Charles Pinning: Family Thanksgiving dynamics on an Aquidneck farm

The farm of the author’s maternal grandparents.

The farm of the author’s maternal grandparents.

The farm overlooked Green End Pond in Middletown on the island of Aquidneck, which also comprised Newport and Portsmouth. It was a place of immigrants new and old, as well as money, new and old, some and none. The same could be said for the levels of education.

It was not unusual at Thanksgiving for a local spinster or educator, or even a black sheep socialite to join the family, happily putting aside their inbred aversion to “kitchen smells,” to wallow in the steaming redolence of Portuguese chourico and caldo verde, fritters, as well as the traditional turkey and blunderbuss load of stuffing and cranberry sauce. More people than you might think have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving and my paternal grandparents welcomed all.

Past willows weeping into the pond and black and white Holsteins the Pontiac shaked, rattled and rolled down the gullied lane and up between the two towering maples to the farmhouse. I’d tried to cajole my father into bringing the .22 to shoot cans and bottles off the stone wall, but my mother scotched that.

In addition to my aunts and uncles and cousins from nearby, and other off-island relatives from Bristol and Warren, there was Madame Soubirous, my French teacher at Miss Collings School as well as Arthur Harrington, a professor of earth sciences at Brown who owned a black Checker, the floor of the rear seat covered with an Oriental rug.

A whiskery Portuguese, five feet tall, who helped my grandfather at hay-bailing time and whom we only knew as “Pachute” arrived by bicycle, and there was the cat, Jelly Bean, who slept under the table on my grandfather’s foot.

“I simply never understood how Hemingway, sensitive as he obviously was, could shoot defenseless wild animals,” said Madame Soubirous.

“Probably because he liked to!” cut in my Uncle Arsenio enthusiastically, a man who’d never read a word of Hemingway, but had seen his picture many times.

I was allowed one glass of wine, made by my Uncle Manuel from his own backyard grape vines in Bristol. He brought it in gallon jugs, and my Nana said it had been blessed for me.

Uncle Freddy saw fit to announce: “I love it when Eileen gets undressed at night and flings her clothes across the room to the chair. I tell her, ‘Eileen, you should have been a stripper!’”

Everyone, except my grandparents, burst out laughing, and Eileen, his wife said, “Thank you for sharing that with everyone, Freddy.”

“Why not sweetheart? You look great!”

My grandfather, my Voo, took the occasion to excuse himself from the table and head out to the barn to check on the cows.

“There’s no need for guns,” said Professor Harrington. “Humans are doing a fine job killing off each other, and it will only get worse. Too many of us to begin with, and when the oil runs out and all the water is polluted, and the air and every piece of land is built upon….”

I slid off my chair and joined some cousins outside kicking a soccer ball around. Professor Harrington came out after awhile and lit one of the long, unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes he smoked.

“Around and about,” he said watching us, taking a deep drag and exhaling. “Around and about.” Young though I was, I understood his commentary upon our activity encompassed the ongoing efforts of all humanity.

The ball got booted down the slope of the lane and I chased it bouncing toward the placid pond just as the sun slipped below the trees on the far bank and the ball rolled into the water. A swan glided by the ball wondering who-knows-what, and I turned to see if anyone saw, looking back at the white farmhouse that is no longer there. No more barn or cows or Nana, Voo, or Jelly Bean. Just new buildings, businesses. Instead of the narrow lane by the pond, a two-lane highway.

As my mother was fond of saying about her girlhood: “ I thought we were poor growing up on the farm, but I now I know how good we had it.”

Charles Pinning is Providence-based essayist and novelist.