Nov 23 2008
07:06 pm
By: WhitesCreek

By Ray Collett

Hello Readers, The column this week was sent to me by Barbara Hicks Mayfield Loyless and was written by Mary Ellen Varnell (Burkett) Class of 1955. I have had it filed away for a few months waiting for it to get near Thanksgiving to send it out. Mary Ellen also writes that ", Mother was Elsie Burkett that taught at RHS for years, Daddy was Tom Burkett, who later {see text} worked at Oak Ridge along with the ministerial duties. He also began the Christian Church in Oak Ridge {on our front porch}. I was in the class of 1955. My cousin, John Staples, and I are the only ones still living that are in this story

" It is Thanksgiving morning, my 70th. I look at my surroundings around me here in Las Cruces. Cactus and mesquite along the Rio Grande River are very different from the lush, density of the of various colors of the oaks, hickorys ,and pines, and the underbrush of rhododendrons, hollies and sumacs of the Tennessee Valley where I began my life. Nostalgic memories of the holiday in the Cumberland Valley of the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee begin dancing in my head.

The weather today has turned a cool, overcast, and rainy . This is very unusual here in the West, but for me that is the way Thanksgiving is supposed to look. It is exhilarating. Energy begins to swell. Childhood memories begin to swirl.

Most of my early childhood was spent at my maternal grandparents' country farmhouse. It was built before the Civil War and was about 150 years old. It was called a farmhouse because it was in the country. There was actually no farm. The only inhabitants, other than my grandparents, a few cats and a big dog named "Wolf", were cows and chickens for our own food. The garden grew enough food for the winter. There were fruit trees and nut trees. Very little food was bought in the small town of Rockwood four miles away. The house had no running water. All water was drawn from a well by a bucket lowered by a rope. The 'bathroom' was at the end of a path that leads to a small building large enough for one, out behind the house. Not a pleasant trip in the dark of the night. Light comes from the bare bulbs hanging from the end of the electric wires my grandfather strung to the center of the ceiling of each room. Heat was furnished by a Warm Morning heater in the living room and a wood stove in the kitchen. Chimneys were in each room but rarely used.

Life is basic and simple. It is wartime, WW ll. I am the oldest of three grandchildren and the only one around for the first four years. A cousin, Johnny, two years younger, lives a distance away, which makes his presence sparse. The third, my brother Morris has not been born at the time of this story. I have the world to myself. I am able to get involved in the preparation of all the festivities. Thanksgiving is extra special with extra people around and food prepared that is only available on special days. Mother is a School teacher and Daddy is a minister in small country churches of the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]. Crab Orchard, Crossville, Post Oak Christian plus working other jobs to help support his family.

We do not use turkeys for the Thanksgiving feast, since they are not raised on the farm. My grandmother raises her own chickens, which provide food for the entire year. For Thanksgiving, a hen of age is usually chosen and prepared a couple of days ahead. I have no affection for these messy, bothersome fowls. They are underfoot or on it, and in the way of my tricycle. But I do like gathering eggs from their nests. And the hens supply other entertainment. Grandma will chase one, grab her, squawking and flapping her wings in protest, seeming to be suspicious of her fate. Then Grandma will hold her by her neck and give a good round and round swing like a rodeo rider throwing his lasso. I will watch this display with no feelings other than amusement. The victim will land, headless, at a distance, the rest of her flopping around the yard until all movement will stop.

The next step now seems more gruesome than the wringing of the neck, and Grandma will try her best to keep me otherwise occupied, but I am not going to miss this exciting event. I am a wily one and always manage to get a chin-side view at the side of the shelf on the back porch where this is going to take place. This is the plucking and cleaning ritual. Plucking will begin with boiling water poured over the hen to help release the feathers. This is fairly boring to me, but I want to make sure I am there for the next step, the disembowelment. Thinking about it now makes me wonder about my childhood, but as I said earlier, I have no feelings about the item at hand. I especially want to see the "craw." It holds all the undigested items of the hen, like gravel that helps grind the items the hen ate. Sometimes an almost formed egg will be found inside the hen, its shell very opaque and fragile. Grandma will carefully lift this out and place it into a bowl, like a prize. It is a perfectly good egg. After this ritual is finished, the hen will be placed in a brine of salt water for at least a day, refrigerated for a good soaking until the BIG day.

Thanksgiving morning will arrive with smells of the hen roasting and the heavenly yeast rolls my Mother is making, coming from the kitchen. The cooking begins long before I get up. It is the only peaceful activity Grandma will have without me for a few hours. With all the extra people around for the holiday, my presence for the necessary tastings, many times called "snitches," are discouraged. On occasion, my Daddy will engage me in other activities. Now, I am sure he is encouraged to do so to relieve the kitchen of my presence.

Daddy calls me out and tells me he taking me on a rabbit hunt. I have a new popgun, with a wonderful cork attached as ammunition. I feel well armed and able to use it on a rabbit and intend to bring it home as trophy. I love walking through the woods and fields and have been in most around the house, only the ones that belong to relatives. The woods of others seem exotic and foreign territory, so an opportunity to go in someone else's is a REAL adventure. We go into Mr. Ensminger's, the neighbor's. His has a lot of beautiful cedars which mean Christmas trees to me. I, to this day, see all cedars as prospective Christmas trees. As we walk through the trees, the aromatic cedars leave a lifelong association, along with the brown oaks and yellow hickory trees. Being quiet is a hunting requirement and a difficult task for a little girl. When a rabbit runs in front of us, the sound of Daddy's gun scares me more than the rabbit. The cork never leaves my gun, my hands fly to cover my ears and the rabbit runs free to enjoy his Thanksgiving Day with far more thankfulness than I can claim. That is it for my "real" hunting. I go back to collecting hickory nuts that I know will go into chess pies.

Sometime in the late morning, Aunt Mary, Uncle Luke and Johnny will arrive. Johnny never seems to be free to do much, Aunt Mary being a "helicopter mom," hovers over him all the time. I think he must be a sickly child or pitiful, anyway, since he is always watched so closely. I do not know he is too young to venture into the escapades I have in mind. Their arrival will complete the guests for the big feast.

We gather in the dining room, each of us with our assigned seating. Johnny always has to be beside Aunt Mary. Even tho' I love Aunt Mary dearly, I feel sorry for Johnny because he can not eat where he wants or what. At least I get to eat by him. Grandma is always the last to sit down, busily getting everything on the table and making sure the luscious rolls of Mother's are the last thing, so they will be piping hot. The golden hen is placed in front of my Granddad, the dressing close by with the gravy, the green beans with slivers of ham, sweet potatoes with big toasted marshmallows on top, cranberry salad is shining with ground up oranges and nuts mixed through them, pickles, olives, stuffed celery and spiced peaches on platters – "in case anyone has room for them" -- and fresh homemade butter alongside the hot homemade rolls. On the sideboard along the wall, the pies of pumpkin and chess, brown puddings and bowls of whipped cream are waiting. Nearly everything came from our garden, very little from the grocery in the town nearby. The cranberries and oranges are exotic, as are the celery and olives. I love everything there and will wiggle in my chair, thinking the adults will never get settled down. John and I will be competing for the pulley bone, some people call it the wishbone. We never get the white meat on the bone. That is saved for the adults. To this 70th Thanksgiving Day, my favorite is the leg. John has graduated to the white meat. Grandpa's favorite is the neck. I think it was because his neck looks like the chicken neck, long, wrinkled and curvy.

Finally, all are seated and quiet descends on the room. Grandpa begins to intone the blessing, making sure all items on the table are mentioned, then all people present are blessed, then all NOT present, [Will he ever get through?]. John is wiggling, too. Then from the corner of my eye, I see his hand go to his mouth. In an instant, the resounding noise of a duck call goes over Grandpa's voice. Aunt Mary grabs John's arm, Grandpa "Amens" with a choke I can see it is choked laughter, the rest of the table shakes the entire room with laughter, including Aunt Mary. John lives through the meal and has given us all a memorable Thanksgiving. I gain a new respect for my cousin. He isn't so sickly after all.

Now, many years later, the same spicy aroma of pumpkin pie floats through the air. I add Grand Marnier to my cranberry sauce and a touch of rum to the whipped cream, unheard of in my childhood. The pulley bones have disappeared with the commercialization of the chickens and the turkeys, but the distinct sound of a duck call is embedded in my memory with a rapid "amen." John still remembers also, and we are still laughing."

Thanks so much for sharing your story with us Mary Ellen...It sure brings back memories..Happy Thanksgiving to each and every one of you, and until next week.....Ray

The Burkett Thanksgiving

I am the only nephew of the auther of this. The family discussed is not a big one, but one largely filled with love none the less. I dont know if Uncle Johnny is still alive, he was never very close geographicly. Mary Ellen is still alive and, and the 5 grand children of her father and mother. There is one child ( a grand nephew of Mary Ellen ) who carries the Burkett name for continuation. The First Christian Church that was spoken of, that my grandfather ( Tom Burkett ) founded and preached at is under new construction in oak ridge. It burned from arson. I intend to attend the first service of the new building and will plant a tree in memory of him. My name is M. Tom Burkett Jr. I am the son of the not yet born ( from the story ) Morris T. Burkett Sr. And grandson of Tom A. Burkett, great-grandson of Grandpa Staples ( the one with the long, curved, wrinkly neck. The farm no longer exists and all the land from our history has been sold to different families to make thier memories on. The Faith, and Love of the the family created by the union of Staples, and Burkett will continue on with Hope.

Thanks, Tom, for adding your

Thanks, Tom, for adding your piece to the community puzzle of how we got to this place and time. What great memories.

So much of my own family history has been lost to time. I hope that in some small way, RoaneViews can help folks gather up their own memories and histories of Roane County.

Thanks to Ray for his great work on Rockwood Memories (Buy his books for wonderful fireside reading...Makes a great Xmas gift). Anyone who wishes to add to Ray's considerable body of work can contact him by sending him a private message here at RoaneViews. Here's a shortcut: (link...)

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