It always seemed cold out on the Louisiana marsh as a boy. On Thanksgiving eve my father and I would head out to the hunting camp, a ramshackle building under centuries-old live oaks. At dinner we’d sit down at a long communal table and enjoy hearty bowls of duck gumbo. The dozen or more men would talk, and we the sons would keep quiet, seen but not heard. The morning smell of bacon and eggs served as an early alarm. And by 4:30 we were climbing into mud-boats and heading off across the marsh. At regular intervals a father and son would disembark into a wooden pirogue and push off into the darkness, usually arriving at a duck blind an hour before sunrise. Our hunt would begin with my father calling the ducks, enticing them to circle and land.
At the end of the hunt in late morning, we’d head home, pulling into the drive around noon. Thanksgiving preparations inside were well underway, pies lined up on the counter. I’d cast an anxious gaze to determine that a favored sweet potato pie was among them, then off for a shower and a change to clean clothes. The table was set and dinner typically eaten in mid-afternoon; afterward, the calls would begin from distant relatives.
Today, as a grown man, my rituals have changed. I’m now the relative calling across the distance of a time zone and seven hundred miles. Instead of a duck hunt early Thanksgiving, my morning is filled with chores: feeding pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens, stacking wood for the woodstove. Busy, but still time will be made later for a woodland walk on our farm. We eat late, so no need to rush dinner preparations. Some years we are graced by the company of friends, and other years we dine alone. This year, Cindy travels and I will dine by myself or with a couple of friends.
I’ll prepare a roast duck in memory of those boyhood hunts with my father. And I’ll regret the absence from the table of a sweet potato pie. But since it is Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful for reasonable health, a loving partner, a satisfying life, a full library; that my father is still with us, as is a large abundance of siblings and other kin. I’ll also be thankful for what is absent in my life, namely, the darkness of war and the dislocation from hearth and home of the refugee.
As I step out on the porch before sunrise Thanksgiving morning, the air will smell of smoke from a dozen farmhouses in our valley. It will be cold on our farm here in the hills of East Tennessee. The cattle will begin to bawl. But over their din, if I listen well, I will hear the sound of my father calling the wild ducks out on the marsh.