It’s Thanksgiving morning in 1951. At Hyannisport, the Kennedy brothers — Jack, Bobby, and Teddy — plus assorted sisters, cousins, neighbors, and significant others, are gathered on the lawn at the compound to choose up sides for touch football.
Meanwhile, over on Martha’s Vineyard, the Amaral brothers — Doc, William, Joe, and Gus — plus assorted sons and grandsons, are gathered at the family homestead in Oak Bluffs getting ready to hunt rabbits.
The Kennedys need only an old football, but the Amarals have brought pickup trucks, shotguns, game bags, dog cages, and half a dozen beagles whining in eager anticipation of the chase. The pastimes are different, but both are traditional family activities, a Thanksgiving ritual.
Clement Amaral emigrated from Sao Miguel in the Azores in the second half of the 19th century. Family tradition has it that he was headed for Brazil, but his trunk and all his money got stolen in Boston or New York (or perhaps it was New Bedford), and Clement found himself broke in America. He made his way to Martha’s Vineyard, where he found work and met and married Emily Pachico, also from Sao Mateo.
Their family grew and prospered, and Thanksgiving was celebrated first at Emily’s and Clement’s house, then at the house of their oldest son, William Amaral.
David Amaral, William’s grandson, reports that from the beginning fishing and hunting were family passions. For William and his brothers, and later their children and grandchildren, the year was a calendar of seasons: Hunting in the late fall and winter — woodcock, ducks, geese, deer, and rabbits — and fishing the rest of the year.
Doc was a dentist, and William and Joe were plumbers. Gus eventually moved to California, where he ran a hunting club. All the Amarals had rabbit dogs, and some had bird dogs, too. David reports that his grandfather kept nine dogs, only one of which was a house pet. The family, which grew to include David’s father, Nelson Amaral, and three generations of siblings and cousins, would hunt rabbits every Saturday from mid-November through late February, usually with eight or more hunters and six dogs, and sometimes with privileged friends, who felt it an honor to be invited.
In the 1950s the woods came right to their yard off Wing Road in Oak Bluffs, and they could hunt from there along Farm Pond as far as Felix Neck. They also hunted all over up-Island: Along Meetinghouse Road between Middle and South Roads, or at Stonewall Pond, or along the North Shore. The way some men play golf on Saturdays, the Amaral men hunted.
The Times asked David if the hunters took turns. “Oh no,” David said. “It was a competition to see who could shoot the most rabbits.”
David remembers that becoming old enough to join the hunt was an important rite of passage in his life. He remembers himself as a small boy yet too young to hunt, waiting excitedly for the hunters to pull up in their trucks, and counting the kill for that day (usually around 20 rabbits, occasionally more; the family record was 45). The men did allow David to help with the skinning and dressing of the meat, feeding scraps to reward the waiting dogs. The Amaral family ate what they killed, and sometimes put on feasts for the community. Rabbit tetrazzini was a favorite to feed a crowd.
On Thanksgiving, however, the hunt had to be abbreviated, because the Thanksgiving turkey would be on Emily’s table promptly at 1 o’clock, and everyone was expected to be on time, cleaned up, and freshly showered. Accordingly, the hunters would save a favorite spot for that morning not far from home, so as to be back in time.
Today, the Thanksgiving hunts are a memory. William, Doc, Joe, and Gus (like Jack, Bobby, and Teddy) are gone. There are still a few places to hunt, but no one in the Amaral family has the dogs or the time for regular hunting trips, and it wouldn’t make sense to keep dogs for just one day a year. A piece of the Vineyard is gone, leaving only old photographs and fading memories.