During my visit to Nashville this summer, I spent an afternoon at my grandmother’s house, sorting her photos. I scanned a few that caught my eye, including this one. Why, you may ask? Well, there’s really a lot going on here!
I don’t know who took this photo, but they would have been sitting at the big table in my great-grandmother’s kitchen in tiny Buena Vista, Tennessee. I think it must have been about 1972. I expect my grandfather kept it because his three favorite girls were in it: my grandmother, with the necklace, my mother, with the braid, and myself, with the paper Indian feather on my head.
No, we aren’t even a little bit Native American—though you might wonder, looking at my mother. It was Thanksgiving, so I wore a feather. There are no pictures of me in tutus, princess dresses, or any of the usual things little girls show off for the camera. When I wanted to play dress up, I wore my Indian tunic and feather, or my Laura Ingalls Wilder pioneer dress and bonnet. It’s no wonder both my kids are history majors.
Good grief my mother is young in this photo. She looks like a teenager, but she would have been about 29 at the time, with these two big kids to wrangle. The women in my family wasted no time making families of their own. That’s why I could take having a great-grandmother and many great-aunts around for granted. We just missed having five generations of women alive at once by a couple of years.
I am bigger than I look in the photo because everyone else is so dang tall. The Coles are a family of lanky Scots with Vikings in the mix. My grandmother’s sisters were both about six feet tall, and all the the men were well over that height. Alas, though my DNA says I am a quarter Scandinavian, and my own brother is very tall, at 5’5″ on a good day, I am the family dwarf.
My dad is the one with the Abraham Lincoln beard by the window in the first photo. The men always got their food first, you see. Then they sat at the kitchen table (the only table) with my great-grandmother, universally known as Mama Cole. Everyone else–all the great-aunts (pronounced “aints”) and great-uncles, aunts, uncles and cousins, found a card table to sit at in the big living room (that was also the master bedroom) or on the screen porch. Most Thanksgivings, there would have been at least 15 or 20 people in that little house.
The kitchen was originally the porch. Before it was built, cooking would have taken place at the fireplace in one of the two original rooms of the house. The current kitchen is right behind the screen porch in the photo, along with a bathroom that was added later to replace the outhouse that my grandmother grew up with! That’s why the lathed ceiling is low, and there is a well-worn step down into it from the original house. It still looks exactly the same as it did when I was a kid, complete with plastic tacked over the vintage wallpaper to protect it. No “upgrades” in this kitchen, but it sure fed a lot of people.
This Thanksgiving, there will be just five of us, in an apartment that is probably bigger than Mama Cole’s house and has a modern kitchen with a dishwasher, even. We’ll have ham instead of turkey, because I always liked the ham better, anyway. No sweet potato casserole, but there will be corn bread, green bean casserole and pecan pie. As many and far-flung as my Thanksgivings have been since that photo was taken, there are certain standards which must be upheld, after all.
My son can’t be with us, but he’ll be Skyping us from London, and we will probably Skype my parents and grandmother in Atlanta as well. So, I am thankful both for the old-fashioned Thanksgivings when I was a kid, and for the miracles of modern technology that allow us to share the holiday wherever we are.
I am also thankful there is no Jell-O salad on the table.