Every year since 1981, when I moved to California, I have come home to Massachusetts. I have an altar to Rockport in the dining room: a hand-made Motif No. 1 birdhouse, complete with buoys, and my grandmother’s antique, bearded fisherman incense burner dressed in yellow gear with his oilcloth rain hat, long-stemmed pipe to mouth, holding his fishing net. The incense smoke comes out his oval mouth. Next to it is a photo of my Aunt Marion, who turned down a fisherman’s proposal to retain her teaching job. She taught generations of families in Rockport. Due to the variable incident rates of COVID-19, I will not be coming home this year. Instead, I am left to ponder my family’s story of home.
Plymouth 400 urges us to understand and tell our “historically accurate and culturally inclusive history.” I have been trying to keep facts straight, waiting for a narrative, but now I realize my home story is a series of recognitions. A tailor emigrates from London in 1642 to the colonizer-named Watertown, Massachusetts. This arrival is part of the Great Migration from England between 1620-1640 of approximately 20,000 people, some deemed “Adventurers,” while many coming as indentured servants. Watertown, on the banks of a river, is already occupied by Pequossette and Nonantum people who fish for herring, tend crops, and live in longhouses. The coast of colonizer-dubbed New England has native Wampanoag, Massachusetts, Pennacook, Nauset, Permaquid and Abenaki totaling in the thousands. These indigenous tribes have occupied coastal land for six to 12,000 years, fishing, growing crops, especially corn, and, with the arrival of nonindigenous people, trapping for the fur of beaver and otter for trade. But beginning in 1616, a series of early explorer-induced pandemics devastated all but a few hundred native people. The Adventurers arrive to ghost villages, untended fields, and unimaginable skeletal remains. Colonizers understand this tragedy as Providence: a divine plan to ease access to land.
Recognition No. 1: Living on native land means learning the history of colonization and the deep pain it deals to indigenous people who hold this pain and loss today.
Recognition No. 2: As a colonizer, I am a guest on Massachusetts land. It is my responsibility to understand colonizer history and the associated pain and loss for First Nation people and the privileges incurred from white supremacy and erasure history.
Other family, weavers in London, reunite in Watertown with the tailor in 1666, coincident with the Great Fire that burned London, a series of their own plagues, and religious persecution resulting in people being burned at the stake. Money out of London, supplying the cash for colonization, requires some appeasement that native people are fairly negotiated with, resulting in further horror with the sexual abuse and abduction of Pocahontas, who is paraded past English high society in London before she dies of poisoning.
Recognition No. 3: Power over other people means abuse and violence that becomes cyclical unless it is healed. Before we can heal and repair, we must first acknowledge.
By 1692 in New England, God’s displeasure is considered in full force with a war between the French and indigenous people, the worst weather recorded, and accusations of Satan-possessed witches (100,000 accused in England, many hundreds accused in Massachusetts). The witch hunts in Massachusetts are presided over by judges who held most of the colony’s assets, as well as industry in neighboring Maine that suffers loss due to war-related burning. A climate of panic and fear descends. In my genealogy research I discover that the relative who was hung as a witch is accused by a family we later marry into. We are officially both the accused and the accuser.
Recognition No. 4: Internalized oppression is real.
The family story of home I grew up with includes that innocent elder hung as a witch, a hardware store owner and esteemed elder of the Salem-now-Danvers community, a blacksmith in the granite quarry of Pigeon Cove, and my Aunt Marion. I am the third generation of teachers. My nieces teach. Serving community is part of our blood. I return to Rockport every year to hear about my family, to bask in the beauty of the waters, and find a little bit of myself in the small-town nature of chatting over an Old Fashioned donut at the coffee shop counter, giving my company to a strong and scared young swimmer with a big imagination about what might join her in the waters, and stopping the car to let someone out of their driveway.
Recognition No. 5: If I do not learn and acknowledge the history of my Massachusetts land and the Lisjan Ohlone land by the San Francisco Bay where I also call home, what I so value and identify and hold sacred in these lands is as ephemeral as my sandcastle facing the incoming tide.
Jane P. Perry, Ph.D, is a retired teacher and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book, “White Snake Diary: Exploring Self-Inscribers,” was released April 10 by Atmosphere Press. You can find her at janepperry.com.