Afterward we stuck to tradition and traveled to Nesbitt’s Farm to get a Christmas tree, picking through most every sample before finally deciding on one that was way too big for our little house. After decorating the tree on Sunday morning and seeing Hannah off to Appalachian State, Lori and I decided on a walk around Lake Junaluska.
It was nearly sunset, and the ducks and other waterfowl were seemingly in the same holiday tizzy as the shoppers had been on Black Friday. We made the rosewalk just as the lake turned a bright gold, the reflection prompting both Lori and me to reach up and drop our sunglasses back over our eyes. The wakes made by the ducks were exaggerated in the waning light, and the shimmering water danced with the v-shaped ripples. It was, very simply, a beautiful sight. One of those moments.
And it took me back. Probably because it was Thanksgiving, a time when as a child I ventured into a place and time now long gone, a place that was mostly gone even then save for a few pockets. Now I’m thankful that the remnant of the old South I got to experience had somehow been preserved, even in the 1970s. It was almost a half century ago, but the memory is as sharp as a winter wind.
On that long ago day, we woke before daylight, my cousin, my uncle, me and my two older brothers. Cousin Charlie did the waking, and we shuffled to the kitchen and gathered round the small table, lacing up boots and talking in whispers. My aunt was there dishing up biscuits, sausage and eggs, with all but the flour coming from the animals and garden out back. There was the aroma of strong coffee percolating on an ancient electric oventop. Cigarette smoke blanketed everything.
As always, I couldn’t help staring at my aunt’s missing fingers as she served us, something she often smiled and called me out on. She was a sewer at the local mill, and some years ago had lost from the knuckle up the middle two fingers on her right hand. Family lore was that she had stayed home just one day before clocking back in at her machine, bandages slowing production but not stopping her from making her numbers.
The birds began their morning song as we ate. We seldom went duck hunting when we visited our southeastern North Carolina relatives, but that was the plan on this day. I was deemed too young to carry a gun, but nonetheless the excitement was overwhelming.
We drove down dirt roads for what seemed hours, but the sun was just turning the cloud-streaked sky orange as we trundled out of the truck and grouped up around the open tailgate. I was freezing but wasn’t going to say a word to anyone. After loading rifles and getting a lesson in how to keep spaced out and shooting only at angle that wouldn’t endanger anyone on the ground, we began walking slowly along the edge of the marsh. There was a mist rising from the black water, and farther out ancient cypress trees jutted into the morning sky.
I remember my uncle and my brother taking the first shots, breaking an overwhelming silence, and then Charlie trying to track down the birds. Despite the cold, he went in water up to his thighs to retrieve them. The frigid marsh elicited an exaggerated whoop from my cousin as he thrashed about in the water, and more birds took to flight. I was laughing out loud as he turned in the water, raised his rifle quickly and gracefully, and expertly took out another bird, this one falling over land.
I don’t remember eating those ducks, but that hunt is a treasured holiday memory. There are many other rabbit and bird hunting excursions that occurred during a small handful of holiday trips to my aunt and uncle’s house near the Pee Dee River. Those trips to a place of extended family, rivers, marshes, textile mills, of men driving vegetable-laden mule wagons to Saturday markets and much-anticipated holiday hunts are juxtaposed against a traditional suburban upbringing, making them stand out, touchstones from the past. That beauty and power of that memory seems a living thing. A moment.