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Holidays can be happy in tough times: Ask Kitty

At age 86, columnist Kitty Schindler is old enough to remember Thanksgiving during the Great Depression — but far from depressing, her memories are happy ones of family members pitching in to make the holiday bright, even though they didn't have much.
/ Source: TODAY

When I was a girl, a Thanksgiving turkey wasn’t a frostbitten lump you brought home from the supermarket; it was a great big noisy bird you saw every day, very much alive (well, until Thanksgiving, that is).

Many people at my end of town raised turkeys, and just about everybody kept chickens. People would buy chicks at Easter time, and keep them in crates by the coal stove. Northern Pennsylvania was coal-mining country then, so everyone had a cast-iron coal stove. Not only was it good for cooking, it also kept the house warm.

When my father fired up the stove, I would glimpse the blazing red coals inside and think: That is what hell must be like. At night he would let the fire dampen, but it never went out completely. So keeping chicks by the stove kept them warm until they were old enough to go into the coop.

The ax in the stump
As for turkeys, my uncle had fenced property near my house where he kept them. My brother Bill and I would go up to the fence and tease the birds; we called them “gobblers.” In one corner of the yard we could see an old tree stump that always had an ax stuck in it. We never saw the ax used — but we knew what it was for.

They say that smells leave the most indelible memories, and for me it’s true: I can still remember the smell of the feathers when my mother poured boiling water over a freshly slaughtered turkey to prepare it for plucking. Once it was ready, the bird would be kept in the icebox (we didn’t have a refrigerator) overnight; then someone would have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to begin roasting it. (Like many families of recent immigrants — all my grandparents came over from Ireland — we ate dinner at midday; the lighter evening meal we called “supper.”)

Our turkey dressing was prepared with homemade bread; my mother baked bread twice a week, and rolls on Sundays. Side dishes also included mashed potatoes and turnips, which we bought in burlap sacks and kept in the root cellar; freshly cooked cranberries, which I could hear pop when my mother added sugar and spices to them; and homemade pumpkin pie prepared with fresh eggs and milk. As the day went on, the house filled with ever more mouthwatering aromas.

Many hands, light work
After a hearty family Thanksgiving dinner, we’d thoroughly strip the turkey carcass. We’d get another weekend meal out of it, served with leftover dressing. Nothing was wasted; the bones would be boiled to make stock for soup.

Nowadays, of course, you can get cranberries and pumpkin pie filling in cans, and broth and bread crumbs already seasoned. But that doesn’t mean you can’t establish your own Thanksgiving traditions. For example, you may be able to find local stands that offer produce fresher than your supermarket’s, and at a savings, too. You can prepare side dishes like cranberries and pies from fresh ingredients instead of settling for canned goods.

Yes, it’s more work. But as my mother, who was full of pithy adages, liked to say: Many hands make light work. Enlist the children. You’ll be creating powerful memories of delicious aromas and family camaraderie that they’ll carry throughout their lives, just as I have. And it’s a lot less expensive than taking everyone to a restaurant!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Kitty Schindler, 86, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on these challenging times with readers. If you have a question or comment for Kitty, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, .