Mama’s persimmon tree is loaded. About a month ago, I noticed more persimmons than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I should know because I have spent a lot of time around that gnarled, misshapen tree. Many cold, autumn nights when the moon was full and the sky twinkled with millions of bright stars, Mama would lead the way with her flashlight out the back door, down the two steps, across the backyard, over the barbed wire fence into the pasture. Once over the fence, Patsy and I scurried quietly ahead to reach the persimmon tree first. We wanted to be positioned beneath the tree, heads up, eyes wide the moment Mama’s light flashed upward into the tree. Standing stock-still, eerily silent, with six eyes peeled for a pair of eyes reflecting back yellow or red from a limb way up high, Mama and her two small granddaughters were possum hunting.
To this day, when I see a persimmon tree, I am back under Mama’s tree standing stock-still gazing for those eyes and singing along with Mama and Patsy, “Possum up a persimmon tree. Racoon on the ground. Racoon said, ‘You possum, knock them persimmons down!’” In Daddy’s version, Racoon called Possum “you son of a gun”; however, Mama knew that phrase was inappropriate for her proper young ladies.
I love Mama’s persimmon tree. When Mama divided her small place between her son, Milton, my uncle, and daughter, Melba, my mother, the tree became Milton’s. Over the past 40 years, the persimmon tree was surrounded by natural succession occurring when cleared land is returned to nature. Upon retiring, I bought a riding mower, which also served as a mini-brush hog, and resolved to clean up Mother’s share of the place, which had become mine. In time, I returned to the persimmon tree. Still caring deeply, I determined to reclaim it from gigantic tree-sized privet, green briars and poison ivy entwined from bottom to top, thorny locusts and scrub elms. After wind blew a limb from the persimmon onto the boundary fence, I mentioned to Uncle Milton that I would like to clear around the tree. Immediately, I detected a sparkle in his eyes as he talked of how he, too, loved that old tree, and for several minutes we shared memories of times around it. Having received Uncle Milton’s blessings, I eagerly hired one man with a chainsaw. Now, I can once again stand beneath the persimmon tree, gaze upward and sing that silly song Mama, Patsy, and I sang long ago.
A tree full of persimmons reminds me of Thanksgiving. Living close to nature, Thanksgiving was the time of harvest. Just as animals stored food for winter, my family gleaned every edible morsel before Jack Frost’s killer visit. Fall potatoes were dug and stored in the pump house; peanuts were dug and shocked (hoping mice would not find them); turnips could remain in the earth with proper mulching, and mustard, turnip, and collard greens could survive mild freeze. Mama had stripped the garden of vegetables for her coveted canned soup concentrate, which she lovingly shared with family members. Garlic had been pulled, dried, bunched and hung in late spring. Black walnuts and hickory nuts were gathered and dried for winter-evening cracking and shelling parties. Mama’s black walnut chocolate cake was to die for!
Thanksgiving preparations required winter walks through the woods with Uncle A.B. and Aunt Mildred to gather dried plants for decorative arrangements. Colorful maple, sweetgum and sumac branches presented brilliantly with beautyberry, milkweed pods and wheat grass. I don’t remember that we actually grew pumpkins, but of course someone nearby did because we always had pumpkins for Mama’s pies. Although she never ate the pies herself, she took great pride in baking them for others, adding coconut and nuts to create her own special delicacy. As long as Mama was able to bake, I did not realize Mother knew how to bake a pumpkin pie. Amazingly, I have even baked some pretty good pumpkin pies myself from canned store-bought pumpkin. Please don’t hold that against me. OK? After all, I did receive the Crisco award in senior home economics.
Looking back, it seems that we had songs for every occasion, including Thanksgiving. “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow” was always our favorite. Don’t ask why we sang that at Thanksgiving. We just did, and we just do. We also sang, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings; he chastens and hastens his will to make known.” James Whitcomb Riley’s rhythmic verse “When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock, And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin turkey-cock” was recited in preparation for Thanksgiving. Of course, every Thanksgiving celebration included re-enactment of Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving feast, including Squanto demonstrating how to plant corn using a fish as fertilizer. Mama loved to retell the story of the love triangle between Miles Standish, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, in which Priscilla said, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
I’m glad Mama’s gnarled, misshapen persimmon tree is alive and well. This year’s abundant crop reminds me of the many blessings life bestows — blessings like precious memories of possum hunting on a starry night, songs popping into my head for every occasion, nature’s enduring presence connecting generation to generation, family recipes to share with young cooks and a heritage of people helping people learning to adjust and accept. Thanksgiving reminds us of the power of an attitude of gratitude. Let’s review our blessings and give thanks.
Louise Owens Finney is a retired secondary teacher and part-time minister in Fort Smith. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.