Rural people often reminisce by years. The general rule for any talk about “good” or “bad” years is that good years rarely merit as much mention as great years and great years usually play second fiddle to bad years.
The reason that challenging or tough years like 2019 and 2020 leave an impression is not so much because of what was lost but because of what was won. In short, it’s about what we did to persevere, to stick, even though events or people pulled us toward failure.
That’s a key reason why Thanksgiving is such a meaningful holiday to so many; it’s a time to acknowledge, if just for one day, our good fortune despite the bad weather, hard work and endless worry that went into achieving it.
This Thanksgiving, however, will be remembered for the again out-of-control pandemic that will keep families apart and, worse, the near-certainty that the next weeks and months will bring aching sorrow to so many.
Making all this tragedy more awful is that safety, a vaccine, is just a few weeks away for some and a few months away for most and all anyone has had to do to make it safer for themselves and others now is just stay home or, in public, wear a facemask.
Sadly, our state and national leaders chose to exploit our political divisions rather than bridge them and divided we began to fall. We fell by the hundreds last spring, then by thousands last summer.
Now, with colder weather pushing more Americans indoors, the coronavirus toll is soaring to record heights daily, especially in ill-equipped rural America just as predicted.
So, yes, it will be a heavier, harder Thanksgiving this year, not one that anyone would have chosen but one that none of us have any real choice about anymore if we want next month’s holidays to be more joyful.
How tough can it be to be alone on Thanksgiving? I know; I did it twice, both times by choice, both times because of cows, and both times because I thought I didn’t need family around to make the holiday special.
The first time I was, maybe, 15 years old and I volunteered to stay home from a big Thanksgiving gathering with my father’s family 40 miles away. The bonus for me was that I could watch football all afternoon (while eating coconut pudding) until the evening milking.
And that’s exactly what I did and it was wonderful until I came back from the dairy barn that night to an empty, dark house. I never felt so alone before or since.
The second time I missed Thanksgiving was when I was a junior in college. To earn money and lessen my homesickness, I milked cows several times a week at the dairy research farm the Big U maintained a mile or two from my seedy, one room apartment.
When Thanksgiving was still a week away, I volunteered to stay in town to milk on the holiday and the following morning so the full-time crew could spend the festive day with their families. It was a good plan — almost empty campus bars, dinner with friends — until it began to snow the Wednesday before.
And it snowed and snowed.
After completing the 4 a.m. milking that Thanksgiving morning, I spent almost every daylight hour pushing and piling snow off cow lots with a no-cab skid steer until the evening milking. Afterward, I walked home wondering how my good plan got buried under both snow and, now, ice cold loneliness.
I will be home this Thanksgiving and, lucky for me, I won’t be alone and I won’t be milking cows. This Thanksgiving, however, will be the first since that snowy year in college that my entire family won’t be together.
But all — the lovely Catherine, the children, the grandchildren — are safe and healthy and I am filled with humility and gratitude.
Alan Guebert is an award-winning agricultural journalist and expert who was raised on an 720-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. He can be reached at email@example.com.