Giving thanks, before Thanksgiving

My first tale has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, because the holiday hadn't been invented then.

It was in the early days, and my great-grandfather was just a mite more than 18. Already married and the father of one, he put all he had into an ox cart and went inland from the seacoast of Maine to a rocky hillside to whittle out a farm and go down in the annals as a first settler. His name was Jacob.

His father was a housewright, and Jacob was trained in carpentry. He began clearing his first field, and he piled up logs for a cabin that had to be tight before cold weather. That first summer they slept under the ox cart, and Jacob completed shelter for his animals before he built the family cabin. Lacking meadows, he also cut swamp and swale grass for winter hay.

By snowtime he was rather well situated, and had become acquainted with Frank Sockalexis, one of the dozen or so Sabattus Indians in a village a couple of miles away, all of whom Jacob identified by that same name. Sockalexis would step out of the woods betimes to see how Jacob was progressing. He never said anything, never lifted a hand, and after a time would disappear into the woods. If offered food, Sockalexis would partake.

Jacob's young wife was not my great-grandmother. Widowed, Jacob took a second wife, Rebecca, and her son was my grandfather, Thomas. The pioneer baby proved cranky, and did some crying, and one day Sockalexis left before his visit was over. He came back shortly with a pacifier for the youngster. The wee blob of porcupine fat on the end of a string was put in the baby's mouth so he could gum it, and this occupied him and he didn't cry. The other end of the string was tied to the baby's big toe.

When the baby swallowed the fat, which he did, he'd choke, then kick, and the fat was retrieved and he could start all over again. Thus Sockalexis proved a good man to know, and he got a free feed whenever he came by.

That first winter was severe. Jacob had to climb on the cabin roof three times to clear away snow so the chimney would draw. And by the time of the Hunger Moon, food had dwindled. Jacob had trouble finding rabbits in the swamp. The soup in the pot thinned out. And one day Sockalexis came in, stood his snowshoes in the corner, pulled over a stool, and sat down with his appetite exposed.

It took him little time to figure things out. He stood up, tied on his snowshoes, and struck out for his village. He wasn't gone long. He arrived back in style, perched on a toboggan pulled by two out-of-breath Sabattus women. He came inside to sit down again, and the women brought in the groceries.

They brought a considerable supply of jerky, the smoked fish, flesh, and fowl of the region, and all manner of dried foods, many of which Jacob and his wife knew nothing about. The women blew up the fire on the hearth, and made a feast.

That's about all there is to that story, but we can all regret that they hadn't heard about the first Thanksgiving, so they had nothing to judge by.

We agree the first Thanksgiving was at Plymouth, but that isn't so. Myths ride better than facts, and we are beguiled.

In August 1607, the first Feast of Thanksgiving was held at Popham Beach, Maine, by the 200-odd settlers of the Plymouth Company. It was called exactly that, a service of Thanksgiving conducted by the colony's chaplain, Rev. Richard Seymour. Many years later, our publicity tub-thumpers in the Statehouse "reenacted" this Thanksgiving. Their photos reveal they were lax in their homework, and the reenactment was attended by women, children, and Indians.

There were no women with Popham Colony, and no children. And the Indians of the area were unfriendly and didn't get invited.

Meantime, the "facts" persist that the first Thanksgiving was held at Plymouth, and Mother Brewster marked her pies so they wouldn't get mixed up: T for 'Tis Mince, and T for 'Tain't Mince. Remember how Myles Standish ate all the hard sauce for the plum pudding, thinking it was his dessert? And how Massasoit first used a fork?

LET me add one more Thanksgiving of note: Jacob and Rebecca had a son, Thomas, who became my grandfather. When Thomas was the age of Jacob when he pioneered, Thomas went to war, the war between the states. When that war was over, Thomas would come home to the family farm. The cabin of Jacob was gone, and there was now a big farmhouse. On Thanksgiving Day, 1865, the family was gathered for a big day, as Thomas was coming home.

Remember the big howl in 1939 when FDR moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last? Well, President Andrew Johnson also moved Thanksgiving: from November to early December, to give the soldier boys extra time to get home. And on Thanksgiving 1865, Thomas would be married to the waiting Hannah Elizabeth, his intended. Evening drew on, and Thomas hadn't arrived. The feast had been delayed. The minister and Hannah were ready. Night was about to descend.

And somebody at a front window shouted, "Here he comes!" Thomas was home for Thanksgiving.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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