Posts Tagged With: Plimoth Plantation

Of Plimoth Plantation

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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

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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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Of Pilgrims, Fear Brewster, and Origins

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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

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