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Thanksgiving On Cape Cod
by Charles N. Barnard

I knew in mid-October that I would be alone for Thanksgiving. I didn't wish it to be; I had had hopes my marriage could be saved, that love and sanity would prevail and that once again we would sit down with family for the traditional feast in Rhode Island. Now, after all the years, it would not be. To escape gloom, the odd-man-out would have to travel.

The Masai tribesmen of East Africa believe that when a lion is wounded, he will walk for miles by night to find one of his old beds — a solitary, painful search for peace.

I knew where my Thanksgiving hideaway would logically be — an old bed I remember and love; also a place with strong anecdotal, if not historic, ties to this most American of holidays. Karen and I had often visited Cape Cod together, but never on Thanksgiving. Now I would go alone — and discover a growing band of present-day Pilgrims for whom the Cape has become the ritual place to observe this colonial-style holiday.

Yes, I know: the First Thanksgiving was not celebrated on Cape Cod, but at Plymouth, Massachusetts. (Or was it in Virginia? Or Maine?) The mythology of the celebration is flexible — and, anyway, before the digging of the Cape Cod Canal (1909) defined beyond dispute the boundary of this most famous of glacial gravel banks, Plymouth was as often considered a part of the Cape as of the mainland.

(Further, if one wishes to quibble, the first Thanksgiving was probably held in September, not November — and it was a three-day affair, not just a Thursday feast. No turkey was served and although, then as now, cranberries grew everywhere in the low places of the Massachusetts littoral, no one considered eating the bitter little pills.)

I drove through Rhode Island on Thanksgiving eve at dusk, passing our usual exit and pressing on. (The Saab must have felt it had missed its accustomed turn to Herb's house, I thought.) Providence was ahead, then Route 195 arching off to the right, in the direction of the Cape — the road to saltwater taffy and basket shops and thousands of furiously-spinning lawn ornaments made in the forms of flying geese and windmills.

I passed all the familiar landmarks: the old Bourne railroad bridge over the canal, a ghostly, Victorian latticework tonight; the favorite "scenic overlooks" where we used to stretch our legs; the Sunoco station where we always stopped for gas; the "leaning tower of pizza," now gone. As I drove, I thought I could still feel the familiar touch of a lost, loving hand on the back of my neck.

It was black night when I drove over the Sagamore Bridge and arrived, geographically, on the Cape. What an exciting frontier crossing that used to be! Tonight it was like entering a familiar room in the dark. I didn't need a light; I knew where everything was.

The village roadsides swirled with dry leaves; looming tree trunks and saltbox houses picketed by white fences crowded close on each side. Then, at the center of town, a white Christopher Wren church steeple, floodlighted and framed by the silver filigree of bare branches, spindled the dark sky.

There had better be a cozy New England inn at the end of this journey, I thought wryly — and there was, in Sandwich, only a few miles from the canal. The Dan'l Webster Inn stands on a spot where Colonial road houses welcomed travelers (no doubt on the eve of other Thanksgivings) and wherein old Daniel himself kept a room permanently reserved.

Within, there was warmth and hospitality, candlelight and piled-up pumpkins, the smell of spicy things baking, baskets of nuts, MacIntosh apples mingled with Indian corn, a staff dressed in early American costumes: long dresses, dustbonnets, aprons, black stockings. A fireplace fire burned quietly in the dining room, where an old oil portrait of Daniel Webster looked down on the guests. In a glass case, some antique postcards of the original 1692 inn, pieces of scrimshaw — and a pair of spidery spectacles that some colonist left behind.

The inn's tavern was already crowded and all the guest rooms were booked for the holiday. "Was the traffic heavy from Boston?" I was asked at Reception. I explained that I had driven up from Connecticut.

"Really? So far! Seems people are coming from everywhere these days to spend Thanksgiving on Cape Cod!"

The Dan'l Webster Inn should know. It does more to make the custom possible than any other establishment from Provincetown to Boston. "Sixteen hundred for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow," Innkeeper Steve Catania told me with pride, "and 800 requests that we had to refuse." The inn serves an all-the-fixin's turkey dinner (cranberry-sage-&-pork stuffing, pumpkin-&-apple soup, Indian pudding) from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. After many years practice, it is a smooth and efficient operation, from valet parking to check-paying.

There are other inns on the Cape which also offer The Feast, albeit in somewhat smaller numbers. At Falmouth, I learned, the Coonamesset Inn serves Thanksgiving dinners — also at East Bay Lodge in Osterville, at the Wayside Inn in Chatham, at the Red Inn in Provincetown. In every town, in every restaurant, hotel or inn, the numbers have been growing each year for more than a decade.

I knew why I had always wanted to be on the Cape for Thanksgiving (and why I was here now), but I had thought of this as my own original idea, not one that would eventually be shared by thousands. The Cape was a summer place, after all. It used to close up shop after Labor Day. I guess I imagined going back when only the winter people would be baking their turkeys at home. But the Mayflower landed first at Provincetown and there is a 255-foot monument to prove it. (Only later did the Pilgrims sail on across the bay to Plymouth.) This makes the Cape just as authentic a place for travelers to spend an "early American" Thanksgiving as Plymouth or Williamsburg. I called some old Cape friends from the inn. I didn't explain my private reasons for drifting around alone on a family holiday, but I was soon asked where I might be having dinner myself tomorrow. Then I found myself invited.

Cape Cod hospitality may welcome any traveler that way, but more likely in November than in August, when too many tourists choke off the natural cordiality of its people. Now that I had found a "November family," I thought this might also be a weekend to wander back roads, to retrace old summer footsteps, to find the peace I sought.

When we had finished giving our thanks for being here and then destroyed a great, crusty-brown bird (with cranberry sauce made from the fruit of a nearby bog), we still had time to explore. There was some thin ice on the mill pond in Sandwich that afternoon, but plenty of open water, too. Gulls and white ducks and mallards were setting up a tremendous racket, thrashing and diving and circling each other combatively. Across the way, a man was raking rusty leaves from a lawn that was still green; a few silvery, dry shreds clung to willows; the lindens were bare; yellow-berry holly bushes bristled in their winter vigor. The sun was a low fireball in the west, making the multi-pane eyes of old Colonial houses blaze defiantly back at the end of another day — the end of another Thanksgiving.

"Evenin'," said a man walking by me at the millrace. "Nice it hasn't turned cold yet." I agreed. People in Sandwich speak to each other, and not just on holidays. Reason enough, I supposed, that we were both looking at the same sunset. I drove along "6A," the old road that skirts the bay side of the peninsula. At Yarmouthport, I stopped to see Ben Muse, who publishes his own editions of out-of-print books about the Cape and runs the Parnassus Book Store across the street from the Old Yarmouth Inn. Politely, he remembered an earlier book of mine about off-season on the Cape. "It's time to do another," he said. "Off-season is busier than ever." I said yes; I might find time.

From the inn's sunny dining room, the view is of the village green where an old ship's anchor lies tilted. The nearby Christmas Tree Shop was so busy on this day after Thanksgiving that a local cop had been put on duty to direct traffic. Families hurried into the inn for lunch, not yet wearing topcoats, but with hands pushed into pockets and hair all blowing about. The young waitresses of the inn knew to speak slowly and loudly to certain of the older guests who came in for a cup of chowder.

I went on to Eastham, one of the Lower Cape towns which had been an "our place" years ago. It is famous for its red cedars which grow in random groups on grassy meadows. At dusk, their dark, slope-shouldered shapes looked like a crowd of children and adults straggling back across the fields after a softball game.

Here and there, wood smoke rose from cottage chimneys; it announced a few summer people had come back for Thanksgiving again this year. Their names were lettered on signboards nailed to trees next to sandy driveways — "The McDermotts," and "The Lees of Silver Spring."

I found the place where we had often gone to view the great Nauset Marsh on summer evenings, the high bluff that is overgrown with bayberry and cedar, where one of the giant boulders left behind by the glacier had been used by Indians for sharpening fish hooks. My fingers found the ancient grooves while my eyes scanned the winter-brown marsh. An aluminum boat being launched just below echoed in the stillness like a metal drum. A lone boatman approached along one of the slate-gray waterways, the slow rhythm of his rising and falling oars looking like bird wings in flight.

On a nearby point, a man and a woman, each wearing yellow oilskins and black rubber boots, stood side by side, surveying Nauset Bay together. (I imagined that they had been happily married for many years and would soon come in from the beach to share vodka martinis by a fire. Perhaps not, but loneliness writes convincing scenarios.)

I went to the Red Inn at Provincetown for dinner one night; it perches on the edge of the harbor, a cozy, attractive place with fireplaces and antiques and a fine view. I read a book by candlelight during dinner. It told of Gosnold and Verrazano and Eric the Red and all the early explorers who had come bumping along this queer peninsula long before the Pilgrims showed up in their buckle shoes and funny hats.

The tide turned while I was having coffee; small boats, tilted on the mud flats, began to right themselves, twisting free on their moorings, stirring to the pull of earth. The beach, which had been snowy looking in the glare of a floodlight, now turned burnished black under an advancing sheet of still, cold seawater.

I would take one last walk through P-town and then go home. At 10 o'clock, all was quiet. Turner's Candies, where my kids had bought "face pops" for years, was closed for the winter. So was Lewis' New York Store. The sign saying "Dune Rides Start Here" was still in place, but no dune buggies were parked. Some men in pea coats and knitted caps were playing chess and backgammon at tables in the empty Governor Bradford restaurant. A sign in the door at the Portuguese bakery said, "Sorry, see you in the spring!"

I went to the base of the Pilgrim Monument where there is a large bas-relief in bronze depicting the signing of the Mayflower Compact. I had never really paid attention to it before. Now, by the light of a street lamp behind the police station, I looked up at the figures as if for the first time. Leaves swirled at the base of the monument. I thought, if someone sees me here at this time of night, they will surely think I'm up to no good. Finally, I just reached up and put my hand on one of the Pilgrim's bronze shoes. I wanted to touch something.

On my way back through Truro, the milky beam of Cape Cod Light swept the black glass of sky in front of me like a ghostly windshield wiper, silent and tireless. At the United Methodist Church of Eastham a temporary THANKSGIVING DINNER sign was still standing by the road as I passed: "Alone? Lonely? Unable to Cook? Join us at 2 p.m. Thursday and Share Dinner with Us at No Charge."

What had I been worrying about? There was plenty of Thanksgiving turkey — and plenty of love — on Cape Cod.


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