This meal blessing was heard over a period of 45 years by 17 children, of whom I am the 16th. Meals weren’t the only times for thanksgiving, however. Gratitude to God was expressed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays just before bedtime during “family altar.” Why those three nights? Because Sunday night was church, Wednesday night was Prayer Meeting (at church), Friday night was a football or basketball game for those of us who had managed to scrape up 50 cents, and Saturday night was the Grand Ole Opry. As one family member put it, “We gave the Devil two nights.”
I can’t speak for my nine oldest siblings who had left home by the time I came along, but for the pack of eight who were still home while I was growing up, food was plentiful, though everything else was always in short supply. There were no extras, none whatsoever. We were tenants. We were cotton, corn and watermelons. Both of our parents liked to sweat, and sweat they did. Their pride was two-fold: fields and gardens that were absent of even a single sprig of grass or a single weed, and their children.
I didn’t think about our material need until I was in the sixth grade. School lunches cost 20 cents. This was about six or seven years before federal subsidies and LBJ’s largesse. While waiting one Monday morning for the school bus, I watched as my mother shook pennies out of a huge, pinkish, but transparent piggy bank for our lunch money. I remember feeling so sorry for her, figuring that the piggy bank, whomever it belonged to, was her source of last resort.
But the more vivid memory is the embarrassment of handing my little brown bag of a hundred pennies to my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Flora Scott. Mrs. Scott kindly made a game of counting the pennies and admiring the new ones that were bright and shiny. I’ll never forget the words she uttered as she placed my hundred pennies in the big pouch that would momentarily be picked up by the school secretary: “Roger, a hundred pennies makes a sound dollar.” I knew she was trying to alleviate my embarrassment.
Despite our Southern poverty, we were taught, “In all things give thanks.” Because of the sheer physical and spiritual stamina of my parents, and because they practiced what they preached, I felt / believed / knew, as a boy and as a teenager, that I was rich. Intellectually I was rich because we subscribed to three newspapers and three magazines, sang, discussed music, the Bible and politics and kept a good radio. Mostly though, I was rich from observing the love and respect that 17 brothers and sisters extended to each other. Then, as now, it seemed almost unreal. But it wasn’t unreal. It was practically lived out. Love and laughter didn’t just punctuate our lives; they were our context.
As a college freshman, I gave a speech about my big family. The speech teacher was Ovid Vickers, a Georgia native who, although just in his late 30s, was already a legend at the college and in the small college town. After I had finished the speech and was returning to my desk, Mr. Vickers said, “Roger, do you know all of your brothers and sisters?” I think he was serious.
Ten sisters and six brothers. All of my life the fact has been a happy haunt. Tolstoy once wrote, “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I can only say that our happy family had a center. That center was the Christian faith of our parents which they unreservedly shared with their children.
Three of my brothers and one sister have passed away. The other 13 are scattered from California to Florida and from Mississippi to Indiana. The oldest living one, Pete, is a World War II veteran and turned 91 this year. All of us are thankful for telephones, email, Facebook and our yearly autumn reunion.
And I’m thankful for R.C., Paul, Pete, Ida, Jewel, Authula, Margurite, Minnie, Bub, Durwood, Almedia, Ruby, Janelle, Carolyn, Tressie and Carlton, as well as Walter Earl (1894-1979) and Levie Jane Robbins Hines (1900-1965).
Here’s hoping you can count your own siblings as blessings. Happy Thanksgiving!
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.