By: Alan Scott Brown
With the exception of the panhandle, Thanksgiving in Texas is rarely a cold, frozen one. The Thanksgiving week of 1969 was different. Every once in a blue moon there will be snow, or any frozen precipitation, falling on Texans during the holiday festivities of Thanksgiving.
It was late Wednesday afternoon when nine year old Scotty, and his twenty-five year old single mom, were carefully driving down an east Texas county road on the way to a Thanksgiving family gathering. It was a tradition for Scotty’s two cousins, two pairs of aunts and uncles, and possibly a great-uncle and aunt, to descend on the old house of his grandparents for a big turkey feast with the usual trimmings. Sometimes, even his great-grandmother would also join the holiday visit. His grandmother always had a knack for tossing together decor for whatever holiday hit the calendar. Scotty could hardly wait. He knew there would be a two-on-two football scramble in the backyard, a children’s table all to themselves, and a heart-pounding afternoon watching the Dallas Cowboys vie for the Thanksgiving Day kudos. He loved his family dearly, especially his grandparents, who were more like parents to him, and young enough to be so. Only forty-five miles kept them apart. Weather conditions were not going to push this mother and son away.
Scotty, nor his grandparents, ever knew the poverty he and his mom survived in. His very independent mom had unique and creative ways of dressing-up the darker news of reality. Generally, his clothes were made by his mom during those times. She always let him pick out the bulk fabric. The block of cheese in the fridge — U.S. government issued due to her low wages — was made to look like a huge feast that mice could only dream about. He learned countless ways cheese could be used in the oven, the skillet, and with pasta. Little did he know, for several weeks, it would be his main diet. The old, broken-down rent house they currently called home, had only one gas stove to go with cold creaking wooden floors. The windows were original single pane, thin, and cracked. Honeysuckle grew through the cracks in his bedroom wall from outside vines. Because of her imaginative story-telling, Scotty saw it all as an adventure the kids at his school and church could never imagine. The honeysuckle vine in his bedroom was his vortex to a life as a cowboy, living out on the range, with nothing but a saddle for a pillow and a horse-blanket to shield himself from the cold prairie. The little gas stove in the living-room was the campfire built to warn-off the coyotes and mountain lions. In the spring, bees would hover over the honeysuckle blooms in his room. Were they actual bees? Not at all. They were flying dragons coming to battle his plastic dinosaurs and GI Joe, and what a battle they pursued. Since his mom worked overnights on an assembly-line at a factory, he had his imagination to keep his mind busy, away from fear and loneliness.
His mom’s car was a hand-me-down, 1964 Oldsmobile. She accepted it as a gift from her parents just a year earlier. It was in good condition, due to Scotty’s granddad being a top-shelf mechanic, who was well-known for babying his vehicles. For this little lad, it was a limousine. Although it was solid, and drove nicely in all weather conditions, using caution was his mom’s mantra.
Single motherhood was an overwhelming strain. Her first marriage, at the young age of fifteen to Scotty’s biological father, was a tumultuous, violent, and abusive relationship. In fact, it lasted less than three years. The young father was only a vague memory for the young boy, more like a vague mystery. About a year later, Scotty’s mom went on a blind date which led to a wedding, her last wedding, when Scotty was five years old.
The man was a gentle, intelligent, strict sort, but was incapable of love, as most know it. For four years, Scotty grew to understand not to approach his dad. He knew not to ask him to play ball, or watch him try the training wheels on his bike. It seemed the National Geographic, the checkbook, and the newspaper were priority. Scotty knew his dad to be distant, even in the same room. Yet, the boy loved him, in spite of the wall between the two. The thought passed Scotty’s nine-year-old mind that this would be the first Thanksgiving, out of the last four years, without his dad. Beyond the failed relationship, it saddened the boy, nonetheless. He was too young to understand the word “bittersweet,” but was beginning to learn the taste. The love he experienced, the love he learned, was plentiful from his mom and her family.
Ever since the summer divorce, from his adopted dad, Scotty’s mom engaged him with games, songs and stories to keep him distracted, occupied, and challenged. To say she was over-protective might be an understatement, but Scotty never detected it.
While on the road, the boy’s mind began to fidget. “Mom, let’s sing that Thanksgiving song you taught me,” as he leaned into the rhythm of the windshield wipers struggling with the fresh wintry mix. She was an outstanding, well-known singer in north Texas church circles. He loved hearing her pipes. The look in her face, in response, showed a quick hint of puzzlement, then a sudden burst of joy.
Reaching to turn off the radio, she replied, “You mean, (Singing.) ‘Over The River And Through The Woods To Grandmother’s House we go’?”
“Yeah, that’s the one,” he said with a bounce.
They sang a few verses as he wiped the foggy condensation from his window to scout-out rivers and bridges to go with the lyrics. It was tough. The rain, mixed with sleet made it difficult to see past the road signs. Later, they would play the “I Spy” game, along with more songs in prep for a fabulous duo only grandparents could love.
As the late afternoon bled into the long shadows of early evening, the sleet and freezing rain beat against the hood and windshield. It was clear, the tires began to slip a bit at the curves in the road. A look of subtle concern crawled across Scotty’s mom’s face, but he was thrilled to see some white dusting by the roadside, as well as flocked barbed-wire posts along the mesquite trees.
Suddenly, and without the smallest of warnings, the car lost power.
“Oh, no,” she said with a start.
Scotty, unaware of the dangerous circumstances, sensed his mom’s concern. He quickly replied, “What’s wrong, mom?”
“Nothing, son,” speaking very calmly in a lower tone. “Something went wrong with the car. Everything shut down at the same time. We’ll pull over on the side for now.”
As the car began to coast slowly, she steered it carefully toward the icy shoulder until it came to a stop.
As she threw it into park, she said to the surprised lad, “Okay, I guess we’ll just wait for a kind stranger to notice we are stranded. There’s not a lot of traffic tonight, but people have to go somewhere for the holiday. We might be able to get a ride into town. We’re only about five miles out.” Scotty was fine with the idea of waiting things out. For him, it was just one more adventure, albeit unexpected..
Seeing his mom was somewhat disheveled, he thought of ways to pass the time. “Tell me the story about the donkey who talked to the man. Ya know, in the Bible,” said Scotty with wide-eyed excitement. He added with laughter, “And use your donkey-voice, too.”
Visibly gathering herself while masking her own insecurities of the moment, she smiled, replying, “Sure. Let’s visit with old-man Balaam and his miracle donkey.”
As was his custom, Scotty pitched her ideas of more stories and story-lines for her to retell. He didn’t see anything around him as threatening. Although, for a wisp of a nanosecond, he contemplated what his dad might have done in the situation they found themselves in. But the stories and songs once again swept him away from the creeping “what-might-have-been’s.”
As precious time passed, Scotty noticed the unique formations crystallizing from one end of the windshield to the other.
Watching his breath in the frigid air as he spoke, “Look, mom! How cool is that?”
Realizing the seriousness of the threat her son was pointing to, she chose, once again, to see it as a teachable show-and-tell. She reached out to touch the glass, saying, “Yes! Isn’t it beautiful? As the freezing rain collects on the windshield, it connects with the other icy droplets in this way, like a spiderweb. As it stretches toward its other family members, it causes this wonderful piece of artwork in nature. It’s a real show for us, don’t you think?”
His jaw dropped at the idea of a family stretching across the span of the windshield to reconnect after being separated from the sky. “It looks lots like grandmother’s fancy glass goblets. I bet she’ll have them ready for us when we get there,” he said with a shiver.
She could feel the chills run up her spine as she responded, “Love, real love is like that. Always looking for ways to reach out, even though miles apart.”
Looking at her watch, she realized an hour blew by like dry snowflakes. The young mother had a noticeable streak of naivety about her. Although tough times battered the last ten years of her life, she held to a rose-colored idea that all people are loving and kind. It was displayed once again when she exclaimed, “I am amazed at just how many cars have driven by us in the past hour, without one person stopping to ask if we need help.” She then recalled her dad telling her to raise the hood if she ever were to have car trouble.
She couldn’t get the words out quick enough, saying, “Scotty, you stay right where you are. I’m going to try to raise the hood.” He agreed with a nod. Nervously, she said under her breath, “I’ve watched your granddad do it many times. It can’t be too hard.”
As she opened her door, a loud cracking sound shattered the cold air as ice was forming on the exterior of the body of the car. She shut the door quickly in efforts to contain as much warmth inside as possible. Her feet told her the sheet of ice was beginning to glaze dangerously over the concrete of the road. She held on to the front fender of the car, to steady herself, as she slipped and slid toward the front of the vehicle. After she found the hand lever, just above the grill to release the hood, she lifted it twice with her cold, red fingers, but to no avail. She then noticed, along the edges of the hood, where it met the body of the fender, solid ice had formed over the edge, locking the hood in place. A sense of failure and despair poured over her like a bucket of paint. At her young age, she had toughened to the point of not accepting defeat in any way. Just then, from the belly of her spirit, she spoke out into the air, “Lord, help us! We need rescue.”
Before she finished the word, “rescue,” an old pick-up truck slowly drove by. She watched as the brake-lights engaged. The old truck maneuvered a slow, wide, slippery u-turn back toward the stranded car. Pulling up next to her, the driver rolled down his defrosted passenger-side window. Two large hound dogs, poked their heads out, barking and howling at her. The elderly man in overalls sharply yelled at the hounds, pushing the two aside, out of his line of vision.
“Get back, you two!” he yelled. “Hello, ma’am. Can I help y’all? If you’re trying to open the hood, good luck in this weather,” said the kind farmer.
Being so relieved, she inadvertently put her hand over her heart in gratitude. “Yes, thank God. My son and I have been stuck here for over an hour. The car suddenly went dead, completely without power. We’re trying to get to Mineola. Could you give us a lift?” stating the obvious as she shook in the chill.
As he looked down, shaking his head, he pushed his cap further back on his head and replied, “I’m so sorry, little missy.”
Seeing the disappointment in his face, she added, “Or, maybe you could let us off at the nearest service station with a phone booth. I could call my…”
He winced at her suggestion. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but there ain’t no phone booth between here and Mineola. To make matters worse, as ya can see, I’ve got a bed full of hay-bales, then there’s Yipper and Yapper here in the cab with me.” He saw the distraught in her eyes at his answer. He scratched the stubble on his chin for an unintended pregnant pause. “I’ll tell ya what I’ll do, little lady. You get back in that car where it’s safe, and bundle up with your boy there. Meanwhile, I’ll be headed just south of town where the Mrs is waitin’ fir me. More than likely it’ll take me…oh, let’s say, half an hour in this mess, and I can call somebody fir ya. How does that tickle ya?” He chuckled as he added, “We done got one of those new push-button telephones. Been just itchin’ to use it!”
Putting her ice-bitten hands under her armpits, she grinned with a chuckle saying, “Yes, sir! My parents have been waiting for us. I just know they’re getting worried.”
After writing down the phone number of her parents, he waited to watch her cautiously get back in the car before his tires gripped traction toward the horizon. Through the glazed windshield, Scotty and his mom watched the blurry red taillights of the truck fade away in the distance. She never got his name, or where he lived.
“It won’t be long now, son. Your granddad will be here in no time,” she stated through the cold, biting air.
Thanksgiving morning always came early at the old house in Mineola. It was 5:00 am when Scotty’s eyes opened slowly to the sounds of pots and pans rattling in the kitchen on the other side of the wall from the guest bedroom. This was the bedroom he claimed as his own when he was no more than a toddler. Floating through the early morning air was the scent of pecan pie, bacon, boiling eggs, and freshly baked biscuits right out of the oven. He smiled at the recognition of his loving grandmother, hard at work in the pre-dawn hours of the holiday once again. He could hear his mom’s voice explaining the weary traveler’s ordeal from the night before. Listening to her explanation from the kitchen served as a fog-lifter as he stretched his arms and sat up in bed, grateful for the toasty electric blanket surrounding his body. During an unanticipated yawn, he felt a bit of a sting coming from his lips. He could feel they were chapped from the frosty adventure in the car.
This would be the only time he would be alone for the day. Within six hours, or so, family would begin to arrive with a buffet of dishes in tow for the feast, filling the house with familiar voices, laughter and aromas.
In the stillness, he remembered his Sunday School teacher expressing the importance of being thankful, not just for one Thursday in November, but each and every day. He wrestled with the truth of it as he thought once again about his dad. Last year, he was next to him on the couch, watching the Dallas Cowboys play. Now, there would be an empty place. With a sudden bound, he recalled a technique taught by his mom. Scotty threw-off the covers, hopped out of bed, and put on his clothes as a renewed focus in thought. After putting on his clothes, he dashed out the bedroom door which led into the den. He expected to see his granddad sitting in his favorite chair by the fireplace, slurping his morning coffee from a bowl and saucer. The fire was lit, but he wasn’t there. Scotty thought to himself, “Surely he’s not out picking up pecans in the backyard before the sun comes up.” That was always reserved as a team-effort. It was a special time with his granddad he always looked forward to, especially when he watched him feed the squirrels right out of his hand. Curious, Scotty raced to the warm kitchen to join his mom and grandmother.
“Well, I’ll be switched! If it isn’t Frosty The Snowman. After last night, I just knew you’d have a hankerin’ to sleep late,” said his grandmother with a chuckle.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Scotty,” his mom said. She took a step toward him as she stared closely at his face. “Ooh, your lips are chapped. In fact, your entire face needs some lotion. Let’s get you fixed-up right now,” saying as she walked toward the kitchen door.
His grandmother, stirring the contents of a sauce pan asked, “Honey, are you hungry for a spot of breakfast?”
Hastily, as if she hadn’t spoken, he inquired, “Where’s Granddad?”
She replied through laughter, “Well, wouldn’t ya know, he got up before I did to go see about your mom’s car. He said something about an alternator, a battery, and a belt,” she said with frustration, “Goodnight in the morning, that man! I swear, he’ll be asleep in his recliner before halftime this afternoon. He’ll be back directly.”
Covertly looking out toward the bathroom where his mom was scanning the medicine cabinet, he turned to his grandmother. With a softened delivery, he asked, “Grandmother, where do you think dad is right now? I mean, do you think he’s driving out in the ice?”
The question caused her to pause from stirring. She wiped her hands on her apron, thoughtfully lifted his chin, and softly said, “Knowing your dad, I feel he drove out to his folk’s house out west, away from the bad weather. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me a smidgen if he left a couple of days ago. You know how he likes to hike up in those west Texas hills.” The boy looked down toward the floor in sadness. She didn’t hesitate to misdirect the subject matter, “While your mom hunts down the lip-balm, why don’t you go to the coffee table in the living-room and see about the horn of plenty. You remember what to do, right?”
With bottle-rocket exuberance, he acknowledged her suggestion, “Yes, ma’am!”
Scotty ran to the living-room where the annual horn of plenty graced the coffee table in front of the couch. His eyes got as big as half dollars when he spied the extreme variety spilling out of the wicker funnel-shaped basket. His grandmother had it overflowing with a mix of vegetables, several kinds of fruits, and a plethora of mixed nuts in the shell.
Kneeling beside the table, he shouted, “WOW!” His grandmother was right behind him with a mischievous grin on her face. “Now, do I need to remind you of the rules? Without touching any item in the horn of plenty, you have to decide what’s real and what’s fake,” she explained. “No cheating now.”
Through the years she filled the horn with plastic items of the garden, which appeared to be the real-deal, with only a few authentic items. One year, the horn was completely filled with real veggies, fruits and nuts. It always kept the family guessing what she had up her sleeve.
With a lack of decisiveness in his voice, “Ummm, I give up, Grandmother. Can I start to separate them?”
Not surprised, she said, “Sure, go for it!”
He dove right in with gusto, separating the true food items from the model versions. As he dug his way ever so much closer to the back of the horn, he saw gold-foil-covered chocolate coins. “Oh, cool,” he blurted out. He started to unwrap one immediately.
His grandmother quickly tapped him on the shoulder. “Well, if that don’t beat all. You know that’s not before breakfast, youngin’. I think you haven’t dug deeply enough just yet,” she hinted.
He took her cue. Reaching the far back of the horn, he found a crisp, twenty-dollar bill, folded up to resemble an acorn.
Holding it tightly in his hand, he showed his gratitude, “Thank you so much, Grandmother.”
His grandmother was an expert at holding her emotions close to her heart. But this particular Thanksgiving, she almost couldn’t hold back her tears.
About that time, Scotty’s mom walked in the room behind them. Seeing the touching moment being shared, she leaned against the french-door and quietly listened.
His grandmother knelt beside her young grandson. With thoughtfulness, “Ya know, Scotty. You will spend a lifetime scouring right and left for what is real, and what is not. Those gold coins are good to eat for a treat, but they last only for a few seconds. A ripened apple looks larapin, but if it’s hollow plastic, it does you no good. When you find what is the original article, then you know and taste the goodness of what God has made for you. Most of all, as you decide what is fake, or what is not, remember God will bring you a variety of days to come. Not one day will be like another. Some will be sour days, while another will be a day of blessings. That’s how life’s horn of plenty will be, full of variety. Your job is to dig for what’s real and right. God’s way is to change the horn of plenty into more like a tube, an open-ended tube of plenty. He just keeps on givin’ from His end, even in days when everything seems like hollow plastic. The scripture is true, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” – James 1:17 – (NAS) When those days of emptiness come too often, keep in mind, each day is not forever.”
That’s how Thanksgiving day of 1969 began for Scotty. He locked it away in his heart.
Later in life, forty-eight years later, after Scotty had children of his own, plus a granddaughter, he cherished the days when he could sit by the side of his Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother. Now in her mid 90’s, she had suffered from the disease for about thirteen years. After he had been told she no longer recognized her loved ones, he refused to stay away from her bedside. On his final visit with her, in the same old house with a quiver full of memories, there she was. Only 78 pounds, waiting for the heavenly call to reunite with her husband, he pulled up a chair next to her bed. Reaching out, he held her thin, weak hand and spoke to her as if she were full of health.
With a lump in his throat, he addressed her, “Hello, Grandmother. It’s Scotty. You may not remember me. I’m your oldest grandson. I can’t stay long, but I just had to tell you something before I leave.” He paused to gain strength. “My horn has been so full. My life has been blessed with a variety of cultures, love, and laughter. My adventures have been plentiful, and my plenty has been an adventure. I have been wrapped in many fruits of the Spirit to this very day. Not all things in my days have been something to be thankful for, but I’ve learned to be thankful while enduring all things. I just want you to know, you were a big part of that. I’ve learned to pack them inside for when the wintry mix becomes seemingly unbearable, when it’s hard to see the road. Although I regret biting into some plastic fruit at times, I always kept in mind that a day is not forever.”
As he finished what he needed to say, her weakened hand squeezed his.