Five Kernels of Corn

By Joyce Chalmers Perry

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    It was Thanksgiving Day morning, and Elizabeth was looking out the window and wishing that the snow would stop. No longer could she see the mountains that rose behind her uncle’s farm. The snow swirled about and drifted against fences.

    “Don’t worry,” said her cousin William. “Your parents will probably stay at the trading post until the storm stops. I don’t think anyone will try to get through Craggy Pass in this weather.”

    “But if they left on time, they’ll be ahead of the storm,” countered Elizabeth, hopefully. “Father said that they would be back for Thanksgiving.”

    Elizabeth turned to the window and flattened her nose against the glass, staring out at the dancing snowflakes.

    William felt sorry for his cousin. Elizabeth and her parents had recently moved from Massachusetts, near Plymouth, and the girl was still homesick. She also missed her parents, who had been away for several days buying supplies and looking at land to purchase.

    Elizabeth had told William about her old home and the small rolling hills and stone walls that defined the pastures. Her favorite spot had been on a high knoll where the pastureland overlooked the bay at Plymouth. She also spoke about the Pilgrims who had settled there. She made it sound so exciting that William almost felt as if he had been there himself. William had studied about Governor William Bradford, but it was more interesting to listen to Elizabeth tell about the feast at Plymouth in late July of 1621 when the Pilgrims had invited Chief Massasoit. He had come with a number of his Indian braves and had joined in the feasting and games of skill.

    Elizabeth had described how pretty it must have been then—the clear blue waters of the bay and, on shore, splashes of colorful wildflowers—and how in this new land the Indians and Pilgrims had formed a fellowship.

    “Tell me, Elizabeth, do you have snow back in Massachusetts at Thanksgiving time?” asked William, hoping to get her mind off her parents.

    Elizabeth turned from the window. “Sometimes we do,” she said. “It looks strange when it falls on the beach.”

    “I’ve never seen the ocean,” said William. “I hope that someday I will.”

    “It’s lovely, like your mountains, but different,” said Elizabeth.

    “Come on, Elizabeth, we better help my mother get the big dinner ready. It’s a tradition in our family to set a large table for our many friends who come. And each year Mother puts out her best hand-dipped candles.”

    “I’ll be happy to help you,” said Elizabeth. “The snowflakes are making me dizzy.” But she couldn’t help remembering her own family tradition that had always been an important part of their Thanksgiving meal. And for the first time she would miss this annual custom.

    Elizabeth and William set the table, and the candles looked lovely. “I like the special candles you use for Thanksgiving, Aunt Emily,” said Elizabeth.

    “Thank you, Elizabeth,” answered Aunt Emily. She looked at the sadness in the girl’s face. “Perhaps there is a family tradition you have that you can share with us?”

    “Oh, there is,” said Elizabeth, “but Mother and Father are not here.”

    “All the more reason for you to carry on your custom,” Aunt Emily gently encouraged.

    “Oh, I’d like that,” said Elizabeth. “But I’ll need—”

    “Hush!” said Aunt Emily with a smile. “Why don’t you surprise us with your family tradition?”

    The idea delighted Elizabeth and she disappeared from the room. William and his mother were happy to see Elizabeth forget her troubles. But the storm still worried them. The wide open spaces of their western land could be very hard on travelers, especially newcomers such as Elizabeth’s parents.

    Meanwhile Elizabeth was very busy. She took a clean sock and stepped into the pantry for a minute. When she came out she was smiling. “Before we sit down and say the blessing, I want to go to the table,” she explained. “And nobody may peek,” she added. Then she took from the sock a handful of corn and carefully placed five kernels by each plate.

    In a short while, friends who lived nearby arrived. They came in, stamping snow off their feet and bringing dishes of hot food. Before he started to carve the turkey, her uncle said, “Well, Elizabeth, I’ve never seen kernels of corn at my place like this before. They must be part of the tradition that you wish to share with us.

    “Yes, Uncle John,” said Elizabeth. “My father usually tells the story of the corn, but I’ll do it since he isn’t here.”

    “Many years ago,” she began, “during one of the early winters, the Pilgrims had very little food. Because their corn supply was almost gone, each Pilgrim was given only five grains of corn to plant. The following years they had more corn. But the Pilgrims wanted their children to always remember the sacrifices and the hardships that made the survival of their small settlement possible. So each year when they celebrated Thanksgiving, they placed five grains of corn by each plate. My family still does it so we won’t forget those brave days either.”

    “That’s a wonderful tradition you’ve shared with us,” Aunt Emily said, hugging Elizabeth. “I think we should all carry it on. It will give us strength for the days to come.”

    Just then there was a banging on the door, and in burst Elizabeth’s parents covered with snow. Elizabeth raced into their arms. “I didn’t think you’d come!” she said. “But I prayed and prayed that you would.”

    “Not be here for Thanksgiving!” exclaimed her father. “It would take more than a snowstorm to stop us.”

    He strode to the table. His hand reached into the pocket of his coat and he started to take something out. But he put it back when he saw the grains of corn at each plate. His eyes met Elizabeth’s and a smile lighted up his face. “Elizabeth, you remembered. You did this, didn’t you!” he said.

    “Yes, Father, just like we always did back home,” she replied softly.

    Illustrated by Dick Brown