Posts Tagged With: History


I had a little time to do some actual writing in Maine while I was there. It felt good to exercise those muscles again.  And it also led to the writing of some vignettes, like the one here.

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A Maine thunderstorm is not like a thunderstorm in California.  In California, the gray clouds gather for hours before they begin to weep a misty drizzle that eventually might turn to more persistent streams.  The booming clouds are loud but faithless.  They roar a couple of times and then they turn back to the drizzle they were born of.

In Maine, a thunderstorm comes in.  The gray fluffy clouds roll across the blue, blue sky, groaning in warning.  In a matter of minutes the sky is all cloud, the wind chimes ring out their warning peal, the rain falls in a sheet.  The booms seem to echo in the sky around you, and the lights of the house flicker.  Sometimes the house lights go out and you are left grappling for your flashlight.  The clouds continue their persistent roll and roar even after the rain has passed.  A Maine thunderstorm means it.

I sat in the living room of my mom’s cottage with my husband and watched the storm come in over the ocean today, wondering if it would wake up my napping son in the room above.  And in the way of children and mothers, it pulled me into a different memory.

It was surely not my first thunderstorm in Maine. I have been a slightly legitimized summer person since I was born (since many of my family lives here full time). But it’s the first storm I really remember.  We were staying in the big cottage, the one Grampy’s father made for his mother (as opposed to the tiny cottage that Grampy himself had built – maybe 600 square feet?)  The black “Juanita” sign still hung in the living room in the big cottage amid the iron stove, the rag rugs, and the furniture from the 1970s with holes in all the upholstery, stuffing flying free – deftly covered by Juanita’s granny square afghans of many colors.  We were serviceable at the beach.  Despite the bucket of clean water at the door to wash your feet as you came in, there was a fine patina of sand on everything.

I slept next to my sister Cody under the eaves in a bedroom upstairs, white lace curtains at the window.  The noise woke me up and  I was frightened, but too old to admit it.  I couldn’t remember a storm that loud, even though I remembered Maine thunderstorms. My mother was up too.

“Case, can you help me close the windows?” she asked, flitting from room to room.  The sheet of rain had already started, and the window sill in the hall was already wet.  I shoved the pane down, and moved downstairs to the next.  A peal of thunder shook the house.

It took forever for the two of us to manage the window on the stairwell, too high to grip tight and slippery because of the rain.  But finally my mother managed it.  I was still scared, though the purpose of the moment had turned my adrenaline to excited.

“We did it,” said my mother as we turned to each other.  Another peal, and when the house shook I also shook.

“Mumma!” Cody called from the bedroom upstairs.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to sleep tonight,” said my mother.  “Have you ever watched a storm over the ocean?”

I shook my head.

She climbed the stairs to get Cody.  “Grab a blanket, and we’ll all watch together.”

We settled in on the couch, Cody on one side of my mom’s lap and me on the other, tucked under one of Juanita’s afghans.  My mom had pulled the couch over so the big picture windows were perfectly in front of us, like a TV.  The lightening danced over the dark waves of the ocean, sparking the clouds in purple and forking down to the water.  No two zig-zags alike.  The thunder shook us at intervals and it seemed like it all must be right on top of us.  Cozied in like that I felt safer, though.

“How far away is it?”  I asked.

“Count,” said my mother.  So my sister and I counted one-mississippis between light and sound,  and my mother did the math.

“About a mile away,” she said.

It felt more present than that.

“Could the lightening ever strike here?  Would it strike the rocks?”

“I don’t think it will tonight.  It’s very rare, but it could.  It has.”

“It has?”

“Yes, you know the hollow on the rock you were pretending to make seaweed stew in the other day?”

I nodded.  The rock was a larger than the footprint of the small cottage, an almost perfect 30-degree angle of dusky, weather-beaten granite that dipped toward the shore, ending in a collection of smaller rocks that created tidepools when the tide was out. At the top left of this rock was a perfectly round indentation, like a black melamine bowl.  This room was always our kitchen when we played house, because it already had a sink.

“That wasn’t there when I was a girl.  Lightning struck the rock, and created the hollow.”

In the world where we are both adults and we have talked about this again, I know my mother never saw the lightning strike happen.  It was winter, and no one was at the beach then.  They came next summer and the hollow was just there. But I could see it so vividly in my mind that I was certain she had for many years.

It would have been a night like this one, and maybe Aunt Nancy would have come to snuggle with her on the couch cushions.  I never could quite picture my mother with her mother, who died shortly after my mom’s marriage and whom I never knew.  And Grampy wasn’t a cuddle with the kids during a storm kind of guy.

The two of them, Kathy and Nancy, would be watching the storm, tucked under one of Juanita’s afghans, and the lightening would bolt down from the sky.  There would be a huge cracking sound as the electricity hit the rock, sparks flying, the rock burning for a time before the rain put the flames out.  And in the morning was our sink, too hot to touch for weeks.

We were outside time in that moment, those two girls and my sister and I. Parallel. Same house, same sky, same blanket, even to some extent the same sisterly love.  I have had so many Maine moments that run parallel that perhaps I can be excused for believing in this one for so long.

I still live in California, where I grew up.  Despite what they tell you, there is history there.  It just isn’t your history.  I live next to an orange grove that was planted and picked by someone else forever ago, to my south an irrigation ditch dug in the 1820s by local rancheros.  The local church has done a Las Posadas every Christmas for a hundred years, the 4th Of July Band plays Sousa all summer long, and the epithet “without vision a people perish” has presided over concerts in the park since the 1920s.  I can even visit Teddy Roosevelt’s chair at the Mission Inn, if I want to.  The tradition is there, but it doesn’t pull in the same way.  It doesn’t belong.

History in Maine is rooted, sweeping you into the past like the rolling of the clouds over the ocean, dropping rain sheets of the lives of others over your modern veneer.  In a moment it doesn’t matter what year you are in, and time moves in a circle like it does in theoretical physics.  You are tangled with the generations before you, whether you like it or not.  Mostly it’s comforting, that sense of being both outside of time and inside a memory.  In Maine, history means it.

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Victorian Confinement


I’m nine days away from my due date today, and I have been pondering pregnancy in general.  I always used to tell Brian that I felt like we could handle this parenting thing.  I read a book about Victorian life a while ago and they had horrifying child-raising practices.  Dosing a baby with laudanum was common, and fruits and vegetables were considered dangerous for babies and toddlers until, like, 3.  If the human race survived the Victorian era, surely Brian and I could raise a healthy child in this one.  I mean, we’re already not going to give him any laudanum. That means we’re ahead of the curve, right?

The Victorian’s didn’t have it all wrong, though.  At least not among the upper classes…

I used to think that Victorian confinement was such a sexist practice.  Like, why can’t a woman go out in society that last trimester?  What’s so wrong or unnatural about being pregnant that she has to stay at home and hidden?  She can totally still do things.

Right about now, I’d LOVE me some Victorian confinement.  Three months in the house to just relax and only see my nearest and dearest?  Yes please.  I could stay in my pajamas all day long and read romance novels.  I wouldn’t have to worry about braving the hip pain on the staircase at work or picking the spidery elevator instead.  Didn’t sleep at night?  No problem.  Just sleep all day.  No dressing up, or trying to squeeze my feet into the one pair of shoes that mostly still fits.  I could still see my best friends and my family.  Sounds amazing, right?

How do we get back to that, guys?  I mean, I guess I’d rather have Paid Family Leave first, but once that’s over I vote that we lobby for the right to confinement next – 3 months off before your due date to just wallow in the symptoms, think about how great having a small baby around is going to be, and make the best of it.  I think it’s an important conversation we’re not having.

I stop working tomorrow, so I’ll have about a week of that goodness if this kid doesn’t come early.  I’m still hoping that he does, though.  He’s not even born yet, and I already know I’d rather have a small hand grasping my finger than enough sleep.

It’s going to be weird to be a parent.  Obviously what I need is 3 months of confinement to adjust to the idea of it all…

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Colonial Cooking


I found the Colonial Williamsburg Foodways blog, I think via Pinterest (although I can’t remember now where I found the link through a link).  It’s spurred my thirst for everything historical food.  Which, to be honest, wasn’t that far off to begin with.  I like cooking.  I’m a history major.  It seems like the perfect marriage of hobbies.  I’ve been looking at all sorts of historical food sites, and everything is SO different from our modern recipes.  I mean, I’ve known that food goes through phases of popularity, but I have never seen anyone use heavy spice without adding sugar (for instance), or dealt with that much game. There are savory puddings, oysters in everything, and a penchant for white vegetables, for some reason.

I bought a little pamphlet version of a revolutionary recipes cookbook at the Yorktown Victory Center for the Wassail recipe a few years ago.  Yesterday I tried some of the other recipes in the book.  After that, I’m definitely going to go for some of those Williamsburg recipes.

Martha Washington knew what was up, guys.

I made her Chicken Fricassee, and it’s maybe the best thing I’ve ever cooked ever.  And that’s saying something, since my rack of lamb with sour cherry sauce is something Brian’s still talking about 6 months later.  The chicken here is heavily spiced with nutmeg and cloves in a gravy that’s light, salty, and sweet all at the same time.  Brian took one spoonful of the gravy and told me I was making that for Christmas next year, whether I liked it or not.  I’m seriously dreaming of sailing in to it tonight.

I also made a Sally Lunn bread, which is really half cake, half bread because it has eggs and milk and sugar in it as well as yeast.  It turned out to be this buttery, crusty thing with a soft cakey center, almost not sweet at all.  It was a lot of work – I had to hand-beat it for over 10 minutes – but worth it for special occasions, certainly.  I took a small sliver to taste how it would come out, and then took another small sliver, and then another…

I learned also that the more people who came, the more types of dishes you were supposed to have – up to 18 different items for 15 people dining at your house.  Yikes!  Chicken Fricassee and Sally Lunn are 100% hits, but there are a million others that I’m dying to try.  In the recipe-testing column, are these:

For desert, Syllabub (from the cook book).  But definitely Martha Washington’s spice cake and marzipan hedgehogs.  Those hedgehogs are my FAVORITE thing so far. So cute that I don’t even care if they taste bad.

So, no kitchen disasters yet. And if the best happens, I’ll have a whole slew of fun recipes under my belt for special occasions.  My stomach is looking forward to it, as are my fancy history vibes (don’t ask me what those actually are, I couldn’t tell you).

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Of Plimoth Plantation


I don’t know if you have ever been to Plymouth, Massachusetts, but it seems like much of the East Coast at first glance.  There is a gray quality to the light that makes the beaches blander, the seas bluer, the greens more vibrant.  Unless you are in a formal town and there are slim granite curbs, the roads are all rimmed by gravel and scrubby grass that collects spindly wildflowers and clover.  The trees beyond the green strip all mound together into a heap of foliage that follows next to you as you drive.  Tucked between the trees are clapboard houses with shutters.  They’re boxy and white, or maybe there’s a wide porch with a blue roof, or a tin star tacked to the siding.  All of them have shutters, new and old.  The beachfront in Plymouth is busy and modern.  There’s an ice cream store with a teal marquee and gold gilded letters.  Pilgrim Gifts hugs the triangle-shaped corner.  A granite pavilion houses a small, disappointing rock that says 1620, and out in the bay stands the medium sized Mayflower II.  The shore stretches, flat, brown and blue, to the horizon.

It’s beautiful.  And it makes me think of winter snows and a shallop speeding through the waters, everything unknown.  But it’s not any different than any other seaside town boasting a historic item or two, really.  Not unless you know the history of the place. Not until you step into the museum that is a recreation of the village as it was in 1627; Plimoth Plantation.

There are places you go to that steal your soul and you never belong to yourself again.  Places you’ve dreamed, somehow, or maybe it’s just that the air is in your blood in a certain way.  But all you need is one whiff and you’re home, the angst in your soul is quiet, all is right with the world.  Maybe they have nothing to do with you before this moment, but it doesn’t matter.

Plimoth Plantation is that place for me.  The gray houses, their roofs thatched, seem to grow out of the scrubby kitchen gardens that are rimmed by uneven gray fencing.  A dirt path stretches down to the ocean, which is ever more blue than you remember it.  At the top of a hill is a boxy fort housing cannons and also the church, the inside dim, broken up only by a few slim windows.  The village smells of wood smoke even on the hottest day.  Inside the houses, people in bright period garb will speak with you in a foreign accent about everything from religion, to thatching a roof, to their opinions of their neighbor.

There is always something that doesn’t quite dawn on you that comes out in these encounters.  Most people know that the pilgrims landed far north of where they were supposed to.  What struck me this time was the woman who lamented that most of the Mayflower crew had died, and if the ship couldn’t get back to England then their supply ships would never come to the right place.  At best they would be declared lost at sea.  At worst they would all starve in a wilderness that had already claimed half of them and looked to claim more when their wheat wouldn’t grow properly like it did at home.  This was before Squanto and Samoset.

Or the gentleman who had relied on the advice of a few summer fishermen who touted the mild and warm climate in New England, always home before the fall frosts set in.  He had not brought a winter coat over, and his neighbor charged him a fortune for an extra one.  Because no one knew what the winter was like.

Chickens roam in the streets and attempt to forage in the houses if someone doesn’t kick them out.  There are reddish bulls in the far pasture.  Unless the task is a dangerous or fiddly one, you will likely be asked to help hoe the garden or tie knots in the fishing rope.  The words in the bible all have an “s” that sometimes looks like an “f.”  Their earthenware cups have too many handles.

I hadn’t been for, oh, probably 15 years.  But I got to go again this summer.  It’s just as much mine as it ever was.  It’s a better experience than I remembered.  I wished again, for the millionth time, that I could move in and stay in that blue and gray world forever.  I ate authentic food, reveled in the green streets, asked questions on horn books, thatch, wood storage, and religion just to hear the answers.  Brian helped Patience Brewster hoe a row in her garden. I wished all over again that I could don those clothes and pretend to be a pilgrim for a year, even if I did have to go home at night.

But it was back on a plane for me, and I’m now residing in the golden dryness that is California again.  I hope I can get back there sooner than 15 years next time.

And in the meantime, I’ve pulled out some of my pilgrim books again.  First on the docket?  A collection of primary source writings called “The American Puritans, their Prose and Poetry.”

I’m also enjoying all the pictures I took:

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Just Birthday Things


I feel like I have not had a break in ages, although all the things I’m not getting a break from are fun and/or relaxing.  My birthday adventure turned out to be a trip to Big Bear (!!!).  It was hot up there, but not nearly as hot as it was in Redlands (which reached 103, I believe).  SUCH a good idea.  Brian and I wore ourselves out hiking in the morning, and then decided that we did not want to venture out for dinner.  Instead, I cooked ribs and artichokes on the grill in our little condo, and they turned out AMAZING.  Brian made me a Funfetti cake, which is my favorite, and we rented a movie.  On day 2, we visited the Big Bear Museum – best thing EVER! – and then loafed around until it was probably time to come home and get ready for the week.

I am now frantically trying to get all the laundry done before I have to pack for Massachusetts.  I ran all the errands for Dramamine and gum last night, the turmeric cooking stain has come out of my white pants, and I have an official packing list.  So I’m feeling pretty accomplished.  I mostly just have to put things in suitcases at this point.  We’re going to take the train into LAX on Friday morning, which will make our trip out an epic journey.  But by some miracle, our flight is direct.  Crazy, right?

I am so thrilled to be going.  I don’t get to see that side of the family nearly enough.  Plus Plimoth Plantation.  My love for that place is embarrassing in its effulgence, so I try to keep it cool.  Which, of course, never works.

I am excited for a fairly free weekend upon returning, too.  At Brian’s grandfather’s 90th birthday, a cousin of his brought a large manila envelope filled with canning books.

“Does anyone can?” she asked.

“Casey does!” said Brian.

I tried to protest that, because I wasn’t officially a blood member of the family, if anyone else wanted them they had first dibs.  But it seemed no one else did.  When I opened the envelope later, it was this treasure trove of amazingness.  There are instructions from the 1970s on how to make a home fruit dryer.  There is a cookbook from the 1950s that is full of how to can meats and vegetables, complete with revolting recipes in the back telling you what to do with all that canned meat.  There are clippings from the newspaper with recipes for lye soaps.  But my favorite is the cookbook from the 1940s.  It extolls the virtues of canning for Victory (yes, with a capital V), and informs you that the wide-mouth jars best for fruit preparations are unavailable in wartime, but that you should look out for them afterward.

Minted pears, fruit leather, chutneys made from oranges and pineapple, tomato sauce, chicken soup, olives… it’s all in there.  Anything you can think of wanting, and several things you never would have thought of but must have immediately.  I got SO excited.

The only problem? I didn’t really have the equipment.  The pot I have is smallish, fine for ½ pint jars, but no good for the big ones.  The water wouldn’t cover them all the way.  I also didn’t own a jar lifter to grab them out of the boiling water.  I sighed, and figured I would buy a jar lifter and some small jars and see what I could do with what I had.

Brian fixed all of that with my birthday gift.  I now have ALL THE THINGS, a nice big pot with a rack that fits perfectly in the bottom, a small spatula with a ruler on the end so I can measure headspace easily, a magnetic lid placer, a lid tightener, a jar lifter, a super wide mouthed funnel… even extra jars.  There is nothing I’m wanting.  There will be no “making due,” because I have it all.

The only problem I see now is what to do with all the copious quarts of yummy things I’m going to have in jars around the house.  That is, however, a problem I’m willing to tackle.  With a spoon.

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Book Reviews: Colonial Non-Fiction Favorites


I usually try to keep the History Nerd glee under wraps, but I’ve been listening to this podcast on the way to work titled “Revolutions.” Of course I skipped right to my favorite one, the American Revolution.  I’ve been nerding out on Brian about it ever since, because I think the guy gets everything right but sometimes forgets to mention small nuances that matter much.  Like with the Townshend Act… colonists weren’t just pissed because Britain was taxing them.  They were pissed because Britain was taxing them on goods it was illegal to make themselves.

You see?  You get me going…

I’ll admit that I haven’t read as much about the revolution as I probably should.  I’ve never read 1776, for instance.  But I do voraciously read all sorts of stuff from the colonial period. In another world, in another place, I would really have loved to be a career Colonial Historian.  I’ve even delved into some of the primary source stuff.  It’s totally different than you would imagine it to be from all the myths you were fed as children.  Even a college American History course doesn’t always get at the meat of it all.  I recommend a lot of fiction on this blog, but below I’m listing four non-fiction books that changed the way I thought about Colonial America.  Because once I’m on a history kick, I want to STAY on a history kick.   (I’m just gonna pretend you’re also into this stuff…)

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

This is a great overview of the pilgrim experience that is easier to read than most non-fiction books and just fascinating.  I say overview, but that might be deceiving.  It delves deeper than generalities by giving you a sense of who these people were, mistakes and all.  It also takes you farther than most pilgrim histories, right into the pivotal conflict of King Phillips War.  Philbrick explores the attitudes of the pilgrims, but also of their children and the children of Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief whose help was probably the only reason the early colony survived.

I’ve seen a bunch of different histories that attempt to do this same thing, but I don’t think that any of them have quite the complexity of this one, while still maintaining clarity.  If you’re new to pilgrim history, Mayflower is the definitive volume.

A few things surprised me in this book.  First was the way Massasoit used the pilgrim alliance to secure power for himself in the region.  We think of the Wampanoags as being these benevolent people who could not watch the pilgrims starve, (Samoset and Squanto teaching them to hunt eel and plant corn, anyone?  “Welcome Englishmen?”).  The reality was much more complicated, and to a lot of extents more equal.  The Wampanoags were giving something, yes.  But they were getting something as well.  They went from small and bullied tribe to the most powerful tribe in the region over this alliance.

The other thing I found surprising was how nuts the pilgrims were.  Again, we think of these grandfatherly men going into God’s wilderness to create the City on A Hill.  And they did go to America with the hopes that they could have religious freedom from the Church of England.  The thing you don’t realize is that they were just as fanatical about it as the people they left behind – no room for anything other than Puritanism in Plymouth colony.  They also often overreacted in bloody, bloody ways when relations with the locals weren’t going as they preferred.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laura Thatcher Ulrich

Ulrich unearthed the diary of Martha Ballard in a local library, and created this great book exploring what her life was like as a rural Midwife in colonial Maine.  Ulrich’s New England is a bit more built-up than Philbrick’s.  It’s has information about medicine at the time, colonial understandings of communicable disease, and the colonial legal system (Martha’s husband wasn’t the best sort of guy).  It can be a bit of a slog, since Martha’s English is far from the modern standard and chapters start with snippets from her diary.  But it’s worth it to get through, and if you need to you can skip the diary excerpts.  Ulrich does a great job of quoting from them and expounding on why they’re important later in the chapters.

What surprised me most about this book was the deep connection of neighbors to each other.  I think of colonial Maine as being this bleak and unpopulated place, but there was a lot of help and a lot of camaraderie among the people who were there.  It was not the uninhabited wilderness I pictured.  What I found especially interesting was the birthing practices.  I guess having children while sitting was the norm back then – usually on a neighbor’s lap if the midwife didn’t own a birthing chair.  That kind of closeness is something I couldn’t even fathom experiencing today.  What also got me was the massive amount of work running a colonial farm could be.  Martha is only able to run around and midwife because she has older children to do most of the housework for her, and that housework is INVOLVED.

Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger Among the Pilgrims, by David LIndsay

Lindsay looks into the life of his ancestor, Mayflower passenger Richard Moore, and finds a strange story.  Most pilgrim stories focus on the Puritan passengers, but there were non-puritans who made the trip too.  Moore is one of these.  Not only is it interesting to see the story from that perspective, but Moore’s father tore him from his life with his adulterer mother, sending him the only place she could never reach him (spoiler: it’s the New World).  It’s not only a crazy-awesome soap opera story, it’s an interesting look into the England they all left behind to make the journey.  Not only that, but Moore became a well-known ship captain in the area, leaving room for a wealth of merchanting information.

The most impressive thing for me in this is the England Moore leaves behind.  It’s after the Renaissance, you would think the world must be progressive somehow, but in many ways it all feels like the middle ages rehashed.  There are definite nods to landed gentry being the most important, and to them living a life so separate from the farm communities around them.  It makes you see the contrast between American and England so much more clearly – and how in many ways American was really brutal even if it was freeing.

I have seen fisherman perspectives, and trapper perspectives, but Moore also lived in parts of the country that weren’t as affected by native attacks, and he was a merchant with a large cargo ship who also traveled to the West Indies.  That was a new perspective for me as well.  Interesting all around.

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England,  by Carol F. Karlsen

This book focuses on how witch trials were more about wealth and forcing women to conform to societal norms than they were about actual Puritan hysteria.  There’s a wealth of information about relationships and marriage practices in the books.  In order to get Karlesn’s argument, you do have to understand the social hierarchy of women in Colonial America, and she devotes a bunch of time to this.  Women’s studies and colonials?  My favorite thing ever!  Karlsen makes a compelling argument, too, showing that it was usually women with wealth and power who weren’t quite conforming the way everyone liked that were accused of witchcraft.

This book occupies that sort of middle period where things were built up in the colonies and fairly urban in places, but it was still a frontier with a lot of freedom from laws and dependency on neighbors and community.  It’s an interesting time that isn’t covered as often, part of the same time that the Moore book covers.  That’s in its favor, too.  What I think struck me most is how relations between people haven’t changed much.  The rules that govern those relationships certainly have, but the feelings behind them, and the way they play out within the economic structure of society, are still the same.

All links are Amazon Affiliate links.  Happy Reading!!

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Is it Fall Yet? How About Now?


I am so ready for the fall that it is obscene.  It was 109 last weekend in Redlands, and that makes me a very, very unhappy camper.  Basically, I just hibernate in the air conditioned house while panicking about the electric bill and trying not to turn on the stove. That’s no way to have a weekend. This summer has been so hot and weird.  At this point, cold might have been a myth we all imagined we experienced last year.  It’s hard to believe it will ever come again.

I have discovered the full amazingness of Riley’s Farm this weekend.  Brian and I went to their big band dance Saturday night and had a wonderful time lindying in the barn to their mock Andrews Sisters band and eating the best green beans I have ever had.  There was a costume contest, and some people looked really authentic.  I was SO impressed with the couple that had on perfect 1940s air force/WAC uniforms.  They won the giant pie.  But there were plenty of high-wasted pants, wing tips, and short, stumpy ties.  Brian and I did the pseudo-forties thing and didn’t enter.  He wore suspenders and a trilby (not period); and I wore a lovely polyester dress from the 1980s that is a decently 40s-esque blue print and twirls nicely when I dance.  We haven’t been out in so long that we spent most of the evening laughing as we messed everything up and tried not to step on each other.  I made a failed attempt to Shim Sham to “God Bless America” which may have been slightly inappropriate.  We WILL be back next year.  Maybe even in better costume.

I found out that Riley’s also does a “Christmas In the Colonies” dinner during December.  You HAVE to come dressed up to that one (big band was optional).  We probably won’t attend, but that hasn’t stopped me from planning out my entire 18th century wardrobe, and Brian’s too.   I’m not a crazy history nerd, you’re a crazy history nerd.  But seriously, colonial garb has me salivating just thinking about it.  I want to make Sense and Sensibility Patterns’ Portrait Dress (the brown version on the website: in forest green velvet with a cameo on the cream satin sash.  Because that’s not likely to cost a fortune or be way above my skill level or anything…

But that doesn’t stop a girl from dreaming.  I am also dreaming about fireplace temperatures, and the Roger’s Red grapes turning color.  I’m looking forward to getting out the Halloween decorations next weekend.  I WILL be wearing spider earrings.  Oh, weather, won’t you cooperate?

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It’s Up!


My Story is up on the Dapper Press Lounge!  You should go check it out.  Seriously:  And then you, too, can know what the trees have to say.

There is also this lovely link in which I answer a series of questions about myself and my fears  What can I say?  I’m all over the internet today.

I’m super proud of this one.  Thanks for checking it out! 🙂

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Of Pilgrims, Fear Brewster, and Origins


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.

Categories: Early America, Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Sea

Originally part of a collection of short stories, A Blatantly False History of the World, But Mostly America.


“Make your way to the sea,” He said. “There, we can hire ships to take us back to our homelands.” He whispered it to us in the darkness, when we had stopped toiling in the streets and in the house, serving the Romans for the day. We returned to our hovels under their vast, gilded courtyards and listened to His breath in our sleep. We dreamed.  In our dreams walked the Gods of our homelands, of the green country of our birth. We listened to His words, seeping into the heart of us, and remembered.

There were houses in the north, dug into the ground for warmth during the harsh winters. Thatch stood up from the earth like tiny hills. Snow covered the ground as the seasons turned, and those living there would press together to share heat. It was companionable, looking out the door as the snow swirled, knowing that it could not take your life as long as you were with these others. We told stories there in the cold; of the magic of the moon and the restlessness of the dead.  And then the Romans came, and there were no others, but only strangers.

Not all of us listened to His voice in the darkness. Not all of us felt His words pierce our ears with longing. Some of us were snatched from our homelands so long ago that the white marble of Rome was the only place we knew. It was tempting to stay, to try for the chance to become free again, given the ultimate gift for loyalty. But that kind of freedom was at the whim of the master. The kind He was whispering to us was something we didn’t have to rely on others to provide. It was something we would gain for ourselves. And so we left with Him. At first, we were just a small band of rebels on the outskirts of the town, living in the green hills peopled with boulders. They left us alone, and like bread dough, we rose. By the time our edges seeped from the hills, we were too big and scattered for them to bother with. This is what He told us.

He told us that the sea would be our life. If we could only get to the southern shore, we could pay the Cossacks to take us to freedom. They were no friend to the Romans, and they would help us. For enough money, they would do as we asked. This is what He told us.

The hills were very green, deep and lush. Small white flowers grew in patches, even up to the heels of the boulders. We hoisted our swords and watched them shine in the sunlight, new on the horizon. It had been ages since we felt the ungiving haft of steel, cold in our palms. We walked toward the sea. We felt the blades of grass brush our toes inside our sandals, scattering dew between our toes. We felt the rough cloth blow across our shoulders as we walked across the land. The sky was vivid blue and it stretched for days and into the future.

The hills changed. They became fields of wheat as we walked, golden to the horizon. Trees broke the line of waving grass in clumps. Sometimes, a cypress pointed to the sun above us as we strode by its shedding trunk. Once, we walked by a farm house. It was abandoned in the red sunlight, but a little dog barked in the distance. Some wanted to catch the dog; to taste the savor of dripping meat. Wheat is not always the best for a marching stomach. He convinced them we didn’t have the time.

We must always press forward toward the ocean. It is salt like our tears. It is salt like the sweat we shed for the comfort of the Roman masters, or for the life of our family in another existence far away. The ocean shall be our savior, and it shall return us to those we love.

The wheat became hills again, like a song that repeats itself. The trees stayed, to shelter the boulders and the little white flowers beneath. A hawk wheeled above our heads, dark checkered wings on the blue sky, blocking the sun as it flew past. It dipped to the green grass and pulled a mouse from the earth, tail twirling as it rose to the sky.

He said we were getting close. We wondered if the hawk could see it, so much farther could it see from its height. We remembered the ocean being vast and terrible. Sometimes it was a deep, swallowing, glassy blue. It was calm and deceptive when it looked like that, biding its time and lulling its prey into a false trust. It was black when it raged, froth shuddering over the timber frame of the ship. This is how it turned, mild to murderer in a swoop of cloud, a weeping of the heavens.

We were not at the end of the song. The ground changed again, and we could hear the rushing of the sea in our dreams from where we slept. It whispered to us in the darkness a faint crash-hush. Vast beaches spread sand before us, tan and glistening in the sunlight. The ocean was aggressive only in the way it beat its fists across the shore as we beat our fists against our masters. Gulls flew above, riding the wind in clumps. The wet breeze clung to our clothes and skin, making even our hair feel sticky with salt. We licked the brine from our lips and felt the spring stirring in our bones, the great rebirth.

Three days, we camped by the ocean. Three days, the wind blew salt into our being. On the third day, a messenger came.  It was not a good omen. A rumor went around the camp. The Romans were not happy they had no one to wait at their table. We were pinned on the coast now, nowhere to escape. The army of Rome, glistening gold helmets, red manes dripping from the gold like entrails; the army of Rome was on the march. No Cossacks would come to our rescue and give us passage across the sea to our homeland. Rome had paid them not to.

He was the first to flee, our fearless leader, the one who whispered no longer. He would go back to the hillsides, to the cave we had lived in before, He said. It would just be temporary until we could try again. We scattered to the winds. But like a blown dandelion, there is a center that is not subject to the will of breath. I am that center.

There are a handful that join me; those with ballast. Sleeping by the sea made me remember many things, and this is the tale I remembered most.

It is terrible to perish at sea not because of death. Those that fall into the foamy waves do not die. The God of The Sea is too greedy for that. Whole ships are swallowed by the blackness, and they sail beneath the waves. Seafarers make weedy sails from kelp, and skim the depths for eternity. The eyes painted on the side of their ship shine like the sun in the darkness. The God of The Sea is waiting until they are enough. When he has an army, he will send them against the God of The Land, and he will be the God of Everything. Until then, they decompose in the deep.

And with that memory, fresh and clean, came another from my childhood. They had married in my mind while I worked in this land, and while I walked across it. It was of my grandmother.

She smelled of mint as she bent over me and kissed me goodnight. “I have had a premonition of you, Geric,” she told me. “It was not good. It was full of water and darkness, and you were far from home. I will tell you a story tonight and some day you will need it. You will forget this moment until you need it, but store it away for the time when winter becomes spring. It is important.”

She told me of the Sea God, and also of how the dead cannot always die. “You can turn them to your will, if you are strong enough. You can turn them to your will for a little while, and for longer if they like your cause and agree to help you.”

This was the way: I needed a bone, even from an animal, but a real bone it must be; something that was part of the living but was now stripped of muscle and sinew, of everything that made it what it was. There was a rune to carve into the shaft of the bone. It must be exact, not a twirl or hatch out of place. If the bone was perfect, and the rune was perfect, the spell could take place. Take land from where the heels of the fallen walked. Mingle it with the living saliva from your body. Say the name of the rune out loud. Shout the name to the stars, and if they bless the bone with their light they have blessed you with control. As long as you wear the bone, you will be safe. As long as you wear the bone, you can command them. They will listen for a time before the sound of eternity echoes again in their ears and they will leave you.

It would be hard to do by the sea. The men I wanted to call did not walk upon the ground, and so I could not mingle my spit with the earth. The rune was a vague memory in my mind. The smell of mint echoed through the ages. I would remember, I whispered to my grandmother in the dark. I will remember like you told me to. There were a dozen or so like me who had not given up, who were still camping by the sea. For my homeland and their homeland, I wanted to try. I could not bear to go back and give up, of another day living in the hills and waiting to rise. I could not bear the thought of crucifixion if the Roman army found me here.

I did as my grandmother told me. Instead of earth, I mixed my saliva with the sea. When the moon was high overhead, I lifted the bone. I screamed the name of the rune to the sky. The other slaves, the few of them who were left, clustered at my feet and they, too, screamed the word to the sky. The ocean crashed between my words, and their words met mine.  I told the stars my anguish and ordered the bone to live. As I screamed, a bolt of light came from the sky. It burned the flesh off my fingers, and made the rune shine. The blood from my open wounds dripped into the sand at my feet.

It was cold the next morning, and a gray fog obscured the horizon. Drops fell on the sand, making divots in the dirt, pattering around me. The others stirred in their sleep.  I went to the ocean and the others followed me. The lips of foam pounded across my knees. I took hands with the others. I held the bone aloft, as I had last night. I held it out to the sea, to the gray sky, to the blue depths.

“I need to get home,” I yelled into the rain. The mist swallowed the sound. I waited. The surf seethed in and out. The rain pelted across my shoulders, growing with intensity.  I was drenched, dripping.

The ocean began to churn, out where the sea met the fog. It turned black, and a whirlpool formed from the chaos, whipping and turning in the deep. I could feel it from the shore, pulling my legs toward it, just as the earth pulled my feet to its own breast.

A flurry of weeds flew from the whirlpool.  A mast emerged. With a sucking sound and a pop that shook the horizon, a black ship rose from the depths. The hull was covered with barnacles and slime. In some places it was black as pitch, glossy and slick. In others it was a furry green. Tendrils of seaweed dripped from the deck. The painted eyes on the side of the bow gleamed white, new as the day the ship was christened. Seaweed trailed from the masts. As we watched, a group of things, brown and upright, tossed a small boat overboard. They rowed for the shore. They came to bring me home. I stood together with the others on the shore, lined up shoulder to shoulder, and felt the waves crash over my sandals.

My hand throbbed with pain where the lightning left it raw. Tears dripped over my face as I watched the small boat row towards the shore. I thought of my grandmother, the smell of mint, the thatched huts of my homeland.

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