Thanksgiving is a special day to me. My extended family on my mom’s side had three uncles, Bob, Dave, and Larry, and Aunt Georgia. Grandmother Byers (call her ‘grandma’ at risk of your life) was a 1905 graduate of the U of Chicago. Grandfather George was killed by bandits in China in 1925, where he and Grandmother Clara were Presbyterian missionaries. Aunt Georgia was born shortly after George’s death, in the US. My mother, Margaret, was born in China. Family lore is that my mother was the first Caucasian female born on the island of Hainan, in 1916.
Because Uncle Dave lived closest to us, our families shared Thanksgiving frequently. Sometimes, the whole clan was together, but regardless, once the family cleared the plates, and with the pies dished, Uncle Dave would rise, and clear his throat. His wife, Aunt Jean, would groan, and Dave would recite:
"Thanksgiving feasts," O’Hara said, “Thanksgivings like this here
ain’t nuthin’ like the one we ate in Wartleburg one year.
The champeen eaters all were there, slack-stomached for the feast,
and we agreed the ones to pay were those who ate the least.
Old Haskins up Frog Holler way, and Uncle Peg-Leg Coon,
and Moses Hick across the crick, and Bill and Doc McGoon,
and several others I can't name, all lean and gaunted down,
sat stroppin’ knives upon their boots while hundreds gathered ‘round
to see the Champeen Eating Race—and when the judge yelled “Go!”
we started in deliberate, devourin’ vittles slow.
“First came a chicken pie apiece, with mushrooms sprinkled in;
and then we ate a quart of squash, six ‘taters, and a tin
of piping biscuits, buttered hot, with jam and apple jell,
and pickled beets ‘n’ celery—‘twas here old Peg-Leg fell,
while several others looked quite pale yet feebly carried on—
but when we reached the turkey course, the most of them were gone.
“Each had a ten-pound turkey, stuffed with nuts ‘n’ sage ‘n’ things.
I’d hardly ate a half before old Bill and Haskins rings
their curtains down, and off they drags on hands and knees—
which left just three, old Doc McGoon, and me, and Adam Peas.
“We picked the turkeys bare, and then came pies all freshly baked.
We had our choice of apple, mince, or cherry, sugar-caked.
One bite of pie and old Doc slumped and fainted in his chair.
But Adam Peas ‘n’ I ate ours—and split the doctor’s share!
“But that fixed Adam. Mournfully, he realized his fate.
His middle swelled so mightily he couldn’t reach his plate.
So I cleaned the board, and rose, disgusted with the bunch,
and wandered to the pantry, where I fixed myself some lunch.”
--O’Hara McSnort’s Thanksgiving (Anonymous)
Years passed, as did my mom and her siblings. O’Hara’s recitation was lost to me. I searched the web for several years hoping to revive the tradition (though, I don’t do memorization, but I can read) with my family. Then, one glorious day, cousin Helen, Larry’s oldest, sent an email saying she was going through Larry’s notebooks, and found a handwritten copy of the lost verse.
Apparently, each uncle would recite the poem at Thanksgiving, so it was tradition with Larry’s family too. When we were all together, Uncle Dave always took the lead. One Thanksgiving, when I was attending the UW (I would stay with Uncle Bob and Aunt Dot during breaks—they lived in Seattle), I mentioned that Uncle Dave always did a poem, “O’Hara McSnort’s Thanksgiving.” When dinner was done, Bob rose, and did the rendition. It was such a pleasure for me! I had never heard Larry do the poem, so I was surprised when Helen found it—ecstatic, too!
I sent the following to Helen, to thank her. It tells about one Thanksgiving when Aunt Georgia rose from the table at Uncle Dave’s, to keep tradition alive:
Bless you Helen!
Oft I'd googled for this poem, and never had a hit.
I wondered were it lost for good, or just a little bit?
Thanksgivin's past I do recall, Unc' David rising up
To clarify the contest past, when O'Hara sat to sup.
On one Thanksgiving past, we called out for the tale,
But Dave sat frozen at his plate, as if upon a nail.
Georgia jumped to rescue him, and called out all at once,
"I never thought I'd see the day this rhyme resisted us!"
Her plate long cleaned and cleared, Georgia set to speak,
"I can do this thing" she said, and did it oh so sweet.
Glancing round the table, O'Hara's rivals changed,
Niece 'n nephews tending there, were in the contest named.
Down she sat, to deafening roar, approval rating high.
David groaned, looked around, and asked for pecan pie.
When Georgia sat, Margae rose: "Li'l sister, not so fast.
You may think Dave's forgotten, but you know he knows the past."
Then voices joined for Dave to speak, to retell O'Hara's feast.
"The tale's been told in fashion grand, my sister can't be beat."
"It's not to beat your sister sweet, but to beat the tale again.
To tell us all of history past, the who and where and when."
So Dave attended to his feat, and regaled upon the feast.
He finished in form so great but collapsed onto his seat.
'Round the table glances swept, what could be so very wrong?
Then smiles grew, Dave revived: Jean rang the dinner gong.
--Bless you Helen (Bob McCoy)
I am thankful for my family, and for the chance of life on this beautiful planet. I want to leave our children and grandchildren more than just an oral tradition. Let’s work together to make it so.