Thanksgiving once meant a day at my Grandma Hamner’s house on Elm Street in Hope.
For most of my childhood she cared for my two cousins — Bob and Bill. The boys had arrived at her weather-worn house as preschoolers one day in the middle of one of their parents’ nasty separations — hauling their clothes behind them in a little red wagon.
Except for a few months now and then over the years — when their parents tried unsuccessfully to reconcile — the boys lived with Grandma full time. By the time she died in 1958, both boys were in their early teens.
Hattie Stainbrook Hamner did not have an easy life.
She left school when she was 14 to care for her ailing mother. After her mother died, she became the 17-year-old wife of a handsome boy named George Hamner, whose beautiful tenor voice drew her attention in church. Unfortunately, her husband would become the hard-drinking, womanizing — sometimes-violent — man who would eventually be my grandfather.
By the time Grandpa climbed into the bottle one last time in 1949, never to come out again, Grandma had suffered through about every abuse and trauma imaginable, physically and mentally.
Along the way she gave birth to six children, one of whom died as an infant and one who was killed in a hunting accident at the age of 23. Of the four that survived into old age, two followed their father into hard lives made harder by alcohol abuse.
It has always been a mystery to me how my mother — who was one of the most loving, straight-thinking and nurturing human beings I have ever known — could have emerged whole from such a mess, but she did. She credited Grandma, who she called “a saint” for the refuge of love and safety provided in the midst of family dysfunction.
As a child I knew nothing about the sordid family history, and Grandpa died when I was too young to remember much about him. He remains just a vague, frightening image sitting on his front porch, wheezing and spitting tobacco in a jar he held in his hand.
My grandmother, however, was someone I loved and knew well. I spent many nights sleeping at her house with my cousins — burrowed down in the feather bed in her unheated, upstairs bedroom; taking my turn at pumping water from the pump that fed into her kitchen sink; picking cherries with her from the tree out by the alley.
But my best memories of her center on all those Thanksgivings when she filled her house with the aromas of sage dressing, pumpkin pie and baking bread. Best of all is the memory of her broad smile as I ran through the door and saw her wiping her hands on her faded apron and then holding out her arms to give me a hug.
That is the glory and wonder of good childhood memories, I suppose.
Sheltered by my own loving parents from Grandma’s reality, I can always see her in my head and in my heart as the happy, smiling woman of Thanksgiving.
And, as always, she will join me at my own table in a couple of weeks when family and friends once again sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. In my mind she will still be smiling and giving me that big hug, 65 years after her trouble-filled journey through life came to an end.
Magically, love seems to survive, long after families no longer choose to remember the heartache. For that, I am thankful again this Thanksgiving.
Editor’s note: Following this column, weekly columnist Bud Herron will be on hiatus.
Bud Herron is the retired former editor and publisher of the Daily Journal in Franklin. Contact him at [email protected].