Daddy’s family never had much money when he was growing up in Atlanta. My granddad was a printer by trade and had trouble finding work during the Great Depression. After that, he owned his own print shop for a while, and even invented a printing press, but family lore says the patent was stolen from him and he never realized any money from his invention.
Granddad and Grandmother didn’t see a lack of money as a reason to limit their family size, though, and over twenty-seven years had nine children. They kept a big garden, raised chickens and rabbits, and all the kids except the youngest, Beverly, left school after the tenth grade to get jobs to assist with the family finances.
The Farrar children were great story tellers and had a lot of interesting family memories to draw from, so when my Aunt Beverly told me the story of the most memorable family Thanksgiving, it stuck in my mind.
This particular Thanksgiving may have occurred in the 1920’s or 1930’s or as late as the early 1940’s, either before Beverly was born or when she was too young to remember the day herself. Her knowledge of that Thanksgiving was the story told to her by her mother, my grandmother, Raleigh Mae Farrar.
Beverly told me the story a couple of times and small details changed between tellings. This is my version of the day compiled from my recollections and recordings of the events as told to me by Beverly. The quotations are Beverly’s words.
Grandmother had what the family called “the vapors.” Back then, having the vapors were at the very least described as having spells of light-headedness, flushing, or fainting, to the opposite end of the spectrum of hysteria, mania, or depression. It could involve mood swings and loss of mental focus. Having had her last child at the age of forty-seven in 1937, for Grandmother, the vapors may have been menopause. She would have turned fifty in 1940.
During the period of Grandmother’s vapors, she was sometimes bedridden and a woman came in every day to take care of the family. That year when Thanksgiving neared, the family didn’t have money for a turkey and all the fixings.
Grandmother said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do, we don’t have money for a turkey. We’ll just have chicken.”
The woman said, “Oh, no, Miss Mae, don’t worry about that. I’m going to take care of Thanksgiving.”
Soon Thanksgiving Day came and Grandmother said the smells wafting from the kitchen were just absolutely fabulous. The family could hardly wait to get in there and eat Thanksgiving dinner. When the woman announced dinner was ready, they opened up the door and all rushed in to gather around the dining room table.
In the center of the table was a great big possum on a platter. The possum had an apple in its mouth and was surrounded with potatoes cut to look like flowers, with English peas scattered among the potatoes. Everyone sat and stared at that beautiful display and that possum. But just for a moment, before the room filled with laughter.
After composing themselves, my grandfather and all the children told my grandmother they weren’t eating the previous night’s roadkill for Thanksgiving. Then every one of them got up from the table and left the dining room.
In 1909, President William Howard Taft and his family reportedly enjoyed a twenty-six pound possum alongside the traditional turkey for their Thanksgiving Day meal. Maybe the woman who cooked Thanksgiving for my grandparents and their children that year thought that if a Thanksgiving possum was good enough for a U.S. President and his family, it would be good enough for the Farrar family who, that year, couldn’t afford a turkey.
Though the Farrar’s were poor in money, they were rich in family. Family is what Thanksgiving’s all about, isn’t it?
I’d like to think if that generation of my family had been aware of the centerpiece of President Taft’s 1909 Thanksgiving dinner, they might have given that possum a taste.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018