One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving. It’s not a popular holiday anymore but I still associate it with families coming together, crisp fall air, cozy hearths, colorful autumn leaves covered by first snows, pumpkin pie and whipped cream, coffee, stuffing… (I’m getting hungry so I’ll stop there) …and I try to think of the original “Americans” who, although deeply misguided in regard to native peoples, were still brave and strong in terms of democratic ideals and freedom…for everyone like them. Ha! Not the ultimate good certainly, but still, considering the widely held views at that time, they were genuinely progressive. *shrug*
My ancestors on my mother’s father’s side weren’t here for the “first Thanksgiving” as they came in the 1730’s to Virginia from the southern part of England before settling soon thereafter on their first plantation in Tennessee, but they too helped start this country and fought in the Revolutionary War. (I might join the DAR when my kids are a bit older.)
They had two large plantations. One, started in the 1730’s in Tennessee and one later in Georgia for a few of the descendants of the original family. But they were so large that they donated land to build the local church (they were Methodists) in Tennessee. They were a very well respected family. And, obviously and unfortunately, they had many black slaves.
Thankfully though, they were actually kind (from the history and documentation we have of them). One of the photos of them from the 1850’s shows the humility, intelligence and kindness they possessed written on their faces. And Silas, one of the descendants who inherited one of the plantations actually was an abolitionist. He freed all the slaves on that plantation except for a grandmother, her two grandkids and an elderly man with a disability. Perhaps he felt those vulnerable folks needed his help purely as a friend. His relatives, simply going along with the current thought of that day, did not free their slaves but did humor Silas, with the exception being that they light-heartedly teased him about it all on occasion. Again, it was just the way of life they’d known for over a hundred years since arriving from England where slavery also once existed, of course. But truly, they were decent enough people (albeit some more unaware than others) living in a wretchedly immoral era in regard to race.
When the Civil War came they lost almost everything. Fighting valiantly for the losing side with a horrible sin to atone for they suffered.
My great great great great grandfather, a leader in the military, was imprisoned by the Yankees and my great great great grandfather was killed after the war in a railroad accident where he was working. He left behind my great great grandfather and his mother and one or two other children. They struggled without him (as women and children often did back then without their father or husband), and eventually they moved deeper into the south. Long gone were most of the obvious outward trappings of wealth. It was a painful history and one of shame too with the loss of their previous fortune and the outcome of the war. They likely chose to try to forget.
My grandfather (who’s grandfather had lost his father in the rail accident and great great grandfather had lost so very much in the war) was born into a very modest home and although he loved horse racing, hunting and went to Juilliard, UCLA and accomplished many other things in his life he was a troubled (but very artistic) man largely due to his sad childhood. He had an affectionate mother (who was actually related to Ruth Bell Graham on her mother’s side) but a cold and deeply unpleasant father who had obviously had his own very sad childhood too.
My grandparents divorced in the 1960’s. The narrative about my grandfather after that would be largely tinted by my grandmother’s hurt and frustrations until much later. And, I still have a lot of empathy for her viewpoint in general, but now I do see who my grandfather was apart from her too.
At the very least, her good background and his wounded place in social terms didn’t help either of them in the long run and she became “the rock” on many too many an occasion due in part to his attempt to climb (back) to grandeur (he wanted to be a movie star and was actually a decent enough actor and etc.). “He saw money in me.” she once told me, in anger, decades later. But she had indeed personally paid the debt from a few brilliant (he helped invent the plastic coat-hanger and helped write a popular piece of music for television) but failed business endeavors. Of course, regardless of that possible interpretation, she was a wildly pretty lady and at first they were very in love.
My grandfather remarried. That marriage was happy as they were much better suited for each other. He had two more children. And he died from cancer, having become a judge, and respected member of his community before I was born.
Sometimes I wish I had met him. Sometimes I’m glad I didn’t. Either way, he affected my life greatly. Maybe he affected me more than almost anyone else, other than my parents, in a way…
Last Thanksgiving I cooked a duck for our family and thought of him. He brought home lots of ducks from hunting (he was a great shot) for my grandmother to prepare and she was a legendary cook. My mother said my duck last year was almost as good as her mother’s cooking. *smile* This year I might make one again. It might become a tradition. If I do I’ll post my recipe.