Holidays were always emotionally confusing to me. I liked hiding away in my room with the assurance that I wouldn’t have to see anyone from the “outside” world. On the other hand, this haven inside my house was unpredictable. I never really knew what my mother had in store.
When I turned 10, my mother decided that we needed to experience Thanksgiving first-hand. Up to that year we had read every book and poem possible to learn about the first Thanksgiving. My mother sang hymns while I painfully accompanied her on the piano; we visited Plymouth Rock, stood on the Mayflower, and went to numerous state parks that commemorated the battles between the first settlers and various Indian tribes.
We often went to Starved Rock State Park, not far from our home. Sometimes we stayed there on Thanksgiving and after eating a large turkey feast in the lodge, hiked up to the top of the rock. The story told of the local Indian tribe who first settled in the region. In a fierce battle the Indian warriors went to the top of the rock where they could clearly view the approaching forces. Unfortunately, food and water ran out; opponents surrounded the rock, and the tribe with the view died from starvation. Thus the rock was named and became a well-known monument many years later. I am still learning about all the different indigenous populations throughout America and wonder at the arrogance of my ancestry.
But even though we had albums of postcards documenting my education of that first Thanksgiving, this year my mother was determined to do more. One Sunday afternoon early in November she loaded us into the car for a ride to the country. This was not an uncommon way of spending Sundays. My mother and father seemed to enjoy getting out on the highway and exploring the cornfields of Illinois or neighboring states, Wisconsin and Indiana. I didn’t mind this at all. I had my doll, and as we passed houses and fields, I liked to imagine the lives of people who didn’t live in the city. The backseat of our Chevy was one of the few places where I felt assured of being undisturbed and safe. So when the car suddenly turned into a drive leading to a country house, I sat up and became uneasily alert. We drove right up to the front door, and my mother stepped out of the car. I could hear her steps followed by knocks on the door. When the door opened, I listened with horror as my mother announced that we lived in the city and wondered if we could dress up like Pilgrims and have our Thanksgiving Day at their house. The country offered much more authenticity to Thanksgiving, she was certain. I have no idea what my father was doing. I only know that I was as close to the floor of the car and as quiet as I could possibly be. I heard the house door slam and my mother’s steps marching back to our car.
I spent that Thanksgiving in the familiar surroundings of my room.
My mother didn’t give up the idea of a country experience, however. The next summer I learned that I was going to live with a family in southern Illinois. They had a daughter my age, and she was going to trade families and live with my parents for the summer. That day I was packed and taken to a dairy farm. My parents retrieved their new charge, and I was left to a family of strangers. I followed the mother into the house and was shown to my room. My eyes went to a window with a view of cornfields as far as I could see. As I put down my suitcase and doll, I saw a rope tied to the post of my bed. I was advised that in case of fire I was to throw the rope out the window and swing to the ground. My anxiety grew. I thought of my dog back home and my own pink room. The next moment a loud commotion took us all outside, and everyone ran to catch baby pigs that had gotten out of their pen. Following orders to help, I tried to banish the fears of what I would do if I actually caught one of the pigs. That first night I slept little, clutching my doll and the fire rope. I tried to imagine that I would be able to swing all the way down to the ground amidst billowing flames. I wondered if I should practice. I don’t know if I ever said a word that summer. I took care of a calf and showed her at the 4-H fair. I went to bed before sundown and awakened every morning at 4:00 to a huge breakfast with real dairy milk and went immediately to chores. Every Sunday I sat in Sunday school praying that no one would ask me to recite a Bible verse. I was actually plump and could ride a bike for miles. It was one of the best summers of my life.