Sunday, November 1, 2009


The first Milstead in America that we know of was Edward, born in 1656. He lived in Bethersden, Kent, England and was deported in 1674 for stealing 2 nutmegs and a pound of Gingerbread. After serving an indenture to pay for his passage, he went on to acquire land, marry thrice, and father a number of children, from which many of the Milsteads in America are descended.

The life and times of my family and how-we-came-to-be-here were changed drastically three hundred and thirty-five years ago, when a Great-to-the-nth-power Grandfather was transported and indentured-for-passage, for the theft of two nutmegs and a pound of Gingerbread.

My mind jumps immediately, not to the history and the hard-earned sea journey with its deprivations and hard hours with scant food, no sanitation, and below-decks pallet holding fitful dreams, but to the BEFORE of it, the home and the lacks---the small, airless house, the meager fire, the scant, floury diet of the unlanded and poor. There’s a Les Miserables feel to it---though he would have probably been obstinately John ValJohn---that seventeen-year-old who put out his hand and grabbed those exotic small stones, seductive with the whiff of hot climes and their ride in the dusty dark of a rough camel-bag along the Spice Roads.

Were they a whim, a fancy, or did the elusive fragrance capture his cravings so fiercely that he had the need to carry one of the little brown nublets in his pocket? Did the bland potatoes-and-dough diet, the Winter-long lack of anything green or crisp or bitter of his home table spur his hand to flash out and capture the fragrant prize? Perhaps a taste of a street-bought sweet flavored with the spicy specks caused a Goblin Market quest for more. Or could they have been for a sweetheart, from whose youthful love he was snatched forever. I like to think him like my own sons, so caring and solicitous for my welfare---maybe the small offering was to cheer the drab kitchen and the chilly house for his own Mother, with a bit of fragrance and a taste of faraway, when the here and the now were so daunting and spare.

Whatever the cause, whatever his mind at the moment, he was caught, captured, sent from home at seventeen, indentured to whatever kind or grim or mercenary soul paid his passage. And the years of servitude in this new “free” land were not freedom---they were probably more of the same dull diet, the labor of his hands earning him the bread and the pallet and the same restless dreams, to the final emancipation---a man on his own in a new land. He had had some training as a cobbler, and so his Indenture Master set him to work making shoes. I wonder how many pairs went across his last during the six years he spent working off his debt.

And so he walked free, with a trade or occupation, hard-taught and hard-learned. He married---thrice, the book says, and fathered many children, from which a side of my family is descended. I read the paragraph above, taken from the preface to a long list of begats of our own, and that odd perverse Southern trait which makes us want to trot out all our crazy kinfolks, all the oddities and the strange, and set them right out there for the world to see---that made me prouder to claim this man than I'd be if he had saved his pence and booked passage and set foot here with a glad heart and hope in his eyes. He worked and paid his debt, and by Crackey, he was HERE and so are we.

I read the story, and I went right to my kitchen spice rack to the little Penzey’s jar. The dusty clunk of the small nutmeg inside, the whiff of Christmasssssss when the lid was removed, the promise of sweet delights to come---perhaps a moment just such as that set the feet of my forebears onto the path which led me here, which leads on with my children and grandchildren.

I will tell them all of Edward and his nutmegs, and the pound of Gingerbread concealed in his coat. I hope he got to eat it all---every bite---before he was dragged to the assizes. And I want to think that in his pocket, for the comfort of thumbing in those dark storm-tossed ship-nights, for taking out in the darkness and inhaling the aroma of something BETTER to come---I just have to believe that he carried at least the scent of those nutmegs in his pocket all the way to his new life in a new world.


Tonja said...

How exciting to know this about your family history! Ahh@ the smell of nutmeg and gingerbread! It can make you do strange things! Isn't it funny how just a whiff of a scent can transport you to a warm cozy room somewhere, or to an island full of blooming flowers?

On my last trip to Maui, I bought a bottle of inexpensive plumeria cologne. It is way too loaud for me to ever wear. But, on occasion...when I need a quick getaway of the mind...I'l open it up and breathe deeply...and can almost feel the breeze!

Sorry...kind got transported there for a minute!

racheld said...

AHHHH, the magic of transportation has no limits.

In all its meanings.

Cape Coop said...

Really lovely, I can imagine some of the life of that Edward of long ago, as a youth and a man. So touching.

Southern Lady said...

What a beautiful story, Rachel ... I wonder if Edward had a way with words like you.

Thank you for your kind and gracious words. They always brighten my days.

Southern Lady said...

Rachel, thank you for the sweet birthday wishes. I'm "fixin' to" go spend the day with my Mama and Daddy, so I know it will be a happy one. Hope yours is, too, my friend!

Kim Shook said...

Lovely. You are such an inspiration and show why it is so important to tell and KEEP our stories. How lucky to have this story to pass on.

Roger David Hardesty said...

Thank you, cousin, for your recently-discovered comment at my post, 'Good Luck If It Hits.'

Sometimes I get the sense that "a story wants to be told." I may think I'm culling historical records, but as factoids from research unfold into a story with an arc, I sense perhaps I'm merely a pawn in some other initiative. I'm reminded of a line by Gil Scott-Heron: "We are the ones, who tie our fathers to our sons."

I find it interesting that you went to whiff nutmeg. Smell is considered the sense most closely related to memory. (The Proust Effect is also termed odor-evoked autobiographical memory.) Who knows what befell Edward Milstead (1856-1734) when he encountered the aroma?

Generations yet to come may more fully understand genetic memory. Two months after my post, BBC News reported findings on 'transgenerational epigenetic inheritance:' "Dr. Brian Dias told the BBC: "This might be one mechanism that descendants show imprints of their ancestor." It seems remarkable that smell aversion may alter DNA. It's just as likely - to me - that odors we are drawn to might have roots in our genetic history.

Carry on. The world informs you.