In '90s version of a Rockwell painting, we gather today to celebrate blessings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is about Nona and Joe Schwartzbeck and their two boys, three grandsons, one daughter-in-law, assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and dairy cows.

It's also about a turkey.

The big one.

Fifty pounds of all-Maryland tom, once the pride of Maple Lawn Farms down the road a piece in Howard County. Two days ago, the bird was alive in all its white-feathered, blue-and-red beaked splendor, strutting on drumsticks the size of hammers, fluttering wings shaped like gigantic boomerangs and puffing his mud-stained chest until his breast jiggled like some exotic dancer strolling down a floodlit stage.

Now, the bird is getting cooked at Nona's place, a 500-acre spread of rolling farmland called "Peace 'n Plenty."

"Gotta get your bird fresh-killed," Nona says. "That stuff you get in a bag in a supermarket, you might as well get your turkey in a can. There is nothing like a big bird for Thanksgiving. Makes a nice presentation, doesn't it?"

Well, yes, it does.

The Schwartzbecks of Union Bridge in Carroll County celebrate Thanksgiving the old-fashioned way: a big family gathered to eat a big bird on a beautiful day.

Thanksgiving is the holiday built on pure nostalgia, a time when a good chunk of the American nuclear family reassembles in a 1990s version of a Rockwell painting. Mom and Dad may no longer sit on opposite ends of every American table, but there is something magnetic and magical about a day that propels millions homeward bound in pursuit of food and family.

"It's the best day of the year," Nona says. "I feel sorry for people who don't have the family. Seems like in our country, no one has a family anymore. It's like: 'I've got this job. That's enough.' But . . . you need that family."

The Schwartzbecks are throwbacks to another century, third-generation farmers who live only a few miles from the suburban sprawl that bubbles from Baltimore.

"When we first got out here, you couldn't see a light at night," Joe says. "Now, you look at the sky, and there are lights everywhere. But it's a beautiful place. It's what you always dream about."

Joe turns 52 tomorrow. His hands are like sandpaper and his hair has turned gray, but there is still something soft and youthful about a man who can scoop up his grandchildren on his way to work.

Nona, 49, is all brass, with a voice made for wide-open spaces and forearms grown muscular from years of raising cows and kids.

They literally met over spilled milk, when Joe began courting by making eyes at Nona, only to drop a pail of milk on the floor. Four decades later, they have two sons: Gus, 28, and Shane, 24. The boys wanted to be nothing other than farmers. And now there are three grandsons: Davis, 6, Aubrey, 3, and Austin, 2, and hope springs that there will be another generation of Schwartzbecks working the land in Maryland.

All of them -- grandparents, sons, even the grandsons -- are accustomed to the hard, messy life of raising Holsteins.

"Cows don't take a day off," Joe says. "Not even Thanksgiving."

Thanksgiving. That's how this family tracks the years.

They bought the farm in 1968 at an estate auction for $125,100 and moved the cows in the week of Thanksgiving.

"That's probably the only Thanksgiving I didn't like," Joe says. "We had our furniture one place and the cows another place."

"But there was a big potluck," Nona says. "Everyone brought covered dishes. Start of a tradition."

A heap of memories

Now the century-old farmhouse is filled with hundreds of tiny cows made of wood, glass and cloth, the rooms are loaded with antiques, and the whole place has the feel of a home piled high with memories.

There were all those Thanksgiving Day touch football games on a field that stretched as far as the eye could see. And there were all the late afternoons spent watching the pros on TV. These are Redskins fans.

The women would cook. The men would hunt.

One year it snowed so hard, the city cousins couldn't make it to the farm.

The next year, old Barney Stambaugh, a family friend, ate so much he actually thought he was going to die.

He survived.

A new generation

The men grew old and the football games stopped. They grew older still and turned from shooting rabbits to shooting skeet. But a new generation arrived and the games resumed. Now the women load up 12-gauge shotguns and join the men on a skeet range.

Gus brought Lisa to the dinner one year and soon they were married and started raising a family of their own.

Grandma died four Thanksgivings ago, and now it's Nona who makes the gravy for the turkey.

"Seems like every year, you're missing one or two," Nona says. "But, it's also getting bigger. We're getting more grandchildren, getting more friends."

This year, they'll total 35 at the house. The men will sit in the dining room. The women will stake out the kitchen. And the kids will inherit the sun porch.

They'll come from Virginia and Pennsylvania. They'll come from all parts of Maryland, too. Cousins and uncles and neighbors all wandering up the path that leads by the sign: "Stop and smell the roses."

And they'll eat. Goodness, they will eat. Got to have the creamed chipped beef at 8 a.m. And the dinner at noon. And sandwiches and fried oysters at 6 o'clock.

"We grew pumpkins this year," Nona says. "Davis planted them. We gave away some to school. Our friends got some. And, I've got a few pumpkin pies, too. Eight or 10 of them. That should be enough."

But in excess there is ritual and tradition. These are farmers celebrating a harvest in the most joyous way possible.

"We think about family," Joe says. "We've had a good crop here. Milk prices haven't been so good. But we've got health. That's the No. 1 concern for all. The thing about Thanksgiving is you've got all your crops done. The barns are full of hay. The silos are full. We're looking forward to winter. Maybe we'll get time to go to the store. Maybe."

A way of life

"People don't realize what we go through out here," Joe adds. "You have to love it. It's seven days a week, 365 days a year. I wish all city people could come out here and see what their product is at the table when they eat.

"There is nothing wrong with hard work. You're going to have bad years. You just cope with it. Then the good ones come, and off-set the bad ones," he says. "But you have to love this. You get the mud on your feet, you can't get it off. Same as farming."

The Schwartzbecks all live within two miles of one another and get along, "because we're working for one goal," Nona says. "We're trying to get the best cows possible."

For Nona, the hard work of Thanksgiving occurs now. She is ending her hand-to-hand combat with that turkey, the big one.

She used to raise her own turkeys. But no more.

"They got to be like part of the family," she says. "It was too hard on everybody."

Enduring rituals

In the back of her recipe box she stores cards detailing Thanksgivings past, from the 45-pound bird that took 10 1/2 hours to cook to the 47-pounder that came out perfect in 11 hours.

"One year, we had a 51-pounder," she says. "Biggest one yet. We almost couldn't even get it in the oven. We had to turn it on its side."

Her ritual never changes. Stuff the bird with two loaves of bread, onions and celery. Pop it in the oven at 9 the night before Thanksgiving and take it out no later than 8 in the morning. Then start the mashed potatoes. Twenty-five pounds. Put on the lima beans. Assemble the covered dishes that arrive with the guests. Agnes and Bill Arnold from across the road bring the sugar-cured ham. Aunt Margaret always comes with a pound cake in hand.

And Joe carves the turkey, "chipping away at it like a big building," he says.

"Then, it's quiet for about 10 minutes," Nona says. "That means we're eating."

The dishes are cleared. And then they get ready to eat some more.

"The day is just so quick," Nona says. "My youngest brother and his kids just all cry when they have to go home. They don't want to go. They want Thanksgiving to go on and on."

An endless circle

By nightfall, Nona is already planning for next year.

There is something about Thanksgiving, she says, that never changes.

"Christmas is the hustle and bustle of getting everything ready," she says. "I love to buy things, but you always wonder, 'Is everyone going to like the presents?' But on Thanksgiving, people only bring their best. The togetherness of the family is what Thanksgiving is about. I hear so many people say that Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday."

On a farm named Peace 'n Plenty, they celebrate a season and a way of life. This is Thanksgiving. This is their home.

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