From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1939 –
Thanksgiving for Emily
By Beatrice Knowlton Ekman
It was a raw November morning. Emily made a fire in the Home Comfort range with chips that were piled in the woodbox back of the stove. She filled the teakettle from the water bucket in the pantry and put the oatmeal on to cook. When the kitchen was warm, she opened the door to the sitting room adjoining and, putting on an old sweater, went out to milk the cow. In spite of her years, her step was light and quick.
Her fingers numbed with cold as she unfastened the chain on the gate of the corral, but the warmth of the cow’s udder soon warmed them, and the milk quickly filled the small brass bucket.
She set the bucket on a barrel inside the gate and turned the cow into the field. The chickens were pressing against the wire netting of the coop. Strewing some grain in the straw, she opened the coop door, and out they flew in wild disorder to scratch and scatter the yellow waste.
Then, taking the bucket of milk, she returned to the house for her breakfast. While going about her work, her thoughts ran far afield. The house was too large now that they were all away – strange that she had once thought it too small. The large dining room and parlor were only opened to be aired and dusted, and the upstairs rooms were only used when the children came for a visit in the summer. Her own room with the walnut furniture, the north room as it was designated, was just as it had been before Allen died.
She combed her gray hair, still streaked with black, and put on a fresh apron. Her slender hands tied the strings in a neat bow at the back. They were useful hands that had done much service. Maybe there would be a letter. She put on her wool shawl and went outside. The mountains to the east were blue with haze, and the tree branches were naked in the wintry sun. Water from the flowing well dripped over the wet barrel and ran down the ditch to the chicken yard and thence along the fence to the field.
“It is cold even in the sun,” Ellen said to herself, as she moved with quiet dignity down the enclosed road toward the mail box, her thin form erect. She espied something white in the mail box and hurried a little. There was an almanac advertising pills, an envelope with an unsealed flap – nothing else.
Suddenly she felt tired. Could any of them be sick? There were many things that could happen. She knew that they loved her; they were good children, even if they did not write often. She always excused them. her older ones had small families that needed a lot of time and attention. Her younger two, John and Nancy, had not been married long. She had missed them most. When her husband had died, they were so young – John four; Nancy, only eighteen months.
A long time to be a widow. … Allen would have been an old man by now. Try as she would, she could see him only as he looked when he had kissed her that last morning. She could see his broad shoulders and strong arms when he tossed little Nancy above his head, his blue eyes and wavy hair, his white, even teeth when he laughed and looked back at her from the wagon as he picked up the reins. She had watched him until he was out of sight beyond the south field. … Then, they had brought his body home after the accident. … Never while he lay in the house was it her Allen – he had gone completely. Always it gave her a feeling of agony to remember.
She looked up and down the lane before she went through the gate. The lake stretching to the west was like molten silver; Antelope Island was a dark line inverted in the water. When plowing was underway, white gulls circled and followed the dark upturned furrows swooping down with shrill cries. Now the fields were drab with stubble.
Emily sighed and closed the gate. Her shoulders drooped as she made her way back. “Among them all, someone might have written; even a card would have been a comfort. There was not time now before Thanksgiving for her to hear. She had usually gone to them at Thanksgiving time. It is strange that they did not send any word. … Not a line from one of them. … Why are children so thoughtless? This is what one gets for being old.”
The chickens were wandering about looking for bugs and worms along the ditch bank. It was less lonely outside. She sat down on the steps and leaned against the porch post; her shawl slipped from her shoulders. The sun went behind clouds – it got cold. Suddenly she pulled the shawl up, looked at the sky and arose stiffly. “I shouldn’t have stayed out so long,” she said apprehensively. Returning to the house, she found the fire was out; she felt chilled.
The day continued to grow colder. Later, she fed the chickens and brought in wood and coal and water from the flowing well. It was as much as she could do to milk, and she was very tired when finally she had taken care of it. She covered herself with a blanket on the sitting room lounge. She was subject to violent headaches and feared them. “No one would know I was sick, the neighbors are so far away, and they know that I go to the children every year. It’s rather a thankless job, being a mother. Not one of my children to be with me. … What do they care?” Slow tears came to her eyes, and she wiped them away on her apron. How tender Allen had always been when she was sick. “Oh, Allen, Allen, I am so alone!” Then, dozing off to sleep, she dreamed that he came and held her hand, stroked her forehead; she was comforted and less lonely.
When night came, she drank some warm milk and got into bed. Some time later, she woke with one of the worst attacks she had ever had. Finally, she had to get up and make a fire. The rest of the night she either walked the floor or sat in the rocker by the stove. When dawn came, she crept into bed and fell into an exhausted sleep. The night had been very cold, but when she waked the sun was shining. She tried to get up, but it was too great an effort. She lay back on the pillow with a moan of pain. “No one will come, the children will not worry before tomorrow anyway, and goodness knows what might happen by then,” she fretted. The curtain stirred at the window, and the sun made ripples on the mirror of her dresser. “I must get myself something warm to drink, maybe a glass of milk or a bowl of gruel,” she said. But the hours wore on until she became light-headed with weakness and hunger.
There was someone sitting by her bed – quite a young man. At first, she did not recognize him. Then, she asked softly, “Is it you, Allen?” He smiled; his teeth were white and even. “Of course, Emily, I have been here all night.” He had not changed at all; yet, she had not known him right away. Just his being with her brought a sense of peace and well-being. She lay content, watching him until she fell asleep.
It was late afternoon when she waked. She was entirely free from headache and felt stronger. The chair was empty. She heard voices and wondered whose they could be. Nancy and John were in the room. Emily looked at them. “Where did your father go?” she asked. They looked startled, almost frightened. They came to the bed and kissed her tenderly. Nancy began to cry. “Oh, Mama darling, are you very sick?”
“No,” Ellen answered. “I am fine.” She stroked Nancy’s thick blond hair. “Your hair is like your father’s, Nancy. You have his blue eyes, John, and his broad shoulders.”
“Well, you gave us a good scare when we arrived and found you so ill,” said John, smiling down at her.
“Yes,” laughed Nancy, the tears clinging to her lashes. “We thought the surprise was on us.” Ellen looked at them both. “You might as well tell me what you are up to, you never could keep things from me.”
But they did not tell her; they went to work as if they had never left home. John found an old sweater, shoes and pants that he had left there two summers ago. Nancy had brought a house dress, and she put on one of her mother’s aprons.
“How did you get here?” asked Emily later when they were in the sitting room and she was tucked in the big chair where John had carried her, a blanket about her and her feet on a pillow. He moved his chair to let Nancy be with a bowl of hot gruel, which she had prepared for her mother. “We came on the train, and old Marriot brought us down in his mail wagon,” John told her. Then, looking out of the window, John said, “The sun goes down pretty far south now; it’s getting low. I suppose it’s up to me to milk the cow and bring in the wood. Have you any coal, Mom?” “Not very much, son; I thought I wouldn’t need any more until spring, but there is plenty of wood.”
“Leave it to me, I’ll have a pile as big as the house in no time.” Taking the brass bucket, he went out whistling. Nancy slipped out and quietly put away the packages which she and John had smuggled into the house.
After John came in with the milk, she made preparations for dinner, while he got the ax from the granary and went out to the pile of wood. The strokes of the ax sounded sharp in the still twilight. When he came in with an armful of wood, the table was set, and the supper was ready to serve. Nancy had piled her mother’s hair high, her eyes were brightened with pleasure, and she felt refreshed.
They were so merry, and Emily, looking at her two children, could almost believe that they had never left her. It seemed only yesterday that they were all living together in the large, busy, happy home.
“Tomorrow,” John said, “I’ll cut some logs for the grate and get the dining room stove going.”
It was getting dark, and Nancy lighted the hanging lamp over the table and the small side lamp in the kitchen. “Do you think she caught on to the surprise, Nance?” said John, while they were washing the dishes. “I can’t tell whether she has or not, but she looks fine now. It surely gave me the creeps to hear her talk about Dad that way; she must have been dreaming when we first came in.”
John went back to his mother, and Nancy took a candle and went upstairs to John’s old room over the parlor. She stood looking around the old familiar room – nothing was changed. She opened the door and stepped out onto the little porch extending over the bay window below. The fields, stretching out under the stars, were still and somber; the new moon hung over the lake far to the south. “It is still home to me,” she said wistfully. Then, leaving the door open, she returned to the sitting room. “You look tired, Mama. I think we should all get to bed.”
Emily waked in the morning to the sound of the ax, chickens and turkeys flapping and scratching. For a moment, she could not remember. She felt refreshed and free. She was used to the cold bedroom; she laid back the covers and reaching for her shoes and stockings, hurried into her clothes. Nancy was peeking into the hot oven as she went into the kitchen. A pan of warm corn bread sent forth a delicious savory odor, as did the sausages that were sizzling on the back of the stove. The table was set by the window with a white cloth. There was jam and fresh butter and thick cream for the oatmeal.
“Oh, Nancy, why did you let me sleep?” Nancy gave her a light kiss on the cheek. “I tried to be quiet, but I guess I made a lot of noise.”
Emily poured water into the basin on the washstand, bathed her face and hands, combed her hair before the little mirror and arranged her dress collar. Opening the door to throw the water from the basin, she saw John coming with some stove wood. She held the door for him. “Hi,” he greeted her, “aren’t you a bit late with my breakfast?” He bent and kissed her lightly as he squeezed past. At the table he drew out her chair; when she sat down, he sat beside her. “Which turkey are we to have, Mom?” Emily smiled as she unfolded her napkin. “I don’t care, son, take your pick; take two if you like.”
“I have my eye on the big bronze; he must weigh at least twenty-five pounds.”
Nancy brought the oatmeal and slid into her chair. “Trust him to take the biggest,” she teased.
After breakfast, they both went out to watch John catch the turkey. It was hard to get him into the wire enclosure where John had put some corn, but finally he cornered him and, though a bit disheveled, John came out triumphant. “Are all of the family coming?” asked Emily, as they turned toward the house.
Nancy laughed, “No use trying to surprise you, is there? Yes, they are all coming in time for dinner Thanksgiving Day; we are the advance guard. It will be such fun. I am so thrilled. Are you glad that we will all be home again? John and I are to do all of the work; you don’t have to do one thing.” Emily stood still and looked at Nancy, her fine eyes bright with pleasure. All she said was, “Come down and see what is in the cellar.” Nancy helped her raise the heavy door of the outside cellar and followed her down the clean steps.
The sun shone through the east window on neat rows of bottled fruit, pickled cucumbers, red beets, glasses of jelly and preserves, red tomatoes and catsup. There were bins of potatoes, onions, hubbard squash. There was a small barrel of sauerkraut. Nancy looked around, “But Mama, this is so wonderful! I don’t see how you did it.”
Emily went to a shelf at the far end of the cellar and raised the lid of the stone crock. Nancy, close beside her, peered in. “Mincemeat!” she cried, delightedly. “I made it from the old recipe that has been in the family for one hundred and fifty years,” said Emily proudly. “I wanted all of you to have some of my own making this year.” Nancy sniffed and rolled her eyes, as her mother replaced the lid. She looked with enthusiasm at everything. Emily reached for a jar of beets. “John is so fond of beets. Is there anything you want to take up?”
“Yes,” Nancy said, as she took down a jar of mustard pickles, “no one makes mustard pickles to suit my taste like you do.” She followed Emily up the steps and closed the trap door.
Standing on the porch, Nancy looked away toward the south and east, toward the mountains that were looped in austere grandeur, toward the valleys sloping with their checkered fields to the lake bottoms. “This is so much freer than being cooped up in a city; I suppose I am spoiled,” she said, as she took a deep breath of the sweet air. She watched John as he hung the huge turkey under the mulberry tree by the cellar. Emily called to him, “There is a pail of lard on the shelf by the window in the cellar. Will you bring it up for the pie crust?” She knew how he would love to see the well-stocked shelves.
When the two of them came into the house, Emily was picking over the cranberries. Nancy made the pie crust, and Emily baked the hubbard squash for the filling and made the cranberry jelly. Afterward, they laid out the long linen tablecloth and the best silver knives and forks. John had made a fire in the hot-blast stove and had piled logs in the fireplace in the parlor. Great chips and small firewood banked the logs ready for a blazing sheet of flame when lighted.
Emily was her old self. There was hustle and bustle, talk and laughter. The turkey was made ready to be stuffed in the early morning. There would be turkey, mashed potatoes, small creamed onions, dried corn, giblet gravy – Emily typed them all off in her mind – cranberries, crisp celery, squash and mince pie. It would be a feast – a feast of love.
When night came, she was tired but happy; she had gone from room to room – everything was in order, even the cloth on the extension table in the dining room. She felt strangely young and vibrant. The station wagon that had brought the family from the depot had gone. the children and grandchildren were all assembled.
The house was warm and filled with savory odors. The logs blazing in the fireplace filled the rooms with luxurious comfort. Outside, the sun gave out no warmth, but the air was fresh and bracing.
Emily sat at the head of her own table as she had done through all the years of her widowhood – a table elegantly set, with food well prepared and delicious. She looked down the long table surrounded by her dear family – Allen’s children and hers, gathered at her home. How Allen would have loved it! She waited for John until he finished sharpening the carving knife and placed it on the platter where the turkey lay brown and hot from the oven. As he bowed his head to bless the food, tears of gratitude came to Emily’s eyes. All her family with her once more – home for Thanksgiving!