By Coulter Fussell
This week is a Wagner Thanksgiving special. These are letters to teenaged John Henry who is off at Bingham School in North Carolina. The letters are from his little sister Jessie (who drops my favorite line: “Are you sick or are you out of stamps?”) and his mother, Maria. The Wagner turkeys play a big role in the children’s lives. The kids are constantly harassed, threatened and routinely abused by the birds. I can only imagine the relish with which Jessie plucked this one’s feathers. I imagined she hummed happily to herself while making turkey feather hats for her dolls. And the life lesson learned from Maria this week: Call your Mama on Thanks-giving, people!
Water Valley, Miss
Wednesday, Nov 25th, 1885
Dear brother John,
Tomorrow is Thanks-giving & we are going to have a big turkey. Mable, Pinky, Cousin Clara, little Harry and Cousin Lillie are coming up to Thanksgiving dinner. Mama invited Cousin Florence too but I don’t know whether she will come or not. I am so sorry that you can’t be here too, to enjoy it with us. it seems that my leg is taking a regular spell of hurting for it has been hurting me so that I have been in bed from last Friday till yesterday. There is not going to be any school tomorrow. I got some cards from Cousin Will the other day & they were very pretty…. Do you like that school any better now? Christmas is just a month off from today. I will be so glad when it comes….
We picked the turkey yesterday and we got a lot of feathers for doll plumes and today Gertie and I dyed some of them with aniline. The turkey weighed twelve pounds after he was dressed. I trimmed two doll hats today and yesterday.
Why don’t you write? Are you sick or are you out of stamps? Mama says that she is waiting patiently for a letter and expecting one everyday. As she has not gotten any she is beginning to get impatient. Good-bye.
A dozen kisses from your loving sister, Jessie
Thanksgiving: Give Thanks To God
Home, Nov 26th 7 pm
My Dear Son,
Why don’t you write? We had looked every day for a week for a letter but to be disappointed. Well, this is Thanksgiving day right now, I had Aunty Clara & Mable, Charlie & Lillie & Grandpa besides our own big family. If you had only been here our pleasures would have been greater, but I hope you had a good dinner anyway. We had a nice turkey – I am tired & my bunions are giving me fits. Ida Duncan took supper with us last night, she inquired very kindly about you, I said John used to write me a long letter sometimes when he was away at school but I have not had one of any kind this time…[ here commences three long paragraphs of town gossip about who all has died, is sick, moved, or “taken up housekeeping” which I will edit out to save space]…
I had one of my wisdom teeth teeth pulled so you must excuse this simple letter. I do wish you would write, I am real anxious now, to hear, am afraid you might be sick. So be sure & write every week, for my sake. Grandma says to be sure & write her as she is so worried she don’t remember how long it is since we had a letter from you, as she would be worrying over you too. With lots of love & kisses and hoping for a long letter soon, I am as ever your ever devoted, Mother