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November 22, 2013

Poetry Friday--"Dear Mr. Ferris"

Three years ago, on The Write Sisters blog, I did a post about the women on the Mayflower. I'm bringing it up again because few people realize that most of the women didn't survive the first winter in Plymouth and that only four adult women remained to do the cooking and serving for the feast we celebrate as the first Thanksgiving.

"The First Thanksgiving, 1621" by Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris [circa 1915], courtesy The Athenaeum.

The artist who painted the above, Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), created many works portraying pivotal moments in American history such as "Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776," "Betsy Ross, 1777," and "Let Us Have Peace" (Lee's surrender to Grant).

My poem for today was informed by my learning about the Mayflower women and in response to "The First Thanksgiving, 1621." I'm dedicating it to my friend, Andrea Murphy, a descendant of one of the Mayflower women, Mary Chilton. Andrea, too, is trying to bring forth the truth about the first Thanksgiving. Her audience, however, is preschoolers.
Dear Mr. Ferris:

Re: your painting titled
"The First Thanksgiving, 1621"

We, the women of Plymouth
were not glowing with health.
Nor, were we given to smiling.
Yet, you portray us as robust,
clean, and gracious hostesses.

Rather, viscera from all manner
of wild creatures stained our dress.
Our scarred hands were burned,
swollen, cracked and bleeding.
We silently wept with pain, fatigue.

We cooked and served as was
our lot, while the stink of bear-
greased savages filled our noses
making us gag. Our own men, too,
had a noxious stink about them--fear.

Some may have given thanks
that day, but it was not the women.
Therefore, we write to urge you to
take up brush and palette once more.
Do not give us beauty, give us truth.

The four who had the misfortune not to
have perished in the year of our Lord, 1621

© Diane Mayr, all rights reserved.

Welcome back to Katya at Write. Sketch. Repeat. who will be hosting the Round-Up this week.

Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!


  1. What a powerful poem, Diane! The sensory images -- viscera stains, grease odors -- bring their reality to life. Thank you for sharing this intense response to history and art. Well done!

  2. Bravo!! Love that you gave the women a strong voice and presence in your powerful poem. Fascinating information, too, Diane.

    1. The real women probably had no voice at all, so we have to try to give them a voice.

  3. This gives me chills. Well done (and thank you) for setting the record straight, Diane.

    1. I'm sure there's more to the record just waiting for us to uncover!

  4. These truths (as much as we can discern "truth" all these years later) are powerful and ugly and inspiring. I'll never understand the need to whitewash and color (you can do both at the same time) history.

    1. We are a nation of dreamers, and, if some of them are nightmares, we dress them up to make ourselves feel better.

  5. Your story and ekphrastic poem make me wonder how many other paintings of historic events are based more on sentiment than truth. What a great way to correct the fallacy.

    1. Violet, do a Google image search on Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris. He was a master of sentiment and myth!

  6. Oh, I love a post that sends me to the library to research something! I had no idea that most of the women on the Mayflower died that first winter. Why didn't we learn that in school??? Thanks, Diane - and thanks for the interesting poem, addressed to the painter.

    1. I was surprised also, Julie! In my ignorance I imagined dozens of men and women attended that first Thanksgiving feast.

  7. just maybe, the artist captured the souls of those four women in his painting; just saying

    much love...

    1. Yes, Gillena, there is that possibility. Anyone who embarked on a sea voyage to a place wild and unknown and who managed to survive a year may have been glowing with hope.

  8. Diane, this is brilliant! So true that real women are rarely portrayed being real. Trying to get to the bottom of that myself. Your blog premise is delightful and I will check back often. Kudos!

  9. Thanks, Amy! Do stop by again. I post 3 times a week on this blog. The library blog is M - F www.kuriouskitty.blogspot.com, and my quote blog is daily www.kkskwotes.blogspot.com.

    I've been browsing your blog. I'm happy to see that I'm in good company, having been born in 1949, the same year as Bonnie Raitt, Christiane Northrup, Diana Nyad, and Meryl Streep!