News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

November 29, 2010

The Off Season: Leftovers: Thoughts on Pilgrims, memories of family

TERRE HAUTE — You might think that the timing of this story is a bit off, being that it’s about Thanksgiving and all and we have now entered those frenzied and  commercialized weeks that lead us up to and include Christmas. We’ll soon be up to our eyeballs in “Early Bird” sales and “Musak” and mall Santas, but I figured most readers wouldn’t mind reading a little bit more about our day of thanks, especially seeing that it is now, unfortunately, often overshadowed and overlooked by things more pecuniary.

Surely, most of us know that the day we all call “Thanksgiving” was first proclaimed by William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, after a particularly rough winter in 1621, although, like most historical events, even that is now in dispute. The Pilgrims had endured cold and deprivation that we can only imagine and had reaped a fine harvest that year. Only 53 of them to enjoy the feast that Bradford called for, even harder to imagine now in a day and age when we can turn a dial for extra heat, flip a switch for light and turn a tap for water.

The governor, “a person of a well-tempered spirit,” according to the great preacher, Cotton Mather, was only 31 years old when he issued his decree. But most folks don’t realize that he didn’t call for the same thing to happen in the next year, or even the next. The Pilgrims didn’t even call their day “Thanksgiving” at all, although that term was used for a celebrated day in 1623 after a providential rainfall. 

Several presidents, including George Washington, set aside days as one-time Thanksgivings, but it wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln, undoubtedly searching for something to help unite his splintered citizenry, called for a national day of thanks, and he put it in writing. In part, he said, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

I found the Pilgrims a rather humorless lot in grade school and junior high history, their “thees” and “thous” too stodgy and formal for my taste.  But, in fact, the Pilgrims were a gutsy and creative bunch who knew what great risks they were talking on when about 110 of them first boarded the Mayflower on their journey to the New World; for that, we have to admire them.     

I was obviously taught all about Bradford and the Pilgrims’ most fortunate partnership with Samoset and Squanto, their Native American friends. And I vaguely recall spending the days leading up to Thanksgiving in diligent labor at my desk, cutting and pasting together a turkey out of brown and red construction paper. The entire class’ turkeys would eventually adorn the walls outside our classroom door, waiting, of course, for the inevitable day when they’d face replacement by our crude snowmen and Christmas trees. My friends and I were a little intrigued by the Pilgrims’ blunderbusses and buckled shoes and apparent lack of interest in color, when in reality, at least two of those images are typical misconceptions.

My childhood Thanksgivings weren’t spent at a crude, open-air table eating corn meal and fish with a band of Wampanoags on hand, nor did we celebrate for three days, as the Pilgrims did (unless you count the turkey sandwiches we ate for a week afterward). Although we always spent most of Christmas Day at my Grandmother Blanche’s house just next door, we trekked the seven or eight miles over to my Grandmother Daisy’s place for Thanksgiving dinner.

My Grandfather Tommy — actually my step-grandpa — and my Grandma Daisy were an intriguing pair. Tommy always wore neatly pressed gray work clothes and a perfectly maintained fedora. He smoked Winstons and had a gold tooth and laughed easily, and we loved him for his quietness and simplicity, his impeccable, neatness and his appreciation for Perry Como and Patsy Cline records. My grandmother was a real study in psychology. She loved to wear house dresses and slippers, was psychotically clean and probably had about enough of the grandkids once they’d been in her house after 30 minutes or so. She was, however, one of the world’s great cooks, her table bejeweled with homemade pickles, juicy turkey and candied sweet potatoes.

My grandmother, with my mother’s able assistance, put on prodigious and memorable feasts. To this day, I have never tasted macaroni and cheese like hers; I have no idea what she did with it or to it that made it so unique, but whatever her recipe was, it went to the grave with her. 

It was in my grandparents’ tiny home near Burnett that we watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in grainy black and white (my grandparents eventually owned a color television long before anyone else I knew), the huge Goofys and Donald Ducks yanking their tenders along in the breeze as Hugh Downs gave details. My grandmother’s clear glass coffee pot bubbled all day, and even a quick trip through her knotty pine-lined kitchen and its enticing aromas was a glorious preview of the meal to come.

Since we weren’t usually allowed in my grandparents’ bedroom, with the possible exception of putting our coats on her bed for the day, we spent most of our time in her living room, playing in the brick alcove near her spotlessly unused fireplace where firewood was supposed to be stored.  Her bedroom was particularly off limits to me; it was there that I had once spent a memorable afternoon playing, that is after I had locked my grandmother and sister out of the house while they’d gone to the clothesline.  I suppose we had argued about something.

I can still hear my grandmother vigorously rapping away on the rattling windows, telling me in a muffled voice through the glass that my grandpa would whip my 7-year-old backside unmercifully when he got home from work. I never had the nerve to tell her that when he took me outside to discipline me an hour or two later, that he let me ride on the back of his Rambler up their winding drive to get the evening newspaper, then drove me to a little country store in the tiny crossroads burg nearby to gab with a friend and drink Orange Crush. It remained forever our secret.

You know, I would hate to think that I am thankful for what I have on only one day out of the year, that I have so little in life that I can fit my gratitude for it into one brief space of time. If there’s anything the Pilgrims taught us, that the memories of my grandparents reinforce in me, it is that.

You can contact Mike Lunsford by email at or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808.  Read more of Mike’s stories at, and visit his website at  He will be speaking at the Parke County Extension Dinner in Rockville on Tuesday , and will be signing books at Kadel’s Hallmark at North Plaza on Dec.11.

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