Bristol, TN

The Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past Help Us Remember Fond Times

John M. Dabbs
Emptiness amid the beautyJoanna Kosinska/Unsplash

As we gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, many of us are filled with sadness as it hits home - many of our friends and family members are no longer with us. This year alone, I have lost two close friends due to COVID-19, another good friend lost his fight with cancer, my brother-in-law died from rapid onset dementia, and this week I lost an aunt after a massive stroke. Emptiness and sadness fills our hearts - and we've not even made it to the dinner table yet - where there places will be otherwise occupied.

Embracing the ghosts of Thanksgivings past

We must often remind ourselves to remember the good memories instead of dwelling on our sadness from the new emptiness of our lives. Most of my departed friends were loving, loved, and had full lives. As I get older, I find myself thinking more about my absent grandparents. The twinkle in my grandfather's eye as he'd pick at my grandmother -and it was the same for both my maternal and paternal grandparents.


We all crave a bit of remembrance at the holidays. I personally crave my paternal grandmother's dressing. There was something about her dressing that made it memorable and special. I could eat it by itself - but it was even better with cranberry sauce (with berries) and brown gravy. I also used to crave her banana pudding - until she started using instant pudding. Such is life.

My maternal grandmother made the best mashed potatoes. I'm not sure what she did to make them different. She used butter and milk, but there was something extra that made them memorable and definitely hers. My maternal grandmother grew up near Haysi, Virginia. She had many tales she'd pass on while we watched her cook. She regaled us with some of her misadventures and mischief when she was a little girl.

My paternal grandmother is from Bristol, Tennessee. She didn't have as many tales to impart about her mischievousness as she did about my father. Apparently, my father was in to quite a few things during his youth. He once told me he learned to cook by sitting in the kitchen and helping his mother while all of his sisters were in the other room - disinterested. He said that is why he always got to lick the spoon or bowl when she was making chocolate cake.


My grandfathers were polar opposites, though they were both loving and caring men. My maternal grandfather was in poor health when I knew him. He died from Black Lung and Emphysema at the V.A. Medical Center when I was in elementary school. I didn't get to know him as well as my paternal grandfather, yet I was able to spend some quality time with him.

One of my favorite memories with him was when he was at home, eating some cornbread and milk for breakfast. This was something new to me, as I'd never seen the two combined in such a fashion. I was not yet in school at the time, and asked him what he was eating. He told me... and I asked him how it was. I remember him grinning widely and telling my grandmother - "Ginny, get this boy some cornbread and milk." My granny brought me a small bowl of her cornbread with some milk over it, and I took a bite. I remember that wonderful feeling of enjoyment every time I have it to this day. It's still an emotional memory for me after all those years. I still enjoy some from time to time.

My paternal grandfather was a very hard working man. Not that my other grandfather was lazy, he just wasn't sick and was still working a full-time job when I was young. I remember my grandfather working at the weaving mill in Bristol when I was young, and then working for Bristol Tennessee City Schools later on, where he retired. Grandpaw Dabbs worked and ran a small family farm, with the help of my dad and the rest of the family. I remember him coming in from work, changing into his diary boots, and then giving the slop to the hogs, feeding and giving water to the chickens, gathering the eggs, and then giving some grain the cattle. He also milked some of the heifer cattle at times.

As we grew older we helped in the farm too. Our parents and us grandkids would help gather hay in the hayfield and haul it to the barn. We would also help in the tobacco patch, planting, weeding, topping, and cutting and spearing it before hanging it in the barn to cure. I don't remember much about raising tobacco that I liked. It was hard work. We spent many cold evenings working it up when it was "in case", sorting it and packing it to haul to the Burley Tobacco Warehouse for auction.

Cousins, aunts, and uncles

Though we spent much of the time during the holidays in the company of our cousins, both playing games "out of the way of the adults", and eating in the living room using TV trays or sitting on the hearth at the fireplace, we interacted with everyone. Holiday dinners were like Sunday dinner on steroids. We had much more options of what to eat, more cakes and pies to choose from, and longer to eat.

As I got older, and was no longer in the younger crowd, I interacted more with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents. We talked and had more in-depth conversations. I was able to know them better and genuinely enjoyed the holidays for the coming together of family and visiting with one another, rather than for the food and superficial holiday fun.

Sadly, we've lost some cousins, aunts, and uncles since losing my grandparents. I still cherish the memories and wild stories they told about their youth - or about my parents and their mishaps.

Family and friends

The joy and magic of the holidays comes from the social interaction with our friends and family. I believe it's important to spend time with both, as we often take them for granted - even unknowingly at times.

When we lose someone close to us, it is difficult. What we have to keep reminding ourselves is time does not stand still. Time wasted is not anything we will get back. We must chose to make the most of the time we have and spend it wisely, with our friends and family. Don't squander these precious moments dwelling on the past, poor decisions, or things said which may have caused harsh feelings.

One thing this pandemic should have taught all of us by now, is that life is short. We need to put the small stuff behind us and embrace what brings us together, and what we have in common. Forget the pettiness and our differences - whether they be about politics, policy, or personal choices... we have to remember why we love each other and care for one another - not what divides us.

Less fortunate

There are many less fortunate people than us. They are all around us, if we look. It could be a neighbor who hasn't got any family or close friends, or a family member who has lost their significant other. We need to make the effort to look in on our friends, family, and neighbors. Not everyone is in a good spot financially, emotionally, or socially. We can all use a friendly face and some genuine kind words now and then.

I hope you'll make the effort. I know I plan on it too.


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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN

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