November 27th 2010
Immigration waters the dry garden of the Pilgrim story, keeping it from fossilizing into mere historical relic.
My family, refugees from the Soviet Union, arrived in the United States on Thanksgiving Eve 1988. This year, I celebrated the holiday a mile from the spot where the Pilgrims first touched American soil, 368 years and two days before my family landed at JFK.
Grade-school recall of the Pilgrim story tends to hold Plymouth as its origin. Not so. The Pilgrims had been heading for Virginia when a storm at present-day Chatham, Mass., rerouted them to Provincetown Harbor. Lacking a charter for settlement there, and holding conflicting opinions on how to proceed, the passengers drew up an agreement of mutual concern, the Mayflower Compact.
From the magnificent to the banal: Like my mother nearly four centuries later, the Pilgrim women spent their first day on shore, a Monday, doing much-needed laundry. The Mayflower was a “sweet ship”—it had been used to haul wine, its spillage a convenient cover for odors aboard—but not sweet enough. The journey had been harrowing. For more than two months, the voyagers slept on bedding soaked by salt water; because there was no fresh water, the children drank beer.
As any local gardener knows too well, Provincetown’s soil is too sandy for farming. “The sand drifts like snow,” Henry David Thoreau would observe in the 1850s. “In some pictures of Provincetown the persons of the inhabitants are not drawn below the ankles, so much being supposed to be buried in the sand.” Lashed by freezing rain, the Pilgrims explored the coast, finding their first fresh water and food—corn, pilfered from the Meeshawn Indians—near Truro, and their first Native skirmish at what is still known as First Encounter Beach in Eastham. Nearly six weeks passed before they found an area with suitably arable land, a wide harbor, and high ground for defense—Plymouth.
The story of the rest of that terrible first winter is well known. Nearly half the ship’s 102 passengers died. But when the Mayflower sailed back to England the following spring, not one of the Pilgrims returned with it. The abundant harvest of that year must have felt like a reward from God. It inspired a celebration, in the words of Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ first year, “So we might . . . rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor”—Thanksgiving pretty much as we know it.
Today, the Pilgrim sites are humble landmarks. Corn Hill abuts a residents-only private driveway flanked by luxury homes. First Encounter Beach is a draw only for seagulls working over the carcass of a fallen comrade. At Provincetown’s Pilgrim Monument and Museum, a looped video re-enacts the Pilgrim story and a display shows products—Pilgrim needlepoint doorstops, cookie cutters—that have appropriated its iconography.
In other words, the Pilgrim legend is prime for dissipation into remote, impermeable kitsch—another Alamo, another Bunker Hill. So why did my throat constrict watching that silly video of actors in buckled hats trooping across some English shire toward America?
From JFK 22 years ago, we were ferried to the home of friends in south Brooklyn. It was somebody’s birthday. So much about the table was reassuringly familiar: herring, salad Olivier, beet vinaigrette. But why was there a giant bird in the middle of it all? That was when we learned about Thanksgiving.
Our first week, we visited friends who shared their tables, casually showed off their English, and bragged a little about what they’d achieved in America. We felt crushingly inept by comparison.
Alone at last in our cramped, peeling apartment, my mother and grandmother burst into tears. We had left relative material comfort, familiar streets, a known tongue, and for what? These low-slung, characterless Brooklyn blocks? But we stayed. Grandmother went to wash floors for three dollars an hour, my father to paint room after room in freshly built high-rises, and I to school to learn how to speak English.
It may seem frivolous and disrespectful to compare the relative ease of our assimilation to what the Pilgrims experienced, but the difference is in degree rather than kind. Like the Pilgrims, my parents immigrated to escape harassment for their religious beliefs. On account of the Soviet information freeze, my parents also knew almost nothing about what awaited them in America. And like the Pilgrims, they knew they could never return.
Watching that video, I saw myself and my family. Immigration waters the dry garden of the Pilgrim story, keeping it from fossilizing into mere historical relic or branding fodder. In turn, the Pilgrim experience redeems immigration as that most American of rites.
Iconoclastic, but profoundly pious, the Pilgrims were perfect first non-Native Americans. Over time, their relative egalitarianism would give way, on Cape Cod, to the more fire-breathing disciplinarianism of the Puritans. When the Methodists ordered timber to build a church in Provincetown, the stricter Congregationalists burned it.
But orthodoxy can hold on only so long in port towns. Provincetown today is a more tolerant place than any I’ve visited. No matter your heterodoxy, an invisible relief cloaks you along with the ubiquitous mist. You are safe here, under the wing of those who had to fight a lot harder to find a sense of belonging.
As for me and my colleagues here at the Fine Arts Work Center, our Thanksgiving table included two direct descendants of the Mayflower: The chair of the writing committee, who traces his lineage to not one but two passengers on the ship, and a half-Guyanese former fellow. (His mother is a 12th-generation Mainer.) Our table needed no other bookends or pillars.
As for me, I was the only immigrant. But I was at home.
See the original publication here.