everything else on the horizon, reminding us that this was the place where the Pilgrims first landed before making a permanent settlement in Plymouth, just across the bay. I have often walked near the steps where those first immigrants first walked on American soil. I have spent time trying to imagine what it must have looked like back then—before all the roads and houses and cars and tourists were here, when it was just open land, sea, forests, dunes, and the local tribe who lived here first. How magnificent it must have seemed, how frightening as well.
My own ancestors made their pilgrimages over two centuries later, and their first visions of America must have been far different from those of the Pilgrims—a crowded, dirty city, thousands of people, noisy streets, a jumble of different languages they could not understand. It must have been magnificent, but in a far different way, and certainly it was just as frightening.
I woke this morning, filled with gratitude. This has been a transitional week for me. I have not had much time to focus on research, and I am also in a holding pattern, waiting for documents and for some clues from relatives to help me make some breakthroughs. I’ve been busy with the end of the semester tasks, and I’ve been concerned about a dear friend. But this morning I am taking a moment to be grateful. My friend is feeling better. My students left me some wonderful gifts, including a large poster signed by them, wishing me well on my retirement. My exams are written, and the students are preparing to take them. And I am in the place I love best with the person I love best, staring at a scene that always brings me comfort and perspective. So I am grateful.
When I think about my life compared to the lives of my ancestors, of those who came to America back in the late 19th, early 20th century, how could I not be grateful? I get to travel to places out of choice, to see those places for pleasure, to experience the beauty in the world for the sake of that experience. They traveled because they had to—to escape from a difficult place and to attempt to create a better life somewhere else. I get to live where I want to live. In all my adult life, I have only lived in five different homes. One thing that has struck me as I’ve done my research is how often my ancestors moved. One cousin explained this by saying that every time a landlord raised the rent, the family would move, often not paying any rent due because they had no money. When I have moved, it has always been out of choice—to a bigger home, for a better job, for a better location—not because I had to move.
My ancestors probably never knew the concept of leisure time. Life was hard work all the time. Although my grandparents were able to take some time away in the country during the summers when my mother was a young child, those were short vacations, a brief respite away from the hot city. I have the luxury now of retiring and choosing every day how I will spend my time: Will it be yoga or the elliptical at the gym today? Will I take a class or tutor a child? Will I write my book or research my family? Should I do the NYTimes crossword puzzle or read a book? I still cannot fully grasp what that will be like on a daily basis, but I am so grateful that I will have that opportunity to figure out how to spend my time.
Often I take all my freedom for granted and forget how lucky I am. But today, sitting here, looking at the Pilgrim Monument, thinking of those Pilgrims and of my own ancestral pilgrims, I am filled with gratitude for all that those pilgrims and Pilgrims did, for all that I have, and for all the people I love.