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November’s early morning light, cascading down from a cold and cloudless sky, ricochets off twin barrels of my shotgun, turning them into bright blue beams of steel. It is Thanksgiving morning and I am a 12-year-old boy — the youngest in a group of six — hunting pheasant on my grandfather’s land. Today is my first hunt, where I am old enough to carry a loaded gun.
My shotgun is cradled in the nook of my left arm as the six of us — my uncle, two cousins, my older brother and my father — walk across a plowed corn field toward our destination: a thick hedgerow where pheasants are hiding. Trigger and Lucky, my uncle’s spaniel bird dogs, are 50 yards ahead and, like sculpted stone statues, they stand immobile on point. The section of bushes they are pointing to lies directly in my path. My mind, jumping like popcorn in a microwave, careens from excitement to panic. I slowly nudge the safety off with my right thumb and extend the gun into shooting position. Quietly I advance, now so close that my right leg brushes up against Trigger. Without warning, I hear a squawk, followed by a whirring sound and I see a flash of red embedded in a blur of airborne brown. Simultaneous explosions boom, and within minutes, the dogs each retrieve a pheasant. The birds are magnificent: Regal wing feathers of burnt orange, butter yellow and ruby red, with ringed necks that look like creamy swirls of white and dark chocolate. My uncle picks up a pheasant and, without speaking, hands the bird over to me. I place it inside the game pouch located in the back panel of my hunting jacket.
As the six of us end the hunt and start the walk back, my gut tightens — a signal I need to be alone. So, pretending to tie my boot, I bend down and allow the others to pass me so I can reposition my place as last in line. As I walk, the heavy weight of the bird bears down on my lower back. A much heavier weight of guilt and shame bears down upon my heart. I can’t sort out my feelings. We arrive home and enter my grandparent’s house through the back porch where field-muddied boots are lined up like brown mummified feet. As I enter the kitchen, Thanksgiving smells assault my brain: pecan pies cooling on a side table, turkey baking in the oven, homemade rolls, and persimmon pudding. As my grandmother comes up to take the pheasant I am holding, I see my 6-year-old sister Sally reach up and pluck a pecan from the pie closest to the table’s edge. She eats it quickly, thinking no one has seen her. But my grandmother, who has eyes in the back of her head, winks at me and casually pushes the pie back away from the edge of the table - now out of a child’s reach. This seemingly insignificant event, the unpunished theft of a pecan, reveals the meaning of Thanksgiving for my family: Children and childhood, the most precious family assets, are to be protected from the harsh realities of life.
I see my grandfather sitting alone in the living room and he beckons me with a wave. “I heard you shot your first pheasant today.” I reply, “No Granddad, I didn’t.” He says, “Well, several shots went off, so how could you know that you were the one who missed?” I say, “I could not have shot one of the birds, Granddad, because I didn’t load my gun.” “Why not,” he asks? So, I told him what had been bothering me — “I’m just not ready to kill a living creature.” I see a change in his face, but I can’t read it. He begins to say, “Well, let’s ... but is interrupted by my Grandmother, saying dinner’s ready. As I approach the table, fear flushes across my face and my mind reels with panic. What if he reveals my secret?
When all my family are seated, my grandfather says our traditional Thanksgiving prayer, but with one new added item: “And thanks be to our skilled hunters — especially the youngest one — for bringing two birds to our table.”
Childhood, played out upon my family’s Thanksgiving stage, was a magical production. In this play, no one ever died, illness was minor and fleeting, and ill will towards others never lasted. If you became sad or lonely, your remedy was only one hug away. The script of this play was written in traditions: the hunt, the prayer, the coming together of the family, the cooking of food using handed-down recipes, the sensitivity to and acceptance of children’s emotional needs — all of which bound us together into one whole.
The final act was a simple one: Thanks for all the blessings bestowed upon us; For the aunts, uncles, children, step-children, foster children, grandchildren, cousins, parents, brothers, sisters and grandparents who now sit next to us over this feast. Thank you for the gift of life. To all my readers, Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.