"Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go . . ."
When we were kids, we thought this song had been written just for us, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Certainly, it was our destination that had inspired it—the log house on the lake 89 miles south through winding roads and thick woods. Our Daddy was the principal of the Jr High School in Libby, Montana so we couldn’t leave for Thanksgiving until school was out on Wednesday afternoon, and every student and teacher had cleared the school halls. He would probably go down to the basement and check the furnace one more time, and the outside doors, before coming home and loading up. These weren’t the days of week-long Thanksgiving Breaks. We had just these two precious extra days, Thanksgiving and Friday.
Since we lived right on Hwy 2, just a couple of blocks from the mill, it didn’t take long to get into the woods once we were on our way south out of town. The pines rose before us and beside us. We’d crane our necks to look out of the side windows to their tops, then watch out the back as they closed behind us, like a choir on risers.
There were seven of us in that car winding our way to the lake and Grandma and Grandpa’s house, at least four in the back seat putting up with legs and elbows and temperaments touching. We were usually in good spirits—especially the first half of the trip, zipping along wondering if, hoping we were going to get to stop at Boisferts. It didn’t happen every time, but it was the highlight of the trip if we did, even if only for an Orange Crush from the metal cooler. It was an old log cafe with a scraggly stuffed bear standing on his hind legs to the left of the door. We loved sitting at the counter inside, looking at ourselves in the big mirror on the ornately-carved soda fountain, eating cheeseburgers, fries, and pop. If we did get to stop and eat, it would be dark by the time we got on the road again.
When we finally turned down brightly-lit Main Street in Kalispell, we felt like we were almost there. Just ten miles more, around the courthouse and out Highway 93 to Flathead Lake. We climbed Somers Hill with anticipation, straining to be the first to see the lake. But you couldn’t see it first unless you said it first, “I see Grandma’s lake first!” A jumble of exclamations, and then, there it was peeking out dark and moonlit beyond the church steeple and the hardware store roof, and the big yellow house on the hill. A few miles more around the end of the lake before we’d angle off the highway down a neighborhood road, and there it was, Stonecroft with its windows glowing bright.
We pile from the car anticipating the warmth and aromas—wood smoke, yeast rolls, and those hugs. Grandma’s in her apron, her hair a braided crown, shaping rolls for tomorrow’s feast. She wipes her hands on her apron to give us each a hug, her disposition never hinting at the hours already spent in the kitchen and the readying of the cabin for company. Grandpa greets us at the door too, rising from his reading at the oak table. Tall and thin, quietly witty, his smile warm as he bends toward us. Somehow there are sleeping spots for all of us upstairs as we settle in. A favorite spot is the padded pallet on the floor by the balusters, warm air and voices rising as we burrow in.
Thanksgiving morning we find Grandma already in the kitchen at the cookstove. The pans of rolls have been baked, and Pumpkin and Sour Cream Raisin pies have taken their place in the oven. The turkey is in the big electric roasting pan out in the kitchen entryway, on the white metal kitchen cart. It’s been cooking long enough that we can already smell its deliciousness. Then magically, in the middle of all this, somehow there is breakfast. Soon the menfolk are called into action putting up tables as Grandma directs their placement—out from the bench as far as possible toward the steps, then a right turn and two more tables stretching towards the piano. Chairs and stools are commissioned from upstairs and down. There will be more than twenty of us, but room for everyone. There is no kids’ table. White cloths float into place, then the plates—Autumn Leaf, brightly-colored Fiestaware, delicate white Haviland china, old-fashioned green stoneware with scalloped edges—and silverware. I get to help with this. The cousins are here! There are the sounds of little feet running, laughter on the stairs, a piano being played by more than two hands.
The kitchen is filled to the brim with mom and the aunts mashing potatoes with rutabaga or sprinkling crumble on the sweet potatoes, all chattering happily. The carrot Jello salad is cut into little squares and put on salad plates. Small bowls of mayonnaise are placed down the center of the tables to top it, then cranberry sauce, and the rolls in cloth-lined silver baskets. Soft bread stuffing is scooped from the turkey into serving bowls. Scalloped oysters are pulled from the oven, creamy and bubbly. Finally, the turkey is sliced and plattered as gravy thickens in the roaster.
When we find our places at the table we are surprised by a grown-up treat, small cheese glasses of cold V-8 juice in the center of our plates, with a few crunchy Fritos lying beside. We are eager to sit and begin but we wait, watching Grandpa at the head of the table. Everyone listens when Grandpa Gideon slowly, deliberately thanks God for the food and family gathered here today.
Over the years, I’ve tried to recreate those Thanksgiving meals, always roasting a twenty-pound turkey stuffed with Grandma’s soft bread dressing, making her pineapple-celery-carrot jello salad, rolls, and pumpkin and sour cream raisin pies, setting the table with my best, and sometimes, getting the scalloped oysters right. But I think the thing that I’ve been able to bring with me more than those things is the spirit of that day—the joy of cooking, creating beauty, and celebrating with family—that Grandma Edna passed to us all. Willa Cather writes in My Ántonia, “Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” I’m not sure if I agree entirely with this statement, but certainly, those long-ago Thanksgivings at Stonecroft lend it credence.