One of the many amazing things about my current place of employment is their commitment to diversity. I attended a Trans/Ally workshop two weeks ago that was a series of several the college put on for all of us to attend over the summer break. During one of the many activities, the class out a (confidential) form that asked how we identified culturally. I didn’t know what to put. I know that our origin stories are important, but I have often felt that I don’t have a culture. I’m a white American, which means default, which means nothing. How should I fill out that box? And then I had a slow realization about my cultural identity.
I was eight years old when I decided I wanted to be a pilgrim when I grew up. And I don’t mean an adventurer who immigrates via plane or ship for a new life. I mean the people who traveled the intrepid sea, late from too many leakage problems, persecuted for their religious beliefs in England, who settled Cape Cod in the 1620s.
Plimoth Plantation, the first living history museum, is magical. It sits on a hill; the gray houses dug into the earth, surrounded by a tree trunk palisade that is surrounded by waving fields of corn. The main road slopes downward from a fort on the tip of the hill, and at the bottom is a view of blue ocean that seems to stretch forever. Here, you can leave your car in the parking lot and go listen to Miles Standish complain about how boring he finds church or ask him for a lesson on how to load a musket. You can watch Susannah White hold onto her straying toddler by the straps sewn onto the shoulders of the child’s clothes. Edward Winslow will let you tie knots for the fishing net he’s making from a ball of strong twine.
Growing up, I visited them in Massachusetts on the blue and gray shore for as long as I can remember. Maybe not exactly every summer, but near enough. My Aunt Sue used to get the pass from the local library when we were coming to town. She knew how I felt about the place.
When I asked the man in the green tabbed vest if they had any kids on board the Mayflower, he told me that they had plenty of sheep and a couple of cows, but he didn’t recon there were any goats on board. In the village, a woman told me that her pregnant neighbor was obviously having a boy, because she always stepped out of the house with her left foot. Another said that women usually wore six to eight skirts. When I went home I pulled the four my mother had packed for me out of my suitcase and put them on to see what it would feel like. It was heavy around my waist, and I had trouble getting the fourth skirt to zip.
I was thirteen when the woman behind the counter told me to hang on a second. She would get me a teacher’s packet from the back, because the more I knew about the pilgrims the more likely they were to let me work there someday. I studied the folded pieces of paper, tucked into a number ten envelope, and learned about baby Oceanus who was born on the Mayflower mid-trip. I learned that they had come from Scrooby, England, by way of Holland where they had worked in the cloth factories. I learned that they called themselves Saints, and that in the first winter more than half the Saints died from a wasting sickness in the ice and snow.
I was eighteen when I decided it was time to apply for a job. It would be an adventure, to live out a fantasy and play pilgrim on that historic shore. My aunt and uncle were nearby if I got into any real trouble. But were there women I could portray? There were stories of children, and stories of adult women, but I had never heard stories about teens. I turned to the computer. It was my first foray into historic archives and I fell in love, with the hand-drawn maps of lot divisions and the signatures on the Mayflower Compact, and with a nineteen year old girl named Fear Brewster.
It was the name that struck me. In a time when Oceanus and Remember Patience were popular and valid, perhaps Fear is not so out of place. But a woman named Fear? Was she born in fear, was she a girl who was afraid, did the name make her fearless? She was a Brewster, one of the few Mayflower families that people who aren’t career historians remember. She married Isaac Allerton, a man more than twenty years her senior, who was embezzling goods that were supposed to pay the colony’s huge English debts. She died before the age of thirty of a wasting fever. She had a son. That is all that is known about this woman with the fascinating name. That is all history has left us.
And so I am left to speculate about the things she thought of a journey to a bleak shore where nothing waited but starvation and wattle and daub hovels. Or what she thought of her husband. Of how she played blind to his thefts because it was unthinkable to confront. Of how young she was and how little she could say to a husband who was not only a Man, but an Adult in a time when women were flighty, sinful and childish; regardless of age.
I will never be a pilgrim. That much is certain now. I met my husband that summer and left the completed application folded in a drawer in my bedroom. I have never marched down the dirt path, a cloud of dust at my feet, carrying a basket and wearing six skirts in the humid Massachusetts summer. I have never sat and sewn under a tree while trading riddles with the other women in the circle. I have never been Fear Brewster.
And here is the thing: I don’t even have pilgrim ancestry to claim, only the militant and unimaginative puritans who came after them decades later. Maybe. On my mother’s side. On my father’s side, the John Elderkin who came over before the pilgrims was probably one of those deadbeat Jamestown fellows, or worse. Why I have claimed the pilgrims as my ancestry, I cannot fathom. They don’t belong to me and I know that. But in the same breath that I deny their link, I also feel it.
Sometimes when it is raining outside, I sit by the window and ponder how frightening it must have been when the central beam cracked during a storm on the Mayflower. Some nights when I am lying awake next to my sleeping husband, I wonder if Fear ever looked over at Isaac, at his buttoned up eyes and the stubble on his chin, and thought about how handsome he was.
In the age of social media, I follow Plimoth Plantation everywhere they have accounts. It is beautiful and heartbreaking to see those photos of the past come to life in a little town just south of Boston; heartbreaking because it has been more than ten years since I walked those streets and I always want. But sometimes the things we dream about don’t come true. I know that Fear and I have that in common, too. In my case, I think giving up that dream was worth the reality I was granted instead. I hope that Fear felt the same.