History tells us that of the women who came over on the Mayflower, only four adult females, five teenage girls and a few younger girls remained in the Plymouth Colony to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. Most of them perished in the first few months. They were outnumbered by the men and boys who perhaps survived because they were not confined to the Mayflower during the winter months of sickness. I have invented the young couple and the storyline below though the supporting characters were real people. But if the names are fictitious, the courage and commitment are not. Very real men and women carved out a life together in this rugged new land. We are the beneficiaries of their stolid lives.
Piety Haskins stepped cautiously into the woods behind the village. A basket swung on her arm. Watchful of where she placed her feet, she started gathering pine branches. Mistress Winslow had instructed her to collect a few fragrant boughs to decorate their feast table. She preferred the ones with pinecones attached; they were prettier, she thought.
It was a gift just to be out in this fresh, cool day in autumn. One could almost forget the cruelties of the coming winter in light of such a day. Of course, all of the colonists hoped that this winter would not mirror the last. Surely, they were more able to withstand the frigid temperatures and the sickness that had stolen so many of their number not many months ago. Piety would never forget those days huddled in the hold of the ship, straining one’s hope toward spring, trying not to hear the sounds of sickness and death all around and doing one’s best to stay well while caring for those who couldn’t care for themselves. Perhaps, as her father used to say, she had inherited the Haskins strong constitution. But more likely still, it was the hand of God, though why she was spared and others not, she could not say.
Her eyes lifted to look away at Cole’s Hill with its heartbreaking pattern of grave markers. She remembered the brave faces of those who had stood on the deck with her as they faced the biting salt wind and stared ahead to the land of promise. They had given their lives for this new land. And some of them had died before they even got to live on it; they’d breathed their last in the wooden cradle that brought them across the seas. But the seed of their determination had sprung up strong in the hearts of those who remained. Here they were. And here they would stay. Plymouth Colony was alive and well and the feast planned for today was a harvest celebration of gratefulness to the God who had shed His mercy on their number.
A crackle in the woods made her look up from her reverie. She was not overly frightened. Governor Bradford was certain that they were in no immediate danger. And having Tisquantum among them in the colony not only had aided them in living on the land but had also made dialogue possible with the tribe of natives. The strangely-colored people they used to fear were now their allies.
Perhaps the noise was a wild animal. That she did fear. She could use a musket but had none with her. Folly on her part, perhaps. She could have called for a man to accompany her, but it would likely have been Benjamin Ralston who volunteered, and she didn’t want to encourage his affections. While she sympathized with his plight as a widower with two children, Piety was sure it was not her calling in life to come to his rescue.
But it was Edmund Drake who stepped out, a weapon slung over his shoulder.
“Mistress Haskins, I’m sorry to startle you. Are you well?”
“I am. Thank you, sir.” Piety lifted her basket to show off her bounty. “For the feasting tables.”
“They shall indeed make a pleasant sight. As shall the victuals I have been smelling over our cookfires. And as shall you, Mistress Haskins, if you will pardon my boldness.”
Piety blushed and looked down at her boots peeking out below the long hem of her dress. “I am flattered, sir. Though I am sure the roast venison and fowl will be a sight far more welcome than I.”
“I am hungry for the taste of that table, yes. But I have observed you, Mistress Haskins, your helpful manner, your uncommon grace, your light which seems to shine brightest at Sabbath worship. These are to me a beauty not unmatched by your face and female charms. I have seldom seen a woman so gifted by Providence.”
“You’ve seldom seen a woman at all, these days, have you, Mr. Drake?” She couldn’t keep the impish smile off her face.
He returned the humor good-naturedly. “’Tis true. We are not over blessed with members of your sex. And yet, I think you would stand out even amongst the throngs in London. At the least, you would to me.”
“That, I think, is the very nicest thing you could say to me. I thank you. How can I repay such compliments?”
“Allow me to carry your basket and escort you back to the colony.” Edmund took a step forward, testing her willingness.
Piety handed him the basket overhung with green boughs and smiled. It had been a good thing to tell young Humility Cooper where she was going. It had reached the very ears she intended.
He fell into step with her, though she could tell he was adjusting his gait to accommodate hers. She searched for something to say as they started toward the village.
“We are all very happy with the success of your hunt arranged by Governor Bradford.”
“Thank you. The fowl in this region are well-fed and plentiful. We will eat well for many days with this and the fish and the fruit and vegetable harvest. It feels good to contribute, to be part of the making of this colony.”
“Yes, I have thought the same. We have depended on one another throughout this difficult year, and on the hand of God. We have done this together. That is also something to celebrate.”
They had reached the edge of the clearing where thatched-roof houses had sprung up close to the harbor like energetic siblings all vying for a place in this new land. Edmund handed the basket back to her.
“I will say goodbye, Mistress Haskins. And I will look for you today at the feasting table.” He looked full into her eyes and then strode away.
The abundance of food and joy at the feast was heartening. The tables were laden with all manner of bounty. The faces of all were shining. The prayer offered by Governor Bradford praised the Almighty God who had given them safe passage and then shelter in this harbor and favor with the natives. The Wampanoags had even brought venison along with their enthusiasm and new games. It was a day to be recorded in the history of this new colony.
It was when Piety was spooning out a portion of pumpkin baked in the shell with spices that she noticed Edmund Drake was in the thick of the games, swinging his stick with exuberance and challenging the Wampanoag in a friendly way. He made a particularly flashy hit with the gourd they were punting around and glanced her way. She nodded shyly in recognition.
Mary Brewster smiled and nodded. “That young man seems to be competing for more than the goal on the field. I felt certain he has been watching you, Piety. He’s a suitable match for you, I think, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, I agree. We talked today while I was gathering branches.”
“Then maybe we will soon have a wedding to attend.”
“Perhaps. But I fear the thoughts of being a widow as well. Maybe it is better to live as a common family, as brothers and sisters, without the romantic commitments. We can care for all the things that need doing without sharing love. I have seen the agony of those who buried a wife or husband.”
“But, my dear, it is God’s will that men and women should marry and raise a family. We will need young strapping boys and hearty little girls to grow up to make this new land flourish. And I think that yon gentlemen would make an able father and a strength to stand beside you. You will need that, Piety. While we are giving thanks today, let us not forget to thank Him for the courage and sacrifice of the men in our number. Surely God uses them for different means than He does women, but there is no nobler calling than for both to join together in marriage and in life.”
“You are right, of course, and that is what my heart longs for, but I fear my own sentiments.”
“God has given us this land and one another. As long as we glorify Him in the proper use of both, there is no wrong. We will not live here long, as time goes. But our children and children’s children will. This is more than our new home. This land is the hope of those whom today we do not know, who perhaps have not been born. Their names will be inscribed here with ours. Their graves will be dug beside ours. Their hopes and prayers will help establish this new world. Now, go to the side and give a look of approval to Edmund Drake.” She leaned down conspiratorially. “Or I shall give encouragement to Benjamin Ralston.”
Piety grinned at her and left her seat at the rough table. She walked the short distance to the playing field and watched as the young braves and settlers lined up for a footrace. The Wampanoag hooted and cheered, teasing one another with playful jabs and phrases. They loved nothing better than competition and winning over their new English neighbors would be all the better.
It was a short race, a sprint to the large tree at the edge of the field. And Edmund’s long legs made quick work of it. He easily outdistanced his competitors and finished first. The natives beat him cheerfully on the back. He acknowledged their adulation and then started walking toward her. This made them howl even louder.
He stopped in front of her and reached out both hands to her. “Will you walk with me over yon?” He pointed toward the edge of the village of thatched huts.
Piety nodded. “I will.”
Edmund led her past the huts to stand beside the graves on Cole’s Hill. He pointed to a mound of earth.
“I promised my mother that I would do my best to win you. She wanted to live to see it, but Providence did not allow it. I know it is soon, but I pledge to you here and now that I will stand by your side whatever this wild, new land brings to our door. I will put food on our table and plow our fields and build our barns. I will protect you and honor you always, and I will carve our names on gravestones so that our bones may testify that we built our lives in this place.”
Piety brushed away the tear on her cheek and placed her hand in his large one. “I would be delighted to tame this new world with you, sir. What took you so long to ask me?”
Now we know the Pilgrims were a decorous, solemn group with strict guidelines on public behavior. And there were few records kept of the activities of those who lived in Plymouth. But I wonder, if the skies and rocks and trees could speak, if they would tell of a young man in a flat-topped hat who bent to kiss a young woman in a linen cap in the dusk of the first Thanksgiving Day? They are, after all, the ancestors of a league of red-blooded patriots who settled this land and today still keep a day of thanks to the God who gave that first bounty long ago to a few hearty pilgrims on a wind-swept, New England coast.