Every year I trek down to middle Georgia for Thanksgiving, where several generations of aunts, uncles, cousins and people I’m faintly related to gather at Shirley and Ben’s house. Shirley’s the younger sister of my mother (now deceased), and this gathering is a long tradition.
This year, Shirley and Beverly (another aunt) and cousin Whitney had cooked for several days. They laid out a feast in the kitchen – and then the relatives started showing up with their own contributions. There were 35 of us for dinner. The menu (I’m not making this up) was turkey, turducken (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken, brought from Louisiana by my brother), ham, roast venison, barbecued pork, pork roast stuffed with onions and jalapeno peppers, creamed corn, cole slaw, fruit salad, broccoli, green beans, field peas, lima beans, Vidalia onion casserole, cornbread dressing, succotash, pimento cheese-stuffed celery sticks, mashed potatoes, mashed rutabagas, cranberry sauce, yeast rolls and bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers. There might have been some turnips in there too; I’m not sure.
For dessert, we had two red velvet cakes, orange slice cake, pound cake, pumpkin pie, walnut chocolate pie, buttermilk pie and peanut butter brownies.
Here’s how it goes on Thanksgiving Day. We eat early, around mid-day. There are tables set up in the dining room, living room and on the back porch. We stand together in the living room for the blessing, then line up for dinner. It’s all buffet-style, and anybody who doesn’t go for seconds is just plain stupid. Besides, there’s so much food, you need at least two plates to taste everything.
Once we’re suitably food-logged, Ben takes anybody who can still move on a hike through their farmland. Ben wears a bright orange hunting vest; the rest of us just have to take our chances that no deer hunter would mistake a large crowd of sated diners for an atypical herd of deer. We climb delicately over the electric fence (it is not turned off for us) and off we go.
Every year Ben leads us to the same spots on the land. First we visit the tiny two-person cemetery in the woods where two African American girls of the former owners were buried decades ago. Ben tends the plots and keeps the unnamed graves in good repair. Then we hit the pet cemetery where the family’s animals have been buried; Ben was a veterinarian before he retired, so there have been plenty of them.
And then…the piece de resistance…we have the Annual Tour of the Deer Stands. Ben hunts this land every fall, and he remembers every deer and boar he’s bagged. We stand and listen to the stories; listening and revisiting the same places is a comforting ritual. The youngest (this year, Kendall) often scramble up the rickety stands for a better look and a bit of a thrill.
Whitney, 23, killed her first deer last year, so now she’s racking up some tales of her own.
Back at the house, we talk and laugh and tell more stories – the same stories we’ve been telling for years, punctuated with new ones as we catch up on each other’s lives. Then, sometime after five o’clock or so, somebody comes out of the kitchen munching a plate of leftovers. Slowly over the next couple of hours, we drift back in for a final taste of our favorite foods. It’s just about a perfect day.