The last time we were in Williamsburg, Dan and I went to eat at one of the taverns, something which we like to do every time we visit. The taverns give visitors the ambiance of the colonial era and a sample of foods our forebears might have eaten. However, when I was going through orientation before starting my job in Colonial Williamsburg all those years ago, we were told that today’s chefs adjust the foods to contemporary tastes.
Let’s face it: if we tried to be historically accurate and really made and ate what our foremothers and forefathers had eaten, we’d probably get sick, or grossed out at the least.
Anyway, Dan and I were sitting there. It was evening, and the candles had been lit, as was a fire, and I watched servers bustling about in their 1700s-era clothing. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Maggie’s ancestors had lived this existence.
That momentary awareness might have brought on Maggie’s journal reflection in the short story, “The Dundee Cake,” as she writes about the mid-1700s and the difference between her late husband John’s family and her own:
Many of the houses on the square were built in the middle of the last century. John’s ancestors, the founders of Blaineton, lived across the way from this one. It grew from a humble dwelling to a building with two floors and a new wing. People unrelated live there now. John’s family moved to a large new house on the southern outskirts when their carriage manufactory became prosperous.
My people never lived in the town at all. We started out on a little farm north of Blaineton. In the last century, our people were far from well-to-do. Until they too started a carriage business, it was a hardscrabble existence for them, and they were well-versed in tragedy and loss.
I wonder how long their hearts ached after each sad event.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Maggie’s family came over from Scotland. Her given surname is Beatty. I usually refer to her as Maggie Blaine Smith, because it’s just one name too many to call her “Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith.” When Maggie wonders why women must take their husbands’ names, it is because a woman could accumulate a husband or two or three back in the days when even a simple illness could lead to death. I'm sure she would have liked to have kept her maiden name. And I know I should be more feminist and just call her “Maggie Beatty” but that doesn’t work in the context her era. So… there you are.
Here’s what I jotted down in my “Saint Maggie Bible” file about the first Beatty to leave Scotland:
Great-great-grandfather: Donald Beatty (b. 1716 – d. 1781): emigrated from Scotland in 1731, married in 1735, had children in 1737, 1739, 1742, 1744, 1746); found his way to western NJ in 1741 (age 25). Started a farm
Horror of horrors! I have not indicated the name of his wife. Shame on me! Ah, but you see I have a starting place for a story. Donald comes to the American colony of NJ in 1731 and does not marry until 1735. What if the woman he marries has already been here? What if she works in a little tavern, possibly owned by her father? What is her story before she meets Donald? After she marries Donald?
During this week’s trip to Williamsburg, I will be paying attention to culture, clothing, food, architecture, and how it feels to be in the houses and streets. Note: what you see in Colonial Williamsburg today is not a reconstruction of one year, like 1770. Rather, the museum offers architecture and life as it was between 1740 and 1760, if I have remembered my orientation correctly. But be warned: I could be off 5-10 years on either side.
Do you see what I have just done to myself? I’ve got another book idea set in a different era. Where I am going to find the time to do that when I haven’t even gotten the “Great Central Fair” story and The Good Community out yet?
Maybe I should start a “Go Fund Me” page.
Uh, huh. Sure...
I’ll be back tomorrow with photos and commentary about Williamsburg.