Have you ever considered what everyday life was like for the Pilgrims? Some time ago, I joined a group of fellow Pilgrim John Howland descendants and set out for a late summer sail on the shallop Elizabeth Tilley in hopes of experiencIng one aspect of daily life in the Plymouth Colony.
It was a gorgeous New England September day when this small group of John Howland descendants set out for an afternoon sail on the shallop Elizabeth Tilley. After being ferried from Brewer’s Marine to the shallop, moored in Plymouth Harbor, our captain, Michael Goldstein, warmly welcomed his guests and offered a brief orientation to sailing aboard the Elizabeth Tilley in Plymouth Bay.
After this brief orientation to the shallop, the sails were raised and with much excitement we set out on our adventure. Leaving thoughts of the present moment behind, our imaginations led us into the world of a 17th century coastal tradesman.
The Elizabeth Tilley is a reproduction sailboat from colonial times and our mind’s eye became filled with thoughts of John Howland plying his trade up and down the New England coast as the gentle sound of the bay waters lapped against the wooden sides of our workboat.
The sights and sounds of our crew managing the sailboat, as we sailed along-side an outcropping of sandy land called “the spit,” provided an introduction to how John Howland might have maneuvered his vessel through the tides and currents of Plymouth Bay so many years ago.
It’s true, we had the benefit of a motorized tender, but still the trip offered a glimpse into a world from many years ago. This was especially evident when the tender’s motor was disengaged and all was quiet except for the calming sounds of the gentle breeze against the canvas sails and the water rushing by our vessel.
For John Howland, sailing on the shallop, the trip through the bay would have been the beginning of a lengthy trip up the New England coast as he made his way north towards the Kennebec River in the northern reaches of the colony’s land grant. He and his crew were heading north to trade corn for beaver skins.
For us, on this day, it wasn’t beaver skins that motivated the trip but rather a desire for a fun afternoon sail with family and the opportunity to better understand what colonial sailing might feel like. A gathering of the Waterman-Raybold family, all descendants of John Howland and a few other Pilgrims, came together for the afternoon sail.
As we entered the broader bay, our view of the town of Plymouth behind us offered us a deeper appreciation of the sight encountered by our forebears as they came upon the abandoned Indian village of Patuxet, nestled on the hill.
As we sailed on, we caught a glimpse of Clark’s Island and we were reminded of that frigid night when our ancestor, John Howland, and his Pilgrim companions, were shipwrecked on the island during a storm while investigating Cape Cod Bay and its surrounding inlets. Our sailing trip was indeed both an enjoyable modern outing and a trip back in time.
One highlight of the trip involved the opportunity to actually “man the tiller” and truly sail the Elizabeth Tilley. What a thrill it was to guide this wooden vessel through the seas. A number of cousins took turns at the tiller and each appreciated what it felt like to sail this shallop through the New England waters.
Our exciting trip back in time ended at our mooring in Plymouth Harbor with many eager hands taking down the sails, storing gear, and waving our afternoon good- byes. Sailing on the Elizabeth Tilley was a great privilege and thrill bringing us closer to the experiences of our Pilgrim forebears and closer to each other.
Have you ever been transported “back in time“ by an adventure you had with friends or family? Feel free to leave a comment below!
Note: A slightly modified version of this article was previously published in The Howland Quarterly, The Compact, and The Mayflower Quarterly Magazine. Also, thank you to the Pilgrim John Howland Society for permission to use their photos. Follow Matt Villamaino on Instagram @mvillamaino.
As we march into the 4th of July Weekend and celebrate our freedoms, I pause and reflect upon my Patriot ancestors who marched for our liberty in the War of Independence.
These men marched and fought for you and they marched and fought for me. And yes, often, women marched and fought, too. Theirs was a grand dream of citizens governing citizens under shared laws. We became the land of the free because of the actions of these brave women and men. As we celebrate Independence Day, I take a moment to remember those who fought for our freedoms and made great sacrifices for all of us.
Here are a few names and stories of my Revolutionary War forebears. I share this brief narrative with you in an effort to keep alive the memory of these courageous individuals and to honor the values for which they stood.
As you know, the Revolutionary War began in all seriousness in 1775 with the skirmishes that unfolded in Lexington and Concord. Many other events led up to the firing of that famous musket shot of April 19, 1775, but the “hot” war officially began on that day.
The first Revolutionary War patriot that comes to mind is Captain Joshua Gray (1743 – 1791). Joshua Gray is my fifth great-grandfather on my father’s side of my family. He fought in the Revolutionary War as a captain in a company of Minute Men who marched on April 20, 1775 in response to the alarm of April 19, 1775. They marched towards Marshfield, Massachusetts after the alarm for Lexington went out.
Captain Gray was also engaged from July 1, 1775 to December 31, 1775 serving in defense of the sea coast. Additionally, he served as a captain in Colonel Cary’s Regiment which was raised to reinforce the Continental Army until April 1776. It seems, from letters he sent to his wife, he was stationed outside Boston for a few months during this time period. Finally, the record shows, Joshua Gray was chosen 1st major in Colonel Nathaniel Freeman’s Regiment of the Massachusetts Militia (1st Barnstable Company). That’s some soldiering!
Joshua was a fervent Patriot and it was written of him, “In the local annals of the Revolution, Joshua Gray was a prominent figure. At its outbreak, when public meetings were being held in various towns on the Cape by the ‘Body of the People’ to declare for their rights and liberties, and to prepare for action, he was among the leading patriots in enthusiasm, efficiency, and service.”
Next, we visit with a father and son team of Patriots, my fifth and sixth great-grandfathers, who fought in the American Revolution. Both of these men were named Perez Waterman. The details of the service of the first Perez Waterman (1713 – 1793) are limited but the second Perez Waterman (1739 – 1821), the Patriot ancestor through which I joined the Sons of the American Revolution, are substantial.
Perez initially served as a 1st sergeant in Captain Nathan Mitchell’s Company of Minutemen, which marched, like Captain Joshua Gray, in response to the alarm of April 19th, 1775 with service of 11 days.
Perez was living in Bridgewater, Massachusetts at the time of the call to march to Lexington. Given Bridgewater’s relative proximity to Lexington and Concord, I often wonder if Perez was engaged in the ongoing skirmishes with the British as they retreated from Concord towards the safety of Boston. It is unlikely he participated in the Lexington or Concord engagements but perhaps Perez Waterman joined his compatriots in the New England woods and harassed the British soldiers as they made their way back to Boston – a bloody and costly retreat to Boston for the British.
Perez was also an ensign in the company of Captain James Allen enlisting in May 1, 1775, with service of about 14 weeks lasting to the middle of August 1775. Additionally, he mustered in the company of Captain Allen. Finally, the record shows he served as a lieutenant in the company of Captain Nathan Packard from July 10, 1780 to Oct 31, 1780 for an additional 14 weeks serving in Rhode Island.
Did Perez Waterman participate in the Battle of Rhode Island which took place in August, 1778? We can only wonder. We do know, through the writings of his grandson C.C.P. Waterman, Perez Waterman fought in the defense of New Bedford under the command of Major Israel Fearing during the early days of the Revolutionary War.
From these three men, we turn to five other men in my family known to have served in the Revolutionary War. Names like Lot Thatcher (1757 – 1833), Isaac Johnson (1721 – 1807), Daniel Lathrop (1721 – 1818), Ephraim Cary (1714 – 1791), and Jonathan Cady are included in that list of Patriots. All these men are ancestors from my father’s family line.
Lot Thatcher fought in the Revolutionary War serving as a private under Captain David Nye in the 4th Company in the 4th Plymouth County Regiment. He served for three days on an alarm of December 7, 1776 in defense of the Elizabeth Islands.
He also served under the command of Captain John Gibbs in the 5th Company in the 4th Regiment of Plymouth County, Massachusetts Militia. He marched on an alarm to Falmouth on September 13th, 1778. He served in that operation for five days. He was my fifth great-grandfather.
Isaac Johnson, my sixth great-grandfather, fought in the Revolutionary War as a major. He was from Bridgewater, MA and served in the 3rd Regiment Plymouth County Militia under Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah Hall.
Daniel Lathrop fought in the Revolutionary War as a captain of an artillery company and Ephraim Cary served the cause of freedom as a selectman for the town of Bridgewater. They were both my sixth great-grandfathers.
Jonathan Cady fought in the Revolutionary War as a lieutenant with Captain Joseph Cady under Colonel Ebenezer Williams’ 11th Brigade. He was also a captain with Colonel Conants Regiment. I have the privilege of calling him my fifth great-grandfather.
Were these men inspired to reject the tyranny of a king after listening to the words of Thomas Paine from Common Sense?
“O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” – Thomas Paine
Finally, on this 4th of July, I remember one of my favorite family Patriots. He is my fourth great-grandfather, this time on my mother’s side, and his name was James Wheaton Brayton. James served as a private with the Rhode Island troops and also as a carpenter’s mate on the galley “Spitfire” and on the privateer “General Stark.” Much to my delight, I discovered James’ grave in my own hometown of Warren, Rhode Island.
The story is told, while fighting the British in the American Navy, James broke his arm and was subsequently captured. He was imprisoned on an enemy ship. After his arm sufficiently healed his captors placed a pen in his hand and instructed him to sign a document pledging allegiance to King George III.
With Patriot defiance, he slammed his arm down with such force he broke the bone a second time – refusing to sign. The surgeon was obliged to set the break again and James was returned to the prison hold. Some weeks later, once the arm healed a second time, James was escorted to the table to sign his papers of allegiance once again. This time, too, he repeated his earlier performance and broke his arm upon the table. He was, the report states, “afterwards assigned to the Jersey prison ship.” This was a determined Patriot!
So, happy 4th of July! And as I honor and celebrate my Patriot ancestors, I also honor and celebrate all men and women who fought to secure our freedom and laid the constitutional foundations for our American way of life. We do indeed remain the land of the free and home of the brave, in large part, because of the selfless actions of so many Patriots who came before us.
Do you have any Patriot ancestors in your family history? What are their names? Let me know in a comment below!
My beloved Aunt Shirley, the sister of my father, died on June 6, 2020. During the last few years she and I shared a warm friendship – mostly celebrated over the phone. I’d like to share with you a few words about my aunt and our conversations over the years.
As I pause to reflect on the life of my Aunt Shirley, birthday cards are what initially come to mind. Yes, birthday cards. She was an enthusiastic sender of birthday cards! Even though my address changed often over the course of my life, my Aunt Shirley always seemed to find me and eventually a card with a note would arrive on my birthday celebrating my presence in the world. I suspect she did this for all her siblings, nephews, nieces, children, and grandchildren.
This year, like so many other years, my Aunt sent me a birthday greeting in May. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t go to the post office during the month of May. As a happy consequence of this choice, my mail was delayed in reaching me. So, it was on the very day in June when my Aunt passed away that my housemate joyfully announced, “Look what you received in the mail today.” Dropping a letter with the return address of Shirley Hinds into my hands, we both knew this was a little greeting from my Aunt from the Great Beyond. I will treasure that last birthday card and accompanying note. It was like a gentle goodbye kiss from heaven.
After birthday cards, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island comes to mind. My Aunt was proud of her alma mater and she regularly reminded me in our phone conversations she graduated from Brown – Phi Beta Kappa! Often adding, “You know, at last count, nineteen members of our family graduated from Brown. That’s something, don’t you think,” she would ask almost rhetorically? “Yes, Aunt Shirley, That is something,” I would respond with enthusiasm pretending it was the first time, and not the 1,200th time, she shared that fact.
Thoughts of Brown University lead me to memories of the conversations we had about her husband, Ralph. “My Ralph” is what she called him to me. That affectionate determiner, “my,” emphasized her loving relationship with Ralph and it always touched me. Shirley met Ralph while they both attended Brown and her love for him was real and enduring. He was a true war hero and she would often recount the stories he had told her about his exploits in World War II. Ralph and Shirley were a real team throughout their lives.
My Aunt Shirley had a love of history and our conversations would often involve discussing American history. Shirley was very proud of her Yankee roots. Our colonial connections to John Howland and other Pilgrims would often be highlighted in our talks and my Aunt would share her involvement with The Questers. This is a group working to keep history alive and helping to preserve historical buildings. She often shared with me her involvement with this group and she always appreciated my genealogy discoveries.
The 1938 Hurricane. It was the rare conversation with Shirley when the 1938 Hurricane wasn’t brought up in some context during our phone conversations. “That reminds me of the time Grandma (her mother and my grandmother) was trapped in the Outlet building in downtown Providence during the 1938 Hurricane! Grandad was so worried about her,” she would start. And off she’d go! She did like to talk.
Children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren were often the topics of our conversations. She loved her family and she took special delight in sharing about her grandchildren. “Chrissy is having a baby and Jacquie is going to be a doctor,” she’d share with pride. “And, she’s marrying Andrew. He’s a state police officer, you know?” She’d emphasize “state” to ensure I knew he wasn’t some sort of local yokel police fellow. 😉 She loved her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and she loved talking about them. I always enjoyed hearing the reports of her ever growing family.
My Aunt had high and exacting standards. This is well-evidenced by her successful children. In one conversation, my Aunt was telling me about the coming retirement of her son, a successful anesthesiologist and all around good guy, and I remarked about my own early departure from a working life because of health. I began sharing my embarrassment for not being, well, shall we say, the brightest star in the Whipple firmament. In an effort to encourage her to boost my sagging ego, I mentioned my career at the American Red Cross – Biomedical Services and my years owning my own business as a project manager. I mentioned these jobs in the hope that she would say something affirming and encouraging to me. She wasn’t taking the bait. After my lament, which was only a fishing expedition for a little affirmation, she responded, “Don’t worry, you still have time to do something.” I laughed. I hope she’s right. Aunt Shirley had high standards.
One of my most enjoyable and engaging conversations I had with my Aunt Shirley took place one afternoon after I discovered online her 1945 Classical High School yearbook from Cranston, Rhode Island. It was named the “Cranstonian.” I called her up to discuss some of the students and teachers in the book. Turns out she was on the yearbook staff and she was delighted to talk with me about her many fond high school memories. It’s funny how our memories can be so sharp from many years ago. What a history of the “war years” I learned that day. “We had a shortage of paper then, don’t you know, but we managed to publish our yearbook anyway,” she declared triumphantly!
My phone conversations with my Aunt generated such joy in my heart that they actually inspired my “Aunt Shirley Strut.” That’s right, after talking with my Aunt on the phone I would often bounce into the living room and exclaim to my housemate, “You’ll never guess who I just got off the phone with?!” My housemate would respond, “Well, based on that unique bounce in your step, I’d say you just finished talking to your Aunt Shirley.” Evidently, I only “bounced” this way after talking to my beloved Aunt. It happened more than once. We started calling it my “Aunt Shirley Strut.”
One day, at the end of one conversation while we were saying our goodbyes my Aunt Shirley said to me, “I love you, Andy. I hope you know that.” I was stunned. Now, to many families this farewell comment is common. In my family, this is a very rare and almost unheard of endearment. We do not tell people we love them. I was initially muted by my Aunt’s comment and momentarily taken aback as if she had violated a sacred family convention. It did, of course, soften me and I replied somewhat awkwardly but certainly sincerely, “I know and I love you, too, Aunt Shirley.” After that, we ended all of our conversations with an “I love you.” I will miss that.
Yes, I had tender affection and much love for my Aunt Shirley. Her connection to my beloved Grandmother, Marion Raybold Whipple, drew me to her greatly. My Aunt Shirley was the daughter of my grandmother on my father’s side and I saw many traits from my Grandmother in my Aunt. I loved seeing this family heritage manifested in her. Additionally, she was my father’s cherished sister and because of this fact she connected me back to my beloved father. Finally, I simply loved my Aunt Shirley because of who she was as a person, Shirley Whipple Hinds.
To quote the 1945 Cranstonian, “It’s impossible to put into words, that fluent talker, dynamic leader, that animated personality that is Shirley Whipple. We know wherever she will go success will be hers. Here’s to you, Whip!” Yes, she was all those things and much more. And yes, success was indeed hers. Here’s to you, Aunt Shirley! Here’s to you. I will miss you very much.
“They were a most unusual group of colonists. Instead of noblemen, craftsmen, and servants – the types of people who had founded Jamestown in Virginia – these were, for the most part, families – men, women, and children who were willing to endure almost anything if it meant they could worship as they pleased.” – Nathaniel Philbrick
The year 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims in the New World. It is a year of commemoration and celebration for Pilgrim descendants around the globe. As a descendant of a number of Mayflower passengers, I join in this enthusiasm.
Originally, I was planning to honor the memory of my Pilgrim ancestors by participating in a variety of events held throughout the coming months. Unfortunately, with COVID – 19 and the world-wide pandemic, most Pilgrim events are canceled and my plans have significantly changed.
It’s entirely likely I will not participate in any events in person this year but rather I will be commemorating my Mayflower ancestors in other ways. One way I aim to honor my Pilgrim forebears is to write one or two blog posts about them.
In this first Pilgrim blog post, I provide an overview of the nine families and 16 individual Pilgrims from which my family, through Mary Louise Waterman, is known to descend. Mary Waterman was the grandmother of my father making her my patrilineal great-grandmother. Her line brings us back to many Pilgrim families.
In future blog posts, during this commemorative year, I hope to share with you some of my experiences learning about the Pilgrims, my connection to them, and information about their families as they grew in New England.
A “Pilgrim,” for the purposes of this blogpost, is anyone who traveled on the Mayflower in 1620 and remained in America to begin the colony in Plymouth.
The first Pilgrim family, connected to Mary Waterman, I would like to discuss is the John Howland Family. There is a great deal written about John Howland as he lived a long and productive life within the Plymouth Colony. He traveled to the New World as a manservant to John Carver; a leading member of the Leiden community of Separatists in Holland. John was a signer of the Mayflower Compact and he married Elizabeth Tilley, a fellow Pilgrim. Together they had ten children.
Pilgrim John Howland is my tenth great-grandfather and he and his family left a memorable mark upon early New England. One of the most outstanding facts of his life involves his brush with death as he made his way across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower.
The story goes, during a severe storm John was tossed overboard by a massive wave. Providentially, he grabbed hold of a trailing halyard and was pulled back aboard the ship. Saving his life. Imagine, millions of souls wouldn’t exist today if he hadn’t made his way back onboard the ship.
Amazingly, for this era, all their children lived to adulthood. It is suggested, John Howland has more descendants than any other Mayflower Pilgrim. My family has five confirmed lines to John Howland through his daughters Hope and Desire.
John Howland’s wife, Elizabeth Tilley, was the daughter of two lesser known Pilgrims, John Tilley and Joan Hurst, linking my family to a second Pilgrim family headed by John Tilley.
Elizabeth Tilley was baptized in Henlow, Bedfordshire, England and she journeyed to the New World with her parents. And while she survived the first winter, her mom and dad, sadly, did not. Her uncle Edward Tilley and his wife also joined them on the Mayflower. They, too, died the first winter leaving Elizabeth all alone. Some years after arriving in America, in 1625, Elizabeth married John Howland. She died around 1687 in what was then Swansea in Plymouth Colony. Today, this area is a part of East Providence, Rhode Island.
A third family from which I descend is the John Alden Family. John Alden is a well-known Pilgrim through fact and myth. John was a crew member on the Mayflower acting as the cooper for the ship joining the voyage in Southampton. He was born in England around 1599 and may have been connected to Harwich, Essex, England.
Once arriving in America, and after signing the Mayflower Compact, John elected to remain in the New World and contributed greatly to the Plymouth Colony. John Alden married fellow Pilgrim, Priscilla Mullins, whose father and her suspected step-mother were also Pilgrims.
John and Priscilla Mullins raised ten children together producing a great number of descendants. The marriage of John and Priscilla is poetically remembered by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish. John Alden died in Duxbury, Plymouth Colony in 1687 after a long and fruitful life.
After the Howland, Tilley, and Alden families, the Allerton Family comes to mind. The Isaac Allerton Family connects my family to three different Pilgrims; Isaac, his wife Mary Norris, and their daughter Mary Allerton. Isaac and Mary are my tenth great-grandparents and Mary, who married Thomas Cushman, is my ninth great-grandmother.
Isaac Allerton was said to be the son of Bartholomew Allerton, a tailor, from East Bergholt, Suffolk. He was born about 1588 and died about 1659. He was likely a member of a group of Brownist recusants or Separatists in the region of Suffolk and became a prominent member of the Leiden congregation in Holland. In 1611, he married Mary Norris. Sarah Allerton, his sister, married on the same day the future Pilgrim, Degory Priest, another direct ancestor.
Isaac brought his whole family with him when he boarded the Mayflower this included his wife Mary, his son Bartholomew, and his two daughters – Remember and Mary. My family descends down through Mary.
Isaac was one of the first five signers of the Mayflower Compact and was a prominent member of the Plymouth Colony for most of his life. There was some controversy about his business dealings later in his life as it seems some of his business transactions were benefiting him in a lopsided way to the detriment of the colony.
The next Pilgrim Family from which my contemporary Waterman Family claims descent is the Francis Eaton Family. Francis was born in Bristol, Gloucester, England about 1596 and arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower with his wife, Sarah, and his child. Sadly, Sarah died the first winter. Francis married a second time to a woman only known to history as Dorothy and then a third time to Christiana Penn, my tenth great-grandmother, who arrived in Plymouth in 1623 on a ship named Anne.
Francis also signed the Mayflower Compact and it is commonly believed that he was a member of the Leiden congregation. He was a carpenter by trade and in Plymouth Colony it seems he experienced some financial challenges as evidenced by his selling of certain land holdings in 1631. Some two years later, in 1633, an epidemic spread through the colony with deadly consequences. Tragically, Francis was a casualty of this epidemic and died in the fall of 1633. We descend down the Francis Eaton line through his son Benjamin.
Next, we come to the James Chilton Family. James was born about 1556 in Canterbury, Kent, England and was trained as a tailor. He was the oldest passenger on the Mayflower at about 64 years of age and signed the Mayflower Compact. He is said to have been part of the Separatist community at Leiden, Holland and he traveled to the New World with his wife and youngest daughter, Mary. Evidently, he left his other 10 children in England. Because William Bradford did not record her first name, James Chilton’s wife is known to us only as “Mrs. Chilton.” James Chilton died on the Mayflower in 1620 in Provincetown Harbor. His wife died a few months later.
James’ daughter, Mary, has, like so many other Pilgrims, a variety of interesting facts and myths attached to her. First, she is reputed to have been the first Pilgrim to step ashore in Plymouth as a 13 year old girl. She shares this distinction with a competing story which claims John Alden was the first Pilgrim to step ashore. Be that as it may, she was indeed present from the earliest moments of the colony and her family grew abundantly in New England. She’s also one of only two female Pilgrims who left a will and her marriage to John Winslow connected her to another important Pilgrim family.
The Francis Cooke Family now captures our attention. Francis came to the New World on the Mayflower with his oldest son, John. His wife, Hester, and other children joined him later in America after arriving on the ship Anne in 1623.
Francis Cooke, by evidence of his tax burden, was not a wealthy member of Plymouth Colony though he was self-sufficient. He wasn’t overly represented in the political life of Plymouth Colony but he was consistently available for different civic duties. He clearly had a knack for surveying as he was regularly called upon to practice this skill for the colony laying out many roads in Plymouth and the surrounding towns. He and his wife had seven children and he died in Plymouth in 1663. The Waterman Family enjoys three connections to Francis Cooke.
We find the Degory Priest Family as our eighth family of interest. Degory Priest was an active member of the Leiden Separatist congregation and worked as a hatter when he became a citizen of Leiden.
In 1611 Degory married Sarah (Allerton) Vincent who was the sister of the future Pilgrim, Isaac Allerton. Degory and Isaac married their brides on the same day. Degory came to Plymouth alone. His wife and two daughters, Mary and Sarah, came to the New World and settled in Plymouth after his death. Degory Priest was a signer of the Mayflower Compact and he died, shortly after signing, during the first winter on January 1, 1621. The Mary Watermans descend through Degory’s daughter Sarah.
The ninth and final family from which the Waterman clan descends is the Mullins Family. Based on the number of shoes identified in his will and the supply of footwear he brought over on the Mayflower, William Mullins was believed to be a shoemaker. He came to the New World with his wife Alice, his daughter Priscilla, his son Joseph, and his servant Robert Carter. Alice isn’t considered an ancestor because it hasn’t been sufficiently proven that Priscilla was her daughter. With the exception of Priscilla, all of the Mullins family died during the first winter. Priscilla would later marry John Alden and leave a large family.
These nine different families, each with rich New England stories, make up a part of our American history and they also make up a part of my personal history. We celebrate their efforts and their accomplishments this year not because of our excessive pride or because we ourselves have done anything particularly special but because their values and their virtues, real or imagined, provided the bedrock foundation upon which America was built.
If you are from Rhode Island, you know what I mean. If you’re from anywhere else, let me explain.
This is a quahog. It is a beautiful and tasty bivalve mollusk found in the waters surrounding Rhode Island and in many other Atlantic coastal communities. It’s an animal we dig up in the bay and estuaries, prepare it, cook it and eat it. If you’ve lived in Rhode Island for more than twenty minutes, you’ve probably eaten one or two of these critters.
For me, a picture of a quahog brings back fond memories of my youth. I think of old times digging clams with my father, eating my mother’s clam cakes and clam chowder, and enjoying my brother’s famous stuffies.
Yes, this simple picture activates my senses. Smells, tastes, and sensations return to me and I’m twelve years old again walking along Mt. Hope Bay in Rhode Island with my father. And all is well with the world.
What initially strikes me as I look at this picture of a quahog is not the clam itself but the mud underneath it. Yes, the mud. Let’s start there.
There are lots of different kinds of mud in Rhode Island. The mud in the Kickemuit River is different from the mud in Mt. Hope Bay. And the mud in Conklin’s Cove is different from the mud in the broader bay. All of these varieties of ooziness harbor clams.
In this picture, I suspect this mud is from the Kickemuit River. Having dug clams there, I can smell it’s very “flavor.” I can feel it’s viscosity. I well know how walking in the depths of this mud can suck your boots right off of you. More than once while clam digging, I walked away from a mud encounter with only one boot. Returning later to extricate the lone boot from the jealous and possessive muck. Enough about mud.
The real fun of quahogs is eating them.
And eat them we did. First, and most importantly, we ate them in clam chowder.
My mother made the tastiest clam chowder the world has ever known. Didn’t all our Rhode Island mothers? I remember my mother would put a little square of butter on top of the creamy New England clam chowder just before serving it. Real butter. Was it the butter that added the flavor or her Irish love that gave it the extra savory flavor? It’s hard to know. Suffice it to say, the quahogs in this soup were delicious. Now, technically, Rhode Island clam chowder is clear but my Mom was partial to the creamy variety.
Next, we ate quahogs in clam cakes. These little fried balls of dough were made with eggs, flour and baking soda. They aren’t really cakes at all but more like fluffy on the inside and crusty on the outside fried dough snacks. My mother made the best clam cakes, too. I think she tossed a little sugar into her batter to give it an extra flavor boost. I think of these things when I see a picture of quahogs.
Lastly, we ate quahogs in, the king of all quahog delights, the “New England Stuffie.” Now, I’d like to suggest my mother made the best stuffies but I’m afraid, while her’s were good, this family honor falls on the shoulders of my brother.
Stuffies are the seafood version of Thanksgiving stuffing. The dressing in these creations, however, is quahog based. Once the “stuffing” is prepared it’s piled on the inside of half of a quahog shell and baked. There are all kinds of delightful additions to the quahogs baked into this stuffie. Linguiça, spices, bread, onions, garlic, and other ingredients all make their way into a flavorful New England Stuffie.
Besides the culinary delights quahogs bring to mind, they also remind me of other aspects of my youth. A quahog is a reminder of lazy August Sunday afternoons shared with family and friends on the back deck of my family home.
A day like this began with my mom handing my sister and I a bag of freshly picked corn on the cob and an empty brown paper bag. We’d sit on the porch peeling the corn eager for the afternoon cook-out. Burgers, clam cakes, lobsters, and buttery sweet corn on the cob were all part of the feast and animated the social environment filled with cousins, friends, and family. Quahogs remind me of this.
Many of these memories are in the past for me but Rhode Islanders still enjoy these quahog recipes and family gatherings even today. I’m happy to report, my brother, though no longer living in Rhode Island, still makes a mean New England Stuffie.
So, these are just a few thoughts that come to mind when I see a picture of a quahog. I think I’ll make a point of enjoying some clam cakes and a New England Stuffie next time I’m in Rhode Island. What regional cuisine activates warm memories for you? Feel free to add a comment.
Recently, I began the process of reviewing and confirming my family connections to Francis Cooke, a passenger on the Mayflower. This process reminded me of how I view history, how I make sense of it, and how I find myself in the unfolding narrative of time.
How do you make sense of history? More specifically, how do you view American history? Is there a unique perspective coloring your understanding? For me, I view it through the lens of my own family. I’ve discovered through genealogy research my family was involved in many significant events in our country’s past. This personal perspective makes these days of old come alive. The good, the bad, the inspiring, and the questionable all intrigue me.
When I begin the review process for a possible colonial ancestor, I begin with the known facts from my genealogy research and slowly walk backwards in time. Initially, events are quite concrete and known but as I walk back in time I become less certain about the details and my imagination begins to craft a story. It’s an exciting process!
I begin with myself and my own presence in time. I pause at this juncture and ask myself the following question, “Where do I come from?” Perhaps at some point in your life you’ve asked the same question?
From this place and with this question, I commence my walk backwards into history. In this case, I start with my father. I consider his experiences in the tail end of World War II and his experiences in the Korean War.
My mind is drawn into my father’s moments on the battlefield when incoming mortar fire pins him down in a foxhole. I can feel the cold. I can see the thick spring mud covering his boots. I experience some share in the terror. And for a moment, I am there with him.
As I continue back in time, I think of my father’s mother, my grandmother. She always told us a story of the 1938 Hurricane in Providence, Rhode Island. It was one of the fiercest and deadliest hurricanes in Rhode Island history.
As I review my grandmother’s dry genealogical data this moment in time floods my consciousness. Again, I am present as my grandfather frantically awaits the return of his wife, trapped by the rising water and billowing wind in downtown Providence, after a trip with family members to visit her aunt. This moment in history, captured in so many newspaper articles and newsreels, is made personal and real by my grandmother’s involvement in this event.
This connection continues as I review the facts of my great-grandmother, Mary Louise Waterman. She married Richard Edward Raybold and they courted in Sandwich, Massachusetts. A story, handed down in my family, has my great-grandfather, as a young man, seeing my great-grandmother, as a young woman, walking down Main Street in Sandwich with a “lithe step” and thinking he’d like to get to know this attractive young lady. I further see them courting on August evenings with a walk to the beach perhaps making their way to the bay over the recently constructed boardwalk.
As my great-grandmother matured she became involved in the suffragist movement with her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton and I see them working together with their fellow suffragettes pursuing a women’s right to vote. Once secured, my great-grandmother exercised her right to vote for the rest of her life.
As I go further back in time, a sense of my imagined history begins unfolding as the concrete becomes blended with more mythical considerations. Surely, I know my great-grandfather and great-grandmother were married in Sandwich as their marriage certificate assures me of this fact. Moreover, their graves, so lovingly tended in Bayview Cemetery, confirm their connections to Sandwich. The greater details of their lives, however, become understood only in my imagination.
This imagined view of history, my own family history, becomes more operative and amplified as I walk down the genealogical line which brings me closer to Francis Cooke. In the distant mists I know a few facts but the details become less clear and my mind ventures toward the idealized and the imagined. A few concrete facts become identified and my mind crafts a partly conjured up narrative to accompany the facts.
For example, I know my great-great-grandmother, Ellen Gray, was born and died in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. I also know she moved to New Jersey with her husband in her twenties, she became ill, and she returned to Barnstable only to die young from what appears to have been cancer. I also know her father died shortly after his only daughter passed away.
From these meager facts, my imagination creates a story. I join Ellen, a cherished daughter of her father, Charles Thatcher Gray, as she returns home to West Barnstable after being stricken with a fatal illness. She is tenderly cared for by her father and mother in their family home in West Barnstable. I further imagine the difficult death and passing a woman with cancer would have endured in the late 19th century.
Lastly, the fact that Ellen’s father died only a few short months after his daughter’s death in 1883, makes me wonder if my third great-grandfather didn’t die of a broken heart after witnessing the sad death of his only daughter, Ellen, my second great-grandmother. In my mind’s eye, I sit at his bedside as he passes away.
The Civil War then captures my attention and I see my family involvement on the Union side of this brutal war. I see my 2nd great-uncle, William Wood, dying in Virginia of yellow fever leaving a wife and two small children. Further down in history, I see bits of the War of 1812 and a great-grandparent, Nathan Benjamin Johnson, the husband of Mary Johnson, battling his way through this engagement with the British.
Some time earlier in history, the facts show Major Isaac Johnson, my sixth great-grandfather and husband of my sixth great-grandmother, Mary Kingsley Willis, leading troops against the British in the Revolutionary War with the 3rd Company in the Massachusetts Militia. The military records confirm he was commissioned February 7th, 1776. Taking this fact, I envision my great-grandfather Isaac reading the recently published “Common Sense” to his chilly troops in March searching for motivation to continue this rebellion. I am there in my imagination.
The Revolutionary War leads me back further into the colonial period and the French and Indian Wars unfold on the horizon. I join my ancestors participating in these engagements in the northern woods of New England.
And then the tragic confrontation identified in history as King Phillip’s War unfolds which pitted the natives of Southern New England against the European colonists.
This sad chapter in New England history ended fifty years of positive relations between the Native peoples and the European colonists. I wonder how my very own ancestors engaged with the Native Americans and can only assume they were as aggressive towards their original neighbors as any European was at that time.
Of all the tragic events of early colonial life, this one captures my imagination the most. What would have happened if Governor Josiah Winslow, my first cousin ten times removed, and Metacomet, the Native American leader, could have come to a mutually beneficial agreement rather than declaring war upon each other’s people? Perhaps so many of the horrors that subsequently unfolded in this nation between Native and European could have been avoided if a different choice was pursued?
And finally, my imagination encounters Francis Cooke and I consider what it was like for my tenth great-grandfather to experience the New World for the first time. Again, the cold, and the hardship become experiences I feel in my bones. In addition, I share in his joy as he celebrates his ability to worship in freedom in the New World. I enter these moments briefly and then return to the present. I remind myself that what he was and what he did, in a small but real way, impacted who I am. Ideologically, spiritually, politically, and even genetically his life formed my life.
It’s true, most everyone views history from their own personal perspective. Some see American history through the lens of the native peoples, some see it through the lens of enslaved people, some see it through the lens of individuals in a war for independence. As I say, my perspective is a personal one influenced greatly by my own family’s involvement in America’s past. These recently discovered personal connections make history come alive for me. Vibrantly alive.
Finally, it seems to me, from these kernels of fact and imagination we can learn much from each other and craft a present and future founded on truth that leads to justice. We share a present, and with some luck, we shall share a future. Perhaps knowing where we come from and how we view the past can help us walk forward in a more harmonious way? How do you view history? More specifically, how do you look at American history? Is there a unique perspective that colors your understanding? Why is it important to you?
On November 11, we celebrate Veteran’s Day. While I honor all veterans on this day, my thoughts turn to a few special individuals who served in our country’s military over the years.
I turn to those men and women in my own family, close and extended, who served honorably in the military. Many individuals in my family, from the Revolutionary War to modern military actions, have served our country with distinction. Some remain alive only in my memory and others are very much alive in flesh and blood. Today, I honor them all.
First, I turn to my immediate family and look towards my dear father who served as a private both in the tail end of World War II and in the very center of the Korean War. He never accrued much rank in the Army but he was always proud of his service and he regularly reminded me, “there are no atheists in fox holes.” I suspect he learned this fact experientially in Korea serving as a forward scout. Today, I remember and honor him.
From my father, the eyes of my imagination needn’t look too far to see my Uncle Ralph. The memory of my Uncle Ralph looms large in my imagination. He was the husband of my father’s sister, Shirley, and while he and his family lived a good distance from my family, I saw him a number of times over the years. I heard many stories, handed down through my grandmother, father, and aunt, highlighting my Uncle Ralph’s exploits in World War II.
I once found a yellowed and frayed piece of paper in my father’s belongings which looked like a telegram or some type of official military communication. I don’t know if it was an original but I do know the words written there, some in abbreviations, amazed me.
This is what it said: “This soldier has shown exceptional bravery in combat. Refused a Congressional Medal of Honor after refusing a battlefield commission of 2 Sep 44 in action which he killed 56 SS of the Herman Goering Mtn. Div., captured and wounded 41 others, and destroyed 2 Tiger tanks while disabling one other. He was responsible for saving the 385th Inf. Regt. from annihilation. During the Battle of the Bulge, while wounded, he supervised evacuation of the 76th Cav Rcn Trp with its wounded after all its officers had been killed and remained behind to cover its withdrawal. When met again after five days, he had killed 38 more enemy soldiers. Again refused battlefield commission. And in action of 28 Mar 45 in which he was temporarily blinded, he conducted the defense of his position and saved it from destruction. Again refused commission. It is the decision of this board that this ind be given a commission when he so desires. To men like this our country owes much. He is a credit to his country and his uniform.”
As you can imagine, after reading this communication, I was deeply moved. At the time, I paused, looked up at my father, raised my eyebrows, and incredulously asked, “This was Uncle Ralph?” My father quietly responded affirmatively. We paused in a bit of shared silence. Today, I honor my Uncle Ralph.
Then, there are my siblings and cousins I honor today. Three of my own brothers, Harvey, David, and Kevin, all signed a pledge offering their lives in defense of this country and its Constitution. My brother David retired as a Colonel from the U.S. Air Force, my brother Harvey served both in the US Army and briefly in the RI National Guard as a Lieutenant. My brother, Kevin, served in the RI National Guard as a medic. A number of my cousins also served in the armed forces. Some cousins saw engaged warfare. I am proud and grateful for the sacrifices and choices these veterans made.
While there are many relatives who served in more modern times, I recently discovered, family members have been in uniform since the beginning of this country. Remarkably, they served even before the Revolutionary War. In colonial times, during the French and Indian War, my fifth great grandfather, Perez Waterman, served the Colonies with the rank of centinel. In the Revolutionary War, the same Perez Waterman, fought for this country answering the alarm for Lexington and Concord. In the War of 1812, Benjamin Waterman, Perez’s son, served as an officer. In the Civil War, Frederick Brayton and his father Luther Brayton, my great and great great grandfathers, honorably served the Union cause. One great uncle, William Wood, even gave his life for the Union cause. I honor all these men today.
Today I also honor and remember one of my favorite family veterans, he is a distant great grandfather who fought in the Revolutionary War. His name was James Wheaton Brayton and he is my fourth great grandfather on my mother’s side. James served as a private with the Rhode Island troops and also as a carpenter’s mate on the galley “Spitfire”and on the privateer “General Stark.”
The story is told, while fighting the British in the American navy, James broke his arm and was subsequently captured. He was then imprisoned on an enemy ship. After his arm sufficiently healed, his captors placed a pen in his hand, and instructed him to sign a document pledging allegiance to King George the Third.
With Brayton defiance, he slammed his arm down onto the table with such force he broke the bone a second time. The surgeon was obliged to set the break again and James was returned to the prison hold. Some time later, once the arm healed again, James was escorted to the table to sign his papers of allegiance a second time. He repeated his earlier performance and once again broke his arm upon the table. He was, the report states, “afterwards assigned to the Jersey prison ship.” This was a determined Patriot!
As I celebrate Veterans Day this year, with this blog post, you might think I’m celebrating war. I’m not. I’m celebrating the values for which these men and, more recently, women stood. Values like freedom, liberty, self determination, truth, honor, national pride, equality among the races, freedom from dictators, freedom from oppression, and for national security. These enduring values are worth fighting for and celebrating.
And finally, I share these stories as a window into the experiences of all the veterans we honor today. And while I honor and remember veterans in my own family, I also honor and remember those in your family – known and unknown. And at some point during this long weekend of celebrations, I will stand hat in hand, to honor our veterans and remember, “to men (and women) like this, our country owes much.”
Today is the Feast of St. Francis. It’s probably a good day to post a story about an encounter with St. Francis I had a few years ago. It took place on a dusty outcropping overlooking the Palo Duro Canyon in the panhandle of Texas in the United States of America. It was there, on a star lit night, I met my old friend.
Francis had tried to contact me over the years but I never responded to his overtures. You see, I had become one of his followers and lived with other followers of his for almost two years, and well, sometimes, “Franciscanism” can burn Francis out of you. Especially if you are a restless and sensitive soul. At any rate, I was hurt by a number of experiences and didn’t respond to my friend’s overtures of reconciliation; until now.
When I left the Franciscans, I never really wanted to talk with Francis again. And yet, here he was in a sandy desert in Texas. Eager to talk.
His presence was triggered by a book I had stumbled upon. I was still surprised. It was the book that, many years ago, began my love affair with Francis and the things Francis loved.
Poverty, prayer, joy in simplicity, sanctity, and a radical foolish yes to Christ were the things Francis loved. His enthusiasm sparked mine. It was bolstered by youthful idealism.
To see Christ in everything; in every flower, in every person, in every experience, in every leper, and in every song sung with purity of heart became for me, like it did for Francis many years earlier, my experience. My love for Francis was deep and it was a sad loss for me to let go of the friendship many years ago.
This book I stumbled upon reminded me of many youthful and idealistic conversations Francis and I had back in days gone by. Francis’ joy and his intimacy in God lead me to desire this joy and intimacy. Many memories returned and I missed my old friend. I almost yearned for his friendship again.
Over the years, in his attempts to rekindle the friendship, he told me I needn’t abandon him even if I needed to abandon the Franciscans. Our friendship could still continue, he suggested. The communion of saints and all that sort of thing, he mentioned.
As my life after the Franciscans unfolded, he would make himself present in a variety of small but real ways. Always on the periphery guiding but not intrusive. Simply present.
My heart was broken by the reality of luxurious buildings, personal conflicts, rationalizations and assorted other disappointments. I had no interest in remaining friends with Francis. He understood. It was a sad and silent goodbye. It was one of those partings filled with much love and that’s why they hurt so much. I never responded to his attempts to renew our friendship over the years. Until, as I say, this night.
This little book, by Murray Bodo, reminded me of my friendship with Francis and in the early evening after the sun had set and the crickets kept the long horn cattle company, Francis appeared again.
He appeared as a beggar. I laughed because Francis always shows up as a beggar. He’s heaven’s beggar now. A bit tattered and worn but so filled with joy and simplicity it’s hard to see. “Francis, you’ve been canonized aren’t there more beautiful garments in heaven for you,” I kiddingly asked him? “The garments of poverty are beautiful in heaven,” he said as he sat down. “You know, Our Father owns all this,” he said prayerfully looking out over the Palo Duro Canyon. I smiled and agreed replying. “Yes, he does.”
We sat together before God and His natural handiwork for a long while. In the silence. In the darkness. Under the Texas stars. Then he mentioned Our Lord and his poverty, and his chastity and his obedience and his cross. He mentioned the joy and freedom found in all this. He mentioned the beauty found in solitude. I was stunned by his frankness.
Francis always has a way of getting to the heart of the matter. I listened. Eventually, I slowly warmed to my old friend as my heart opened and I was grateful to renew our friendship. I wept a bit in front of my old friend, Francis – Francesco. It was healing.
I knew going forward our relationship would be different. Less formal. No fancy tunics or cinctures. No burdensome institutional labyrinths. Just he and I living the journey in simplicity, purity and fidelity. I told him it was likely I wouldn’t be perfect. He agreed with that and said he enjoyed my company and friendship anyway.
He encouraged me to forgive myself and to forgive others that had hurt me especially in the Franciscans. This was difficult. He also encouraged me to ask forgiveness for those I had hurt. That was even more difficult. Pride said I need not look in that direction.
After some time, we began to laugh. Yes, to really laugh, heartily. We told stories and laughed some more. How comfortable the chill of the desert felt with his presence. He gently helped me to see my part in my departure from the Franciscans. Seek the truth, he encouraged. I needed this gentle clarity. I understood with greater awareness that maturity, my growth in maturity, takes time. I became more aware of the disparity between ideals and reality.
And then another figure approached in all this laughter and sharing. And it was Him for whom our hearts burned – in all his humanity. He too sat down with us by the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon and these three friends began to laugh. To really laugh and to tell more stories. Stories seem to unite us, don’t you think? How full our hearts were. This, this is the man for whom Francis danced. I understood just a little bit more. How strange it was to be so free of all kinds of “churchy stuff” and we were just laughing and learning about love.
My heart was softened and I was grateful that on a dusty outcropping overlooking the Palo Duro Canyon, I reconciled with an old friend who remembered nothing of our falling out and only wanted to enjoy a friendship with me and re-introduce his friend, Jesus, to me, again.
The night unfolded with many small joys and then Jesus rose, offered words of goodbye, and departed. Shortly after that, Francis, rose to go too and looked directly back at me as I sat near the cliffside and said, “Trust. Be not afraid. Trust.”
Shortly after that, I awoke. Or did I?
After experiencing the encounter highlighted above, and feeling the closeness of God and Francis in the panhandle of Texas, the next day was a little less joyful. You see, as the sun was rising in East Texas and I was driving along Route 60 headed West, a young driver fell asleep at the wheel of her van and slammed directly into the back of my Nissan Versa. She was traveling at least 80 miles an hour. She and I, thank God, were mostly unhurt but my car was totaled and I was in shock.
Why do I add this P.S. to my post? You see, the address on the business card of the tow truck driver who removed my squashed car from the highway was St. Francis Avenue. Was the renewal of friendships the night before this accident a dream or did it all really happen? For certain, the accident and tow truck were very real. Coincidence or God-incidence? You decide.
Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there and a Happy Father’s Day to my Dad who is celebrating this day in the Great Beyond!
It’s been few years since my Dad passed away and, of course, I still miss him. Who wouldn’t? On this Father’s Day, I honor and remember my Dad by posting a reflection I shared with my cousins at a family luncheon held a few years ago. It reads as follows:
Greetings, cousins! As we come together this year to celebrate family, I would like to take a moment to remember my Dad. As you know, he passed away this year. He loved coming to these events and his presence is greatly missed.
I fondly remember the joy my father expressed at our first luncheon when he encountered his cousin Mary Louise after a long separation. He ran towards her like a little child filled with joy just to say hello. He remained close to her throughout the whole luncheon. I am also reminded of the affection my Dad displayed towards his sister Shirley when she attended our luncheon a few years ago. He truly enjoyed these luncheons and if you don’t mind, I would like to share with you a few thoughts about my Dad today.
My father, as many of you know, was a veteran, a man of music, a man of humor, a man of faith, a gentle gentleman, a quick wit, a story teller, a genealogist, a family historian, and a man with a great curiosity and interest in the lives of his loved ones. He was a man with great love for his patients, his friends, and his family. It’s hard to sum up my father’s life in a few words.
My father was one of those rare bred of men who was raised in a era when honoring your family and doing your duty – humble or grand – were highly valued. He was raised in Cranston, Rhode Island where he made life long friends. He enrolled at Brown University after high school and shortly thereafter enlisted in the U.S. Army serving in post World War II Europe. A few years later, he was recalled to the Army to serve in Korea where he was a forward scout. Returning home to Rhode Island for a time, he then enrolled at Tufts University in Massachusetts followed by Dental School at Temple University in Philadelphia.
After securing his dental degree, he settled in Warren, Rhode Island and began raising nine children with his beloved wife Lesa. For most of his life, being a dentist and a father took up the bulk of his time and energy. There were cavities to fill, bills to pay, children’s concerts to attend, and camping trips to enjoy.
My father found great joy and happiness being with his friends and family. An event like this luncheon, was one such occasion to enjoy time with his cherished family. Life was very uncomplicated for him. Spending time with loved ones was simply the highlight of his life. Period.
I experienced a touching example of this a year ago. I remember watching my Dad at my brother Nathan’s house about a year ago. It may have been at his birthday party during the last 4th of July. There was all kinds of things going on. People were coming and people were going. Nathan and his wife, Mara, were hosting one of their many family events during the summer. It was a very joyous time. I noticed that my dad, sitting in the midst of all this, was delightfully happy. There he was, holding a sweating Manhattan, and simply looking about with the serene face of a happy man. Really happy. No tomorrow. No yesterday. Just today. Happy to be with his family. I like to keep this memory of my Dad alive in my heart.
My father loved his children. He loved us not by saying the words, “I love you.” He loved us with his actions and his deeds. If you would be so kind, allow me to share one story of how my father loved more with his actions than with his words. It relates to his gift of listening.
One late summer weekend many years ago, I decided to drive to the Cape from my home in Vermont. This wasn’t that unusual and upon my arrival at my Dad’s house my father was sitting at the kitchen table with his pal Fogelberg, a family cat. He asked me about my drive down and how my car was holding up – general introductory banter.
After some time, we began to talk about my job at the American Red Cross – Blood Services and I chatted and he listened. It wasn’t an overly interesting presentation on my part but my father listened eagerly and asked many engaging questions. The weekend went on and I enjoyed some time with my Dad – nothing terribly unusual.
On Sunday afternoon, after saying my goodbyes to my Dad, I began my drive back to Vermont. While I was driving, I heard a distinct voice in my heart say, “You’re not as interesting as you think you are.” I paused and responded to this “voice” by saying, “What do you mean?” And the “inner voice” said, “Your Dad. He listens to you and all his children with an attentive heart not because you’re all extraordinarily interesting or because your stories are so compelling but because he loves you.” I was taken aback by this experience and I still remember this “voice” or experience quite distinctly. And then it became clear, my Dad wasn’t just listening to me, he was loving me. As he loved all his children. My dad listened because he loved. This “voice in my heart” was teaching me something new about my Dad. I treasure this memory and the reminder of how my father loved.
My dad loved gardening. I always remember he had a garden at every place he lived. In Touisset, where he lived in Warren, Rhode Island, the garden was quite large. On Cape Cod, where my Dad retired, the garden was less expansive and generally more oriented towards flowers than tomatoes – though he loved growing tomatoes. His specialty on Cape Cod was gladiolas. He loved his gladiolas.
Every spring he would prepare and plant gladiola bulbs. He had dug up these bulbs from last year’s batch of flowers. He loved the dirt and gardening. For those of you who also love to garden, I’ve brought a few gladiola and daffodil bulbs for you to take home with you and to plant in your own gardens in memory of my Dad. When you plant the bulbs in the spring and see the blossoms rising through the dirt, I hope you might be reminded of my Dad and his love of gladiolas and his love for you.
My father loved music. There are few among us who knew my father for any length of time that didn’t come to find out my Dad loved listening, playing and even writing some music. Whether it was the sound of our family piano being played in our living room or the strumming of guitar chords around an open fire on a camping trip, my father shared his love of music with us.
We would often gather together with family and friends to sing all kinds of popular American folk and religious tunes. Most recently when he was asked what his favorite music was he replied, “Anything from the 1940’s.” I can now imagine my Dad in the great beyond joyfully tapping his foot to the sounds of the Glenn Miller band.
The last few weeks of my Dad’s life were filled with grace and family. As his health failed, he was initially cared for by the good folks at Cape Cod Hospital and then he transitioned to hospice care at McCarthy House in Sandwich, Massachusetts. His spirits remained buoyant and optimistic right to the very end.
My Dad enjoyed sailing on Cape Cod with some of his children so it might be fitting to close my thoughts, and say so long to my Dad, by sharing a poem about sailing and the great beyond. The poem is entitled, “Gone From My Sight.” It’s written by Henry Van Dyke. You might be familiar with it. It goes like this…
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a
speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
And that is dying…
It is my hope my father was welcomed into that distant port on the mysterious other side with glad shouts of, “Here he comes! Here he comes!”
This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day in the United States of America. Truth be told, for many years, I never fully understood what or who we were honoring on this day in late May. For me, it was just a fun long weekend marking the beginning of summer.
Growing up in Rhode Island, the Memorial Day holiday was a weekend of cookouts, pool parties and family fun. In my later youth, living on Cape Cod, this day included some of the festivities of earlier days but with more traffic and more ocean. I never really understood we were honoring men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. I understand this now.
They tell me, 150 years ago the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic established what we today call Memorial Day. Then, it was a day set aside to honor the men who died in defense of the Union in the Civil War. Today, it has grown to be a national holiday celebrated to honor women and men who, in every war, gave their lives in defense of this country.
A few years ago while doing some genealogical research, I was re-introduced to an ancestor of mine who gave his life for his country. He fought for the Union cause and died in 1862. His name was William H. Wood.
William was the brother of my 2nd great-grandmother, Harriet Wood, making him my 3rd great-uncle. My paternal grandmother, the granddaughter of Harriet Wood, told me about her Great-Uncle William who died in the Civil War. I wasn’t much impressed with this story back then but the memory of this conversation returned to me later in life and it touches me deeply today.
William married Phebe Lloyd and they had a number of children with only one reaching adulthood. William worked for the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company in Sandwich, Massachusetts before volunteering to serve in the Massachusetts 29th Infantry Regiment, Company D. He mustered on May 22, 1861. The records tell us he died on January 16th 1862 in Newport News, Virginia ofyellow fever. He is buried on a lonely knoll in Bayview Cemetery in his hometown of Sandwich, Massachusetts.
For a few years, I searched for William’s grave with no luck. And then one summer, after pouring over old cemetery plot maps, which provided no indication that William was buried in Bayview Cemetery, I decided to take a stroll down one of the rarely used cemetery pathways. I had walked this pathway before but for some reason I missed the stone. This day was different and my eye was drawn to the left as I strolled along on this summer day.
I was surprised when I saw the name, “Wood” on a nearby stone. “Could it be?” I wondered. Upon closer observation, I read the name William. There it was. “I’ll be darned,” I thought to myself. It was bit moss-covered and weather-worn but there it honorably stood on a knoll near other graves of that era.
I paused for a moment in gratitude for discovering the grave and in silent honor for the sacrifice William made so many years ago.
I thought about the feelings William must have experienced dying all alone in the far away land of Newport News, Virginia. I also thought about my ancestors gathered on this hill to say their goodbyes to William over 150 years ago.
After a few moments of solemnity, my mood changed to delight at my discovery. I called a friend of mine, exclaiming, “You’re not going to believe who I found!” After sharing who I had discovered, I suggested we meet at the cemetery, clean up the stone, say a few words of thanks and enjoy a picnic on the hill. We did just that!
It’s probably an odd thing to honor a soul with both quiet reverence and a joyful picnic. We humans are interesting that way. Sometimes life isn’t either/or but rather and/both. We celebrated with a touch of solemnity and then with a touch of joyful jocularity on the hill that day.
This year, I was hoping to return to Sandwich, Massachusetts on Memorial Day to place a flag on my great-uncle’s grave in honor of his service. Unfortunately, Covid 19 limits my ability to travel this spring so I must honor my Great-Uncle William in a different way from afar.
And as I honor my great-uncle, I also honor all the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I am especially reminded of those soldiers, like my Great-Uncle William, who didn’t die on the raging battlefield of war but died from associated circumstances of conflict in a more remote location. They died heroically and gave their all for their country.
I’m also thinking of men and women who return from war, even to this day, living for a time with PTSD, physical wounds, chemical exposure illnesses, depression, etc. only to die far removed from the conflict from the lingering consequences of their war-time duty. Lives cut short. Not all war-related deaths take place on the battlefield.
So this Memorial Day, as we celebrate the holiday with barbecues and family get-togethers, I am keenly aware of the reason for the holiday and I know that I will be one of the many Americans who takes a moment to reflect upon the honor, courage and commitment displayed by those men and women who died in service to their country. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.
May your Memorial Day festivities be filled with solemn remembering, joyful celebrating and lasting family memories.