Beginnings at 23

The painting here, The Concert by Gerrit van Honthorst, was created in 1623 while Honthorst lived in Utrecht, a city in the Netherlands. A little over 50 kilometers to the west in the city of Leiden lived Tryphosa Lee and Stephen Tracy, my 10th great-grandparents. It is doubtful that they could appreciate Honthorst’s painting and its emulation of Caravaggio’s style. More so, it was likely they didn’t approve of the subject matter with its bright music and wine and lusty women.

Tryphosa and Stephen were Pilgrims who grew up in Great Yarmouth, England, in the early 17th century. The paintings I’ve been able to find of that area and time reveal a romantic, lush river bordered by curvy, willowy trees along the banks. It was a prosperous time to live in Yarmouth and the next great plague was more than 15 years away. I don’t know what was in Tryphosa’s mind; I don’t know why she, at the age of 23, was struck with a hunger for a church separated from the monarchy, which led her and Stephen to the streets of Leiden where they married in 1621.

At 23, I was working two jobs in Boston, living with a recently divorced Buddhist couple who were strangers to me. They fought in between chanting. I had my own bedroom but no furniture. I slept on the floor. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

At 23, I was one year out of college. My heart was still in Athens, Ohio, but my feet were in Boston’s south end. I was beat up while working one Saturday morning in the Boston Center for the Arts. Two heroin junkies—part of a small group of Native Americans from Maine, maybe from the Passamaquoddy or Penobscot tribe, who regularly sat outside the Center—wanted to shoot up in the bathroom. It was a Saturday morning and I was managing the desk at a dance studio where children were rehearsing. I couldn’t let them in and, besides, there was a bathroom on the first floor. Anyway, they beat the crap out of me and then left.

Tryphosa, married and pregnant at 23—surrounded by Puritan families who were seeing their Englishness disappearing the longer they stayed in Leiden, as their children soaked up the Dutch language and culture—maybe spent her days washing clothes, making bread, sweeping the dirt out the door, careful to avoid the emptying of chamber pots from second floors. I don’t know what she was thinking.

Ancestry.com is something of a circle-jerk when it comes to unprovable lineage. One amateur genealogist will use another amateur genealogist’s unknown sources and then another will use them, and it goes on despite the original source being of questionable reliability. But a lie repeated often becomes true. Family histories abound with stories of Tryphosa Lee as the daughter of Anne Hungerford and Joos Lee, a marriage that is far from established fact. Hungerford is an aristocratic British name, attached to knights and ladies and privilege. I don’t believe a word of it.  But there is one reason I would like to believe: I want to think that Tryphosa was educated.

At 23, I had 16 years of classes on American history, math, etymology, chemistry, expository writing, public relations, European history, and so much more crammed into my head, especially the night before an exam. I was called upon in class to recite poetry, to offer an opinion on a political campaign, to write about rape and the rights of women.

Tryphosa waved goodbye, at 25, to her husband Stephen as he left the Dutch shore on the Anne, a ship headed to Plymouth. In his arms, researchers believe, was daughter Sarah, my ninth great-grandmother, and perhaps accompanied by another who would look after Sarah during the journey. At 25, Tryphosa is believed to have traveled to London because she was expecting another child. She would join Stephen later, likely in 1625.

Before arriving to Leiden, Stephen was a mariner. When in Leiden, he became a sayworker—a weaver of wool, as many Pilgrims were to become during their days in Holland. In America, he would learn to work the land. How devout must they have been to give up all other aspirations? How committed to dress plainly, to live simply, forgive their children so little, beat their wives?They were the extreme religious right of their day.

I want to shake Tryphosa, or at least ask if Stephen is good to her. I am not exactly an atheist. I can imagine how someone would be moved to serve God, to take a leap of faith that may not end up in one’s favor because of a little thing called “predestination.” (OK. I don’t understand taking a leap of faith when predestination is part of the equation. That just smacks of the lottery to me.)

I picture Tryphosa with her bare feet in the sand—on one side, the North Sea, on the other, the River Yare. Maybe my love for the ocean is twisted up in that DNA, slipped through cells. I sense her uncertainty of the crossing over the angry Atlantic. Stephen will tell her that among the first things he saw upon entering Plymouth was the head of one of several victims of Miles Standish’s Wessagusset massacre, the head of Wituwamat, on a pike over Plymouth’s fort, and a hoisted blood-soaked cloth as a flag.

11 Comments Beginnings at 23

  1. Julie Henahan December 24, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Once again, Meg–superlative!

    Reply
    1. MegMeg December 25, 2015 at 2:57 am

      Thanks so much, Julie! It could use a bit of editing — tried to write it too fast to meet the yeah write deadline! 😉 Can’t thank you enough for reading my blog. It means so much to me.

      Reply
    1. MegMeg December 25, 2015 at 2:58 am

      Thanks, Nancy! Very kind of you. How I wish I knew more about Tryphosa.

      Reply
  2. Amy Bee December 24, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    I wonder what you two would talk about if you met. Common ground through family gossip? Very nice tension between history, the unknowable and personal experience.

    Reply
    1. MegMeg December 25, 2015 at 3:02 am

      Yes, I wonder what we would talk about. I did another piece a year or so ago in which I pretended to prepare dinner for a 7th great uncle (or something) — it was a blast to write. I thought about doing that for Tryphosa but I need to do so much more research. ANYWAY, thanks so much for reading and commenting, Amy. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

      Reply
  3. c2avilez December 24, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    I love how you compared the two of you at 23. How different life was for her!
    Researching genealogy is such an investigative pursuit. My mom is currently researching back far enough that she is ending up with some of the same fact vs. fiction issues you are encountering.

    Reply
    1. MegMeg December 25, 2015 at 3:04 am

      Yeah, it’s really interesting how the genealogy business has made research both easier and harder. Fellow yeah write editor Nate has done a lot of work on his ancestry and has used it in his writing too. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      Reply
  4. Phil December 26, 2015 at 5:33 am

    I just read about that massacre yesterday, but can’t remember the context..NYT?

    Reply
    1. MegMeg December 28, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      I don’t know, Phil. I had read about it before but was reminded of it recently on a PBS show on the Pilgrims, maybe American Experience? Anyway, I don’t think I knew about Wituwamat’s head on a spike displayed for more than 6 months at Plymouth. It appalled the leaders back in Leiden to hear of it.

      Reply
  5. become-the-villain December 29, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    A lot of times we think about the past in such broad strokes, one generation lumped all into one. I loved thinking about it from such a personal perspective. It is so crazy to me to think of what must have caused people to be brave, desperate, and/or adventurous enough to make that journey into the unknown.

    Reply

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