Facebook provides a handy index of the all the different theories Americans have developed regarding Thanksgiving. Some say the first Thanksgiving was just another milestone in the exploitation of Native Americans. Some say go with the flow – its just a time for indulgence and shopping. Lots of variations exist, most all of them commercialized, and decorated with the “Be Thankful” slogan – in varying degrees of sincerity.
Here is a simple photo that, for me, offers a more enduring perspective on what Thanksgiving Day can be.
This is a photo of my Mom’s family having a picnic. It is a sunny Thanksgiving Day in Maine, 1940. In the left edge of the photo, a little girl is sharing some food with a large man in a hat. That little girl is my Mom. She was five. The man is her dad, Clifton Howe – the man I get my middle name from. He was one of the last of a determined breed of Depression-era Maine potato farmers. He refused to take government subsidies because taking the money in those days – thanks to the bizarre logic of some bureaucracy – required that he dump his potatoes in a field and let them rot. He reckoned that was wasteful and just plain wrong. So he took his potatoes to market every year no matter what. In some of those Depression years the market price fetched barely enough to get by.
In that context, this group of family and friends celebrated Thanksgiving as best they could by getting together for a picnic on a windy hill. They parked two cars together and strung a blanket between them to create a break from the wind. In the center of the picture, sunlight catches an almost empty bottle of milk – likely from the Curtis Dairy run by my Mom’s Uncle Curtis and Aunt Ruth. The little girl in the center of the picture is my Mom’s slightly older sister Helen. The man standing next to Clifton Howe, I believe is Uncle Ted. I believe the lady in the dark sweater sitting closest to the car (behind another red-haired lady with glasses) is my Grammie Howe – Clifton’s wife, my Mom’s Mom. Whoever took this photo, snapped several shots of this occasion. In one of them we could make out a box of Mars bars. It is interesting to me that of all the surviving photos from my Mom’s family, these are the only ones documenting a meal on Thanksgiving Day.
Fourteen years after this photo was taken, when my Mom would be nineteen, her Dad would die of a heart attack at age 53. By then, the family farm would have 3 mortgages on it. My Grandmother would have to sell the farm, and move down to Randolph, Maine where she’d support herself teaching in the local middle school.
All these things and more, were yet to come. But on this sunny windswept hill in Maine, a hard working family took time out to celebrate Thanksgiving in their own way. In so doing, they left us all with a bright example of how families like yours and mine can take the day and make it our own.
At Thanksgiving these days, we often go around the table and try to say what we’re thankful for. It’s a lot more than we can list, or even remember, and certainly more than we deserve.
And there’s always one thing I’m thankful for – something I see in my family – something I treasure and never want to lose: that same independent streak that was evident on a hill in Maine so long ago is alive and well today. It probably runs in your family too. Though all our ups and downs, in our better moments, something inside reminds us to ignore the marketing and the slogans, get together, take the day, and make it our own.