkey Trot” that takes place every Thanksgiving morning in our area. In particular, the reporter was talking to a family that participates yearly and it has become a necessary ingredient to their Thanksgiving Day celebration. Though there are a lot of commonalities that dominant our concept of what Thanksgiving really is, we all seem to bring personal touches to the table as we endeavor to take ownership of it and makes it ours individually. It may be certain foods, certain people, activities, and a variety of other elements.
Before he eventually worked for someone else immediately prior to retirement, my daddy ran a neighborhood grocery store….not a supermarket. In those days, the neighborhood stores were where most people really did buy their food. They were not like the modern convenience stores, sub shop, and gas station combinations we find today. They were vital and stayed that way until the large supermarkets took over and pretty much eliminated neighborhood stores.
There were many such stores located in the various areas of town. These small store owners were largely a one man show which meant a lot of attention to detail and long hours. Because of this, having a day off, except Sunday, was a rarity. However, when my daddy did close his store it made those days more special. You could count on this happening New Years Day, the Monday after Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Other than these, there was no vacation. However, there were certain things that were a normal part of these individual days.
Easter Monday, Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day meant we were going fishing somewhere…creek bank fishing with a cane pole, nothing fancy…and daddy was very happy with that. But Thanksgiving Day was generally a stay at home day because mama was going to cook. Our responsibility was simply to stay out of her way while she did so. In light of that, daddy had a bit of a ritual that he performed every year. He would trim the two Chinaberry trees each Thanksgiving morning, though they were not the trees that were in our yard when we first moved there.
Our house on Mill Street originally had a rather large pecan tree in the front yard that provided plenty of shade to the front of our house which faced the afternoon sun. It also provided lots of pecans for the neighborhood. Once they fell off the tree, people were welcome to come over and pick up any they needed. Many pies and cakes were baked with resources from our tree.
I didn’t hear the tree when it fell. Mama and daddy probably did since it wiped out the aluminum awning that covered the concrete slab that served as our front porch. My bedroom was in the back of the house and all I know is that when I got up that morning the pecan tree was down. This happened during a thunderstorm when the wind got up and the tree, which was tall and top heavy, bit the dust. The good news was when it fell most of it headed in a direction away from the house and landed in the street. In short order, a municipal crew was out cutting it up and carting it off.
Daddy had the awning replaced but still without the abundant shade we were used to, it got pretty hot under the new awning. Since it was normal summertime protocol to sit on the front porch after supper to cool off, this would never do because the concrete porch retained heat as it baked in the sunshine all afternoon.
We did not have air conditioning in the house. We did have an exhaust fan in a front window but that was not usually cranked up until bedtime. It sounded like a DC-3 taking off. We’d open a window in our bedrooms and the fan would blow the warm air out of the house while the cooler outside air was sucked in. It wasn’t air conditioning, but it wasn’t bad either.
Daddy planted two chinaberry trees in the front yard, one on either side. The colloquial name was not Chinaberry, but “chaney ball trees”. There were lots of them around. I think the Beacham family that lived across the street had one in their front yard, too. In their case, it helped provide shade from the morning sun.
The Chinaberry tree branches grew out quickly and it did not take too long before there was some pretty good shade draped across the awning and porch during the late afternoon. The only negatives were that they produced yellowish berries with a seed in the middle that eventually got mushy and fell off during the Fall, covering the ground around the base of the tree.
After a couple of years, daddy determined that the limbs coming from the main trunk needed to be trimmed back since they were getting pretty tall and fanning out excessively, making it necessary to bow down a little to get from the street or the drive to the front door. He had two tools, limb loppers, and a hand saw. Between the two of them, he cut back the limbs to where the main trunk, about 5-6 feet tall, stood straight with only the slightest hint that there had been any limbs at all. This became a Thanksgiving Day ritual for him and he took pride in getting it done.
My daddy always like to admire and appreciate his work when it was accomplished and went well. I saw him do this in the grocery store many times. He would throw a whole dressed hog or half a side of beef up on his chopping bock and go to work with cleavers and knives. After all the cutting was done, he’d place the meat in trays in his white and spotless porcelain meat case. He’d stand back like Michelangelo appreciating what had been accomplished.
On one particular Thanksgiving, he had accomplished his tree trimming task and was admiring the two trunks that stood like silent sentinels on either side of the yard. It did seem to me that he had cut them back even more than usual and that was about the time that my mother, who had been cooking, came outside as we southerners often say, to “get a breath of air.” She looked at the parallel trunks and said, “Do you think they’ll live?”
He looked at her, looked at the trees, looked at me and then said, “I think they’ll be fine” and then we all burst into laughter. It was a unique moment. And they were fine, prospering again in the Spring, despite being trimmed to the max or “cut to the quick”, as we sometimes say. When I think about it now it also makes me think of the similarities when my mother was babysitting my daughter and decided her hair needed a bit of a “trim”…but that’s another story for another time. The good news is that she was fine, also…just like those Chinaberry trees.
So what else can we take away from this incident? Is there anything there that really has to do with Thanksgiving other than when this trimming was performed? I think so.
Daddy was thankful to have a day off and thankful that he could get out in the crisp November air and do something that he just did not get to do at any other time. As small as it was on the scale of life, it meant something to him. Neither was it something he planned to relinquish. I had seen him do it enough that I could have completed it for him but that is not what he wanted. He only wanted me to help him by collecting the branches and piling them on the edge of the street for the trash fellas to pick up.
My mother was thankful that daddy was home all day on Thanksgiving Day, a real treat because except for Sundays, it just did not happen. It made the day extra-special. It also meant she would cook collard greens, a vegetable that she did not like and did not eat, but which she gladly cooked for him every Thanksgiving. Perhaps no one has ever thought about cooking collards when you don’t like them as an expression of love but I can attest to that being true. Of course, she also made a coconut cake specifically for him. Other members of the family got to enjoy it as well but her love for him was foremost behind the preparation. And this was in the day when there was no prepared coconut at the store to purchase. You bought a coconut, drained the milk from it, cracked it open with a hammer, gouged out the meat, and then grated it by hand.
Of course, I was glad he was home, too but I was not as reflective or philosophical about it as I am today. I just wanted to know when dinner would be ready and when my brother Jimmy and his family would get there. Now I see it all from a completely different and appreciative perspective. I’m more thankful about it now than I was those many years ago.
So on this and every Thanksgiving Day, thankfulness is expressed. We concentrate our thankfulness primarily on family and friends. But then if we really want to get to the core of thanksgiving we remember that we are not here by accident. We have been created and strategically placed in one another’s lives by God and so we celebrate Him, that which He has done, and one another. For it is true that each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. Real thankfulness means we appreciate that about one another.
Now, on this day our various celebrations of Thanksgiving Day will be packaged in numerous ways and that is another important aspect. Many of us, likely most, will take the traditional route, cook a turkey and all the trimmings, and dine in our homes. Others will do something less conventional like putting a whole hog on a smoker and having a distinctively Southern “pig pickin’”, as we call them in North Carolina, feeding a lot of people in a rented hall, in a garage, under a car port, or in a backyard. Those on the coast may roast oysters over a fire and under a sheet of tin or create a Frogmore Stew. Some of us will make sure the spiritual aspect of giving thanks is in place by attending a worship service, participating in a ministry effort to feed the less fortunate, or simply reflecting on God’s goodness to us.
Regardless of how we “do” Thanksgiving, the key is a humble sincerity expressed in love to one another from a heart of thankfulness.