Thanksgiving conjures special memories for me. The ones I remember most were spent on Oak Street near Valdosta State and Sunset Hill Cemetery in my grandparents’ home. There the maternal families would gather—Burch, Rewis, Lynn, Cowart, McMillan, and Moore—to feast on a meal that has become the mainstay of the holiday: turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, lady finger peas, sweet potato, rolls, pecan pies, sweet potato pies, and more.
Cousins played hide and seek in my grandparent’s yard, or if we were really daring, in the cemetery, where we would hide behind gravestones, or if we found a mausoleum unlocked, inside it, though never alone. Incidentally, Sunset hill was the same cemetery I used to park next to and walk over the bridge to class at Valdosta State years later, and once after days and days of rain from a hurricane, my college roommate and I found arm and hand bones that had washed into the parking lot. We reported it immediately, of course, but it turned out that many of the graves closest to the parking lot were historic pauper ones, buried without a casket, and it was a lesson in capitalism even in death.
After stuffing ourselves with the Thanksgiving lunch, we’d sit around the living room, watch the parades on television, cigar or cigarette smoke floating in the den or living room, or sit in the porch swing or in rocking chairs and watch cars. Late in the afternoon, we all trekked our way about two blocks to Patterson Street where people came to watch the parade. As if we needed more sugar, my siblings, cousins and myself, scrambled into the street to fetch the candy thrown. We always enjoyed hearing the marching bands of the Vikings and Wildcats in the distance and couldn’t wait to see the grand finale of Santa Clause at the end of the parade.
One Thanksgiving, though, my experience changed. I caught a stomach virus and got sick right after lunch, over and over. I missed the hide and seek and the parade, and I was on my grandmother’s bed, her antique black metal fan blowing air over my clammy skin, and my mother, grandmother, and aunts periodically checking on me, wetting the cold, damp cloth again and placing it on my forehead to keep my fever down. I could hear my cousins, going on and playing without me, teaching me early that life will go on. It’s a true feeling of loneliness and I always feel sorry for anyone sick during the holidays. At some point, my dad carried me to our 1966 Skylark Buick, told my brothers and sister not to touch me, and we drove home.
For several years, I wouldn’t eat turkey and dressing, irrationally fearing I would be sick again, and I no longer enjoyed Thanksgiving. I also was reminded by everyone in the family—three generations of them—for years that I had given most of them the virus, too: “Niles gave me the worst virus ever” or “Before we come in, is Niles here and is he sick?” At some point, I remember thinking I should try turkey and dressing and the fixings again, and of course, I was fine. I’m not sure how or why we eat ourselves into misery and think napping will remove the feelings of gluttony, but I suppose as long as we do it periodically, it is okay. Today, even though I’m far away from Lowndes County, and many of my relatives gone from this world, I am thankful for family and the special memories of Southern Georgia.