A WORK OF FICTION 4

 

“Every life writes its own Work of Fiction

1602 ELIZABETH (I)puritan dress 3

The regret is that so little is known about his wife Elizabeth who remained at his side through all of these hard years, bearing and rearing his children and enduring the hardships of those pioneer times with him. Not one word is written about her trials and activities that this writer has seen. She died March 16, 1686 at the age of 84 leaving a family, the descendants of whom in the next three hundred years, were to swarm over the land producing worthy citizens and many distinguished ones, all Christian and God fearing. Lieut. Samuel Smith, his children and one line of descendants (“Lieut. Samuel Smith, his children and one line of descendants.” James W. Hook, 1884-1957)

This, you see, is the problem. The kind Mr. Hook, whom I quote above, after having written a book of some 350 pages of which more than 13 whole pages were dedicated to the life of her husband and the following to the life of one of her sons (the daughters are mentioned with their pertinent dates: birth, death, marriage [to whom] and children born), could not include even one scrap of information about Elizabeth, my 10th Great Grandmother, other than her year of birth, the date she died and the names and birthdates of her children. Even today, women do not make history: they make babies, they make dinner, they make the beds, they make prattle and –according to men- they make no sense… but most of the time, history passes them by with nothing more than a mere mention when and if they were lucky enough to marry someone who did make ‘history’ no matter how small or personal.

There is, however, one correction I should make to Mr. Hook’s statement that Elizabeth’s descendants produced citizens that were “Christian and God fearing”. That is not true, but then –of course- Mr. Hook did not know all of Elizabeth’s descendants. About her life, however, he is in the right: we know little more than that she survived until the age of 84, which is the age that my own mother swore was the age when all the women in our family died. She lived to 91, but she had senile dementia so, naturally, she did not notice when she passed the 84 mark.

So of Elizabeth’s childhood we know next to nothing, not even the names of her parents apart from a wild guess. We can suppose that, while all around her The General Crisis whirled, she had and got over her share of childhood diseases, cured her scraped knees and elbows, learned to read and write by studying the Bible (something all Puritan children were taught), fought with her brothers and sisters and obeyed or disobeyed her parents as much as any other little one might.

She could have been a first child or a fifth; she might have suffered or wished for the death of a sibling or two; she might have, in turn, loved or hated her parents as most children do; she might have been named for her Queen as no doubt many girls were in those days, or for the Biblical mother of John the Baptist or for her own mother whose name we ignore, a distant aunt or for no one in particular. Perhaps she was called Bess or

St Mary's in Hadleigh

St. Mary’s Church, Hadleigh

Beth when she was being cute and good, and Elizabeth! when a scolding was warranted. No doubt she pricked her finger more than once while darning her brother’s socks, or fell asleep on the family bible while studying. We can know none of this. Neither can we know if she was bright, although proof that she was brave would definitely come later and so forcibly that it must have been built up from a very early age.

We know she was born in 1602 because, unless she lied about her age, she declared herself to be 32 years old in 1634 on a document that has outlived the paper it was written on thanks to internet, so that today, some 414 years from when Elizabeth first opened eyes on the world, anyone interested can access it. We also know that the year following Elizabeth’s birth was a difficult one for England during which 30,000 people in London died from the plague, and Queen Elizabeth I passed away after 44 years at the helm of the country (a woman who did make history).

However, in spite of this overwhelming abundance of ignorance, we do know a few things: Elizabeth’s last name was Smyth (the old spelling of Smith). The town where Elizabeth Smyth was born, Hadleigh, is today little more than a two-hour drive from London, a forty-minute drive from the sea and a twenty-minute drive from the nearest train station, and even back then, when getting there might have been a bit more difficult, it was a place where people gathered and gossiped, for Hadleigh was a market town in Suffolk County. As the charter stating this had been issued in the 13th century, by the time Elizabeth was born Hadleigh was a veritable center of information on every market day. Apart from its outstanding (for size) church, Hadleigh also had a local pub

Pub

“The Old Monkey”

officially known as The Kings Arms, but locally called “The Old Monkey”, where the townsfolk –especially the men- would gather after work or during market day.

At the time of Elizabeth’s birth, Hadleigh had a population of about 3,000 and a history of protestant radicalism that was to determine her future in no uncertain way. The town, apparently, was remarkable for its knowledge of the word of God, and was referred to as ‘more a university of the learned than a towne of cloth-making people’.

taylor's%20examinationThe supreme example of Hadleigh’s radicalism lies in the story of Rowland Taylor, that Elizabeth must have heard over and over much to the horror of her little heart. Rowland Taylor (an ancestor of Elizabeth Taylor, by the way) was appointed Rector of St. Mary’s Church in Hadleigh the 16th of April, 1544; he had been ordained a priest in 1541 in spite of the fact that he was married, because the English Reformation had lifted the requirement of celibacy for the clergy. Taylor’s wife, Margaret Tyndale, had seen her father burned at the stake in 1536 for his ‘heretical’ translation of the English Bible so it was no surprise she married a man called to martyrdom. In Hadleigh, Taylor had used his post to disband Catholic religious guilds, sell their possessions and use the proceeds to help the poor, a chore for which he had a passion. He was known to press the rich cloth merchants of the town for generous donations to be invested in aiding those less fortunate. These charitable deeds endeared him to the hearts of his parishioners who found in their rector a gentle kindness, coupled with unaffected cheerfulness. It seems that ‘cheerfulness was a prominent feature in his character’ and he was remembered as ‘smiling constantly’ and having had the ‘merriest and pleasantest wit’.[1] Taylor was outspoken about his opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and its “popist” rules.

MARY 2In 1553, Edward VI died and Mary I (later known as ‘Bloody’ Mary for PHILLIP II OF SPAINher persecution of Protestants), along with her very Catholic husband, King Phillip of Spain, tried to sink England back into “the one true faith” and the sphere of the Holy Roman Empire. Taylor, at that moment spiritual leader of Hadleigh, was a staunch resister of any back-stepping, believing (and preaching) that clerics should be allowed to marry and that the story of ‘transubstantiation’ (the conversion of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ) was a lot of hogwash. Mary –true to her faith- had him promptly arrested. He was tried, excommunicated and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he was taken back to Hadleigh where his wife awaited him so they might have the allowed ‘last supper’ at home together. The following day, a cold one in February, he was more than warmed up at the stake in Aldham Common near Hadleigh, while his wife, two daughters, his son and a large crowd of Hadleighens looked on. According to an eyewitness, his last words to his son were:

Taylor1“My son, see that thou fear God always. Fly from all sin and wicked living. Be virtuous, serve God daily with prayer, and apply thy boke. In anywise see thou be obedient to thy mother, love her, and serve her. (…) Beware of lewd company of young men, that fear not God, but followeth their lewd lusts and vain appetites. Flee from whoredom, and hate all filthy lying, remembering that I they father do die in the defense of holy marriage”

This happened in 1555. Rowland Taylor became Hadleigh’s favorite martyr never to be forgotten, and there is little doubt that Elizabeth, born some 47 years after he had gone up in smoke, heard the story not once but over and over again, each time enhanced by its retelling. She too was taught to flee from whoredom and hate all filthy lying, to serve God and obey her mother for those lessons would be repeated each time the end of Hadleigh’s martyr was retold. And every repetition that Elizabeth heard of Rowland Taylor’s death undoubtedly would make her shiver down to her woolen socks, imagining the flames frying not his skin but her own, much the same way her mother toasted bacon in the skillet until it shriveled up and became crisp. Thus she was primed from a very early age in right behavior and a rabid hatred of Roman Catholicism, and in the virtues of charity and unselfishness that the good man had preached. Whether or not she carried these admirable traits throughout her life is anyone’s guess, but considering the fate that befell anyone not adhering to the Puritan ethic, we can presume she did her best.

Sometimes the talk of the past was overshadowed by the radical changes taking place in the present. The only son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I; less than a year later, to great rejoicing, he ended the 19-year-old conflict with Spain (during which both the Spanish Armada first and then the English Armada were defeated), by signing a peace treaty with Philip III, the new king. All this and more would have been part of the general conversation weaving in and out of Elizabeth’s childhood.

But she would have been most caught up by the tales of the New World and the fate of the excursions sent there in an attempt to colonize that pristine land. There were stories of ships gone astray and breaking up on perilous rocks; of starvation and freezing in the small groups that managed to land; of Indians that ravaged and burned settlements with all their occupants. Elizabeth was only two when the French managed to establish a 3shipssettlement on Saint Croix Island in what is now Maine, but a harsh winter killed nearly all the settlers and the remainder moved out of New England up to Nova Scotia. It was commented that King James certainly wouldn’t want to be bettered by the French so there was no surprise when he issued competing royal charters to both the Plymouth Company and the London Company in order to establish a permanent settlement that would claim what rightfully belonged to England.

In 1607 Elizabeth was barely 5 years old; she probably wouldn’t be playing with a real doll as the ones made then were very expensive, but perhaps her mother had made her a rag dolldoll with the face painted on the cloth, or maybe she played “dolls” using the newest brother or sister that had arrived in the family. In the meantime, the London Company was playing ‘house’ in a more serious way; it had established a foothold known as Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, its colonists faced an incredibly harsh winter, worsened by a fire in the storehouse that wiped out their supplies. When one of their leaders died and the other abandoned the New World, the colonists en mass abandoned the project and headed for home. Their stories, like the sailors returning, would drift into Hadleigh and end up in the pub or in the homes as tales to put your hair on end.

Yet, England did not give up. The same year as the Popham disaster, the English set up Jamestown in Virginia, first as a fort and then little by little as a town. As Elizabeth grew, Hadleigh dwellers watched the first permanent settlement in America grow. Of course, news did not travel fast then; snatches of information would arrive along with the vagabonds and returning sailors that came around on market days, and everyone would repeat the stories of Jamestown’s population starving, or how its settlers had fled, or that a shipload of slaves had arrived there, or that the Germans (troublesome people that they were) who had disembarked on Virginia’s coast had promptly allied themselves with the natives and supplied the Indians with weapons later used against the settlers. There could be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the going was tough, but go they did, first in a trickle and later… well, we will come to that when the moment arrives.World-1600s-Map

As she grew, Elizabeth would hear these stories about the wilds of America that sounded as forbidding as the flames that had consumed Rowland Taylor. For a time, she was too young to imagine what ‘across the ocean’ meant or to understand that Indians could be any different from the Spanish and the Catholics whom she knew were enemies. Perhaps one day she was shown a map that only made everything look so small it seemed as if ‘crossing the ocean’ was no more than a hop-skip. Perhaps she even dreamed that one day she herself would cross the ocean. Perhaps…

Then, when she was 13, something happened across another,smaller body of water, something she would never, never know about, care about or imagine, but something that has very much to do with this story.

 

 

[1] For further information: (http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com)

ROOTLESS: THE BEGINNING

When I was 9 years old, I was torn up with all and roots and transplanted –as Harry1951-3 Mexico (6) Belafonte more or less said while introducing his song about Jamaica- with no one wanting my opinion about nothing, at no time and in no way. Children were to be “seen and not heard” according to my father, so voicing an opinion –even if I had had one- was not an option. Of course, I didn’t have one. I had no idea what “moving to Mexico” meant, or where Mexico was, or anything of anything. All I knew was that, while I was away at summer camp 1951-2 Summer Camp14052014 (2)learning to ride horseback and row and swim and fish by inserting tiny frogs on a hook, and kiss a boy behind the watch tower, a decision had been taken that would determine my whole future and in its accordance we were loading up the car and “moving”. I had been moved before, from New York City to New Canaan, Connecticut, but that move was at 5 years old and –frankly- I remember nothing about New York even looking at the old 1946-3 Xmas New York01052014 (4)photographs. Besides, I was moving from an apartment in the city to a beautiful, spacious house in the country where I had miles of woods and fields in which to spend all my infantile energy. It was a better deal. I had already experienced “countryside” because while living in New York, we would go to our place in Poughkeepsie on long weekends and in the summer. In Poughkeepsie we had two horses (I don’t remember, but there are photographs and my father often spoke of this experience) and I would ride sitting in front of my father, tightly held. At least, this is how it was until one of the horses tried to brush my mother off by rubbing its side against a tree trunk at full trot and then 1944-2 Poughkeepsie Jul-Aug25042014 (2)almost killed my father with its hooves when he went in to feed it. That was the end of the horses. We had a black poodle called “Peter” too, until my mother ran him over one evening coming into the driveway when he galloped out to greet her. That was the end of Peter. The dog was Peter because my father was Pedro or, as is the 1944-4 Poughkeepsie winter25042014 (4)nickname in Spain, Perico. My mother, a good American who did not speak Spanish at the time, wanted to call my father “Peter”, but he would have none of it, so she called the dog “Peter” and then killed him. So much for love. This anecdote has a continuation. Many years later, while on a hunting trip with my father in Mexico, she shot a small parrot in place of a dove. In Mexican Spanish, a small parrot is called a “perico” (which there is not a nickname for Pedro) and my father loved to retell the story of how my mother was, for sure, out to gun him down. 1941-3 Hickory Hill Farm, Clinton Hollows, NY (Poughkeepsie)21042014So Poughkeepsie melted into New Canaan and I had a black retriever named Brandy and a cat called Minnie, and1946-3 Xmas New York01052014 (8) the freedom to roam, investigate, get lost and found, and live as I hadn’t experienced previously at least in a conscious manner. There was to be only one thing I would remember that would mar my New Canaan experience and that was the birth of my brother, something not easily forgotten considering that, in spite of me, he survived childhood. I was six, I had been queen of the house since birth with no competition whatsoever, and then 1948-2 cuba and New Canaan Michael 05052014 (6)suddenly, competition appeared and it had a penis which, according to Freud, is the only thing that women really envy. I don’t particularly agree with Freud, though, and truly believe that if it had been a girl my reaction would have been the same: competition is competition. Now, most six-year-old girls probably would look on this event as a marvelous opportunity to play little mommy with a real life doll, but dolls were not my thing and –according to my mother- I wouldn’t even go near him, much less hold him, feed him, change or bathe him. There was an alien in the house and I was not about to abet it. Nevertheless, and in spite of my brother, my memories of New Canaan basked in the glory of love lost and ever longed for. I was convinced that nothing had disturbed the peace of those afternoons spent walking in the woods with my father, playing that we were fighting the Indians and protecting my mother, who was home cooking our dinner; or sneaking out to the kitchen garden with the sugar bowl to eat strawberries picked right from the plant; or earning 25¢ for filling a quart jar with blueberries from the field across 1949-2 New Canaan08052014the way (the “way” being a dirt road with no cars practically ever) and then getting to eat the blueberry pie which was my favorite; or playing in the carriage house with the wind-up Victrola and a 78 Caruso record I must have listened to 100 times; or helping my father cut the hay in the field; or climbing the apple trees to pick their fruit and eat it straight out; or watching the deer come into the orchard in winter looking for rotten apples under the snow; or rolling a snowball until it got so big it wouldn’t budge any farther and seeing how it had left a trail clean of snow behind its progress; or walking to the reservoir with my father to fish for sunfish and singing “Fishy, fishy in the brook, Daddy catch ‘em on a hook, Mommy fry ‘em in a pan, Brianda eat ‘em like a man;” My fate, however, was decided one evening even before I went away to camp, as I was to hear it over and again much later in life. My father had come home with the news that he would be travelling to Mexico frequently in the coming year because of the business he was setting up there. My mother, for whom it was a great frustration not being able to belong to the New Canaan Country Club because the parents of her ex-husband had blackballed her, suggested that they move there. They were sipping a martini when this conversation took place. My father stood up and prepared a second martini and by the time the glasses were empty, the decision determining my fate without my consent had been taken. So notwithstanding the fact that a plane trip to San Antonio and then a car trip from there to Mexico City had all the promise of adventure that a 9 year old girl could wish for, I must have had my misgivings about what I was leaving behind. Furthermore, according to modern psychology, between 9 and 10 is a very important time in a child’s development. It is when she begins moving out of the protected area of the family and forming new relationships outside the home that seem more important to her at this time than those in the home. Family relationships, and the home space, constitute a safe base to return to after each ‘dangerous’ sally forth into the world.  So just as I was beginning to figure out “who” I was and daring to exercise that identity in my circle of friends at school, the security of the known was pulled out from under me along with my budding “identity”.  It would take me a long, long time to form another one I could count on and call my own. Gone were the roots I had put down in my school, in my aunt, uncle and cousins, in my friends and my grandparents, in the first house that I had recognized as my home,in my unlimited tramping grounds, the carriage house and Caruso, the barn where jumping from the rafters into the hay was a daily game, snow and the change of seasons, blueberry pies, and the woods I wandered through with my father. I was being moved to a 1951-3 Mexico (4)city -not as populated then as it is now- where there was only a dry season and a wet one, where I would attend a new school, learn a new language and be cared for by maids who prefered my brother because he was still “cute”, a place where feeling earthquakes was more possible than finding blueberries, where most children were not blond with blue eyes, where my parents would spend more time socializing and playing golf than taking care of their kids, and where I would for a very long time feel like a foreigner in an unknown land.    1951-3 Mexico (7) There was only one thing that made the trip not only bearable but actually desirable to a certain extent. The week before our departure, my parents had thrown a going away party for their friends, among them a couple called the Foxmartin’s. I was supposedly friends with their daughter who came along, but truth be told, I didn’t like her at all. She was about a year older and tended to be very bossy –something I considered my prerogative especially in my own house. Besides, she had the biggest collection of “trading cards” I had ever seen. In those days, the rage was to collect trading cards, playing cards that had beautiful pictures on them and a blank side where the numbers 1948-3 06052014 (6)and figures usually went. I craved that collection of cards, especially the horses. In comparison, my collection was paltry and I had very few “repeats” that I might trade for her “repeats” because she had almost all the cards that I had. Every time she would come to my house, she would bring her collection and show it off. She was odious. That night, though, we ended up going to sleep before her parents were ready to leave so they must have come up to the bedroom and carried her down to the car and forgotten the suitcase with the trading cards in it. The following morning, to my extreme delight, I found it. When her mother called and I was asked if she had left the suitcase, I lied and from that moment on I couldn’t wait to be off to Mexico with my stolen goods. Obsessed with the thought that I would be the Queen of Trading Cards in my new home, I didn’t notice how much I was losing with the move. So it wasn’t until arriving at our destination that I began to realize I 1951-3 Mexico (3)had lost my friends, my school, my beloved house and grounds and my native language, and had moved to a country that had never heard of trading cards. Suddenly, I was the queen of nothing, and my life had turned up-side-down. From that time on, the sensation of being rootless only increased because, as fate would have it, I did not put roots down in Mexico either.  My parents had not decided to stay permanently in Mexico at that time and, thinking they might want to return to the United States, they placed me in the American School. We joined a golf club where there were mostly American members, and they made mostly American friends in the beginning. So I was living on what would culturally be seen as an Island of the United States. I didn’t make Mexican friends, I didn’t listen to Mexican music, I didn’t watch Mexican movies and even the television programs that I viewed later were in English with Spanish subtitles. Yes, I learned Spanish because I had a class in school and because I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with the maids who had now substituted my mother who took to playing bridge, playing golf, attending the Garden Club, and working with the Junior League. My father worked more than before and was tired when he came home; our times together, the stories and the walks were gone. Weekends were for going to or organizing social events. I know now that we might be called “expats” for moving to a new country and trying to replicate the life lived in the original one. But I wasn’t old enough to have a life to replicate, so I lived on this half-baked replica of the States where nothing was the same, and nothing was different either. Rather it was like a faded photograph where the lines are difficult to make out. My father’s work took him travelling to South America and my mother often accompanied him, leaving us with a guardian, usually an elderly woman named Mrs. Lamb who I ran circles around. I missed my grandmother –usually the one in charge of caring for us when our parents travelled- and although I began immediately writing her letters, in those days mail took a week to ten days and by the time she answered I had forgotten what I had written. For the first time in my life I felt truly alone and that, instead of subduing me, sparked my rebellion. I became unruly, contrary and sneaky, and dedicated myself to growing up faster than my parents probably would have wished. But above all, I became rootless, incapable of identifying as an American but in no way a Mexican, other than having learned Spanish. When I returned to the States a few years later for a visit, I realized how foreign I felt there, just as I felt foreign in Mexico. I knew of none of the things my cousins were into, I had no bubble gum in Mexico, or Bobby sox, or moccasins; I didn’t dress as they did or think like they did or enjoy the things they did. I hadn’t gone to camp in the summer, or visited the beaches they had. They saw me as “Mexican” and introduced me as their “Mexican cousin” asking me to speak Spanish to impress their friends. But I wasn’t Mexican, I knew nothing of Mexican culture or customs and wouldn’t for many years. I was a fake, I was a neither-nor, I was rootless and it would take me a long, long time to discover the advantages of this strange new state and begin fully living the “rootless” life I had suddenly been dealt.