Column: Mom, and Love, Made a Family Thanksgiving

  • Ernesta Watson, the family matriarch, talks with Brendan Armstrong, of Claremont, N.H., at a Thanksgiving around 2011. (Courtesy photograph)

  • The children's table in the 1980s. (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 11/22/2017 8:00:50 PM

“Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother’s House We Go ...” Who wrote that song? If you don’t know, don’t stop to look it up. I just did. Lydia Maria Child wrote it in 1844. Its other title is The New England Boys’ Song About Thanksgiving Day.

The last Thanksgiving celebrated at my family home, which was built on Green Street in Lebanon in 1864 or thereabouts, was in 2013, the fall before Mom, Ernesta Watson, passed away.

Not only has a lot changed since 1864, but a lot has changed since 2013. Most of us don’t own a dapple-gray horse and we no longer bound through the woods to get to Grandma’s. In my family, some of us came up I-89 or drove other routes. In the case of my sister and her family, they walked across the street to Grandma’s house.

Ours has been one of those families, the kind filled with love because we are family. Mom was hugely responsible for that love. And before her, there was her mother and her father, who also each lived in the house for a time. They were good at passing on love and tradition, too. This long line of love goes way back. And not just in a straight lineage line; it’s spread over the whole clan. For us, holidays and family times have been one and the same.

For about 60 years, we all got to enjoy Thanksgivings together, often celebrated on Green Street. There were also years crowded around tables at my Grammy Wooster’s, when she lived on Baltic Street in Enfield, and at the home of an aunt, uncle and cousins in Orange.

One year on Baltic Street is especially memorable to me. I had my very first taste of wine, probably dandelion. Grammy liked dandelions. We kids would dig them up in the early spring and she’d can and cook the greens. One Thanksgiving I escaped everyone’s notice and got a sip of wine, sitting squeezed in around her big oak table. I had to work my way out of my spot in a hurry; I ran to spit out that vile wine into the over-sized kitchen sink. The experience probably deterred any teenage drinking experimentation.

Another memorable Thanksgiving Day was spent at the relatives’ home in Orange. I was about 8 years old and dressed up for the occasion in my pretty little yellow cotton dress with a flared skirt, puffed sleeves and dark trim. It took hours of work by my mother, a nurse, to earn enough to buy it after my father died. And there were hours of work to wash and rinse it in the old wringer machine; more were spent hanging clothes on the line to dry and bringing them in. With my dress and other things, there was also spray starching and ironing. Dressing us kids, myself, sister and brother, was no simple task for a worn-out young mother.

I went outside to play once I was all dressed up; while waiting for the others, I fell into a mud puddle. It was not a happy ride to my aunt’s and uncle’s.

Year after year, the bulk of the holidays were spent gathered in bulk, at our house in Lebanon, jam-packed into several rooms around three or four tables. Extra chairs were borrowed from our church around the corner, and one of the china cabinets was moved into the spare bedroom downstairs. The spare bedroom also served as a behind-the scenes preparation area for the makeshift shows the kids put on; sometimes the children, my mother’s great-grandchildren, dressed as pilgrims. Over the years as generations grew, there was an ever-new supply of precious little ones.

I remember my own granddaughter as a baby, climbing off one lap and crawling amidst the table, chairs and people’s legs to get to my lap.

I remember my brother’s son bringing a guest, his girlfriend at the time, who was from England, and my embarrassment when I asked unthinkingly how they celebrated Thanksgiving over there.

My mother’s fudge was the best fudge ever made, and something no one has quite been able to get right since. Fudge and all the other stuff, nuts in the sectioned little glass bowl with nut picks in the center, mints and tangerines and more, were all on the buffet.

The women hustled to bring everything to the tables, tables that had been set early in the day. Gravy was in silver or china gravy servers. The turkeys got carved in the kitchen and brought in on platters. The traditional platter was old.

People arrived early or late with whatever they had brought: pies, the famous green bean casserole, fruit and Jello, sweet potatoes, stuffing, rolls. Always so much they all had to take stuff home.

In November 2013, Mom was 99 years old. The whole family stood in a circle in the dining room, holding hands, some pushed out into the front hall but hanging on, heads bowed, as Mom said grace for what would be the last time. As always, she became a little tearful with gratitude because she was emotional and her family being there meant everything to her. But she was also sincere in her gratitude for everything in her life and appreciative to God for it all. That year, her expression of grace was a little briefer and she concluded it with, “Whatever.” I wondered if I heard that right. Mom was getting very tired. But we all joined in singing Over the River and Through the Woods.

In July 2014, Mom passed away. Ernesta, Aunt ’Nesta, Mom, Gram, Great Gram, was our Plymouth Rock of Ages, our true, dear matriarch. She made Thanksgiving and every day of our lives full of abundant blessing.

Nancy Carr lives in Haverhill.

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