The first five years of my life were spent on a farm in east central Oklahoma. We didn’t have electricity, gas or running water. There was a cistern near the house where my parents drew water. As a child, I was afraid of that cistern and kept away from it. But my fear of the cistern has nothing to do with this story.
One day in November when I was about four years old, I heard my father tell my Mother that she would have to cook the Thanksgiving turkey because my grandfather was sick and my grandmother wouldn’t have time to cook the Thanksgiving meal and take care for him.
Apparently my mother was astounded. Cook a turkey on a Franklin stove? A wood-burning stove that was loaded from the top? She had never cooked a turkey before in her life.
“But it will take more than a day to cook a turkey on that stove,” I overheard her say.
“Yes, I know. I’ll get it in plenty of time,” said my father.
My mother must have been twenty-eight years old at that time. The drafty farmhouse was quite different from the city home she had grown up in. Before her marriage five years earlier in 1939, her family always had electricity, gas, running water and indoor plumbing. But here she was in rural Oklahoma in a house without any of those amenities. But as I look back, I realize she must have adapted quite well. She had learned to cook not only on the Franklin stove but on a kerosene stove as well. We had a coal-burning stove in the living room. Kerosene lamps provided light. Water was drawn from the cistern. But what my mother missed the most was indoor plumbing. The outhouse, set a short distance from the house, was a nuisance to say the least, especially in cold weather.
Several days before Thanksgiving, my father brought home the turkey and killed it. He hung it upside down in the shed so that the blood would drain out.
Before going out to the shed, Mother told my three-year-old brother Mike and me to wait for her in the house. She thought that seeing a headless turkey dripping blood might scare us.
Although I didn’t witness what happened next, I have heard the story told many times. She opened the shed door and stood in front of the turkey. It looked enormous and she wondered how she could possibly cook the thing. Suddenly, she turned and saw little blonde-haired Mike staring upwards at the turkey, his mouth open in wonder and awe.
“Mike, I told you not to come out here,” she scolded gently. She led him back to the house and told him to play with me. She could only wonder what little Mike thought when he saw that turkey. This was apparently one of my brother Mike’s first memories of the farm and I’ve heard him tell the story many times. Staring at that turkey left an indelible impression on him.
Mother gave herself three days to cook that turkey. After the turkey had been plucked and cleaned she placed it in the roasting pan. She went to the cistern and drew up some water, which she poured into the pan. She loaded the wood into the Franklin stove and lit it. Lighting a fire was her least favorite chore. It absolutely terrified her. In order to start it she poured kerosene on the wood, stood back, lit a match and threw it on the kerosene. It was a miracle that the house never caught on fire! When the fire was hot enough, she set the pan on top of the stove. And so it went for three days, lifting that pan off the stove, adding more wood to it and adding more water to the pan.
Most of my father’s family were coming and luckily my grandmother and aunts were bringing the side dishes. Because my grandmother, a sweet, mild mannered lady, had her hands full caring for my grandfather, she was only going to bake a cake that year. No one could bake a layered cake as well as my grandmother. My aunts would bring the vegetable dishes. Two of my uncles were away in the war. My father, then thirty-eight-years old, had been too old to be drafted when World War II started.
Mother’s next problem was finding enough seating for all the guests. Our family didn’t have very much furniture. My mother’s pride and joy was the baby grand piano that she had brought with her when she married. She decided that she and I could sit on the piano bench to eat and Mike could sit on a wooden orange crate. I don’t remember but I guess everyone else sat on chairs.
Thanksgiving turned out to be a cold, gray day but all of the anticipated guests arrived including our two older cousins who lived up the road on a nearby farm. The table was set and ready for the turkey that had cooked for three days. Mother was a little apprehensive. What if it had not cooked enough? There was nothing worse on Thanksgiving than an undercooked turkey.
Everyone gathered around the table and someone said a blessing. Then my father carefully removed the turkey from the pan and placed it on the serving platter. There was no need for him to carve that turkey. It was so tender and juicy that the meat literally fell off the bones.
Mother sighed with relief as she received accolades for a turkey cooked to perfection on a wood-burning stove.