I didn’t attend the Thanksgiving celebration where at least nine members of my family were infected with covid. We don’t know, nor do we want to know, who brought it to the party. All we know is that someone who felt as perfectly fine as I do right now opened the front door and brought a tiny Mr. Nobody who quietly unloaded his pockets while everyone ate mashed potatoes and pie. Because of covid it wasn’t even a huge gathering, especially not by my family’s standards, but Mr. Nobody spread out and got comfy all the same, not only buying passage in as many berths as possible, but attaching little burrs and barnacles that could be carried abroad. In a week, nine turned into twenty. I suppose I should feel relieved to have dodged a bullet. Instead I feel guilt, as though if I had been there, I could have soaked all the virus into myself and protected everyone else. It isn’t rational, of course, but feelings do not always have to be rational, only actions.
The virus did have a successful incursion into my family a few months ago, first smacking my niece and then sickening other members of my sister’s family. Fortunately, they were young and in good health, and were blessed to escape without long-haul consequences. We were hoping our family had had enough, and today a vaccine is so close, we’ve been crossing our fingers that we’d all make it to safety without further ado, but I suppose we had more to learn.
To distract myself I’ve been thinking about my Mayflower ancestors, I suppose because in a blister of fear it’s easier to learn from someone else’s troubles than my own. Our family had eight great-grandparents on the Mayflower, including our 11th great-grandparents, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. In November 1620 they were so young when they arrived in what is now New England, no concept of what they were building or the terrible cost they were about to pay. Pricilla Mullins, age just 18, had come with her father, stepmother, and brother to the new world in search of a new life. She would survive that first winter, but her parents and brother would not. John Alden was a cooper by trade, and boarded the Mayflower as a crew member rather than a passenger. But at age 22 he decided to remain behind alongside the settlers, and with a laborer’s rough hand, likely red and cracking with cold and salt air, he signed his name to the Mayflower Compact, helping set up the very provisional government that built the stage for America to become a land of liberty.
According to another descendant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his poem, “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” based on family lore, Pricilla Mullins was the object of fellow Mayflower passenger, Myles Standish’s unrequited love. It all sounds very romantic, though the reality was perhaps rather more prosaic. Myles Standish and John Alden were probably roommates, and Pricilla was the only young woman of marriageable age. Sometime between 1621 and 1623 she picked John Alden, the pair had ten children, and John went on from humble cooper to colony Treasurer and Assistant Governor. The Standish and Alden families remained close for generations, eventually moving together to found Duxbury, Massachusetts, where John died in 1687, the last remaining signer of the Mayflower Compact.
Plymouth was such a small settlement, that if you have a Mayflower ancestor or two who lived through the first winter, there’s a good chance you have a spider’s web of connections, and my family is no different. When I think of my progenitors and all the hardships they suffered before that first Thanksgiving celebration, I can’t help wondering what they were thinking and feeling. They had guts like iron, that’s for sure, but I suspect they would never have believed it at the time. Instead they got out of bed every morning and simply did what they had to do, planting one foot firmly in front of the other until the journey’s end.
The day John and Pricilla stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, they could not possibly have known that almost exactly 400 years later, on the day set to celebrate their accomplishments, a new tyrant named Nobody would sneak into the family enclosure, intent on taxing their descendants taste, and smell, and even breath.
There seems to be something about the ‘20s in America. The pilgrims landed in 1620, marking the start of a new concept of freedom in the world. In 1720, American colonists dumped British tea into the harbor rather than pay King George’s ridiculous tax, lighting the wick of the American Revolution. In 1820 we have the beginnings of the industrial revolution, and the restoration of Christ’s gospel on the earth, and in 1920 American women finally won the right to vote. It’s as though every hundred years we have a new beginning, a massive stone which rolls out of the mountain that cannot be stopped, and changes all the landscape.
That brings us to 2020, the year of the pandemic, the earthquakes, fires, flooding, shortages, riots, and political unrest. Will a vaccine miraculously wipe it all away, or is a new arena inevitable?
I can’t answer that because my crystal ball is in the shop. What I do know is that since the pilgrims landed in 1620, every hundred years we seem to face a major shift, which gradually rolls forth at great, and sometimes terrible cost. As I look around me, I have to admit it looks as though we may be standing at a historical tipping point that might only be fully understood by stuffy historians scratching their heads in the year 2120. It is possible that change could be coming, and we may not like all of it. I doubt John Alden and Pricilla Mullins liked all the changes they faced either, but whatever they might have been feeling, they showed us how to meet our circumstances rationally.
I don’t know what might be coming next week, next month, or next year. The only thing I can say with certainty is that my family will get out of bed every morning and plant one foot firmly in front of the other, just as we have been doing for 400 years. We know who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re headed. There is still so much to be thankful for. Mr. Nobody be hanged.