I recently ran across an old photograph that reminded me why Thanksgiving is my favorite day of the year. It is in one of a dozen or so photo albums my mother lovingly assembled that chronicle my growing up years. She dated every photograph she ever took. Her inscription here reads, “Thanksgiving 1954.”
Mother was the family photographer, which explains why most of the photos in which she appears were taken by me after I was old enough to be entrusted with the Kodak she bought in September of 1936, the week she started her first teaching job in a one room school house in Virginia City, Montana.
Dad never took pictures, although he had a beautiful Zeiss Ikon that his boyhood friend, Marvin Clark, had removed from the body of a dead German soldier on June 7, 1944 somewhere near Pointe du Hoc on France’s Normandy coast. I know this date only because Marvin had climbed the cliffs above Omaha Beach the day before amid withering German machine gun fire.
This particular photograph, taken in my grandparent’s sprawling country kitchen, is a far more joyful scene, though it remains a timely reminder of the peace that Marvin and millions more American boys bought for us in Europe and the South Pacific between 1941 and 1945. In Marvin’s case, the memories were so horrific that he took his own life the year this picture was taken. Years later I asked Dad what had happened. After a long pause, he said, “Most of Marvin never came home from the war.”
My grandmother’s kitchen – and it was her kitchen – was a marvel to behold. It fed more than 20 farm hands, as well as a good many hobos who showed up at the kitchen door most days in hopes of trading a few hours of work for a hot meal. She’d have them split stove wood or shovel coal or mow the lawn. Whatever needed doing at the moment. No one who was willing to work was ever turned away.
Although she never said, my guess is that my grandmother’s generosity had a lot to do with the fact that she was scrubbing floors on her hands and knees in an orphanage before she was 10 years old. She lost both of her parents – Broadway actors of some fame – to typhoid fever in the spring of 1904.
My grandfather’s story was different, but much the same in a haunting sort of way. When he was 12, he saddled his horse and rode away from his boyhood home in Saguache, Colorado, never to return. He rode west across Colorado, then turned north into Utah’s Grand Escalante Badlands – a desolate but beautiful area made famous by the poet-adventurer, Everett Ruess, who disappeared there in 1934, nearly 30 years after my grandfather rode through on his way to southwest Montana, where he found work as a cattle drover on the Jackson Ranch near Twin Bridges. It was there that he met and courted my grandmother. They were married in Dillon in 1917.
Four smiling faces greet me in Mother’s 1954 photograph: My grandfather, the official sharpener of carving knives he had forged himself on an anvil I now have; my father, the official carver of the turkey, who had worked as a meat cutter in his youth; my grandmother, in her finest hand-sewn apron and Mrs. Hook, whose stern countenance hides the fact that she was a wonderful and warm-hearted woman who helped in the kitchen for years.
Dad was in his bow tie phase then, and so he is wearing one with his white shirt. My less discriminating grandfather never much cared what shirt he wore with his tie, so this one is some sort of long-sleeved plaid. It is engaged in a furious battle with his powder blue tie, which features a cowboy atop a palomino stallion. I had given the tie to him the previous Christmas. God only knows how many times he wore it, but after he was killed, my grandmother gave it back to me. I still have it.
The shutter on mother’s camera forever freezes this moment in time. They are standing on the far side of a huge kitchen table that sits on casters so it can be rolled about easily. The top is gleaming stainless steel. Mrs. Hook has just removed three turkeys from my grandmother’s double oven – the only wood stove I ever saw with three fire boxes and two ovens. Its surface area was so large that when turned into a pancake griddle – as it was daily – the first pancake had to be turned over before the batter on the last pancake was poured.
My grandfather is on the right. Dad is standing next to him, then my grandmother and Mrs. Hook. Grandmother and Mrs. Hook are smiling at the camera, but my father and grandfather are smiling at each other. It is a symbolic reminder that Dad’s father-in-law was his mentor and, in many ways, the only father he ever really knew. He was 12 when his own father died of pneumonia.
The loss was so devastating that Dad could never bring himself to talk with me about him. And so what I know about Paul Randolph Petersen I learn by discretely asking other family members what they knew. Over the years, I assembled a picture in my mind’s eye of a tough as hell lumberman who made a lot of money in his 48 year life, but never had much time for his three children. He was buried on Dad’s thirteenth birthday.
Charlie Albertson of the Great Escalante Badlands – the only grandfather I ever knew – always had time for everyone. And so, when my grandmother telephoned me on a June evening in 1961 to say that he had been killed that afternoon in an accident on the ranch, I suddenly realized how empty my dad’s life became when he lost his father in July of 1928.
It would be thirty years before I could bring myself to talk about my grandfather. Now, blessedly, I can, though I still well up when I see Dad standing in memory’s mist weeping silently at my grandfather’s graveside. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.
My dad and my grandfather were the biggest men I ever knew – or ever will know. Big in the sense that they were modest men whose quiet generosity touched the lives of many who did not even know them. And they were camera-shy in the sense that they never needed anyone to know about their kindnesses. So it was with “The Greatest Generation” that Tom Brokaw wrote about in his fine book by the same name. Such a far cry from today’s “what about me” generation.
I did not get to know my own father until after I went off to college at the University of Idaho in the fall of 1962. He worked for a big mining company in northern Idaho and was on call day and night during the Korean War and for years thereafter. If he got a day off, he slept. Vacations were rare treasure.
Dad showed up at my fraternity house the first time in the spring of 1963. I’ll never forget it. A friend came upstairs to say that he was downstairs waiting for me. At first, I didn’t believe it, but there he was waiting patiently for me in the foyer, as though his visit had been planned for weeks. It hadn’t been. The drive from home was three hours one way, and I had no idea that he was coming or why. No, everything was fine at home he quietly assured me in answer to my anxious question about Mother. He’d simply driven down to buy my lunch. That was all. Over the next three years, we got to know each other over bowls of chicken noodle soup and tuna sandwiches, lunch fare we both relished.
I have now had nearly 50 years to think about our first lunch, and how it was that Dad and I were getting acquainted in a way that never could have happened until I rode away from home and, in a figurative sense, passed through the Grand Escalante Badlands alone. I have driven its length once, and it is beautiful. So was he.
Years later, after Alzheimer’s disease stole Dad from us, I casually mentioned our lunch rendezvous to my mother. “What!” she exclaimed in astonishment. In that unforgettable moment, I realized that my father had never told her about our many visits. Why I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that he simply wanted a little piece of me that she could not touch that he could call his own.
I think Dad often felt outclassed by my mother. She was a beauty who rode horses beautifully and never missed a dance in her youth. She had a college education – he paid for most of it – and taught school for 41 years and was revered by her students. She was also my constant companion for the first 18 years of my life, years in which Dad was gone more than he was home.
Dad had dropped out of school in the eighth grade, the spring after his father died. Although the country was sinking into the Great Depression, I think his own great depression had more to do with it. He never went back to school. Nor did he ever get over feeling small and uneducated in Mother’s presence. But I had seen him effortlessly work complex math problems in his head that many graduate engineers could not complete on a slide rule. He was, very simply, the smartest man I ever knew, and I was very proud of him. I still am.
Everyone in Mother’s Thanksgiving 1954 photograph is gone now: Dad in December of 1986, my grandmother in September of 1983, Mrs. Hook sometime in the late 1970’s, Mother in June of 1985, and, of course, my grandfather in June of 1961. I miss them all, but I have my mother’s photo albums, and the flood of memory they bring, to remind me why Thanksgiving Day will always be my favorite day of the year.
Thanksgiving blessings, Jim Petersen
November 20, 2012