Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My Mother's Irish Ancestors

The birds are singing their spring songs outside, despite the snow, and St. Patrick's Day marks our turning towards the equinox. The days are lengthening and in my little garden, the tiger lilies are thinking about peeking out of the earth with their bright green shoots. And I am thinking about my Irish heritage. I was surprised to discover recently that all of my known Irish ancestors are found in my mother's family tree.

The first to step on American soil was my 7x great-grandfather David Calhoun, born in Dongeal in 1690. He settled and died in Connecticut. I feel I have to admit that David's grandfather was from Scotland, so his family blood was Scotch-Irish.

Thomas Riddle, also found spelled Ridel, was born in Ireland in 1739. He was my 6x great-grandfather. He hailed from Tyrone County, where he appears on a 1796 list for Irish flax growers. He fought for the colonies in the Revolutionary War as a Private in 1775.

My 6x great-grandparents John Berry, born in 1762, and Nancy Matchet, born in 1767, came to America from Ireland and settled in a small town called Mayfield, in New York. There are still Berrys in Mayfield.

My other Irish ancestors all immigrated to New York, where the Erie Canal was being planned. The unknown parents of my 3x great-grandfather Thomas Burke came to America via Canada, where Thomas was born in 1832. He is listed as living in Lockport in 1855 with his widowed mother Ann. He was employed in "boating."

My 4x great-grandfather Barney Dowd came over from Ireland with his daughters and their families, including my 3x great-grandmother Mary Dowd, born about 1837 in Ireland, as was her husband, David Conners, my ancestor, too.

My Lockportian ancestors all lived in the areas of Lowertown where the Irish who worked on the canal had set up their homes. So in honor of St. Patty's day, I'll set out a bowl of warm honey and milk over sodabread and I'll pour a pint of ale for them. I'll honor those who left their homelands for a country that treated them like vermin. I honor that Irish spirit that allowed them to persevere and plant roots.

[Originally posted March 16, 2016.]

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Help Me Thank My Skin Donor

I can’t stop thinking about the man who helped save my life.

On October 31, 2015 I was in a freak accident. I was severely burned from the waist down and in a coma in the Burn ICU at Syracuse Upstate Hospital. The surgeon used cadaver skin to cover my legs which allowed my vascular system to heal and regenerate allowing me the best possible outcome for my graft surgeries.

It did. And my grafts have healed amazingly well.

I can’t stop thinking about him.

I know he was a biker. I’m guessing he died shortly before my accident. I don’t know how long cadaver skin’s shelf life lasts. I’m assuming he died near to Syracuse in a motorcycle accident. From the amount of donor skin they had I am assuming he was a large man. I have been told that the skin bore tattoos and that his tattoos wrapped around my legs for a while. They saved me.

His skin bought me time. Time enough to harvest my own to replace what the fire took from me. And I don’t know his name.

More than anything, I want to say thank you.

If he was your family, your husband, your father, your ex, your beloved friend, and you are open to speaking to someone whose life he saved in his death, I want to say thank you. And if nothing else, I want you to know that something more came of his life after his death, if there can be comfort in that for you.

I can’t stop thinking about the man who helped save my life. And what a gift he left behind. Or how his life touched mine without our ever meeting. I will not take it for granted.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Looking at Great-Grandma Hattie's Diary

In the square space that was once the small bedroom my sister and I shared, that is now his office, my dad has an old metal toolbox which holds my great-grandpa Royal Levant Eaton’s wallet, a true leather billfold. Inside that wallet, I found a small scrap of paper folded up. It was a page from “Our America Engagement Calendar for 1956”. On the other side of it was a brief holiday journal written out in green ink by my great-grandma Hattie Eva Smith.
By the end of 1956, Hattie had been widowed for twenty-five years. My great-grandpa Roy was a prison guard. His son, my grandpa Mark, was sixteen years old was his father was injured during a prison riot and later died. Hattie was left with three children- Helen, Dorothy, and Mark- and had to get a job. She went to school for nursing.
In the journal bit she tucked away, it was Christmas time for her and it is Christmas time again. I corrected her major spelling and grammar errors, but otherwise, I’d like you to meet my great-grandma Hattie, in her own words. She mentions her daughter Helen, who shared an apartment with her.

December, Sunday 25: Snow all gone and it is Christmas day. Went to Mark’s for the day. Had a good time. Phil’s so cute (that’s my dad!). They sure had a nice Christmas, so glad. They deserve it. Robert and Laura were there for dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Rauson [Ransom, Mark's boss] came in to call.

December, Monday 26: Dorothy came after us and we went down there and had a lovely time. Jack sure had a good time. I know I did. Helen did too and looked better in a short while after we got there.

December, Tuesday 27: Cold day. Helen went to library. Very quiet here. Looked over my xmas presents. Read. Took a nap. Washed a few clothes. They are like boards they froze so stiff. A bit tired today. So much excitement!

December, Wednesday 28: Lovely day. Dorothy came for a little while. Bertha wanted time to go to the movies. We went to Bob’s for evening and had a good time. They sure had a big Christmas. Wish I could do for mine

December, Thursday 29: Went to the movies to see Heidi also Vanishing American. Helen was mad when she found out Bertha paid for it. She wasn’t too nice about it but so it goes. She is so sore at life.

December, Friday 30: Cold. A snow squall this morning. My check came this morning. Will pay the rent 46.00 tonight. Church $10. Also $8 for Miss Schafer for underclothes; slips. Helen’s so depressed over (?)el(?)(?).

December, Saturday 31: This is the end of the year. Hope next year will not be so hard. Have done the best I could. What more can anyone do? Good bye, old year. We hope for better times.

It’s worth noting that long before this journaling, Helen was in an extremely abusive marriage. When he discovered it, my Grandpa Mark and his brother-in-law drove to her farm and packed Helen and her children up. They never returned. My dad says his Aunt Helen never seemed to recover from it.
           After I read the small diary to my father, he talked fondly of her and described the layout of her small apartment to me. I live in my own fading apartment and have spent a year barely getting by, trying to focus on the joy that we are still getting by. I feel a kinship with this woman. Her spirit stood to the left side of my ICU bed while I was in the hospital. I was never alone.
            But it’s been a hard two years since then.
In difficult times, the love of the people in my life is my sunshine. I wonder if it was the same for Grandma Hattie. Because in that respect I am fully blessed. So I’ll borrow her words, her silent prayer, as I greet 2018. This prayer is for me, for my family, and for the world around me.

“Good bye, old year. We hope for better times.”

[Originally posted December 31, 2014.]

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

I Believe in Santa Claus

Six years ago, my wife flew into the house, cheeks rosy and eyes bright, shouting that she had seen Santa Claus in the grocery store (insert childlike exclamation marks). I smiled while she elatedly described him to me, an old man with snow white hair and beard in a red sweater, slowly walking the aisles. He had candy canes and oranges in his cart and when she looked him in the eye, he winked at her. I felt the giddy welling in my own belly and wished I had been there to see him, too.
I would have said, thank you.
Whether you call him Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaus, Father Christmas or Pere Noel, the spirit of the myth that was once a man has lived for centuries in the hearts of people everywhere. Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna lived in the 4th century. He was the son of a wealthy family who used his money for the welfare and good of his people, performing miracles for those who might otherwise have been left destitute. He brought hope and light to the world. He was a real man before his spirit was blessed with immortality. In the passing of time and telling of stories a holy man became something greater.
He became a season of giving and a myth with many faces.

It is the legend of the immortal gift-giver and toymaker that most of us grew up with. I still remember my love of the “jolly old elf” as a child. I remember because I still carry that love in my heart. My favorite version of his mythology comes from the fictional work The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank L. Baum. A babe left in the woods was raised in magic by the fairy folk and gifted the Cloak of Immortality for all of the joy he brought to an otherwise bleak human world, so that he might continue his good works forever. I like the idea that long after I am dead and gone, the spirit of the man called Claus will continue. Our world needs magic in it.
Our world is made of magic.
I wish that the joy and spirit of the holiday season could stretch out and blanket all of the calendar days, so I try to drink it in while I can, syrupy sappy happiness and all. I love baking cookies and delicacies and crafting presents for loved ones. I love the lengths people will go to in order to make a little Christmas magic happen. I learned that from Santa… and the spirit of him that lives in the heart of my mother and father.
How can belief in him be a bad thing? Santa Claus wants us to be good to each other. He promotes charity and compassion as well as candy canes and hot cocoa. I was the child who vehemently defended his existence far beyond what I should have, for as smart a child as I was. I’d done the math. I knew how much the presents we got from Santa Claus cost. Times that amount by three children. There was no way my parents could afford to spend that much on us.
I was adamant, fighting with friends on Grand Street on the way home from school and stomping home angrily because they didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe in Santa, when he was so good to us. I really wish I could remember how old I was then.
I remember sitting on my dad’s lap, in his father’s rocking chair when I was a bit older. He mentioned how important it was that I not ruin Santa for my younger sister, or other young children. I was bright for my age and always a bit ahead of putting pieces together. He assumed I had already figured it out and knew I was the kind of child who liked to share what knowledge I had. I will never forget the way his face drained of color when he saw the look on mine – when he realized that not only had I not put it together yet, but I had not even suspected the truth.
My poor father.
I had been a warrior for the Northern Elf for years and now my dad was saying that man was a figment, just an idea. I’m not embarrassed to admit to how long I believed in Sinter Klaus. If you know me you know that the magic and wonder of the holiday is a light that lives in me. It always has. My father’s admission did not take the magic away. I was not entirely sure that my father was right.
Santa had to be more than an idea. My eyes opened wider in the wake of that moment. I understood that the mall Santa was like the priest at church, speaking for a man who could not possibly be everywhere at once. I didn’t negotiate much beyond that until I realized something about my parents. They never bought things for themselves. All year, I watched my mom not buy herself anything and realized she was squirreling money away so that they could make Christmas the most magical day for us.
My parents sacrificed to gift us magic out of love. Because they remembered their joy as children, waiting for the sounds of sleigh bells in the night sky. It was a legacy they went to lengths to pass on. Isn’t that magic, too?

I remember well my days as a young girl, waking in my flannel nightgown, waiting until we were allowed to run into my parents’ room and throw open their east-facing window curtains. I remember every year, our mornings around the tree unwrapping presents. Those mornings opened a window into the child that lived in the heart of my parents and my grandparents. I understood that they were once children my age, excitedly opening gifts with their parents.
In my mind’s eye I can see the tree changing backwards into homemade ornaments and popcorn strands, paper chains and nuts strung. Rugs become rag wool become wood floor become dirt and straw… Always there is a child beneath the tree whose blood is part of me.
Always there is a child whose blood is part of me, back past Christmas, into Yule, into Modranight, into whatever group gathered together against the longest night.
The real Santa Claus lives inside all of us, like the divine energy does. We all have a santa and a scrooge, a light and a dark side. At holiday time, we find it easier to feed our inner Santa. We feel the desire to give gifts of magic to children around us and fight hard to help him defeat our stressed-scrooge inside.
Like the Native American story, we have a choice to continue to feed our inner Kringle and spread the joy and light of love, compassion and charity throughout all of our days. Whatever you believe, whatever you practice, whoever you love, take the best of the holiday season with you into world, through the long winter, well after the snows have melted.

An old Cherokee Indian was speaking to his grandson:
"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. This same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a long minute. "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one I feed."

[Originally posted December 14, 2011.]

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Calling Grandma Ruth into Christmas Kolachkis

My father’s mother died of cervical cancer when he was five years old. Her name was Ruth Emma Ruston and she was only forty-two. This year I turned forty-one. The closer I get to that age myself, the more I find myself thinking about her. At this age, what would it be like to know that I might have to leave behind my husband and four sons?
My dad has this picture of her at a family party in this fabulous red dress, a bit out of place for a Sunday afternoon get-together. She is looking at the camera with a big smile on her face. My dad said that she went into the hospital the week after that very party, and she knew she wasn’t coming out. That dress was her favorite dress.

I’ve been focusing on reaching out to her, trying to build traditions with her that we were never able to have together. In that spirit, I made kolachki cookies, for the first time, with Grandma Ruth in my butter-yellow kitchen.
As I’ve been doing our genealogy and family history, I find that my family resemblance is to her line of the family, the Ruston line with its Polish heritage. It wasn’t a leap to try to connect with her over a Polish cookie. I am not historically talented in the kitchen, something I’ve been working on as well. So my offering to her spirit was the attempt to make something that was a bit more complicated.
The dough was prepared the night before and chilled in the fridge. The black walnut filling was mixed and beat into submission. And then I pressed the dough out between two layers of wax paper until it was paper thin, almost translucent.
As I rolled the dough out, firmly and repeatedly, I thought about my Grandma Ruth. I thought about the line of Rustons, who come through Wickers and Whitchers, Whitchers and DeLoziers, Loziers and Zabriskis, Zabriskis and Terhunes, Zabriskis and Van Der Lindes, back into Poland. And I rolled the dough thin and smooth.
It felt as if dozens of women stood in the kitchen with me, cutting out three inch squares, dolloping golden filling on them, and folding opposite corners in over each other. The warmth from the oven made fingers and dough supple and inside they went to cook. My folding skills need work. They’re not all pretty. But they are delicate and flaky, and delicious.

I wish my father could have better known his mother. I wish that I could have known her. I’m not sure if she ever made kolachkis or if her family ever had, but in my heart I made them to honor my unknown Grandmother and all who came before her, so that I could be here, with hands in warm dough, and heart full of love, peace and wonder. 

Grandpa Mark and Grandma Ruth, cooking in the backyard.

[Original post published December 25, 2013, as Kolachkis for Grandma Ruth.]

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Grieving This Holiday

"Here is one of the ways grief works in our minds… I fall asleep thinking about my new cat, and how quickly she slipped into her own night time pattern. And how different her pattern is from any of the other cats I’ve had. Had. Because they’re dead now. Bella died in June. Bella hasn’t even been dead for a year. Bella’s only been six months. And I miss her. As cute as Mara is, she is an addition, not a replacement. And I want to have them both. Then I want all five of the deceased and alive cats all in one space. In one time. Right now.
And then I remember that time is a cycle of wheels and gears interlocking and pulling away. Some return to meet over and over and some gears only touch once before travelling onward. Our lives are these wheels within gears, within circles of family and friends. We need time and distance to distort the powerful emotion of feeling all that love at once or we would explode from the wonder of it. But sometimes, in the wake of the awe, we forget that these cycles and shifting circles are what our lives are made up of. And grief is part of that cycle.
I remember Bella’s night time pattern. Every night, before sleep, a kiss on the nose. If I forgot she would cry at me, kneading her feet angrily or worriedly on the bed. It was never the same emotion. And I remembered them, every one of those separate occasions as if they were a flip book of images in my mind until they became the same still. A thousand emotional moments becoming one feeling, one memory, and bringing her back to life. I could hear her tinny, obnoxious cry. And I could feel her coat under my hand. I could feel her push her face against my lips. I started to cry with a kind of grief I haven’t let myself feel for months."

I wrote that four years ago. Rereading it stings at my heart. I remember like it was yesterday. The house is decorated for the holidays. We give our cats a stocking of toys and catnip in the morning. It was hard enough when Luna died. And then, Bella... This year Zami won’t be there either. I know our holiday morning will be bittersweet, making new memories while being haunted by old ones. It’s why learning to be in the moment is important. This year, more than any other, I have a long list of friends who are dealing with the loss of a parent or pet, most of them within the last few weeks. It’s the cycle of life. And it’s heartbreaking.
             It's only been two months since Zami died. Mara is part of this family now, having found her niche. But Zami was the last of the originally babies. Her loss is still palpable. There are three boxes on my altar of cremains. At least they are together again, in a way.
It’s hard to lose someone at the holiday season. And it’s hard to be missing them when we are focused on family and loved ones. The weight of our grief directly correlates to the weight of the love we held for the lost. And when we are surrounded by family, by joyous, loving emotions like the holidays evoke, some of that grief will seep through. The most important piece of advice I can give you is to be gentle with yourself. The holidays are about compassion and you have to start with yourself.
             There’s no timetable for grief. What takes some people months, takes others years. Even then, it never truly goes away. The loss is always with us. So go easy on your grief. Allow it to flow through you.
Four years ago, sitting with friends, I realized that I would never say to Bella again, “Nobody wants your anus,” as she was prone to presenting it to people in greeting. Insistently. I cried for a minute, out of nowhere. They asked what was wrong and I told them and immediately laughed through my tears, because it was such a strange thing to miss. I said that it was stupid and my friends said, NoIt wasn’t.
             And they were right. The tears gave way to smiles and funny stories and the day went on. I didn’t ruin it with my grief. I allowed it to move through me.
So who cares if you’re at a holiday party and you think about your dad and you cry. Everyone loses people they love. Everyone understands. And if they don’t, maybe we need to make them. I cry for my Grandpa every Christmas morning when I eat my orange, because he’s not here.

The last Christmas with the Original trio, 2009.
It’s when we hold our grief in that it eats at us and it hurts. That’s when keeping it behind walls until it bursts ruins our days and moods. At the holidays, it’s impossible not to think about our fresh losses. We’re afraid of our grief. We’re afraid to bring it up because of the tears that threaten to follow. But what doesn’t work through us lives within us. So those who are grieving need to be able to be sad so that we can push through the crust of grief to the happy memories underneath it. The swifter you allow the flood, the sooner it ebbs.
If you aren’t the one grieving?
             Give your friends a break. Invite them to your festivities even if they’re dealing with a loss. Remind them they still have you. Be understanding if they choose not to come. Be understanding if they show up and are not the life of the party. Holidays are not about how things look. They’re about brotherhood and sisterhood and compassion.
At least they should be.

I spend a lot of my time hanging natural ribbons on trees in memory of those no longer with me. So I both make and collect ornaments that do the same thing. I have an angel cat for both Luna and Bella and now, Zami. A hummingbird for my grandparents and an owl for my grandma. You could also get some heavy card stock and cut out suns and snowflakes. Write the names of your Recent and Beloved Dead on them and hang them on your tree.
Drink a toast to those you miss when you are all gathered together. Have everyone raise a glass and speak their name. Speak their names. Invoke them into your joy. Share funny or heartwarming stories about them. Set a favored cocktail out on a clear space as an altar and offering for them. Bake the cookies they loved or used to make themselves and share them.
Put out a bunch of tea lights and candles, unlit. Throughout the day, as you remember a happy memory, light another candle. Literally allow the love and memories you had to bring light into your holiday. The darkness of winter seems to last forever, but this is when the light begins to return. I use the holiday as a reminder that there is joy after the sadness. Grief may pull at our hearts but love will win out in the end.

Blessings to you and yours this holiday season.

[Originally published December 18, 2013 as Grieving at the Holidays, after the loss of Bella.]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

My Mayflower Connections

The Mayflower
The first of my paternal ancestors stepped foot on this land three-hundred and ninety-seven years ago. My known maternal ancestors helped build French-Canada forty-five years later. Without their lives and their struggles, I would not be here. I would not be me. So for all of them, even the roads they took that I find unsettling, I am extremely grateful.
The history of our country is not easy or pretty. Western man stole all the land they settled, purchasing it for paltry sums from a people who had a different understanding of ownership. I have done a lot of research on that period of time and that’s pretty much how I feel. But, in the beginning, before the influx of colonials from England, there was a moment of peace, and a moment of hope for tolerance.
That is the day I am thankful for.
In September of 1620, the Mayflower left England with 102 passengers bound for Virginia in the New World, on a crossing that took sixty-six days. The majority of the voyagers were Separatists who had funded the voyage, having permission to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. The Separatists were a splinter group of Puritans, who were Protestants that wanted to let the Bible be the final authority on their religion, and encouraged them to have an individual relationship with their God. Whereas the Puritans were taking on trying to convert the Church of England, the Separatists wanted a place “separate” to practice as they believed.
The Separatists of the Plymouth colony followed the teachings of their minister, John Robinson, who believed in and preached religious tolerance, and in this manner were unlike the Puritans who came after them and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While none of the colonies would allow Quakers or Baptists to settle with them, which is discriminatory but was common practice, the Plymouth Colony did not force its Anglican members to convert. Off course and low in stores, the ship landed off of Cape Cod in November.
Seven of my ancestors were on board the ship. Francis Cooke, a woolcomber, came over with his oldest son John, to establish a home for the rest of their family, who waited in Leiden. Thomas Rogers, a camlet merchant- a luxury fabric of camel’s hair or angora mixed with silk- came over with his son Joseph. The rest of the family waited in Leiden as well. James, a tailor, and Mrs. Chilton brought their 13 year-old daughter Mary with them. At 64 years of age, James was the oldest passenger aboard ship. They were all Separatists.
Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622 was published in England as a means of encouraging people of like-mind to join them in the New World, and it details what their first months were like. After anchoring, the ship sent out parties to find wood, fresh water, and survey the land for other resources; they collected juniper wood to burn aboard ship. November 15, they came upon empty Indian homes, harvest fields, and buried caches of corn. They had dug up a mound, and once they realized it was a burial, they replaced everything and reburied it; they disturbed no more. The found corn, they did take for themselves, but the author states their intention of making amends to the corn’s owner when they encountered them.
They made many searches for the indigenous peoples but could not find them. In early December, men tracing a path along the river were fired upon by arrows and they retaliated. The natives soon disappeared into the woods and they gave chase but found none. Again, they regularly searched out the natives with no luck. One day, after failing to find them, the men shot and ate an eagle for dinner (and noted in the journal that it tasted like mutton).
Only half of the ship’s passengers survived the brutal first winter. James Chilton died aboard ship December 18 while they were still harbored in Cape Cod Bay. His wife died in early January in the First Sickness to claim multiple lives. Thomas Rogers died soon after that. All their bodies were buried in a mass grave with others. The location of this gravesite is unknown.
The Chiltons left behind an orphaned daughter, my direct ancestress Mary, an orphan at the age of 13. Based on the placement of the share of land she was later given in her parents’ names, it is believed she was taken in by either the Alden or the Standish family. The Separatists were aware that they had no claim to settle in Plymouth, as their contract was for Hudson Bay, but after losing half of their people and the rest being ill, the group made a decision.
On March 16, 1621, Samoset, of the Mohegan, approached the colonists in their village. He said his people were a five day walk and one day canoe from where they were, and that he had learned English from the men who fished and hunted with his people (unverified but these French trappers are possible ancestors on my maternal line). It was Samoset who told the Pilgrims that their settlement land was called Patuxet. Four years prior to their arrival, the Patuxet people had been wiped out by a plague, after white men had come to their land.
Samoset told them of their neighbors, the Wampanoag, whom he was living with, and the Nausets- the ones who had fired upon them in the woods. He explained that when Captain Thomas Hunt came in 1614, he deceived them and took twenty-seven men with him. He sold them into slavery for 20 pound each. Twenty of the men had been Patuxet and seven had been Nauset. When the Nauset saw that the white men had returned, they had attacked before their men were taken again. Samoset helped take the message to the Wampanoag that these white men did not condone what Captain Hunt had done.
A few days later, Samoset returned with Tisquantum, commonly remembered as Squanto, who also spoke fluent English. He was a native Patuxet who had been taken into slavery. He lived first with Spanish monks, second in England with a merchant named John Slaney, and third as a guide for Ferdinando Gorges, coming home on an expedition ship in 1619. Tisquantum acted as an interpreter between the English colony and the local Wampanoag tribe. He helped teach the Separatist farmers to cultivate corn, extract maple sap, catch fish and eels, and how to avoid the local poisonous plants. Their first harvest was a successful one.

Without Edward Winslow’s written account of the first feast, from December 12th, or William Bradford’s reflections on it twenty years later, we would not even know such an event had occurred. What we call Thanksgiving would not become an annual holiday for a couple centuries yet. [Edward Winslow is my 11x Great-Uncle. His brother John Winslow arrived in Plymouth in November 1621; he was not present for this harvest feast. Two years later, John would wed young Mary Chilton. The younger, orphaned girl was present for the feast.]
Their crops of wheat and barley did well, though the native corn fared far better. Twenty years later, William Bradford wrote about how, that harvest, the colonists were all in good health. There was plenty of cod and bass in store for every family and they were busy storing fowl, wild turkey, and venison. They had a good enough harvest that they had a “peck of meal a week to a person.” He says the reports of their plenty were not untrue.
Their harvest in, Governor William Bradford “sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together.” The men killed as much fowl as would feed the entire colony for a week. Bradford invited the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and his people to join them. There were 53 colonists and 90 Wampanoag at the first Feast, which lasted for three days. The Wampanoag brought five deer to add to the gathering. Edward Winslow closes his letter with “although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

          This is the moment I remind you that history is written by the victors. But for this post, I defer to what the accessible history tells me. But I leave a door open to a different truth. This initial feast was not called Thanksgiving. In fact, the first holiday referred to as Thanksgiving- decades before it became an annual holiday- was celebrated in 1637 after a massacre of Indians. For the Eastern tribes, our holiday is their Day of Mourning.

Feasting Today
For me, Thanksgiving Day is not about the Separatists who came to this country to make a settlement in their own image. And it’s not about the Wampanoag people whose population would soon be decimated by war with the colonists and disease. For those three days in Plymouth, however guarded, a friendship was known between two peoples of different culture and belief, and there was hope and promise of peace between them.
That time in history was so turbulent. I have ancestors who fought against and killed natives at Esopus, an ancestor who lost a wife to native blades at Esopus, ancestors who fought the northern natives in the name of France, an ancestor who lived among the Lenape and was a friend to them, an ancestor who was raised by the Lenape and taken as a son by the sachem, and who started life in native tribes before white men ever walked the soil. I embrace them all and learn from their stories.
This is the message I remember: Compassion for others. Tolerance for differences. Gratitude for blessings.
Every year, in memory of all that has come before, I make a list for what I am grateful for as it unravels through the day, and I will include all those who have come before me whose stories have been my shaper. Wherever you are, remember the things that bring your world joy and fill you with blessing, for those are the things that will light your path on darker days.

Looking Ahead
I would be remiss if I did not compare the horrific slaughter of the native people that came later with current events. A year ago, Native Nations were camped at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, as a means to protect our precious drinking water. They were gassed, attacked by dogs, jailed, and beaten for protesting.
This year they are cleaning up a 210,000 gallon oil spill in South Dakota from the Keystone Pipeline. I am a firm believer that if the technology is not sound, we need to wait. Not scrap it, but perfect it. And if the men-in-charge would say their technology is sound then, given the amount of spills that occur, I would say their equipment is cheap.
We found this country a pristine wilderness and the first thing we did was begin to ravage it for profit, increasingly at the expense of our health. How long until we listen to those who still live in symbiosis with the earth beneath us?
She created us. We are of her. She gave birth to us. We return to her.

Will we listen to her?

"There is much that we can still learn from my Wampanoag ancestors, the first Americans, who welcomed the Pilgrims to these shores with an open hand of friendship and taught them how to survive and farm this rugged land. The very first Thanksgiving was a feast joined by the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims to celebrate a successful fall harvest. That feast provided us with an enduring lesson of what can be accomplished by people of different backgrounds and cultures by simply working together. It's time for us all as Americans to get back to that basic principle. We must understand and remind our fellow Americans and the rest of the world that the only path to peace and prosperity is one that includes all people."
Cedric Cromwell / Chairman, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

[Updated from a post originally published November 21, 2012]
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