Travelling Back in Family History at Plimoth Plantation

We had breakfast in the hotel each morning.  This was ideal as there were lots of options to  keep everyone’s bellies happy, from scrambled egg to cereal to bagels to yoghurt to self-made waffles, and because it saves on time when you want to get your day trip underway.

It was a short journey to Plimoth Colony, past lots of archetypal New England houses with wood shingles, coloured clapboard against white woodwork, external staircases and widow’s walks along the tops of roofs.  I do love New England style. I very much covet the dusky blue paintwork and the whale weathervanes.

Mr Pict and our boys have a family history connection to Mayflower and Plymouth Colony in that they are directly descended from people who crossed the Atlantic aboard ‘The Mayflower’.  We explained to the kids they would not exist – or at least not as themselves – had Priscilla Mullins and John Alden not survived the Winter of 1620 unlike so many others, including Priscilla’s parents and brother.  This personal connection to such a pivotal episode in American history certainly added an extra dimension to the trip and provided a useful means of engaging the children in what they were seeing at the recreated site.

We began in the lovely visitors centre by watching a video presentation about Plymouth Colony.  This proved to be more of an introduction to the site than an insightful documentary about the history of the place, which was rather disappointing.  Leaving the visitors centre, we started at the Wampanoag village.  This section of the site was populated by Native Americans wearing loincloths and other traditional clothing who could talk to us about contemporary tribal life as well as the history of the local Native American people and their interaction with the European settlers. We saw the winter huts and summer huts and it was interesting to be able to actually see close up and even feel the different construction process and materials used.  The kids found it interesting to see piles of shells and bones near the houses and had fun searching for crab claws and deer bones.  We also saw fishing nets being woven, women making turkey soup and cranberry tea.

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A brief walk along the Eel River brought us to the recreated plantation that demonstrates how the English colonists lived.  It was populated by people in authentic costume, completely immersed in acting the role of seventeenth century settlers even down to their patterns of speech and peculiar accents.  They never once broke character.  It was a most impressive skill while also adding interest and being engaging.  The actors really did bring it to life and add an extra dimension even if it was really quite disconcerting talking to them, as I felt as if I had to translate myself into a more formal, archaic pattern of speech and avoid any modern vocabulary.

The settlement was set up as they envisaged it would have been in 1627.  It was interesting to note just how compact the buildings were.  So much so that only the master and mistress of each household had beds as the other residents, whether children, servants or lodgers, slept on mattresses on the floor.  We went in and out of lots of buildings, including the meeting house at the top of the hill which afforded us a great view over the colony and out to the bay beyond.  We also went into the house that was representing that lived in by the Aldens.  We didn’t meet the “ancestors”, however, as they were “working in the fields”.  Shame.  That could have been goofy, nerdy fun.

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After a nose around the visitor’s centre, a short drive took us to the waterfront of Plymouth where we continued our visit by boarding ‘The Mayflower II’.  Obviously this was a modern replica ship but one that had actually sailed from England in 1957 nevertheless.  As much as there was lots to explore on board, it was not on a large scale so it was incredible to think that 102 people had squeezed aboard and – except for two of them – survived the hard crossing across the Atlantic.  The boys and Mr Pict are descended both from pilgrim passengers and a member of the crew (John Alden was the ship’s cooper) so it was useful to be able to show the boys the ship in addition to the replica colony.  They thoroughly enjoyed scurrying around the deck, below deck, nosing in cabins and dressing up in sailor costumes.  The ship was staffed by contemporary crewmen, who could answer technical questions about sailing such a ship, and people in costume representing the passengers.  Two of them, a young man and woman, even burst into some plain singing at one point which was quite delightful.

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After locating all of our children on ‘The Mayflower II’, we strolled along the shore line pathway to Plymouth Rock.  It is set beneath a grand, Greek style portico but the contents are deflating: the rock looks sad and neglected for all its historical (though probably inauthentic) association with ‘The Mayflower’.  Litter was scattered all around the rock which made it look scuzzy.  Would it really be so hard to get someone to go and clean out the space ever so often?  Another amble took us to see the fountain that serves as a monument to Pilgrim women.

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Back at the hotel, the boys immediately sloughed off their clothes and pulled on their swimming clobber so that they could grab a couple of hours in the swimming pool before heading out to dinner.  We went out to dinner at a place called Dave’s Diner.  This was my parents’ first experience of an American diner.  My Father-in-Law is an expert in diners so we knew it was not an authentic diner but it still had the right vibe to it and it had really great food, very filling, and great service all in a nice environment.  We left feeling beyond satiated and feeling we had had a very good experience.

Thanksgiving

We have always marked Thanksgiving, particularly as a means of reminding the children of their American heritage.  Of course, in Scotland it is not a national holiday so in previous years we have always had to celebrate Thanksgiving on the weekend.  This then was – for the four kids and me – our first Thanksgiving celebrated on the actual day itself and we had been really looking forward to it.

The older boys had been learning a bit about Thanksgiving in school and my 4 year old had been learning about it through the theme of Native Americans at preschool (as well as doing the Turkey Pokey!).  I had also borrowed books galore from the library – including a lovely one of NC Wyeth’s mural paintings – and had attended a Thanksgiving lunch at the youngest’s preschool.  With all this build-up, we were very much looking forward to the celebration.

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The logical, academic side of me conflicts with the emotional side of me when it comes to Thanksgiving.  I do very much appreciate the sentiment of the day: offering up thanks and expressing gratitude for what one has, reflecting on life’s blessings and spending time with loved ones.  However, it is difficult to square the warm glow of those emotions with the historical event the day commemorates.  After all, only a few decades after Squanto and Samoset had saved the pilgrims from starvation and ignorance, the colonists and the indigenous population were engaged in King Philip’s War (during which one of Mr Pict’s direct ancestors was scalped).  Colonisation, subjugation and genocide are a bit hard to swallow along with tales of planting corn and sharing turkey.  However, I then have to reconcile that moral dilemma with the fact that we would literally not be in America now as a family had it not been for the colonists.  Mr Pict – and, therefore, our four sons – is a descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins who crossed from Europe to America on ‘The Mayflower’.  So had it not been for the whole Thanksgiving story, had it not been for John Alden and Priscilla Mullins surviving the disease and privations that beset the colonists in order to pass on their DNA for generations to come, then Mr Pict would not have been born half-American and it would have been near impossible for us to emigrate.  So, in order to be grateful for this opportunity, I suppose I have to be grateful to the pilgrims for their colonising of land already occupied by the Native Americans.

What we were very thankful for yesterday was the chance to all be together all day, having quality family time, relaxing in each other’s company.  The boys in particular have found it difficult to adjust to Daddy’s new working hours and patterns so they relished the chance to spend four solid days with him.  Mr Pict actually has to go away with work for a week (Florida in December – sucks to be him) so this was a good ration of Daddy-Son time to store up their reserves for the week ahead.

Of course, a critical component of Thanksgiving is the food.  We decided to be very traditional this year so that the kids could experience an authentic American Thanksgiving dinner.  Centre stage obviously was the turkey.  We actually got the turkey for free from the supermarket.  Turkeys here are a loss leader at Thanksgiving, enticing people into the store to buy all the other bits and bobs they need.  Since I shop there anyway, it being my nearest supermarket, clocking up all the required loyalty points was simple.  I even have enough left over to get a dollar per gallon off car fuel.  So we had our freebie $25 turkey, mashed potato, sweet potato, broccoli, carrots, green bean casserole (my favourite), corn on the cob, corn bread and stuffing.  American stuffing is not like British stuffing.  Instead of having a sausage meat base, it is like moistened herby croutons.  It tastes nicer than it sounds.  Incidentally I don’t know that corn on the cob is a traditional side for Thanksgiving – though we usually do creamed corn – but you can never have enough corn on the cob at this time of year.

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A Thanksgiving tradition that is new to me is sales shopping.  There has been a lot of controversy this year in the run up to the holidays regarding the number of shops opening on Thanksgiving itself, which not only means that frenzied bargain hunters leave their family to go and track down deals but also employees are coerced into giving up a holiday.  I am in support of holidays staying as holidays, especially a secular one such as this where everyone can enjoy some time off together, so the ethical part of me wanted to opt out of sales.  I would never actually go out to sales anyway.  I hate crowds almost to the point of being phobic and I don’t wish to do battle with ferocious people clamouring for things going cheap.  However, the frugal side of me won out against the ethical side and I did hop online to snag some deals on Christmas presents for the kids and a vacuum cleaner for me.  I am justifying this on the basis that we had to abandon so many possessions to relocate here that we now have to replace and stretching our budget as far as possible is obviously important.

I was very excited about Thanksgiving TV.  Apparently American Football is a thing on Thanksgiving so Mr Pict watched a bit of whatever game was on.  I don’t do sport – playing, spectating or viewing – so the TV I was looking forward to were the Charlie Brown and Muppets specials.  Charlie Brown did not disappoint.  The two episodes were sweet without being mawkish and the whole thing had a vintage charm.  One episode even mentioned John Alden and Priscilla Mullins which my boys enjoyed.  Family history is proving a good way to engage them in history.  The show I was really excited about – more than would be considered normal for an adult woman – was the Muppets special.  I have always loved the Muppets.  I still forget that they are puppets when I am watching them.  Sincerely, Miss Piggy was one of my icons growing up.  I have managed to emulate her feisty spiritedness but her femininity and glamour have always eluded me.  Unfortunately, the much anticipated Muppets Special was hugely disappointing.  Lady Gaga was supposedly the special guest but she dominated entirely rather than assuming a guest’s role.  As such, the Muppets, including stars Kermit and Piggy, were relegated to bit part players.  The whole thing became one long promotional music video (for music I dislike no less) and all the magic of the Muppets was lost.

So overall we very much enjoyed our first American Thanksgiving.