The line was long, longer than Mama thought it would be. Stood to reason it would be, though, given how hard times had got.
Rumor had it the mob was runnin' this soup kitchen. Mama said you don't question where the hand that fed you come from; you just accept the help and be grateful. Daddy would've had a fit if he'd known, but Daddy's been dead six months now.
Guess what he don't know won't hurt him.
Bobby's gettin' antsy. He never could stand still, and there must be a thousand people in this line alone. Jenny looks like she's gonna fall asleep in line, her baby doll falling forward just a bit from her grip. We been standin' here since dawn. Mama said we gotta get here early, 'cuz she don't know how much food Scarface and his buddies thought Chicago would need.
I heard he robbed a bunch of turkeys off a delivery.
The line moved at last as the doors opened and a couple of men in suits stepped aside to hold it open. Come on in, their smiles say. Mama grabbed Bobby by the hand and slowly pulled him along as the line moved. I grabbed Jenny's hand so she wouldn't get lost in the crowd and followed along.
Times have been hard since Daddy died. They were already hard before he died, since Black Tuesday hit and the markets crashed.
I was ten last year when it happened, and I didn't understand it. But Daddy did. Daddy worked in a bank before the crash.
He didn't work long after it.
Mama tried to keep his spirits up. But Daddy got angrier and angrier. Mama said the anger killed him.
I heard the doctor say it was a bullet done him in, but Mama would know better than me.
Now Mama's always sad, and Bobby's always quiet. Jenny sucks her thumb, and she didn't before.
And me? I'm the man of the house now, so I gotta be strong.
That's why I've got Jenny's hand. That's why, when the nice lady in the white apron at the counter starts ladling out the food (beef stew -where's the turkey?), I grab Jenny's and mine and pour some of mine in her bowl.
Jenny's only three. She's gotta do some growin', and she can't do that without food.
Mama sees what I've done and just gives me a small smile, while she does the same thing with her and Bobby's bowls.
One of the ladies sees us. She comes over with a smile and plants another ladle full of food in our bowls. We ain't gotta go hungry, she says. Scarface has more than enough food for us to eat a full meal and then some - all we gotta do is ask.
Tears shine in Mama's eyes as she grasps the lady's hand. We ain't had much to eat since Daddy died. Between the crash and him dyin', Mama's done all she can just to keep a roof over our heads. She's been takin' in piece work and cleaning houses for the ladies she used to be friends with, the ones whose husbands didn't lose their jobs in the crash.
I hear her cry at night, when she thinks I'm asleep. Can't sleep with a gnawin' in my belly, though, so I hear her. We got a lot of wantin' these days, and Mama doesn't have much to give.
I know we're better off than some of my friends. Sean and Patrick's daddy lost his job too, and their mama ran off. I didn't see them in line today, so I don't know if they're gonna eat Thanksgiving or not. I know they didn't eat for days last time I saw them.
Mama says President Hoover is gonna help us. I don't know how he's gonna help anyone from all the way in Washington, but I know Mama's gotta have hope.
And ain't that what Thanksgiving is for, anyways? Hope?
Bobby perks up at the idea he can have more food. He can have as much as he wants, the lady promises him. She pats his head, gives Mama's hand another squeeze, and pulls away, back to her job. Mama wipes the tears from her eyes and nods her head at me, her silent command to hold Jenny and Bobby's hands with her so we can say a quiet grace.
Mama says the prayer soft and low, thanking God for her friend Mrs. Johnson telling her about this kitchen just yesterday so her children could have a good Thanksgiving dinner. She thanks God for us still bein' here and healthy, and she thanks God that she's kept a roof over us for months by herself. When she's done thankin' Him, she asks His blessin' on us and tells us to dig in.
The stew is good. It's hot and the beef melts apart in my mouth. It's not the same as a good turkey and some cranberry sauce, but it's better than the chicken feet and beans we been havin'.
Bobby goes back for three bowls, and the lady laughs each time. Jenny is too shy to go back herself, so I take her bowl up there and ask for more for her.
The lady smiles a gentle smile at me, and hands me two bowls. Man of the house, she whispers like it's a secret just for us, you gotta eat too.
Mama only eats the one bowl, and I wanna ask her why, but I know what she'll say.
There's a thousand others waitin' to get in, and we've had food before today. It wasn't much and it wasn't good, but it was still food and more than many in line today probably had. We still got a roof over our heads to return to, and she still has a little bit of money tucked away for Christmas next month, when we maybe won't have to eat our holiday meal at a soup kitchen.
As Mama and I gather Bobby and Jenny to leave Scarface's hall of plenty, I glance around at the folks around us. Most of them are men by themselves; a few have families with them. There's some kids my age, a few younger, some older. They're all a lot skinnier than I am, and their faces look sad. Sadder than I've ever seen. They got a wantin' look in their eyes, like they don't know if this is gonna be their last meal for a while.
Mama sees me lookin' at them and shakes her head. One day, the look she gives me says, one day those kids will have a freedom they don't even know they need, one Mama reminds me all the time I still have, even if it doesn't always feel like I do.
A freedom from want.
Note: Al Capone, or "Scarface", really did run a soup kitchen in Depression-era Chicago. He fed around 5,000 Chicagoans on Thanksgiving Day 1930. Rumor had it that he had planned a tradition turkey-and-cranberry dinner for the less fortunate, but changed it to beef stew at the last minute when he heard of a local heist of 1,000 turkeys; he was afraid he'd be blamed.
The title of this story was taken from the 1943 Norman Rockwell painting of the same name. The story of plenty the painting tells combined with its creation shortly after the lack the Great Depression era created just a decade earlier inspired this story.