about pilgrims, more or less

When I was in second and third grade, we lived in a gray-shingled house near the beach in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and absorbed American history outside of history books, traipsing the Liberty Trail in Boston, walking around Thoreau’s Walden Pond, standing on Lexington Green and in the house where Alcott lived Little Women before she wrote it, and taking advantage of season passes to Plimouth Plantation.  I loved Plimouth Plantation.

There were little, low, smoke-filled, thatched-roofed houses which sometimes doubled as barns, and crazy fences around tiny gardens, and the people, costumed physically and mentally for their 17th century roles.  They refused to see airplanes flying over in the sky; they warned of visiting Florida because “the Spaniards are there;” they demonstrated the intricacies of multiple petticoats and figure-enhancing “bum-rolls,” and offered use of the hearth to an embarrassed guest who “[had] a need.” (She didn’t accept the offer, if you were worried.)  Most memorable of the people, perhaps, is Miles Standish, who on one occasion chided a woman for wearing her underclothes — a wool sweater — over her other clothing, and on another occasion made my little brother cry by insisting that he remove his hat in the house.

Tradition, together with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, has handed down to us the story of Miles Standish’s courtship.  And it is quite a story.

Standish, a military man of middle age — middle, at least in the short-lived colony at Plymouth — found himself a widower in the New World, and looked about him for a woman to gladden his heart.  His eyes fell upon young Priscilla Mullins, left parentless after the first winter in Plymouth, who seemed goodly enough to grace the home of even so great a figure as Standish.  And so, since it was not seemly for one of his dignity to demean himself in going courting, he selected young John Alden to do the courting for him.  The difficulty, as perhaps you have guessed, was that Alden himself admired the Mullins maiden.

Nonetheless, in strict observance of his perceived duty, John Alden wended his way to Mullins’ house and sat and sang the praises of Miles Standish, just as he had been instructed to do.  Fortunately for him, rather than being overawed by the descriptions of Standish’s greatness and gladly assenting to bear Standish name and Standish children, Priscilla raised bold eyes to Alden’s face and inquired, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”

Thus, Priscilla Mullins stepped out of the demure backdrop of Puritan maidens, became Priscilla Alden, and had ten children, from whom descended, among other people, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Add to this fame two small pewter figures on a shelf in my room, John and Priscilla Alden, purchased at the Plimouth Plantation gift shop.  They stand there reminding me of their story, however embroidered it may be, and of Plimouth Plantation, of days absorbing history, and of a white Puritan cap which is somewhere in my closet and which, perhaps, shall make an appearance on this, Thanksgiving, Day.

(Alternately, I may revert to an even earlier period of my childhood and construct a feathered head-band of colored paper.  Either way, now is the time for me to make pies, and, like a dutiful Puritan maiden, I shall go and make them.)

2 thoughts on “about pilgrims, more or less

    • betweenbluerocks says:

      I don’t remember how old I was when I plunged into Longfellow, reading “Evangeline,” “Hiawatha,” and “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” (It was around the same period that I read Tennyson’s “Maud.”) Most of it has faded for me, but that line from Priscilla stuck with me, with the outlines of her story. It was fun to remember.

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