Every Thanksgiving since 1937, the Smiths have gathered in the woods to share a Thanksgiving meal. I was always told that Granny Smith didn’t want to have Thanksgiving at the house that year, since Grandpa Smith had passed away. Thus the tradition was born.
I remember when I was five, six, and seven, running around with my cousins Kelly, Ned, Steve, and Dennis, and my brother Steve. We would shoot BB guns at each other and make forts in the palmettos. Our mothers would yell us to come and eat and we have to wait behind the “old people” – Aunt Neta, Aunt Nell and Uncle Dow, Aunt Mewie, Aunt Iris and Uncle J.N., Aunt Ouida and Uncle Kelly, and Granny Clemons to go through the line first. Back then children went last. Stretched out on the 40 foot table were every imaginable dish, the pride of women who knew who to cook without recipes. At the very end, there was a big pot of Swamp Cabbage, a true Florida Cracker favorite. Our hope as children was that there would be something left (there was always plenty).
By the time we were teenagers, these same cousins had progressed to bird hunting and hog hunting. Being 16, 17, and 18, we were all indestructible. We would hog hunt all night the night before Thanksgiving, then bird hunt Thanksgiving morning, and then deer hunt that afternoon before going back out to hog hunt again. Some of the best times of my life were chasing through the woods after a pack of dogs, looking for hogs by moonlight.
Tragedy struck in our twenties. Dennis died in a freak accident and Steve died in a car wreck. We moved on, got married, and started having children. Somehow, I became the uncle/cousin who drove all the kids around in the jeep to give the adults a break.
I only missed Thanksgiving in the woods once – Gina was due to give birth to Abram on Thanksgiving Day so we had to miss that year (he was a week late, so we could have gone, I suppose). I’d have to say the thrill of seeing my first born was worth missing my only Thanksgiving in the woods.
I knew there was a changing of the guard the year Uncle Tiny, 37 years my senior, told me to give the prayer one Thanksgiving. That was also one of the first years we realized something wasn’t quite right with my mother, and she began to descend into the nightmare of Alzheimer’s.
We’ve kept a book for almost 50 years now, that everyone signs. My childish first grade handwriting appears in 1965. There is my mother’s name, her signature strong and sure. Flip a few pages and Gina’s name shows up in 1985. She met all my family and still married me. Year by year my children wrote their names; now, Hannah does calligraphy for the date, the year, and the weather.
Lately, we’ve started taking pictures of each generation. What is startling to me is I now belong in the oldest generation (let me hasten to add I am the youngest –by far- in that generation). We span four generations; Smiths are nothing if not fertile.
In all these years, I can’t say that anybody really stressed giving thanks. We didn’t do the things I hear other families do, like go around and describe what we are thankful for. With over a 120 people there, that would take too long. But each Thanksgiving I feel a deep sense of gratitude for God’s blessings. Coming back to the same place year after year reminds me that God has been present and working in my life, whether I was five or fifty-five. He has given me great grace. I see the great grace He has given to so many: cancer cured, children born, true love found, broken hearts mended. He has carried us, all of us, each year, each decade.
This Thanksgiving, don’t just think about what God has done this year. Think about how He has been faithful to you and your family every year of your life – and thank Him for all His grace.