Erin is cornered in the Great White North this year, and is hosting a party to teach the People of Other Lands the true meaning of American Thanksgiving (with Tofurky!). In honor of her party and the upcoming holiday, I thought a post reminding her of Thanksgiving via the Unnamed Religious Private School would be apropos.
I’ve had to mull this post over a few times, because this is the first time that I’ll be posting a memory that’s very scattered. It doesn’t exist in my brain as a narrative, but rather as a bunch of scattered, disparate parts that might actually come from a series of years rather than a single event. So rather than fudging anything resembling linear narrative, I will provide you with a series of remembered events, which may or may not be connected to one another.
Erin has already mentioned the Thanksgiving Play, and my memories of this are much the same as hers. I’m certain that the plot of the play was “Pilgrims set out for America. Pilgrims land and are extremely righteous, but in order to teach them a lesson God sends them a Very Harsh Winter. Some people get sick. Some people even die! Helpful Indians (played by dark-haired children such as myself) help them grow crops. Helpful Indians join Pilgrims at First Thanksiving, where the women cook the meal while the men teach the Indians about Jesus. The Indians readily accept Jesus despite what must have been some really difficult translation barriers. Everyone is happy, and thus thankful, despite all the bodies still lying around from the Very Harsh Winter. (I believe that one year we actually did have some kids play sick people, and I think one of them stayed on stage longer than he was supposed to, thus giving the impression that the neglected dead were still lounging about during the festivities.)
Thanksgiving is always a troublesome holiday at religious schools, because it’s the only holiday (besides Halloween, which is OFF LIMITS) that isn’t specifically referenced in scriptures. When teachers talked to us about the “true meaning” of Christmas, they inevitably spent several days pouring over the birth of Christ with us. The meaning of Easter was similarly divined through readings of the Crucifixion. But the Pilgrims aren’t technically IN the Bible (as much as our teachers might have wanted them to be), and so somehow we escaped with having a fairly secular time at Thanksgiving. We made the traditional Hand-Turkey crafts and lists of things we were thankful for. And I can’t imagine that our play was that much more culturally insensitive than anyone else’s. The myths of Thanksgiving are a pretty ingrained part of American childhoods, public- and private-schooled alike. (This makes me wonder what kids who grow up on Reservations think of the holiday.) We also did additional crafts projects to eat up the time that would normally have been dedicated to something less secular, like a scripture reading. The year we did the play, we created our own set (featuring a giant cave!) out of papier mache.
A few years later (I think), someone must have made the decision that crafts were not adequate to teach us about the meaning of Thanksgiving. Because that year, we were sent to the M family’s house to learn about all of the chores and tasks that go into planning a True American Thanksgiving.
Regular readers of this blog are already familiar with the Family M. They are the family that includes Melissa and her twisted sisters, along with their theatrical mother and the father who donned tiny bathrobes. Erin has already mentioned that they were the family who attempted to provide our class with “culture”, carting us all to plays and Junior League events. This year their role as cultural attaches was extended somewhat, as they taught us the proper way to plan a Thanksgiving feast. One morning the week before Thanksgiving break, we all hopped in cars driven by chaperoning parents and took a field trip to the country club, where Mrs. M greeted us at the door to her stately mansion and informed us we would learn how to be real ladies and gentlemen this Thanksgiving.
Did I mention that we were all wearing Pilgrim and/or Indian outfits? We were requested to come in costume as members of the first Thanksgiving. Most of us just used our costumes from the annual play, meaning that I was dressed in my felt Indian vest and headband, complete with feathers and two long pigtail braids. So a group of mostly Pilgrims and a few select Indians stormed the mansion door, still uncertain what, exactly, we were going to learn.
This is where my memory gets splotchier than I would like. I am certain that a day at the house of M must have been beyond hilarious, but I can’t get a clear picture of what, exactly, we did once we were there. I know that a major portion of our “lesson” involved cooking and cleaning. Mrs. M had arranged for us to prepare specific T-day dishes – potato salad, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green been casserole. And she also taught us the importance of having a clean house; some of us were assigned to polish various furnishings and mop the hardwood floors in preparation for our feast. (I feel that I must commend the school here, as this lesson was surprisingly gender neutral. As far as I can remember, the boys were assigned to cook and clean right alongside the girls.)
What I remember most vividly, though, is the moment when Mrs. M and our teacher gathered us all together and talked about the importance of remembering the first Thanksgiving as we set about preparing our own feasts. The Pilgrims, they reminded us, had not only to cook and to clean, but also to hunt, fish, and gather. They lived off the land, and the preparation of any feast involved the hard legwork of the hunter. (I would swear too that when we cooked the meal, Mrs. M made the preparations as primitive as possible, leaving out the use of electric appliances wherever feasible. But this might be a misremembrance.) Thus, on this day we were going to learn how hard it was to hunt a turkey.
I have no idea why someone in the country club had turkeys. But someone did. Specifically, he was a grouchy old man who shouted a lot and didn’t seem all that happy about having us on his property. He had a pretty extensive plot of land that included foul of all kinds, cows, and I think even a pig or two. Now that I’m older I look back on him and wonder if he was one of those old men who thinks the government is coming for his money one day and keeps a small farm-like plot just in case someone steals all his worldly goods. But whatever the reason, he had animals, and we needed those animals in order to learn about the First Thanksgiving.
Mrs. M showed us around the “farm,” explaining how each animal would have served the Pilgrims in the creation of their feast. (Cows? In early America? I’m not so sure about that one. But they probably didn’t eat sweet potato casserole with marshmallows either, so I guess I shouldn’t expect this even to have been historically accurate.) We learned that any and all food came from plants and animals, not from the grocery store.
But the capper of the event was when the grouchy old man stepped in to tell us how hard it was to catch a turkey. If we were learning about the hardships of the early days, it was important to understand that nature was difficult to tame, and that most wild animals didn’t just walk right into the path of your rifle. As he made his point, he walked towards a small fence at he back of the property, threw open a gate, and set free three enormous turkeys to run about the yard. He claimed that they were “wild turkeys,” although I think that adjective becomes moot once an animal is kept in a pen in your yard. But either way, the man was taken with the majesty of the turkey (just like Ben Franklin!) and wanted us to understand how hard a bird it was to bag. “Just try to catch those turkeys,” he challenged.
And with that, 20 elementary school kids dressed as Pilgrims and Indians took off after 3 big birds, scrambling across the acreage, bumping into unsuspecting cows and pigs in our plight to grab the centerpiece of all Thanksgiving meals. We got close a couple of times, including one in which I swear the thing turned around and nipped my arm. But I doubt any of us succeeded. After much scrambling around, Mrs. M called us back and told us it was time to head back to the house. Luckily for us, some astute shopper had already provided us with a bird via the grocery store, so our feast would not remain incomplete, despite our failure to bag the turkey.
I don’t know where our teacher was during all of this. I suspect it was a nice day off for her. I’m really crossing my fingers this time, hoping that Erin remember SOME of this, because I’m certain there’s more to this story. Anytime a crazy rich lady teaches a bunch of costumed kids about the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving, there are bound to be some comedic scenes. But all of them were pushed out of my mind by the crazy old man who got a kick out of watching us chase his turkeys.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!