Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving, 1945

Pilgrims, Zoo Animals, and the Connections of Family

Thanksgiving means thinking about family, and, for many of us, family exists as two, parallel things:  (a) the people themselves and (b) our memories of those people.  And our memories are tied to pictures, more often than not.  After all, when a forest fire threatens the house, people grabs the pets and the photo albums, and not always in that order.  Going through boxes from my late parents I have to say that it is a miracle, how Kodachrome has lasted.  Kodachrome film is a kind of Tardis, for our Dr. Who fans: a phone box that takes us to another time, another planet.  In my parents' slide files, I have found a photograph of my father, seated on the right, eating Thanksgiving with his own father (head of the table, the pastor C.W. Hood), a photo taken in 1945, just after my dad has just survived five years of service in World War Two.

This was a family so poor that at times they ate squirrels and 'possums.  Looks here like a grand spread, as was normal for so many American families in this year, the year that America celebrated the first Thanksgiving after the end of a war that had killed 60 million people, world-wide.  At this time period my aunt was a school teacher (and de facto missonary) to the Pueblo Indians; I see she has brought home an artifact balanced on a shelf left of the door.  Through the door, what does the kitchen look like?  In a painting from the Chicago Institute of Art, we have that answer too --- this same scene, but from the other perspective.
These days it's hard to get back to the core root of what holidays such as Thanksgiving meant in earlier times.  For the people at the Antelope Valley Mall, getting ready for midnight openings for Black Friday, Thanksgiving is a chance to change the receipt tape in the registers and re-tag the sale merchandise.  For Mountain High, it will mean the first big day of skiing of the season.  According to this poster at a casino in Reno, Thanksgiving is just some days off of work in order to go gambling.

Given that the first European settlers in North America were, on average, Puritans, I think they would be upset to see their iconography used to market vice.  But then, we have, most of us, been raised on false notions of the "true" history of Thanksgiving.  Was it this, as the painting shows?

Well, probably not --- the white linens would have been especially unlikely.  Healthier than most arriving Pilgrims, better fed, filled with their own viable cosmology and a reasonable amount of religious tolerance, the Native Americans of the 1620s were unimpressed by the blundering colonists.  Here in fact is what they probably thought. 

To the Native Americans, in 1621, the Europeans “were shorter than normal, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty.  The pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces.  They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed like utterly basic tasks.”        —Charles Mann, from the book titled 1491 (published in 2006)

Even the idea that the Indians taught the Pilgrims the trick of using dead fish to fertilize their corn may not have come down to us exactly correctly; there is some evidence that the individual Native American who taught that to the Europeans had himself learned it from other Europeans.  (There is also evidence that there were no worms native in American soil, and that they arrived in the root balls of introduced saplings.  O what changes we brought to this country, we white folk.)  Here is the picture I was taught was true when I was in grade school.

The first Thanksgiving?  This looks like an ad for Ikea, or maybe Halloween at a gay bar.  In actuality, houses were smaller, with low, smoky ceilings.  (The first "houses" were brush piles appropriated from Native Americans killed off by disease.  "Plimoth" was originally an abandoned Indian village site.)  The whites should be shown lousy with vermin, pockmarked from smallpox, and, to be really authentic, nearly skeletal with starvation.

That was then, this is now: God's will or just bad luck, but the whites won, the Indians lost, and off we go on down the yellow brick road.  Thanksgiving today?  We have blue corn tortilla chips and ocelot cubs.

For the record, this page is from the magazine for the San Diego Zoo --- a place I support fully.  They can add in all the margays and pumas they want and I'll still renew my membership, no matter how discordant the images.  Of course, like an ocelot, turkeys in the wild had a lot going for them, despite the top-heavy dullards they have been bred to be now.  Ben Franklin was right to want them to be a national symbol: in the wild they are swift, wary, and smart.  (There also are other species elsewhere, such as the lovely ocelated turkey of Belize.)  We call them turkeys, by the way, since the Pilgrims thought that was where they came from: the Spanish had brought turkeys from the New World to the Old, and so that was a type of critter the Brits already thought they knew about, and what they knew what that the turkey (the bird) came from the Levant, specifically Turkey (the place).  What a pleasant surprise it must have been to them to find turkeys here, too, trotting around wild.

My favorite turkey does not come from Trader Joe's or Marie Callenders, but from my daughter, Amber, and dates from 1994, when she was helped in kindergarten to make that most traditional of centerpieces, the pine cone turkey.

Thanksgiving?  Indeed so.  If we think of what the word can mean, and return to the core sense of giving thanks, our own lives will almost certainly be fuller.   Most of us are blessed many times over, and this is a good time to remember that.

In that spirit, this blog closes with some stanzas from a poem by Anne Porter titled "A List of Praises."  This is the opening and closing section only, with the skipped bits shown by bracketed ellipsis points.  The full text can be found on the website for the Academy of American Poets.

Here is the poem:

Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,
Give praise with Gospel choirs in storefront churches,
Mad with the joy of the Sabbath, 
Give praise with the babble of infants, who wake with the sun,
Give praise with children chanting their skip-rope rhymes, 
A poetry not in books, a vagrant mischievous poetry 
living wild on the Streets through generations of children.
[ . . . ]
Give praise with the rasp and sizzle of crickets, katydids and cicadas, 
Give praise with hum of bees, 
Give praise with the little peepers who live near water.
[ . . . ] 
Give praise with water, 
With storms of rain and thunder 
And the small rains that sparkle as they dry,
And the faint floating ocean roar 
That fills the seaside villages, 
And the clear brooks that travel down the mountains 

And with this poem, a leaf on the vast flood,
And with the angels in that other country.

1 comment:

  1. Could you tell more about Reverend C. W. Hood, especially if he was pastor at the First Baptist Church of Yanceyville (Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina) 1925-1927?

    Thanks and best regards,

    Rick Frederick