Memories of Thanksgivings Past

By Debbie Adams

This pandemic year, when travel and celebrating in large family groups has been discouraged, we asked people to reminisce about their childhood Thanksgivings. Most of those holidays past seem to focus on family and food.

William Byrd Middle School Principal Todd Kageals remembers: “When I was kid, Thanksgiving was always a time when extended family would come together for a great feast. We always had all of the traditional Thanksgiving favorites—turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green beans, pecan pie, etc. Looking back on it now from the perspective of an adult, as a child I had no idea the amount of work my grandmother was putting into that meal every year. I don’t know how she did it all! We’d always see aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other family members we had not seen for months. And, of course, there were the great football games. As a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, it was always exciting to have a great meal while we watched the team play.”

Football was also part of the Thanksgiving tradition for Judy Cunningham of the Vinton History Museum. “When I was a child, Vinton Baptist Church had a Thanksgiving service at 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. Later that morning we went to downtown Roanoke and watched the VPI and VMI cadets march to Victory Stadium for their annual game.”

Gloria Harris, the attendance secretary at WBMS, shares, “I grew up in a very large family. Momma, Daddy, three boys and three girls. My Mom and Dad were hardworking people who always provided what we needed. Mother was a very family-oriented person and a woman of great faith in God. She taught all her children the importance of loving God, loving each other and being there for each other. On Thanksgiving we would all gather together. Even after the kids were all grown and married, we all still tried to be together for the holidays. I can still remember my Dad carving the turkey and Mom’s stuffing. Only as adults did she tell us that she always added chicken liver to the mixture! The values that were taught around the Thanksgiving table have followed us throughout our lives. Our family has endured many tragedies, but we still remember the value of family that our parents taught us.”

Vinton Vice Mayor Sabrina McCarty says, “My Thanksgivings were filled with love and family at my grandmother’s house.”

Her husband, Chris McCarty’s memories also involve his grandparents.

“When I was a kid we went to my grandparents on my mom’s side. That side of the family was larger than my dad’s side and I had a lot of cousins the same age as me and some older. We would have the blessing and go around and say what we were thankful for and eat a big meal together. Then my aunts would sit in the living room at my grandparents’ house and talk; my uncles would be in the den talking and watching football and sleeping. Me and all my cousins would sometimes hang with the adults, but a lot of times, if the weather was good, we’d go outside. I remember being amazed at how far and long my older cousins could throw a football– a lot of great memories. As I get older, I have an even greater appreciation for the time I got to spend with my family.”

Dave Jones of Vinton says that when he and his wife Bonnie were dating in the ’70s, he was invited to go with her family to the Hughes family Thanksgiving dinner in Chambersburg, Pa.

“Both of our families lived in the Pittsburgh area and most of the Hughes lived in or around Chambersburg. This was a big family event, probably 50 people, so it took a large home with a big table to handle the event. That year we met at Uncle Clair’s home and they had assembled many tables end to end from their dining room out into their living room. This was my first big event with the Hughes extended family. This was a potluck lunch, and everything was set, and the tables were full, with everyone around them. It so happens that the table we were seated at was a card table and for some reason it collapsed into my lap and food went everywhere. What a lasting impression I left with the Hughes and on occasion at a family reunion that still comes up–I’m reminded of that first meeting.”

Artist Tonya Weaver Kirk also has memories that involve a card table. “I remember a Thanksgiving long ago (in the late ’60s) where I rode on my father’s shoulders over the creek and through the woods to my grandparents’ log house (about 200 yards) in front of our house on Hardy Road. The snow was up to my father’s knees as we were experiencing blizzard conditions.

“When we arrived at my grandparents, my grandmother (Nana) had mugs of steaming ‘Russian Tea,’ as she called it. Years later I found her recipe and it was mostly black tea mixed with Tang, but it seemed so worldly at the time. The children were all seated at the brand-new red leatherette Samsonite card table that Nana had recently saved enough Green Stamps to acquire. (I still have it!) I especially remember the cranberry relish I had watched her make the weekend before, grinding fresh cranberries, oranges, and lemons—peels and all—in the hand-crank silver grinder she attached to her kitchen counter. We saw cousins from far away (Buchanan) and played games in the back bedroom. Nana also kept her Christmas cookie stash back there, closed off from the heat of the woodstove, and we would sneak the powdered sugar-covered rum balls and thought we were so clever. Times seemed so much simpler then.”

Vinton Chamber of Commerce President Justin Davison remembers Thanksgiving as a great holiday. “The night before we would stay up and help my mom make the pudding pies for Thanksgiving dinner. Then I usually would wake up to the smell of stuffing and other fixings being prepared for Thanksgiving dinner and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and wait to see Santa Claus at the end.”

Vinton Police Sergeant Michael Caldwell says his childhood memory of Thanksgiving was “spending the morning in the woods deer hunting with my dad, brother, and cousin. Then going to eat lunch at Mom’s, then back in the woods.”

Girl Scout Troop 94 Troop Leader Allie Rourke remembers, “When I was a kid, my mom would cook the turkey overnight. The smell was amazing throughout the night. Thanksgiving Day, we would start cooking early and everyone would come for lunch–but the best part was cooking with mom and smelling that turkey cooking all night.”

Vinton Library Assistant Bryce Chalkley says, “Thanksgiving at my house was a BIG DEAL growing up. My mom, who adores the holiday despite persistent grumbling about all of the work involved, always insisted on hosting and doing the lion’s share of the cooking. The majority of family made the short trip down I-81 from Radford, but we were apt to have visitors from all corners of the map on any given year.

“The holiday was all about family for Mom, but for my brother and me it was the food. Not necessarily that day; we always had our meal at lunch, and I could never quite muster the appetite the spread deserved by that time. No, for us it was the days following, when the fridge was overflowing with the fixings for open-faced turkey sandwiches, and macaroni and cheese was a side item for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ten-year-old me says that you can hold the canned cranberry sauce, though, please and thank you.”

Martha Gish-Toney of Vinton shares that “Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. We would spend time with friends or watching football. My mom would prepare a wonderful candlelit Thanksgiving dinner for us with all the fixings–turkey and stuffing, corn pudding, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, Watergate salad and much more. We always ate dinner around 7. It was a wonderful time to reflect on all of our blessings. Thanksgiving today is not the same, as so much has changed, but I will always remember how my family used to celebrate Thanksgiving and the wonderful smells from the kitchen.”

Vinton Town Councilman Mike Stovall says, “Our Thanksgiving lunch was a huge spread at my Mom and Dad’s on Washington Avenue. One of my highlights was fall turkey season would always open for one day on Thanksgiving Day and it still does. My most memorable moment was in 2006 when I harvested a Thanksgiving turkey with my Dad sitting right beside me after our Thanksgiving lunch!”

Beth Abbott, from the Vinton Chamber, recalls, “We lived in the Northern Neck because Dad was hired as an athletic director and teacher for the high school, and we had no family there. My siblings and I would fight for positioning in our old family station wagon, and we bickered and giggled for hours as dad drove that old car ‘over the river’ on an awful bridge and through many patches of woods to beautiful Patrick County. My mom kept the peace by singing with us. Thanksgiving wasn’t about the food–it was about memories along the journey and at the table with our huge family.”

Music teacher Susan Lewis shares, “My Thanksgiving memories as a child are some of my most cherished family traditions…especially since both of my parents, as well as my precious, live-in grandmother, all went to heaven when I was in my 20s–way too soon! My mother and grandmother loved to cook, especially for holidays. They started days early preparing the meal. I could hardly wait for my favorite dessert, homemade pumpkin pie! Dad would always have the honor of carving the turkey. We would eat in the dining room for holiday meals. I remember my brother sneaking our dog some of our delicious food underneath the table. In the evening, we would gather around the piano, my brother would play guitar, and we would sing together.”

Author and retired attorney Mike Ferguson says, “When thinking about Thanksgiving times past, many thoughts come to mind. Growing up on Bandy Road in the Mount Pleasant area, which was in the 1950s still rural, provided a young boy a wide array of scenes and experiences. Part of Bandy Road and most roads branching off it were still unpaved, I can remember my mother, who grew up in the city, bemoaning all the dust being kicked up by a young fellow in a ‘hot rod,’ as she called it, racing up the road and a few minutes later back down. A ‘stripped head’ was her name for him, I never knew what that meant back then, but in retrospect it probably meant he had a ‘Mohawk’ haircut. Mom complained to Dad who agreed, but did nothing about it, maybe because he had done the same thing when he was that age.

“Just down the gravel road was my Uncle Calvin’s farm, where he had a couple of horses, dairy cows, chickens and some pigs. Now Thanksgiving is just about the time the weather starts to get cold with frosts and hard freezes and that is where we get the phrase ‘cold enough to hang meat.’ Country folks knew that the cold weather would keep fresh meat from spoiling while it was processed, since there was no readily available cold storage, so that meant it was ‘hog killin’ time.’

“Pork, meaning ham, sausage and bacon, along with other less well-known menu items such as souse meat, chitterlings, pigs’ feet and brains, was crucial to the diet and a source of income to farmers. Uncle Calvin, as I recall, usually had two hogs ready to process and other farmers around would bring their one or two to the all-day gathering. While the men worked, the wives and other women prepared food and drink and the kids played around. Once the pigs were dispatched, they were bled out, gutted and then rolled into a scalding tub to clean and soften the hide so that the hair could be scraped off, first by being laid out on a platform and later, to finish the job, they were strung up by the back feet to a bar about 10 to 12 feet high. The hair was used by some old-timers as bristles for brushes. Then came the butchering and divvying up the appropriate shares to the various families. The farmers liked to say they used everything but the squeal.

“So, while most people, when reflecting on Thanksgiving, think of a big turkey dinner and watching football on TV, my most fervent memory is being 10 to 12 years old watching a ‘hog killin,’ Hope my description of it doesn’t put you off your feed when you pull up to the table this year for your socially distanced Thanksgiving meal,” Ferguson said.

Vinton Town Councilman Keith Liles shares, perhaps, the most poignant Thanksgiving memory of all.

“My memories of Thanksgiving growing up are bittersweet,” Liles says. “As a kid, I was excited we got a few days off school for Thanksgiving. However, my mother (Faye) always had to work at the Kroger deli until they closed at 6 p.m. During that day me and my siblings along with my dad (Billy) would clean the house and take my mom’s Lilac china out of the china cabinet and carefully wash all the pieces that we would use for the evening feast. We would set the table and anticipate Mom coming come from work. It was hard work for a kid, but the look on Mom’s face when she walked through the door was worth every bit of it. Although she was tired from working all day, Mom would immediately start preparing our Thanksgiving meal.

“We didn’t have a lot of money growing up and at times had to rely on assistance to make ends meet. But on Thanksgiving we lived like the rich folks, as this was the only day we got to eat off the fine china and devour a full course meal. Together! Our feast would include turkey and dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and a pie that Mom would pick out for us on her break.

“After dinner, while still in her Kroger uniform, Mom would clean the kitchen and her china, and carefully replace it in her china cabinet to sit for another year. My dad would retire to the living room and my brother, sister and I would lay in the floor and rapidly thumb through the new Christmas catalogs, making our lists for Santa.

“Looking back, I realize even though Mom was exhausted she was proud and thankful her family was fed, happy and enjoying time together. Those times would be short-lived. A few years later, my dad passed away. Two years after dad passed, my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. My brother and I still lived at home and took care of her around the clock.

“On Thanksgiving Day of 1996, knowing her boys were tired, the only thing she could give us was a day off. Mom shut her eyes one last time that morning, knowing her kids would always eat well and be together on this day.

“So on Thanksgiving, we will remove the Lilac china from its cabinet, set the table and enjoy what I now call…Mom’s Day!”




more recommended stories