I wrote this piece several years ago after comparing my holiday feast to the meager fare of my childhood in Granite City, Illinois. The theme of sharing still seems relevant in today’s nutritionally challenged and socially hungry world.
When my three brothers and I were growing up, we never saw a table laden with stuffed turkey and tantalizing vegetables and salads such as I am about to prepare for my family this Thanksgiving. Such a sight would have boggled our minds. Our simple meals consisted of potatoes or Navy beans, an occasional piece of pork chop, and extra dessert on holidays. We never expected more and always bowed our heads and said, “Thank you for this for this food and all other blessings” when we sat down to eat.
Father worked long hours in a steel mill trying to put that food on the table, and Mother worked just as hard washing and ironing clothes for others. Enough food was cooked so that at our meals every dish was left empty, and as I recall, each of us could have filled our plates again had there been more on the table. There usually wasn’t anything left over, probably because of the extra person who shared our meager fare. That extra person was either the little boy down the street, a hobo passing through town, the widow upstairs, or anyone in the neighborhood who was sick or lonely.
The people who ate from our table never realized what a struggle it was for us at times. Certainly the little boy who lived down the street didn’t. When he first started playing with my brothers, he sat on the back porch while we ate. One day Father told him, “If you’re hungry, son, come and eat.” After that he was usually at one corner of our table, laughing and talking as though he belonged there. I can’t remember why he didn’t go home to eat. I do remember that he was an only child, wore clean clothes every day, got a haircut when he needed it, and had Twinkies for recess at school.
The only meal he didn’t eat with us was breakfast, but that was often shared with one or two hobos who changed boxcars on their way to St. Louis or Chicago. Word had spread that Mother would feed breakfast to anyone who was hungry. As a result, the hobos were often on our back porch—sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, but always wrinkled, unshaven], and weary-looking. Mother could never refuse their plaintive request, “Can you spare a bite to eat Ma’am?”
Any leftover bread was made into pudding and often taken to the widow upstairs, to the sad elderly couple on the corner whose son had been killed in the war, or to anyone in the neighborhood who was sick. Eventually Mother’s bread pudding was eaten by everyone on the block. Her only disappointment was that there were times when she didn’t have more of it to share.
My only disappointment this Thanksgiving is that I can’t whisk my holiday table back in time to the stark little kitchen of my childhood. If I could, I would stand back and watch my brothers and parents hurry in and gaze in utter amazement at the array of stuffed turkey cranberry sauce, candied yams, salads, and pumpkin pie.
But they wouldn’t sit down to eat—no, not until someone had gone to get the little boy down the street, another to get the widow upstairs, still another get the sad elderly couple, and of course, someone would have to call in all the hobos who were hopping freights to St. Louis and Chicago. Only then would our strange-looking group sit down to eat.
How that little kitchen would tremble with laughter and thanksgiving. Since we shared when we had so little, I simply can’t imagine our not sharing if, for one moment, we could have had a lot.
And since I have so much this Thanksgiving, I want to share it with others. The people in our neighborhood live in nice houses and have plenty to eat, and I haven’t seen a hobo for years. Somewhere, though, there must be a lonely child or woman or man who would like to sit down with me and my family this holiday and be thankful for our “food and all other blessings.” I’m going to try to find those people and invite them in.
Lori Grippo (OLLI Member and Writer’s Group Participant)