If there’s a central theme for my family’s annual Thanksgiving Day celebrations, it would have to be the term gathering.
As in “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings,” something that yours truly, my wife, my three children, and a host of extended family did yesterday around Uncle Larry’s always moist roast turkey and his remarkable cornbread dressing.
Earlier in the week, my side of the family gathered at my mom’s house, both to celebrate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and to sample the turkey and dressing that my sister Amy fixes every year, something that only my late grandmother could top at the holiday dinner table.
In both cases, there was an empty chair at our family gatherings. At my wife’s family feast yesterday, it was Granny St. Clair, taken by heart failure this past summer and gone for the first time since I married her granddaughter a quarter century ago.
At my family’s gathering, it was my late father Bill Burkhead, who succumbed to the ravages of dementia late last spring. Despite plenty of good eating, love, and laughter, there were also a few tears shed at the memory of a simple yet great man who God used to mold our lives.
As the 2017 version of the national holiday decreed by Abraham Lincoln slipped away last night, it marked only the second time in my life that I had not spent the Turkey Day gathering with my dad.
So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that I thought about my dad a lot yesterday, in between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV, the polishing off of my wife’s delectable pumpkin pie, and the thumping that the Cowboys received on the gridiron.
And given that I’ve penned outdoors drivel in this space for a good while now, it should also be no surprise that many of those thoughts centered around time that my dad and I spent outdoors.
To be truthful, the very fact that you’re reading the words that I spin out each week traces back directly to both my father and a long ago Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend.
Except this time, it was at my Aunt Martha and Uncle Jake’s house a long way from Texomaland, a home set in rural countryside that seemed to literally crawl with wildlife on that late November weekend so many years ago.
When my mom, my aunt, my sister, and my cousins Carrie and Debbie decided to load up and head towards the big city for a shopping spree, that left the rest of us — my dad, my uncle, my cousin Shawn, and yours truly — trying to figure out how to spend the Friday after Thanksgiving.
At some point, someone suggested “Let’s go rabbit hunting!,” which sounded plenty good to me. While I had grown up intently listening to tales of other relatives hunting ducks in the flooded timber of eastern Arkansas, going on a hunting excursion was something that I had never done.
My dad agreed and the next thing I knew, we were in countryside that my uncle could hunt, struggling to wade through dense vegetation dulled brown by the season’s early frosts and freezes.
As the leftover autumn leaves rattled in the northerly breeze that was blowing, a magical afternoon unfolded for me as mallards flushed off ponds, a whitetail doe charged out of a thicket, and the occasional rabbit burst forth from dense cover.
While my memory is fuzzy, my uncle connected on a rabbit or two, my cousin did the same, and I basically watched under the careful eye of my dad, who made sure that I kept the barrel of the .410 single action shotgun pointed in a safe direction.
Finally, a cottontail flushed near my position and I was able to swing the barrel, squeeze the trigger, and see what happened.
I’d like to tell you that it was my shot that rolled the rabbit in the autumn uplands that we were hunting in. That’s what the others told me had happened, although there was a bit of a mischievous twinkle in my dad’s eye, so who knows?
What I do know is that moments later, I had picked up my prize and held it up proudly for my dad to see. He nodded and smiled approvingly, likely understanding that something special had occurred.
In that moment, a hunter was born — an outdoorsman, really — as I fell head over heels in love with the beauty of the Creator’s autumn woods, the flash of game in those colorful environs, and the report of a shotgun as a modernized version of the ancient chase ensued.
That evening, the smell of frying cottontail rabbit wafted through the kitchen, a delectable meal that I can still see in my mind’s eye to this very day.
Hours later, I could barely sleep as my head swirled with the desire for newfound adventure in the autumn wilds. I didn’t know where my growing passion for hunting and fishing would take me, but I couldn’t wait to find out.
On the way home, a second event of seminal importance happened when my dad pulled over to gas up the family vehicle. When he went into the store to pay, I tagged along.
At the counter, I spied a brand new copy of Outdoor Life magazine on the newsstand. Mesmerized by the cover painting — a snowy scene by Terry Redlin that featured a couple of white-tailed deer overlooking a cabin as a pickup truck pulled into the driveway at dusk — I asked my dad if we could buy the issue.
Little did he know that when he said yes, my world would change again as my voracious reading habits would now exchange Hardy Boys mysteries for tales of whitetails, mallard ducks, largemouth bass, and even bighorn sheep from the likes of Jack O’Connor, Robert Ruark, and Gordon MacQuarrie.
By the time I dropped off to sleep, I’m pretty sure I had read that issue — which still sits in my file cabinet a few feet away as I write this — from cover-to-cover.
On that long ago Thanksgiving holiday, my life — thanks in great part to my dad — collided with things that would help shape my future, a passionate love for the outdoors and an equally deep affection for the stories that such adventures spin out.
If I’m truthful, I never dreamed then that all of this would come together and afford me the opportunity to write for a weekly audience here in North Texas from the early 1990s until now.
Or that in the early 2000s, the phone would ring and someone would inquire on the other end about my interest in becoming an editor and a writer for ESPNOutdoors.com.
Or that a few more years down the road, the phone would ring again and I’d find myself writing and editing for the various outdoor properties under the Outdoor Sportsman Group umbrella.
But that’s how it has all turned out, in no small part because my dad allowed his young son to get a taste of the great outdoors over Thanksgiving.
As noted above, I thought about my dad a lot yesterday. I miss him fiercely, although I’m confident that I’ll see his wry smile again someday in heaven.
But in the meantime, I sense his nodding smile of approval every time I venture afield to hunt a whitetail deer, to call at a greenhead mallard, or to fling a topwater at a spot where I think a big largemouth bass might be lurking.
Just like he smiled at me on a November day a long time ago.
I hope he was proud of me then. And I hope that his fatherly pride in me never abated, maybe even when he picked up the Friday edition of the Herald Democrat, turned to the outdoors page, and looked for a familiar byline.
I love you dad and I miss you. As I savor the last of the pumpkin pie this year, I’m especially thankful for all you did for us and how you loved us to the very end.
And I’m particularly grateful that you allowed for a special weekend to take place years ago, a late autumn day when an accidental outdoors writer was born.