We were a small family. Seventeen of us if we had all been around. But a grandfather gone before cousins three through nine were born. An uncle gone when the youngest cousin was eight. One of the older cousins gone off to the service when I was nine, or maybe ten.
My dad was an only child and my grandparents on his side lived in Tennessee, a place we went every summer, but never on Thanksgiving.
Holiday dinners were reserved for my mom's family who all lived in the same county, a fifteen minute drive across town or on a two-lane highway and country roads. Close enough that we had family dinners at my grandmother's house not just on holidays but every single Sunday.
She would get up a sunrise to cook. Uncle Chet would arrive to take her to church and Aunt Alta would stay behind to finish up. The rest of us would arrive in two cars--the first cousins to arrive staying outside to watch for the second car, playing a game to see who could guess the number of cars that would pass.
It's the chicken and noodles and home made rolls that I remember best. And Aunt Alta's cakes with a layer of actual fudge on top for icing. No bake cookies. Vegetables from the garden. Most of the dinner served off the top of the stove from sturdy pots. Uncle Chet sitting on the steps, a plate in his lap, a cigarette in his hand, ashes dropped into the cuff of his overalls. The rest of us around the big table with full plates. Sometimes eating in shifts, the cousins going first in a hurry to get outside.
Turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes with marshmallows are a fuzzier memory, lost somewhere among the 52 Sundays.
I remember a few dinners that were at our house. Where Dad would get out the leaves for the dining room table and Mom would get out the tablecloth and the better dishes and make jello salads and scalloped potatoes. There were a few dinners at Aunt Ruthie's too, where the big table was in the kitchen and frog legs were occasionally fried and ice tea always served. The two daughters giving their mom a break from the Sunday cooking, even though she still brought rolls and noodles. And Aunt Alta still arrived with dessert.
These were the times when the children's tables came out. Set in another room among protests from the four or five youngest cousins who had to sit there. Where plates were filled from dishes passed around in an orderly fashion and napkins were set out.
I vaguely remember my youngest cousin winning a turkey in some sort of contest one year. Although I also remember him winning a pig. It could have been either one. Or both. Different years probably. Different dinners almost certainly.
I don't remember which of these dinners were Thanksgiving. I remember my grandmother saying grace at every one and feeling secure and comfortable in this familiar circle of family.
And full. I remember always being full at these family dinners. Of chicken and noodles and blessings.