the king of the bottomlands

Thanksgiving, like any other beloved memorial with which the years are reckoned, has its own certain types, its venerable standard of ‘brightest and best’ against which each year’s observance is weighed. They may all—or most—be cherished in our hearts, a mellow, collected memory of loved rituals and the loved ones that give them meaning. But for each of us, there is a Thanksgiving or two amid our personal gathering of days that shines out like a beacon, a flashing lamp of gold scattering any hint of dark discontent or faltering hopes and illumining each successive holiday with the inspired light of God’s faithfulness. A Thanksgiving that epitomizes the meaning of the day—a thanks that is as much a forward-reaching as a tallying of the past and grants a brief, albeit unforgettable taste of the gratefulness that should overwhelm us all every moment of our lives.

Such a Thanksgiving was mine the year I was twenty-four.

It wasn’t the first time Philip had taken me to the farm—we had been on a jaunt one Saturday earlier that autumn, scarcely two months into our relationship, on the distinct errand of meeting his grandparents, towards whom he held the most reverential love. I had been honored that day with every possible mark of kindness and affection: a steaming country breakfast during which I sat in the old kitchen trying to take it all in with wide-eyed amazement, nodding helplessly as Philip’s grandmother offered more eggs and blackened bacon and crisp toast with a homemade grape jelly that still haunts my dreams. An afternoon spent wandering over the farm itself (of which Philip’s grandfather knew every square inch) and a sudden opportunity to distinguish myself with a rifle and a tin can. Homemade ice cream for supper simply because I happened to let fall the comment that I loved it. It was one of the happiest days I have known, and deserves a story all its own. I was loved without pretense that day and without scruple—lavishly, as practically as only real salt-of-the-earth people can love, nourished body and soul and enfolded with acceptance simply because I was their Philip’s girlfriend.

But Thanksgiving was a little overwhelming, excited as I was to be going back to the farm and thrilled to hold that place at Philip’s side. The front porch was filled with cousins as we drove into the yard: the little house seemed to be bursting at the seams. Inside the clamor was gorgeously unruly. At this distance it all appears a blur of laugher and bellowed greetings and hand-shakings and back-slappings. What felt like a thousand introductions amid a dizzying array of kinfolk and a constant noise of doors slamming and the happy clanging of pots and pans like a ripening overture issuing from the kitchen. And over all, the pervasive aroma of fried okra, ‘accidentally’ burnt just like Philip liked it.

I hardly fathomed how we all fit into that minuscule kitchen, with its whitewashed walls and open shelves bearing the household wealth of tea pots and home-canned goods. But we managed to form ourselves into a semblance of a line and made our way, plates in hand, down the festal countertop bearing a year’s bounty of garden and orchard (among which my little jar of cranberry conserve made a shy showing). And we all managed, likewise, to find a place to perch with our food: Philip and I sat on the porch swing in the benevolence of one of our mild November days and chatted with cousins on whose names I kept inwardly drilling myself.

Philip’s grandfather had taken us out over the farm on foot, at a firm clip we could scarce keep pace with, pointing out all the newest marks of his industry with the serenity of an artist that knows his handiwork is good. A watering hole for the cows, freshly dug; a row of hedge knocked down; a section of pasture newly cleared. Philip and I walked beside him hand in hand as he strode over the grassy hilltops, tranquil king of his domain, talking all the while of this land he loved so fervently and which had been loved before him by those long gone.

After lunch we set out in the Explorers, Philip’s brothers and his father and grandfather, bouncing over the rutted lanes to the very loveliest part of the farm: the bottomlands. There was a fallen tree about the eastern fringe that must needs be split into firewood: a thinly-veiled ruse for male companionship in manly labor which I now know characterizes this clan of industrious souls. It was just that time in the afternoon when the waning autumn light was throwing out its last glittering standards of the day, spears and arrows of radiance amid the long, spare shadows of nearly-leafless trees. The remaining bits of brightness among the branches, tatters and shreds of a late finery, glowed as if the light had consumed them and granted in the act the real identity of their color.

the bottomlands in autumn sunlight

As the men fell to work, splitting and hauling with many a cheerful observation on the task, I sat by on a log, needlework in hand, chatting with the lovely young woman I was trying not to let myself think would be my sister-in-law. The sun went down before our eyes in a glory of rose and gold and a train of apricot cloud that reached far over our heads and away to the east. It was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, and I never set foot on the bottoms without the memory of it. But the loveliest part of it—the beauty behind the beauty—was the setting and the significance. These people all gathered for love: three generations working together for love and their ladies sitting by for love and the look in Philip’s eyes as he glanced up at me from time to time. Such burdens of joy can scarce be borne by our frail human frame and such moments are as eternal as eternity itself. What timelessness towards which their fleeting instants point and their golden standards raise!

When the trees were dark against the horizon and the dusk took on a chill, we all loaded into the trucks and headed back. How lovely to come upon that little clapboard house by the road, all cheerfulness of chrysanthemums and tidy shrubs without, all the gladness of warmth and light and good food within. It was no surprise to find dinner on the table, crowned with the legendary holiday delight of Philip’s grandmother’s teacakes. Men may laud the immortal savor of a good mess of greens and women may perfect to a high art the delicate layerings of a true angel biscuit. But give me Philip’s grandmother’s teacakes any day for real Southern comfort food. As I sat there at the table among these people I never dreamed I’d even know a year previous, it suddenly dawned on me with a quiet, confident joy that these would be my family. That this would be my life—a life for which I had been prepared for all my life at the side of this man for whom I had prayed for as long as I could remember. The thought took my breath and I blinked at the happy tears in my eyes.

“Father,” was my silent thanksgiving, “I couldn’t have asked for this.”

I wouldn’t have dared had I dreamed enough to ask it.

Quick as a flash a sweet response met my rejoicing, a bit of Browning that had lain in hopeful repose for so many years:

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”

It was the last big family Thanksgiving on the farm, and thanks be to God, not a one of us suspected it. By the next year Granddaddy was gone: Philip’s aunt had sung Poor Wayfarin’ Stanger for him one last time at a standing-room-only funeral and Philip’s grandmother had moved back permanently to the little house in town, the twinkle in her eye making a brave show for the sake of those she loved but the light behind it gone out this side of heaven. By the next June she had followed her husband of sixty years on his long journey—gladly, as I can only believe.

A few Thanksgivings ago we drove over the farm to the little white house, affectionately known as ‘Old Granny’s’ after Philip’s grandfather’s mother. While the marks of renovation indicating a cousin’s imminent occupation made me glad that it would no longer stand empty, the absence of those bright spirits that had illumined it once and made it a place of happy pilgrimage for a close-knit family brought an overwhelming sadness—curiously, though not unequally, yoked with joy. I looked at the desolate flower beds with their few straggling survivors and saw a bright array of mums that will be there forever. We stepped up on the porch and my mind echoed with the laughter of a day that will never grow old. We walked around to the little well house at the back with its sagging roof and the yard was suddenly populated with well-fed cats and their kittens, one orange tabby of their number which made my heart leap in my throat.

“Nothing can be as it has been,” it has been well said. But the fact that it has been—ah, such treasures are safe forever, uncorrupted by moth or rust.

Philip made the comment the other day that our typical expressions of thanksgiving tend to be immediate—Thank You, God, for this new job, this return of health, this gorgeous day—while the gratefulness illustrated in the Bible points to an even more comprehensive outlook. Not that the former is without merit—certainly not—but it’s really only the beginning stages, primary grades in the school of thanks. Throughout the Psalms we find God’s people praising Him for things that happened before they were born, in addition to deliverance promised in the future. Over and over again God’s past mercies are recounted, His long-ago victories lauded. The songs and stories were written down, not just for the immediate satisfaction of the writer but for ‘children yet to be born’—for us.

Looking back over this little flash in the pan I call my own history, I am overwhelmed with the legacy I see stretching in all directions. It’s worth wondering if the present blessings we all enjoy are largely owning to the faithfulness and the prayers of great-great grandmothers and grandfathers. I am certain of it. And though I should be celebrating it every day that I am alive, this Thanksgiving I am especially keen to the heritage of godliness that has gone into the framing of my own story and the birthright which I have been entrusted.

Both from my blessed ancestry and the one I was privileged to marry into.

LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance. ~Psalm 16

Thank You, Lord. I don’t know what else to say.

the creek