By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
Well, here we are, launched into the holiday season. “Holiday season” being a euphemism for “gain five pounds”. Like most people, I consumed more food than normal last week, further endangering my cholesterol numbers. I dove into mashed potatoes, gravy, pies and whipped cream like I was going to “the chair”. In my food stupor I also gave some thought to the original Thanksgiving – the one where people actually got along and shared stuff. Can you imagine? The Pilgrims have been on my mind lately because earlier this year I applied for membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. To say that the requirements for entry are stiff is an understatement. These people take their mission seriously; one can imagine hunched-over researchers with green eyeshades taking delight in stamping “Reject!” on the hundreds of applications they receive. Actually, there is ONE man who is the gatekeeper to the organization – it is he alone who makes the decision as to whether your documentation is up to snuff.
I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say this research is not for the faint of heart. One must provide birth, marriage and death certificates for every person in the descendant line, including spouses who aren’t even a blood relation to the original Mayflower passenger. I don’t know about you but I can’t even find my own marriage license. I asked myself several times during the research and collection phase of this process why I was going through this effort. I’m not sure I ever satisfied myself with a great answer except that I am a history buff. I love not only the facts and figures but the people who lived before us and shaped our world. No detail is too small. I am the type of person who goes through the National Gallery, looking at the portraits wondering what the subject had for breakfast that morning. In the case of the Mayflower passengers I have also been looking for any hints of DNA that might have trickled down to our generation and I have been pleasantly surprised to find some similarities.
John Alden, for example, was our forefather and was a “cooper” – or barrel maker – in England before setting sail. I immediately saw a connection; our brother Jack works for Fess Parker Winery and has great knowledge about barrel-making, not to mention his excellent ability to consume their contents. We are also related to the Elder William Brewster, the religious leader of the Plymouth Colony. No relatives I know of inherited his pious devotion, but prior to becoming an elder he worked as a postmaster and an English teacher. Brother Bob also worked for the post office during college and then taught high school English upon graduation. Finally, Priscilla Mullins (who later married Alden), was the spinner and weaver for the colony. And anyone who has seen my vast collection of yarn or knows me as president of the local knitting guild would see an immediate link. So who knows? Maybe there are some genetic traits that filter down. So far I haven’t found any horse thieves but we are descended from several rabble rousers and a heretic burned at the Salem witch trials. Anyone who knows my brothers or me would testify that that apple didn’t fall too far from that tree either.
It’s also been interesting to see which famous people are related to Mayflower passengers and, by extension, us. John Adams, Dan Quayle and Marilyn Monroe are also related to John Alden. I’m not sure about John or Dan, but I know I’m related to Marilyn because, as my brother can confirm, every year on his birthday I do my best Marilyn Monroe to Jack Kennedy version of the “Happy Birthday” song. William Brewster’s descendants include Bing Crosby, Cokie Roberts and Julia Child. I’m questioning my relation to Julia – I think the gene pool mutated somewhere between her and me. But I can carry a tune and I love history so I figure two out of three isn’t bad.
As I say, it’s a long and laborious process. I submitted my application on June 1 and I have yet to hear the status of it. I’m hoping that I catch the man who is the arbiter of all things Mayflower in a good mood the day he reviews it. Otherwise I may have to adopt Grocho Marx’s philosophy – “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member”.