My Thanksgiving Story

Kelsey Upper Place

I’ve had some spare time on my hands lately and have been using some of it to hear various discussions on the radio about this season’s next holiday, Thanksgiving. Many a telephone guest at the midnight talk show host’s broadcasts has been relating their tales of woe about this wonderful, meaningful holiday to my astonishment as this gathering together of family at the harvest season is my favorite and holds lifelong memories of a very special quality.

Oh, my gosh, I am thinking I have memories that are just about extinct nowadays as there seems to be holiday travel involved these days to the very few relatives that people have and to distant places all over this country and overseas. Then, in some cases, there was mentioned how poorly the siblings and cousins got along after finally reaching their destination — the goal of spending time together with a wonderful meal and conversation. But that was not to be in so many of their lives.

So one night I turned the radio off and started thinking about my own Thanksgiving holiday as a child and throughout my life. Growing up on a small family farm in central southern Connecticut meant that my family was clustered together there at most of the time with 21 people of four generations living in two ancient houses, one belonging to William Henry Kelsey whose wife, Frances Maria Pelton’s Grandfather, Marshall had built the home in 1800. Further on up this hill was another old house of the same vintage built by neighbor Jessie Hurlburt. The family bought that house and the land that went with it, thus creating the Upper Place and the Lower Place. Two of the other three houses were built by the next generation of the family just after the worst of the Great Depression in the late 1930s and another house, was built down at the foot of Kelsey’s Hill by Don Kelsey, the youngest of Dan and Lucy Kelsey’s four children. Thus, our family “village” was formed. We owned land that stretched out in long, long lots from the Connecticut River to the State Forest and we were at the very far eastern end of it owning over a hundred acres, I remembered hearing.

We had a subsistence kind of farm, supplying much of our own food and the labor for the plots of vegetables, berries, fruit and the money crop, tobacco. When help was needed to plant, weed or harvest our crops we would gather together and plant or pick it all together, earning some pocket money for the effort. I can remember picking many a basket of strawberries for marketing over the maybe 10 or more years that we raised them and enjoyed it, not to mention the little brown envelope of cash that came our way at the end of the week. I kept mine in an antique mug on the right side of the living room mantel and the mug is still there on my mantel at the Cape, although I no longer pick strawberries. There were other jobs that I did, like picking off the worms that enjoyed feeding on the leaves that were used in the making of cigars (we paid no attention to the plant that we were fostering but to the result of the labor), planting and picking tomatoes, and other vegetables for the fruit stores in nearby Middletown. Then we would get aboard the tractor with its trailer for the ride up and across the road and down the lane. It went through the meadow where the various animals were boarded for the summer feasting on the grass around them. This was mostly an apple and peach orchard but we would fill up our baskets and got a ride back to the barn on the other side of the road that passed through our farm.

Another project that we participated in every year was the raising of turkeys for the Thanksgiving table and we did have some customers who drove out to the country to buy their fresh fowl. We would choose one, too, for our table. One year we decided it was time to kill the big, old Gobbler so this gigantic old fellow was prepared for the oven with Grandma getting up at 4 a.m. to put him in to bake. Only one problem. He weighed 32 pounds and the door to our wood burning stove wouldn’t close tightly, hence the early rising and the long baking job. He used to scare poor Sally as for some reason she was the one he liked to chase the most.

Each family had individual vegetable gardens on their property and contributed to the yearly feast…all were home grown as far as I can remember. Potatoes were from the Upper Place with Grandpa Kelsey the expert on this root vegetable. Stored in the cellar of our old house in a large old row boat they managed to hang on till spring in just the right temperature along with other varieties and the hundreds of mason jars full of vegetables, fruit, and many, many other varieties of family produce. Uncle Will, Aunt Grace, and Louisa Hall who lived in the old Lower Place had put up their produce and stored in their cellar. I never did get the opportunity to visit that cellar but knew that Uncle Will also had a miniature cider mill in there, using the apples from his old orchard and the various other apple trees on the farm. My folks, Dorothy Kelsey Robinson and her brothers Edwin Pelton Kelsey and Donald Butler Kelsey also did much food preservation, so we were a very self-sufficient little group of relatives there in the far Eastern section of Portland, right up to the boundaries of the State Forest. And I haven’t even touched on the chickens and their eggs, the turkeys and ducks, either. Uncle Will cared for several milking cows and now and then, a pig. I guess that covers the food production except for my mother’s hobby of deciding to plant a new kind of vegetable every summer. After much discussion we would include it with the annual order to Burpee’s Seed Catalog. Most years it was lots of fun and a very unique way of learning what else there is out there for our summer garden. I must say that I liked many of these adventures into the world of new foods except for one. I never could get used to the taste of baked soy beans.

The Background

We were much aware of the fact that we were part of the tradition of the beginnings of our country and probably related to the Pilgrims, although at this point we really didn’t know how. The schools did a fairly decent job of teaching us all about them and the toils and trials that they had to go through in order to live in a new way in a new country. It probably wasn’t until my mother, Dorothy met and married Dad that the whole story really came alive for us with a 10th descendant of Rev. John Robinson, pastor of the Pilgrims in the family. It was about that time that Mom really began to take the study of genealogy seriously and kept at it for the rest of her life. She spent endless hours trying to find a Pilgrim ancestor and as a result, found hundreds of names of other ancestors who came to America very early in our history. It is such a shame that she died before newer research found what she was looking for and the family of William Brewster could be added to our collection.

But, nevertheless, this did not deter us from being very aware of our ancestors’ role in our country’s beginning. Grandma Kelsey knew this and there was sort of an aura about her as she went about her duties of having us there with her all of the years as we grew up. She took this role as the family’s Hostess of this Holiday very seriously and went about it as her main mission to the welfare and education of her beloved family.

Many of us who were older had a special job that was ours as we prepared for the dinner that was held at 1 p.m. on that last Thursday of the month of November. Grandpa usually was responsible for the turkey after Grandma had done the very earliest work with the watching and feeding of the new birds. but since the killing and dressing was one of his specialties as a hunter and preparer of animals, he was very adept at it and our turkey was fresh and delicious. Grandma made the pies the day before, always pumpkin, apple, and mince. Sometimes our own homegrown pumpkins were used and the apples were from the farm. We had an apple tree in our yard, the last one in the row along the edge of the most southern garden moving towards the border of Camp Buck. It was a tree planted by a “Johnny Appleseed” sort of a traveling person who went around the countryside offering these trees to the farmers. Most likely it may have been planted by the Hurlburts, the first owners of our farm and I have never tasted such a delicious apple in my life, before or since. It may have been a forerunner of The Baldwin, a well-known baking variety. Uncle Cliff knew it was rare and planted a small offspring from it down close to the house which has been a source of many of our apples. But, oh how I wish that I had asked him to start some more as I don’t know if it can ever be duplicated again now.

Well, there I go off on a tangent about a rave memory of my farm upbringing! But to now get back to our assignments for dinner. There was always a whispering of artist’s talent in our family such as the painting that Aunt Gertrude Van Slyke, Grandma’s oldest sister painted of a scene on Martha’s Vineyard. It had a rather sparse, lonely look to it but one could see that a touch of the sensitivity of an artist was there. But when sister Carolyn, Cally for short, came along in the mid-1930s we were totally mystified but what she could do. Uncle Cliff was the first one to notice that this little tike could start at Mickey Mouse’s finger and draw around his whole body without lifting her pencil while completing a whole figure!! Mom used to notice that, as a baby, she could open her safety pins that held her diaper so we figured that she possessed some kind of fine motor skills By the time she entered junior high school she had a reputation and some of that rubbed off onto me as I was judged by my classmates to be the Class Artist! I must admit I was pretty overwhelmed by this title and don’t remember a thing about our Senior Class play other than the fantastic scenery of the walled garden in the background that I had painted! Grandma found the perfect task for Cally to do along with Sally helping — that of making place cards for the nearly always thirty guests to the Thanksgiving meal!

Uncle Don Kelsey had several jobs. One was to raise and contribute the turnips to the meal. He and Aunt Irene used to prepare and cook a very large bowl of this root vegetable and although not the favorite one on the table for us, the turnip fans, it added that rather pungent touch to the dinner plate. His other job was waiting for him the minute he walked in the door as he was the carver of the turkey. This was performed in the pantry of our house, rather a small area on the leaf of the hutch that was in there but he managed to fill several large platters with professionally cut slices, turkey pieces, and even little scraps arranged in front of the masterpiece. He was always a cheerful, happy sort of fellow and he, too, had some special talents along with this one. He owned and operated his own garage down at the four corners and knew everyone in town! He was in charge of the wetlands for the town and thad the ability to tell potential home builders on swampy ground that it wasn’t a very good idea. They always went away happy as he knew how to negotiate so well with everyone. His wife, Aunt Irene, just known as Irene to all of us was the organizer of the clean-up. And sometimes I was one of her workers standing nearby with a towel to receive the plates as they were passed out. She always would ask for a scrubber to do a very complete job of her tasks.

Thanksgiving: Our Jobs and the Meal

The Ed Kelseys had some special jobs that they were assigned on Thanksgiving. They appeared that day with a very large yellow Pyrex bowl filled with something very special and, I understand, that all of them helped with this dish. The girls helped to peel the apples and other fruit and other items that were in it. Aunt Helen made the dressing and chopped up the dates that added wonderful new taste to the Waldorf salad they brought to the table. We all enjoyed it and as I remember there wasn’t much left of it at the end of the meal. Uncle Ed helped out later with the men’s activities and Aunt Helen helped with our evening group entertainment.

Uncle Will, Aunt Grace, and Cousin Louisa didn’t appear at the door that day empty-handed. For they very carefully took their offering to the pantry and Grandma received the freshly baked large, round, ginger cookies with much gratitude. She understood what Louisa went through to get this offering all made and baked. Since the house of the Lower place had built by the family, actually some of it by Ralph Pelton, son of Marshall Pelton. The basic floor plan was much the same as the Upper Place but the addition was larger and more functional. A large kitchen was added to the back area with two small rooms added to the back of that for extra guests. The kitchen had a wood cooking stove, a baking hutch, and much more space. The sink was in the milk room on one side of it so it had much more room to work in there. Uncle Will could build a nice hot fire in the stove while Louisa mixed up her ginger cookies. They were made from an old family recipe that was kept in a large homemade book and was one of the family treasures. The family was very cautious about just how much and how long it could be lent out for. The last time we borrowed it they wanted it back very soon like the next day. Ironically, it was on that day the house burned nearly to the ground and the book was lost to the family forever.

Well, anyway, this is where Louisa makes her big, round ginger cookies with the scalloped edges. Don has been there when she is cutting them out and she takes the rolling pin to roll them out about 1/2” thick at least and then takes her heavy cookie cutter and goes “thump, thump, thump” until she has them all cut and puts them on a pan and into a medium heated oven. She knows how to stick her arm into the oven to determine the right heat for cookies. They always seem to turn out nicely so she must have the right combination.

Mother usually worked behind the scenes on things that had to be done. She was usually in charge or at least helped with the evening “spread” that we had before our gathering in the living room. Dad and the older men like Uncle Will didn’t seem to have any jobs to do and could just sit there and enjoy watching everyone else. So that is about it on the participation at this point.

We have all helped Grandma finish up such jobs as peeling the potatoes and onions, which are especially enjoyed by many of the family, including me, and what other root vegetables that we might be having. Grandma usually bought some white Bond Bread from the baker so she wouldn’t have to use her homemade bread in the stuffing which she made early in the morning. She stuffed the turkey and then usually had extra to bake in a separate pan and it was truly delicious with gravy on it.

So the day of the feast we all did our “thing” with the ones who were left over without a job so they got to set the table using Grandma’s special dishes, the ones with the bit of red decoration on them. I never would have thought that our dear, quiet grandmother would choose red for dishes or for some of the kitchen wallpaper either for that matter. We used the special knives with the up-to-date handles, too, and other dishes that were in the floor cupboard in the dining room. We set up in the kitchen with two tables and used any leftover table leaves for places where the children could sit. I remember sitting on them, too. Grandpa and Grandma Kelsey were up at the front by the pantry and for some reason, Don and his family were at the other end with the rest of us on the long sides of the tables. When the serving dishes were piled high with food and we were all sitting there together someone would ask, “what about Grace?” and sure enough our dear Aunt Grace Kelsey would pipe up, in a very high squeaky voice, “here I am.” We laughed and the meal had begun. Every family ought to have a girl named Grace in it!

My Job

I completely forgot to include my particular job in the above summary. it was to make the gravy. I used to stand beside either my mother or grandmother as they made the gravy for each Thanksgiving dinner when I was a young girl. Well, one of those years I was maybe ten or eleven and Grandma asked me if I would like to make it. I was astounded as I had observed it many times but had never dreamed that I would take on such a responsibility as “Making the Gravy” for the most Important Meal of the Year! So I decided to do it and it came out very well and everyone was congratulating me for the delicious gravy. Well, one Thanksgiving soon after this one we had Grandma’s sisters dining with us, Aunt Gertrude and Aunt Clara. They were older than Grandma and Aunt Gertrude was a very nice, kind woman who had been through much in her life. Aunt Clara had never married and was kinda bossy and “out and out” as Mom used to say. Well, she stood by me for awhile and declared that I was “making it wrong” before I had actually started. So she took over and showed me how you just don’t start with scraping all the little brown particles into the pan and then adding hot water from the tea kettle on the back of the stove. She said, “The first thing that you do is measure the fat into a cup and then put it back in. Then you get the same amount of flour and add that to the fat. You just don’t add it to the fat and water after it heats up. Then you stir the fat and flour until it is nice and smooth and thick. And after that you add the liquid, be it water or broth and stir it in until you get the right thickness.” Aunt Clara was way ahead of her time, making the French Roux as the base. So we served that kind of gravy this time and there were some good comments. I usually made the French method but if there is already water in the water of what I want to thicken I use the other old New England way of doing things. Aunt Clara did teach me something that day, though.

So where was I? Oh, yes, we are ready to eat…all of us. Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Cliff, Mom, Dad, Little Steve, probably two years old when I was making gravy, Ralphie, Cliffie, Cally, Sally, me, Aunt Grace, and Uncle Will, Grandpa’s siblings and Cousin Louisa, his cousin and Don, Irene, Rick, and Jeff, their sons, Aunt Helen, Uncle Ed, Judy and Sue, their daughters and whoever else might have come that year. Maybe it was Aunt Julia, the widow of Uncle Ralph and a great family favorite, or Aunt Clara and Aunt Gertrude. This was usually the guest list but there might be surprises every now and then. The conversation was light, friendly, with a bit of humor. The special glass dish on a base would be passed around, containing some raw vegetables and, of all, things, some green olives! I have no idea why they were included in this Old Yankee dinner of probably 150 years of tradition but they were.

And then when we had all eaten as much as we wanted but having saved room for Grandma’s pies, the dishes were passed in and the pies were served on smaller ones according to our instructions as to what we wanted for the dessert. I think that this is the time when Grandma brought around the coffee and tea but I don’t remember what the children drank, possibly water. I usually wanted to sample a bit of each kind of pie as I liked them all. Over the years, I have found that I liked to add extra apples to the green tomato mincemeat that Grandma made her mince pie out of as it toned down that spicy flavor of the mincemeat that some like very much and I would rather have it more gentle.

Well, now I had a choice of staying inside with the women, cleaning up, chatting and seeing to the children and their antics. Or going outside with the older kids as they played in the yard. I usually chose a third afternoon activity — that of going with some of the men as they made the rounds of the mink traps. We would go all over the farm, tramping and stomping until we came upon a trap that consisted of a very large flat stone placed in a strategic area where this valuable animal would most likely visit. One of the favorites was on the top of a rise in the land over by the Peach Orchard where a huge flat side of a boulder was visible from the ground below. I liked walking and looking in this area to the West of the Road, called Great Hill Road in honor of a hill that rises beside Great Hill Lake several miles to the South of our houses. When the animal who found the bait in this trap tried to free it from under the rock a slender stone falls and the animal is caught. Now, maybe there is more to this trapping than that but it is the way it looked to me. So we would go all around there walking down the lane and over to the orchard through the back way to several huge boulders that were left there by the glacier way back in history. The highlight for me is the spring. Fresh water came through an opening there in the forest floor just waiting to be sampled by our group and there was a large tin cup hanging on a white birch tree already to help us drink here. If there was no tin cup, Uncle Ed came up with a great solution…that of just lying down on the ground over the spring and drinking. We also did the same when we walked on the other side of the Road.

That was the side that was more spacious being just full of fascinating minerals and rocks, boulders, narrow wood roads, outcroppings of many kinds and so many more natural wonders of the Kelsey Farm. In the spring it was the path to our inherent love of nature, the place where our grandfather had gained his vast knowledge of minerals, trees, flowers, shrubs, birds, forest animals and just about anything else that had to do with nature. He was well known in town because of this and was often visited by those who needed identification in the world of nature. He was fortunate to be one of the first of the males in town to go to high school! And I do believe that it was more like a small college in a way considering the classical education that he acquired there — we still have some of his textbooks. His high school was my elementary school! I was scared to death to start out in school of any sort as we didn’t have any “visit your school day” or anything like that. This beautiful Victorian building loomed large and imposing to me every time I rode by it on Main Street in the village of Gildersleeve. So that first day was the final testing ground and my reaction to school was indeed very surprising to the family. “Why didn’t you tell me school was going to be like that?” I exclaimed as I got off the bus.

The Evening Entertainment

So now as the day is coming to an end we would all return from the fields, woods, or just plain outside to the Old House ready to partake of the evening “spread” as we called it. Most times it was a light evening snack placed on the end table of the dinner at the Thanksgiving table. Mother usually planned it with some help from the other women and it consisted of a maybe a potato salad, baked beans, homemade bread of white or rye, one of our family’s specials made with Grandma’s baking skills and slices of turkey or whatever else we wanted.

After that we all would find a place in the living room or bring in dining room chairs with the men sitting in the open doorway of that room. The same arrangement was done at Christmas only there was a decorated tree in one corner of the room with packages piled under its branches and a more formal eating of the spread as Uncle Ed, Don and their families had spent the day with their family in Glastonbury. But when we were all there at Thanksgiving we would start off the evening with Aunt Helen sitting down at the piano and playing with a talent far beyond the eleven lessons that she had had as a teenager. As an aside, I would like to call your attention to that Ludwig piano over in the inside corner of the Living Room. Grandma brought it with her when she moved to this Portland farm so long ago in about 1908. It seemed to be a custom for young girls to invest in a piano as soon as they left school, sort of like we usually get a television nowadays early in a marriage. All three of the Van Slyke sisters each bought one with their earnings and there was a piano in the parlor family room of the Robinson farm house although I really don’t know who was responsible for it being there. Grandma went to work probably at the young age of 16 when she left grammar school as they lived on the wrong side of the street in Highland, CT. Aunt Gertrude lived with an aunt whose husband worked at night as I believe a fireman and she was able to attend high school in New Haven. It was a lifelong disappointment for this very intelligent, motivated woman. So for a wage of $7.00 a week she somehow managed to save the $96.00 required (we have the sales slip) to purchase this beautiful demonstrator model of a very well known and respected instrument. It had a beautiful light mahogany wood finish and the ivory keys and tone were just perfect. I used to stand beside Aunt Helen and could not believe how she had trained her fingers to fly across those 88 keys to produce such beautiful songs. It made me want to sing and sing we did, all of us. Don had learned to play the guitar. I had no idea when or where but he would sit there holding his instrument, strumming and singing, too. I remember “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” “America, the Beautiful,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” and just about anything else that we loved. And then after we had sung for awhile we would stop and arrange the chairs in a circular fashion to play Ring on the String, borrowing someone’s big gold ring. The last one holding the ring as it was passed around was the winner. Then we might play the game that was my favorite, “He Said, She Said.” It involved passing a paper around to those in the circle and each one had a pencil. Questions were asked and the paper was folded so no one knew what was on the top. The questions were “A Boy’s Name,” “A Girl’s Name, and then “Met” which was followed by What He Said to Her, which was folded over and passed. Then what She Said to Him and folded. Then “What Did the World Say” and lastly what was the ending like “living happily ever after” or something more dire in nature. Then the next person would read the findings. I loved hearing the combinations of people involved and what happened to them and I remember one of them in particular.

Then if it wasn’t too late we would sing again and finally we would all tell each other what a meaningful, wonderful good time we had had.

I supposed to those reading this today, especially those of the younger generation this must seem like the most simple, boring holiday imaginable but it holds a very special, unforgettable place in our memory and our hearts. It worked for us all those many years, and as some say, it was probably about the same format as holiday happenings for at least one hundred years before this. There came a time for me when I was no longer available to be part of this anymore and, believe me, it was very difficult to realize that. But I do have memories that I am so glad that I am able to share with all of you on this, my favorite day of the year.

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Gardener, artist, and keeper of family history

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