I originally wrote this some 20 years ago in response to a prompt to recall my most memorable Thanksgiving. I feel it’s especially timely this year, to remember this other time in recent history when “the eyes of the world were upon us,” and we, as a nation united, rose to the challenge.
Caveat – I was too young to remember this Thanksgiving experience, but I do claim it as mine, since over decades of retelling, it has become part of my family’s collective memory. It happened over seven decades ago to people who had never heard of Thanksgiving Day, but on that particular year had much to give thanks for.
It was November 1944, in a small village nestled in the hills of Eastern France, the ancestral home of my mother’s family. It had been liberated only a few weeks before from the nightmare of Nazi occupation.
Since the beginning of June, the villagers had been following nightly on clandestine radios the progression of Allied troops across France. First Normandy in early June, then Paris in August, then Rheims, then finally after weeks of hope, American tanks and trucks had arrived in early fall. Within days, the wooded hills were filled with tents and barracks, and all the activity of an army preparing its next onslaught toward the German border. My mother had returned to her parents’ house with my brother and my year-old self a few months before, when the frequent allied bombings and increasing shortage of food made for ever more precarious living in the Paris area.
In late November, American officers came down from the hills to the village with their translator, with a request and an invitation. Would everyone please join the troops in the hills for a special feast two days hence? Housewives were also asked to volunteer their ovens the previous day to cook dishes that GIs would bring to them. All had enthusiastically agreed.
Starting on Wednesday afternoon, people of all ages who hadn’t had a square meal in five years salivated in anticipation as the streets filled with the aroma of roasting turkeys and baking pies drifting from house to house. “That turkey was the most beautiful thing we had seen in years!” Mother said of the bird that had come to roost in their oven. “We all took turns basting it.” By mid-morning on Thursday, GIs came in a truck to collect all the food and remind everyone that they were expected at noon at the camp.
What a sight it must have been, this entire village dressed in their shabby end-of-war best, walking up the rocky country lane. The children ran ahead, anxious to get to the source of the tantalizing aromas, while the adults, the mayor at their head, ignored the pleas of their growling stomachs and kept a more dignified pace.
At the camp, they were greeted by senior officers and ushered into the dining tent. The Chaplain came “and talked a little too long,” Mother reminisced, “especially since we couldn’t understand a word he said. All I could think of was how all that food on the side tables was going to get cold if he didn’t hurry up!”
“He finally finished with his blessing and we all lined up in front of the food tables. Smiling soldiers and Red Cross ladies piled up food onto our plates as we went by… huge piles of different kinds of food, all mixed up together, meat and vegetable and sauce. (n.b. the French typically eat in distinct courses and do not mix them on their plate). “Then, at the end of the line, someone put a big spoonful of red currant jelly on top of it all!” (n.b. what my mother saw as red current jelly was cranberry sauce, a condiment unknown in France).
“My plate was so full I couldn’t see the edges. Suddenly, with so much food in front of me, I lost my appetite…. I could hardly eat a thing!”
Mother, who later frequently visited me in the U.S. and became familiar with our ways, never failed to add: “Too bad I didn’t know about take-home bags then. The whole family could have made another dinner with what was on that plate!”