One of my fondest childhood memories is the elated look on my dad’s face when he returned from the woods after his latest hunt. He knew his land in northeastern Pennsylvania well, having grown up there, and he loved every inch of it.
As the weather turned cold, and the small-game season started, Dad would walk through the kitchen, open the cellar door, grab his hunting coat, and head out the door to hunt the land. My dad was not a regular churchgoer because of his demanding farming schedule. Still, he praised the Lord every day for the beauty of the land and the bounty it provided.
Dad’s hunting coat had a permanent place on the second hook on the cellar staircase wall—the first hook was reserved for his everyday coat. His hunting coat was never laundered, and its worn canvas was draped with scraps of orange fabric that my mom had pinned on it.
When he strolled into the kitchen after the hunt, his coat was twice as big from being stuffed with the game. We would all run toward him in anticipation. It was indeed like a magic show—he would slowly pull out a pheasant, and smile. We all knew there was more. So we sat there, our eyes wide, and watched him pull out squirrels, grouse, and colorful cockbirds. His smile turned into a grin, and just when you thought there could not possibly be anything more, he would reach behind him to his outside back pouch and pull out quail, and a rabbit! His grin went from ear to ear, and he couldn’t help but let out a hearty laugh.
Dad was an excellent hunter and made wingshooting look like child’s play. He knew exactly where to find rabbits—in the brier patch, of course. And the noisy squirrels had no chance when he was hunting.
Then, our wonderful and dutiful mom would put old newspapers on the countertop and, one by one, pull the fur off the rabbits and squirrels and pluck the feathers from the birds. By dinnertime, a beautiful roast of game meat came out of the oven with potatoes and carrots, prepared simply with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper. The kitchen smelled heavenly, and we eagerly nibbled the meat off the bones, savoring every bite. We were all very thankful for these gourmet game meals, and for the many others, we would share as a family. Mom and dad worked together to provide for their seven children, just as their parents had done for them.
Over the years, my older sister and I became very proficient at cleaning game. From watching our mom, we knew exactly how to dip the birds quickly in hot water so we could pull the feathers without tearing the skin. We handled skinning knives without cutting ourselves, and we were schooled in preparing the rabbits, squirrels, and birds in brine.
I’ve always had an adventurous personality, so after college, I headed out to see what life was like in the South. I left the rural landscape and the self-reliant lifestyle I grew up with on the farm. I realized that I loved the way of life in South Carolina, with its beautiful coastline, moderate temperatures, and easygoing pace. South Carolina has been my home for my entire adult life, and I would not have changed a thing, except for the sadness of not living close to my family.
Over the years, going home to my parents’ house always made me feel as if time had stood still. Nothing much ever changed, except that now, dad’s hunting coat looked too big on him, as it now drooped a bit, and his walk was much slower. My dad passed on nearly 15 years ago, with my adoring mom not far behind him.
This very special time of year has a way of stirring up childhood memories, as family traditions take center stage during the holiday season. In my mind, I can smell my mom’s delicious cooking, and not even the passage of many years can erase my memories of my dad walking to the cellar door and grabbing his hunting coat off the second hook. With his trusty shotgun in hand, and his faithful beagle wagging his tail excitedly, he would always smile as he went through the door to walk to his woods.
Wishing everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving!
Written for Waccamaw Outdoor Magazine, December 2019 Issue