• 'We Hae Meat and We Can Eat'

    Over the Thanksgiving table this year, neighbors and family often traded graces. Charlie, our 10-year-old Bart Simpson act-alike, is particularly taken with "Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub." Emily likes to repeat the grace recited at school: "For what we are about to receive, may our hearts be truly thankful." Older, more traditional graces followed, such as, "Bless O Lord this food to our use and us to thy service." But the one that I found most compelling was "The Selkirk Grace" from Robert Burns: "Some hae meat and canna eat and some there are that want it; but we hae meat and we can eat, so let the Lord be thankit." I guess I found the plain-spoken manner and lack of flourish appealing. Perhaps that is just the nature of a people--be they Vermonters or Scotsmen--who are used to scratching a living from stony soil.

    The next day, I got up before dawn and headed for my lower tree stand, the one that is set on the edge of a recently cleared field. Deer season runs through Thanksgiving weekend, but by this time many hunters have moved over to New York State, where the hunting is better, leaving Vermont to the die-hards. I got into the stand while the moon was still a bright, perfect circle over the ridge, reflecting off of standing puddles in the logging road and the skimcoat of ice on the pond. As it slowly sank out of sight, it soured yellow and silhouetted a row of trees on the ridgeline that stood out like a Marine's brushcut.

    I went back for lunch and then headed out again, this time past the hunting cabin and up through the saddle to the top, where I looked down across the fields and rolling ridges of New York. All the colors of late fall were on display: gray oak, silver beech, chestnut brown, russet timothy, birch white, green moss, and the occasional sprinkle of brightly frosted leaves in the cooler spots. I consider spring, summer, and the tawdry colors of a tourist weekend no match for the subtle palette of late November.

    It's a bit lonely this time of year, standing on a gusty, cold mountaintop, but it is the kind of loneliness that a hunter yearns for during the warmer months. It is momentary and reflective rather than a wasting condition. Indeed, a hunter is hardly alone in the woods; a giant crow lifts off of a stump with a huge flap of wings and a sharp "caw," the wind rattles reddish-brown leaves still attached high up in a red maple, and then the flash of a white tail startles as a deer bounds through the underbrush.

    Years ago, Adrienne and I would drive with our two young daughters, Whitney and Caroline, to my mother's house in rural Connecticut. It was a farm of sorts, plenty of hens, a dog, and a large unkempt root cellar garden. My job upon arriving on Thanksgiving morning was to secretly turn up the stove; she was fond of roasting a 20-pound local bird at 200 degrees, a cooking method espoused by 1960s health guru Adelle Davis that never got the bird cooked on time. (On the subject of food safety, my mother justified this cooking method by pointing out that nobody in the family had yet died. I simply regarded this as unfinished business.) My mother lived alone by then and had little patience for small, unruly children, a sharp rebuke likely to explode into the fragile cease-fire at any moment. Or she would simply disappear up to her office over the garage when it all became too much.

    Around the Thanksgiving table, she had her traditions: the beeswax candles, the proper setting of the table, the pillow on her chair, and, of course, the behavior of the children. Offering an opinion (almost always negative) on whether one liked a particular foodstuff was the height of bad manners, and the offending urchin was quickly set straight, almost to the point of tears. "Stop squirming!" was another common exclamation. I am quite sure that an invited guest might have sensed that he had been transported into one of the earlier scenes from A Christmas Carol, perhaps the moment when Bob Cratchit asked for a bit more coal. My view is altogether different and is based on closer observation: the moist eye upon our leaving; the children's videos rented and set out by the television; the unsteady walk, hand-in-hand, with a four-year-old to show her the different breeds of hens running around the backyard; and the proud countenance as our family was enthusiastically introduced to neighbors.

    This year, on our farm in the Green Mountains, conversation around the Thanksgiving table was of a different sort. We told stories about Harry Skidmore, who was known to put up a roadblock on the town road, stopping motorists who looked like hippies, especially Karl Stuecklin, our resident artist. (Harry's wife, Jenny, however, was a kind soul, offering a free turkey or a weekly sauna and river bath to those in need.) Jean, our neighbor across the valley, brought her family's famous cream pie, the one that uses no eggs and takes half a day to bake. (This year, it was a great success, although last year Jean said that her aunt's pie did not set up properly.) Emily sang a Thanksgiving tune along the lines of "Frère Jacques" that began, "Cornbread muffins, chestnut stuffing, pudding and pie, three feet high..." The kids went off to play Stratego, and the rest of us were much too full to get up.

    The fire reduces to embers. I finish off my last piece of maple pecan pie, and then Jack, a veteran fighter pilot from the North African campaign, sits up straight and states to nobody in particular, "This was the finest Thanksgiving dinner I have ever eaten." Then I remember what a neighbor once said about the old-time farmers, the ones who had to live off their wits and hands. A hard life brings out faith in others, while ready-made success is apt to encourage a bit too much self-reliance. In the words of Robert Burns, "We hae meat and we can eat." Simple enough to say, but the meaning is clear. For the food, the company, and for no more than a seat at the table, may our hearts be truly thankful.

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