Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The First Thanksgiving: A Historical Retrospective

The First Thanksgiving: A Historical Retrospective

Before I reveal the little known details, details concealed in newly discovered parchment scrolls long buried beneath Plymouth Rock, of the first Thanksgiving dinner, it is important that I establish my credentials lest you think I made this up. I have a hard-earned college degree, hard-earned while raising a toddler, in history and political science. I learned to skillfully negotiate the twisted labyrinths of research.

Potential starvation has been known to motivate creative solutions. The Pilgrims, and here I must entertain an interesting digression—along the ever-shifting American frontier the word “Pilgrim” has denoted a tenderfoot, a naïf, one ill-suited to the rigors or conditions of life, yes, that definition aptly describes the subjects of our disquisition, these first Pilgrims were indeed ill-prepared for the rigors of life on their New Frontier.

Let’s dispense with the riff-raff of detail and cut to the chase. The little band of settlers was desperate. Winter, due to arrive any day, galloped down from the north. Their store house, built in haste in anticipation of the fruits of the first harvest, held no fruits, no vegetables, no smoked or salted carcasses. No moose, no deer, no succulent beef, no pork, no chickens, no eggs. In greed or in haste, the seed for crops, the few chickens and pigs that accompanied the settlers on the long voyage across the vast Atlantic had been devoured.

The men, devout in every fiber of their being, sought solution in their house of prayer, where every community issue was debated and every decision hard fought. One might speculate that the men might have put their energy to better use beating the brush for the abundance of wildlife inhabiting the woods. But who are we to sit in judgment.

The women, huddled together in a lean-to shelter, took turns stirring a watery broth in a huge iron kettle over an open fire, trying to coax a rag, a bone and a hank of hair into an edible soup.

“Oh, woe is me, what shall we do. We shall starve while our men spend endless days in yon Congress endlessly devising laws and establishing political parties and the NFL.”

“Dame Verity is right. We are doomed. Why did we ever leave yon golden shores of home, the true land of milk and honey and Walmart and Hostess Twinkies.”

Up spoke Dame Goodheart, “Fear not, my brave sisters for I have an idea. “We shall announce a pot luck dinner and invite our neighbors.”

“What is pot luck? What neighbors? Surely you don’t mean those fearsome savages? “

“While we waste away to skin and bone and no decent cannibal would give us a second glance, we are surrounded by well-fed, vigorous warriors, their women strong and healthy, their children fat and full of laughter. These be our neighbors. We will send word on the moccasin telegraph of our huge celebration and Christmas Crafts sale. They will bring to the feast haunches of venison, canoes full of squash and corn, rafts of prairie chickens, Indian tacos, tobacco, chips and beer. That will be our pot luck.”

Now, of course, it was not quite as simplistic as all that. Whether we are willing to believe it or not, peoples everywhere are much the same. Back in their village the chiefs and warriors assembled in the long house to argue the fine points of the invitation, to consider whether “pot luck” was the same as “pot latch” or should this be considered a “pow-wow”.

Meanwhile the tribal women quietly gathered baskets of food, star quilts and beaded moccasins in anticipation of many days of feasting and trading, ceremonial singing and face painting. They packed the canoes for the journey down river.

The day of the big feast arrived with much posturing and pomposity among the men of both cultures, with much speechifying and jostling for place and recognition. Among the women there was much oohing and aahing and pinching of babies, trading of recipes and exchanging dress patterns. Young and old, each and all, ate their fill from tables groaning with the weight of basted turkeys and pumpkin pies. Old Uncle Ebenezer over-imbibed in home brew and fell face first in the mashed potatoes, thereby setting the precedent for following generations of impaired Uncle Ebenezers.

While the women scrubbed dishes and made sandwiches from the leftovers, the men scrambled out in the back yard and invented football. A good time was had by all.

In fact, so much good came from Dame Goodheart’s pot luck that the participants, wiping grease from their well-fed faces, agreed to meet again for the harvest celebration next year and marked the date on their calendars. While the men wanted to name the celebration The Super Bowl, it is rumored that young Tiny Tim, in his piping voice, was heard to exclaim, “Let’s call today ‘Thanksgiving’!” And so it is.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 22, 2012 ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The First Blizzard of Winter, the Goodness, Soup, Bread and a Bossy Cat

The First Blizzard of Winter, the Goodness, Soup, Bread and a Bossy Cat

That morning when I checked the NOAA weather map, the entire northern tier of Montana blazed scarlet for “Blizzard”, poised to pounce mid-afternoon. I walked to coffee and the post office, knowing I would not see my friends or my mail for days. The heady wine scent of fallen leaves dominated the air. Negative ions foretold the approaching storm, shifted and danced to the slightest breeze, kissed me with an overwhelming feeling of well-being.

Back home, I watched as the red line on my thermometer dropped, the sky darkened, and wind chased leaves down the street. Early in the afternoon, school busses, engines belching fogs of diesel, lined up in preparation for early dismissal. For an hour the sky drizzled rain, refreshed the thirsty earth. The wind picked up, transformed each raindrop into fat flakes of snow, flung them to the ground to melt. School buses returned and disappeared into the maw of the storage barn across the street. Another hour passed. Ice coated every surface. Flakes piled, drifted, and buried the world outside my windows. I set a kettle of beans to soak.

By evening the ever-deepening snow piled helter-skelter like mounds of meringue. I stood in my open doorway to test the violence of the wind-swirled white, to breathe deeply the clean wet smell. Falling snow, even in the storm, dampened other sound, isolated me in silence. That night with my cat draped over my feet I slept peacefully.

The next morning I put my pot of beans on the stove. I still battle each chore with a wounded wing. I awkwardly gathered ingredients for bread and in a ludicrous comedy of flying flour, assembled a blob of dough, later to be one-handedly pummeled into ill-shaped loaves. My kitchen resembled the great outdoors. Once the dust settled, I cleaned for an hour. The beans gently simmered. My cat pasted herself over the heat vent in the dining room. Snow continued to fall.

I could afford to watch this storm through the eyes of a half-full glass. I don’t have to fight through the drifts to pitch hay to the cattle or bust through ice-crusted water troughs or haul arm-loads of wood to fill the kitchen wood-box. I could be reasonably sure that the sun would melt the snow, would turn it into sloppy slush. From the warmth of my living room chair I could imagine the drought-thirsty ground drinking each drop of moisture.

I live on the street in Harlem known as the old highway. Parallel to this street are the railroad tracks. In a real way every train rumbles through my living room. On the second day of storm I could not see beyond the willows along the tracks. The hills disappeared. There was no sky. There was no horizon. The skeleton arms of cottonwoods grabbed the lowered sky and clutched it to them like a blanket. The roof of the bus barn across the street showed no edges, no definition. Snow sifted down like dust.

Cars accelerated from the stop sign at my corner and slick-slid past my house. Each train chuffed through wearing a wind blasted shirt of snow and ice. Well-bundled youngsters raced screaming snow mobiles down the center of the street, some pulling sleds, both passengers and drivers screeching and laughing. My cat nudged me away from my post at the door, led me back to my chair, so she could stretch along my lap.

For supper I slurped my soup and tore chunks of hot bread from the misshapen loaf. I wished my granddaughters were here so I could treat them to snow ice-cream. When their parents, my children, were small we would scoop bowls of snow, add spoons of sugar, vanilla and heavy cream. We shoveled it down quickly before the snow could melt. I chose to ignore the superstition I learned from my grandmother. She said to wait for the second snow, to let the first snow clean the air. Clean the air of what, I wondered.

My cat begged to go out so I opened the door to show her. She sniffed and said, “Oh.”

Before winter is over, I fear I will come to view each storm through a half-empty glass crusted with dregs of cabin fever. But that day I saw the goodness. I knew that tomorrow or the day after, the blue sky would hold us under its bowl. The sun would turn the air to diamonds.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 15, 2012


My Ten Cent Spangled Knit Cap, Circa 1960, and Assorted Head Coverings

My Ten Cent Spangled Knit Cap, Circa 1960, and Assorted Head Coverings

While she shampooed my hair, Marcia and I giggled over hats. Hats atrocious. Hats ridiculous. For my walk to her shop, I had tugged on a tasteless floppy felt turquoise hat festooned with a pink “rose”. I wear it because it is warm.

“I have a more outrageous hat than that in our garage sale,” said Marcia. “It was my mom’s. I’ll show you when we are finished.”

I’ve always liked hats. On second thought, I’m not sure that “like” is the right word. I have an affinity for hats. I see hats. I notice them. I wear them. Winter or summer, I seldom leave home without one. Or even two, if the weather is iffy.

Or perhaps my hats are simply habit. Used to be, in my pre-Vatican II Catholic church childhood, all girls, young and old, were required to wear a hat. Tenderness of age brooked no exception. Sin was evoked; maybe not hell-fire-and-burn-forever sin but certainly an increase to my daily mounting time in Purgatory. Forgetting your head covering was not a tolerated excuse. Sister Mary St. Something-or-Other would snare your arm and affix a handkerchief to your scalp with a sharp bobby pin.

No matter what the weather, every Easter Sunday a new hat adorned my head, topping off a confection of a dress. I fondly remember some of those hats, made variously with straw or tulle, decorated with wire covered flowers, sprigs of leaves or even bright red “cherries”. I particularly recall a distasteful number, constructed of pink fuzzy stuff over ice tongs which gripped each side of my head. I suffered that torture the entire season, offering my pain to Jesus without complaint, shortening my days in Purgatory.

In winter we broke out the scarves, blessed scarves. Wool, cotton or rayon. Patterned or plain, all fringed. Tied snug beneath my chin. I looked like a Russian peasant girl.

Even as a child I recognized the power of adornment, the theatrical value of hats. While I had to wear the same hat each season, many of the grown women and even some of the luckier girls owned a variety of head coverings. I hated those girls. But the women’s hats offered many hours of delightful diversion. In particular I recall Mrs. Jim McCann, tall and stately, to my mind the most beautiful woman in church. Her hats, broad brimmed with bits of lace or fur and net, were wonders. She did not buy her chapeau from JC Penney. Most other women in church wore grown-up versions of my own dreadful hats.

Years later, as I searched through second-hand and vintage stores for garments from which to cobble together period costumes for plays, I began buying hats that caught my eye. I’ve garnered a small collection: hats elegant, practical, foreign, beautiful and ugly. Designer hats. Straw, silk, ribbon, fur, cloth, felt, lace and feather hats.

Today my headgear tends to be about survival; protection from sun, rain, winds and cold. Practical. However, from time to time, I grab a frivolous hat on my way out the door.

When she finished my hair, Marcia led me to her garage. “Here it is.” She held up a blue yarn, crocheted, bowl of a cap, hung about with pearlescent disks the size of miniature satellite dishes. “Doesn’t this just remind you of Catherine Wilson?”

Catherine Wilson has been gone for years. But I was immediately transported to St. Thomas Catholic Church in 1959. It was winter. Outside the wind fisted the walls. Rubber overshoes dripped small puddles of melted snow on the oak floor. I sat mid-way up the aisle, on the left side, snug in a green wool, knee-length coat with a heavy cotton print scarf over my head. Catherine Wilson sat further up in a pew on the right. She wore a mid-length navy cloth coat. The twin sister of this hat, a hovercraft of blue loops and pearly bangles, overlay her tight gray curls.

The scene evoked by that truly ugly hat was too real. I left Marcia’s shop, walked as far as the end of her drive, wheeled around and went back. “Marcia, I have to have that hat. If I don’t take it, it will haunt me. How much is it?”

This morning I wore my new hat to coffee with the boys at the city shop. They howled.

“I bought it at your yard sale,” I told Richard.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“You paid money for that,” asked Charlie.

“Ten cents,” I said.

“You paid too much,” said Chuck.

It was worth every penny.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 8, 2012 ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________