Guess what I am grateful for today?
That I am not a Pilgrim. At least, not one of those early ones who set sail on disease infested ships across an ocean to land on a rock. Seriously. As a kid I loved the romantic notion of the Pilgrims leaving oppression and seeking a new life of liberty in a new place. I also love the idea of Native Americans and these European travelers sitting down together and sharing a meal and conversation and good times. I imagined them all getting just a bit too happy on beer and fermented juice and singing songs. Then I pictured them all hugging and laughing as they head off to their cozy beds in the sweet little new settlement.
I did a little light reading on the Pilgrims and those early American years this morning (you know, in case some smarty pants at dinner tried to know more than me on the subject… Ahem… 5 year old daughter). Good Heavens. My idyllic visions of the Pilgrims and their first years here are not exactly accurate. Yes, there was a shared meal. I am also pretty sure they drank some beer (it was safer than water after all). But it was rough. They were pretty much starting from scratch (which is why the fact that the Native Americans helped them learn how to plant and grow food in this new place was such an amazing gift and one for which they should have been thankful). New government. New houses. New churches. New dangers.
And of course, disease. Lots and lots of disease. In 1609,there were about 500 colonists in Jamestown. At the end of that winter there were only 60 people left. Sixty people. That’s what happens when you don’t have enough shelter and food and disease runs wild through your settlement. 60/500. That’s 12% of the population remaining. Not romantic at all.
Yes, on that first Thanksgiving on 1621, life had improved a little. And there were many things to be thankful for. But things for those early Americans did not get easier. There were smallpox epidemics. Repeatedly. Remember the name “Cotton Mather” from your high school history classes? He was the Puritan minister who, unfortunately for his ultimate historical legacy, was instrumental in the travesty that was the Salem Witch Trials. But, you know what else Rev. Mather was instrumental in doing? Getting his fellow Bostonians innoculated against smallpox. He was passionate about it. You know why? Because he had already lost more than half of his family to another disease: measles. During a measles outbreak in 1714, he lost his wife and four children to the disease, including four-day old twins. I cannot even imagine.
So today, I am thankful that I am not a Pilgrim. I am glad that I don’t live in 1700’s Boston. I am grateful for the fact that I don’t have to wear stodgy old clothes and sleep on tick-infested hay mattresses. I am beyond thankful — I am bubbling over with gratefulness — that I have access to clean water and food and healthcare and vaccines. I don’t have to worry about my kids succumbing to smallpox or measles.
Phew. What a relief. Seriously. Vaccines have made our lives so much better (and longer and stronger).
Happy Thanksgiving indeed.