ORRINGTON, Maine — Four generations of the Smith family gathered Thursday in the basement of the First Methodist Church on Center Drive to continue a more than 50-year tradition — their annual Thanksgiving Day meal.
Ranging from age 6 to 92, family members began trickling into the church’s social room about 11 a.m., laden with all of the makings of a traditional turkey dinner along with starters and desserts. After they signed the family register and put on nametags, family members showed off photographs of new babies and recent weddings and other family milestones.
While waiting for the meal to begin, aunts, uncles, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, sons and daughters and nieces and nephews snapped new pictures for the family photo albums and shared hugs and kisses and family news from the past year.
The more than 30 people who showed up for the annual family gathering are the descendents of Beulah June Hardison and Vernon Van Buskirk Smith, who once lived in a house across the street from the Orrington Post Office.
Sharon Caron of Orrington, the couple’s granddaughter, said that Vernon, who was an electrician, met Beulah when she was a young school teacher boarding in Vernon’s parents’ home. The couple married and went on to have five children.
The gathering initially took place at the Smiths’ home. By 1966, however, the family had grown to the point where the family home could no longer accommodate all of their five adult children and a growing number of grandchildren. The family moved its annual gathering to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows hall just up the road.
In 1996, after the hall was sold, the Thanksgiving gathering moved to the Methodist church, which some members of the Smith family have belonged to for decades.
Presiding over Thursday’s event were Beulah and Vernon Smith’s three surviving children — Pauline “Polly” Smith Bennett, 92, Louise Smith Perkins, 87, and 80-year-old Glenice Smith Sawyer, who pointed out that she’s the baby of the family.
All three of the “Smith Sisters,” as they are known, reside in Orrington and, along with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, are carrying on the tradition of getting together on Thanksgiving Day.
The sisters, who bear a striking resemblance to one another, have a spunk that belies their age. At one point, shortly before the buffet line was opened, they broke out into an a cappella version of “Side by Side” by Mitch Miller and His Orchestra.
“Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money,
Maybe we’re ragged and funny,
But we’ll travel along, singing a song
Side by side.
Don’t know what’s comin’ tomorrow,
Maybe it’s trouble and sorrow,
But we’ll travel the road, sharing our load
Side by side …”
The impromptu performance brought out the cameras, not to mention knowing smiles and chuckles.
According to Donna Golding, who is Polly Bennett’s daughter, the Smith family tree currently includes “a Bennett branch, a Perkins branch, a Sawyer branch, a Whiting branch and a younger Smith branch, each with grown grandchildren and growing great-grandchildren of their own.”
The family continues to grow as new generations of the descendants of Beulah and Vernon Smith continue to marry and have children of their own.
Over the decades, Golding said, attendance for the annual turkey dinner has fluctuated with a peak of 58 family members in 1999. This year, more than 30 attended.
“We’ll keep doing it as long as people will come,” she said.
Polly Bennett was the oldest family member on hand for this year’s feast, while 6-year-old Charlotte Caron was the youngest. Traveling the farthest were Andrew and Jennifer Sawyer, who met as engineering majors in Maine and now live in New Haven, Conn., with their rescue Labrador retriever, Boggs, named after the famed Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs.
Kimberlee Bennett, Polly Bennett’s granddaughter, said Thursday that she has attended the gatherings all of her life and that Thanksgiving is a highlight of her year.
“Our family is such an important part of my life. We are very lucky, and in a society when so many families are split apart, our tradition is even more meaningful,” said Bennett, who grew up in Lincoln and now is a middle school teacher in southern Maine.
Preparations for the meal began on Wednesday, Kimberlee Bennett said. Family members cook most of the components in their own homes and keep them hot or cold until serving time, which begins after grace is said, this year by Jerry Perkins, a member of the growing brood.
This year’s lunch buffet featured four turkeys, including a deep-fried one, several kinds of stuffing, a variety of vegetable dishes and salads. On the opposite side of the room was the dessert table laden with seven pies, a fluffy fruit and whipped cream trifle, pumpkin cream cheese rolls and the eagerly anticipated homemade ice cream and Indian pudding contributed each year by Wayne and Sharon Bennett of Camden.
After each year’s meal, Kimberlee Bennett noted, the men typically get together and talk of hunting and football while the women clean up.
The family meal tradition is one she hopes continues long into the future, she said.