Wednesday, July 18, 2007

July 18, 2007 - Looking for the Rock

Today, Claire and I are in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She’s attending a professional conference: a four-day certification program for bereavement facilitators. It’s connected with a recent change in her responsibilities at Meridian Hospice. Henceforth, Claire’s duties will be focused in the area of bereavement: ministering not so much to patients and their families before death, as to the families afterwards.

I’m on vacation, so I’m tagging along as a spouse – an unaccustomed role for me. Most times in the past, I’ve been the conference participant and Claire the supernumerary. That means I’ve had plenty of time to stroll the streets of this picturesque New England coastal town – made famous, of course, by the religious dissenters known as the Pilgrims, who chose it as their first North American settlement.

This burg is of particular interest to me, because (along with tens of thousands of others) I’m a descendant of two of the Mayflower passengers: John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley. Howland – manservant to the expedition leader, John Carver – had a memorable mishap during the voyage: he fell overboard during a storm. The crew fished him back aboard with a boat hook. That means I can tell people – truthfully – that I have an ancestor who fell off the Mayflower.

I find Howland Street, and get Claire to snap a photo of me in front of the street sign. Later on, I notice a garbage truck, with the words “Howland Disposal Company” painted on the side. It’s good to know that business is picking up, for my seventeenth cousins – or whatever kin they are to me, so many generations later. Tomorrow, after Claire's conference is over, we’ll visit the Jabez Howland House, which is restored and open to tourists. Named for one of John and Elizabeth’s sons, who built it, it’s the house where John died, and where Elizabeth lived as a widow for the remainder of her life.

For centuries, the chief objective of tourist treks to Plymouth has been the ordinary-looking boulder known as Plymouth Rock. According to lore, this rock was the first place English settlers stepped ashore as they disembarked from the Mayflower, back in 1620. This claim is historically doubtful: as the Pilgrims landed at this bleak-looking spot – hundreds of miles north of their Virginia destination, with winter coming on – surely the last thing they had on their minds was keeping track of which boulder had received the first European footfall.

But, no matter. Underneath a majestic, neoclassical portico – embedded in a meticulously-raked plot of sand, reminiscent of a Zen garden – Plymouth Rock is an impressive-enough national shrine. It’s been so for hundreds of years. Over time, this nondescript hunk of New England granite has been carted around, jostled, dropped, engraved with the year “1620,” broken in two and cemented back together – not to mention chipped down considerably in size, by chisel-wielding souvenir-hunters.

Gazing down at the rock, coddled in its neoclassical nest like some dinosaur egg, I get the distinct sense that this is a shrine to permanence. Why else would a culture go to the trouble of building an ornate stone roof, just to protect another stone? The portico is just as much a part of the shrine as the rock itself. “Looky here,” it screams out, to passersby who might otherwise miss this one boulder, so similar to all the others. “This is an object of veneration. Regard it and wonder.”

The town of Plymouth is chock-a-block with other shrines to permanence, poor relations of the celebrated rock. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many boulders with bronze plaques bolted onto them. They’re everywhere. So are greenish bronze statues of various Pilgrim fathers and mothers, and street signs bearing their names. It’s a town built on memories.

Plymouth Rock – one of America’s earliest tourist destinations – is a monument not so much to the real, historical Pilgrims, as to a patriotic young nation’s hallowed, misty-eyed memory of its forebears. In a nearby museum are dozens of artifacts – everything from a portable writing desk to an old, woolen stocking – reputed to have belonged to Mayflower passengers. Nowadays, the museum’s placards candidly admit that most of these attributions are bogus. Yes, most of these artifacts were donated or loaned to the museum by descendants of the original families. Yet, these people were as eager as we to possess their own, personal icon of permanence. Consciously or unconsciously, they invented a Mayflower provenance for many well-worn items that were not quite old enough to qualify. (William Bradford may be dead and gone, but his woolen stocking belongs to the ages.)

Compared to the weathered boulders of this world, human life is fleeting. As the old gospel hymn puts it, paraphrasing Psalm 90:

“Some glad morning when this life is over,
I’ll fly away.
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.

I’ll fly away, O Glory,
I’ll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye,
I’ll fly away.”

In a recent blog entry, cancer patient Leroy Sievers ruminates about what memories his survivors will cherish about his life, once his disease claims him:

“When we’re gone, how fast will we disappear? How long before time erases any trace that we were ever here? ‘Dust to dust’ is not just a figure of speech, after all. We’ll live on for a while in the memories of those we’ve touched. But over time, these, too, will fade along with our pictures.

I’m not talking about fame. It’s of dubious value now, and certainly not worth much after we die. Who, besides a few contestants on Jeopardy, can name the builders of the pyramids? The Seven Wonders of the World have all but disappeared, to be replaced recently by a new list that just doesn’t seem to fire the imagination the way the old one did. The bottom line – it really doesn’t matter what anyone says after we’re gone. It would be nice if everyone said good things. But we won’t be here to hear them....

So what matters is not what we leave behind. What matters is what we do now. Do we touch the lives of others? Do we make a difference? Do we earn our place for the brief time that we are here? I think all we can hope for, all we should strive for, is a day well lived. And then another, and another. What better legacy could there be?”

Cancer or no cancer, that’s the only rock we’re likely to find.


Mary Beth said...

Wow, that's really neat. I recently read and enjoyed Nathiel Philbrook's book about the Mayflower. Maybe you should pick it up. MB

Carlos ("Carl") said...

I read it last summer. Like you, I recommend it highly.

Anonymous said...

many thought provoking ideas here.

Here's my "Mayflower" story. At my dad's 65th birthday party I was questioning as many of my dad's siblings as possible for family stories.

My Uncle Joe said "Wanda, you've heard of the pilgrims? You've heard of the Mayflower? Well, our ancestors were the pirates in the boats waiting for the Mayflower." I thought he was kidding.

When I used this story as part of my euology for my Dad this past December my Uncle Joe let me know at the meal following that he was completely serious about the Sevey pirate clan. I guess it's his version of our family's "Plymouth Rock" experience.

Anonymous said...

The photo looks like Plimoth Plantation - did you get to see it? That's my favorite historic village - apologies to John Curtis and Allaire!


Carlos ("Carl") said...


Yes, it is Plimoth Plantation - but, it's a photo I swiped off the web. I didn't go there, because I would be by myself (Claire was in meetings all day), and I didn't think that would have been especially enjoyable. I'll see if I can go back there with the family, sometime when we're visiting Jim and Erika in Boston.

Anonymous said...

Carl: Thanks for taking me back to my childhood! I visited Plymouth Rock when I was about 7 or so, with my great-aunt, great-uncle, and aunts/uncles in their early teens. That visit solidified my love of American history, especially stories of New England -- it was a big trip for a little island girl! I agree with you and Mary Beth, I haven't read that book yet, but since Nathaniel is one of my ancestors, I really need to get on that! Thanks for taking me back to a much more innocent, carefree time! Your words on this blog, even with everything you're dealing with, continue to uplift and strengthen me. I can only imagine what it does for you, Claire and family! :) Diane

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Thanks for the good word, Diane. I actually thought of you when I was in Plymouth, because I was looking at some maps in one of the museums, talking about all the settlements up the Maine coast. I don't know when Vinyl Haven received its first settlers, but I imagine it was pretty early.

I'm glad I was able to take you back down memory lane.