This story was written and performed by Whitney Presley for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, on December 11, 2012.
The theme of the show was "Cold Turkey."
"At this time of year, which emphasizes gratitude, I am grateful for the opportunity to share this funny story," says Oral Fixation creator and director Nicole Stewart. "Whitney Presley had our audience in stitches with her tale of a family trip to Plymouth Rock, where her father traded her hand in marriage for a bowl of mussels. You can read her story here, but it's her delivery that really makes it something special, so don't miss the video below."
At a re-creation of the first Thanksgiving, my father traded me for an extra bowl of mussels to a pilgrim with no teeth.
It was a real low point.
Let me start at the beginning. Back in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered America. Then, a couple hundred years later, a bunch of people traveled across the ocean to escape tyranny and live in Massachusetts. In the dead of winter. Bitter and cold Massachusetts.
They landed at Plymouth Rock, one of America's most disappointing national monuments. Did you know that it is rumored to have once been stolen by a bunch of teenagers in a pick-up truck? Like the mascot of a rival school. A school who's mascot is an overgrown pet rock.
One of those high schoolers might possibly have been a relative of mine, as for generations my family has lived on or traveled back to Cape Cod. Each summer grandparents, cousins, great uncles, aunts, and more meet up at the family compound about 30 miles south of Plymouth to celebrate clams, America, and wearing sweaters in July -- generally in that order.
So about six summers ago, on a rainy day at the Cape, I was surfing the Web and found out that the pilgrims' marketing people had cooked up an idea to host a harvest dinner. For $63 a head, you get to eat dinner straight out of the year 1621 with the actors who play the pilgrims at the plantation. All the traditional recipes made with semicontemporary ingredients -- yum! I talked my family into meeting back up at the Cape for a little R&R at the beach that Thanksgiving.
And just like the original brainiac pilgrims, my family set foot at Plymouth Rock on one of the coldest days of the year. Our plan was to take a quick trip around the plantation, head to the Mayflower (not the real one, the fake one that's docked at the pier), and then attend the dinner, leaving just enough time to hit up McDonald's if the harvest was a bust.
We'd been to the Plantation many times before but never at Thanksgiving -- and never in 20-degree snowy weather. I got a real understanding for how tough it must have been for the pilgrims, as I had stacked on two shirts, a sweater, a sweatshirt, my wool coat, a scarf, two pairs of gloves, and long underwear and still couldn't prevent the snow and screaming wind from cutting through to my delicate, averse-to-cold, Texas skin.
So when my mother ran up to me and said, "You have to meet this guy. He's so charming. And funny. And right up your alley. Plus, he's inside the cooking hut -- where it's warm," I only slightly hesitated.
Many people have "helped" me achieve my consistently low dating relationship average, but none so much as my family. My father once gave my phone number to some random guy at a Foot Locker because he liked the way he tied his shoes. He's also passed my number to students in his college classes, the guy who owned his favorite pizza parlor, and most famously, the bus driver from a tour we took in The Netherlands.
My sister once tried to hook me up with her cable installer. Who was also a kosher goat farmer. In rural Kentucky. My brother tried to set me up with one of his graduate school advisors -- perhaps he was hoping I could work my magic to get him a passing grade -- and my sister-in-law has threatened on more than one occasion to sign me up for eHarmony. She said she'd handle the registration and the patented compatibility matching system profile for me, as I've never tested well.
My mother, well, let's just say that her standards for me, her only unmarried child, have slipped further and further each year. Lower than mine, which basically consist of have a job, have a passion and you can attend the conventions, but I draw the line on wearing the costumes.
Needless to say, I was semiworried. But it was warm inside. And I'm weak.
"Awesome," I said. And followed her into one of the Pilgrim houses. Through the haze of cooking smoke I searched for a fellow tourist, perhaps one who had also bought into the unknown thrills of the harvest dinner. The only guy I could see was a character actor who was fully committed to his pilgrim role: He was a Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike. Well, sort of a look-alike. More like a really gnarly Keith Richards dressed up as a Jack Sparrow dressed up as a pilgrim. With no teeth.
I took a step back.
A big step.
No Teeth Pilgrim smiled (sort of) at me and said, "So this is the unwed daughter you told me about. She's nice. Very healthy. Has a good set of birthing hips."
"Ay, that she does," said a second pilgrim. "I reckon she'd be in high demand in the village."
My family started laughing as I continued to stare at the greasy apparition of undefined age before me. Apparently, my mother's dating standards for me had slipped all the way down to the "I don't bathe and I need someone else to chew my meat for me" level.
While No Teeth Pilgrim did meet two of my three requirements (job and a passion for something), he utterly failed at the third (I think this is the very definition of attending the convention and wearing the costume). But I felt I had to say something, so I dove on in.
"So, how about that 30 Years' War?" I said. "I mean, that was something, huh?" And tried to sashay my birthing hips in as seductive a manner as I could through all my layers. No Teeth laughed a deep, smelly pilgrim laugh and made several suggestive comments in Old English, something about the bry'dbedd and getting me bearneacca as quickly as possible, so I decided to show me birthing hips to the door.
Later that night at the harvest feast, while we ate stewed pumpkin that smelled a little like feet, the pilgrim actors wandered around and stole bread from the tables. Guess who stole mine? That's right: Mr. No Teeth. While gumming the bread and leering at me from across the table, he and my brothers and father got into a heated discussion about the religious scene in the 1600s. It was exactly as I pictured the feast. This discussion lasted through much of the first, second, and third courses. Until we hit the mussels.
They stopped the conversation cold. That's how good those mussels were. They were steeped in beer and butter, and there weren't that many of them. Like three per person. Which at a historical re-creation of a feast where there wasn't much food to go around, is, while historically accurate, just a real bummer.
"Listen, No Teeth," my dad said. "What would it take to get an extra bowl of mussels around here?"
No Teeth didn't even hesitate. "Your daughter with the hips."
I sat dumbfounded as the transaction occurred. Was this what my life had come to? Being sold for a cheap plate of mussels -- albeit really good mussels -- to a really ugly Keith Richards whose sole accomplishment seemed to be understanding the British Royal lineage up to and including the year 1627?
"Yeah," I said. "That sounds about right. Let's do this thing."
So No Teeth retrieved the mussels, got down on one knee, handed them to me, and then went in for the kiss in some sort of strange pilgrim ritual. I'm fairly certain if we'd been in the town hall it would have counted as a legal marriage, and I'd be living at Plymouth Plantation today, probably with about 20 pilgrim babies.
And that realization snapped me out of this pilgrim-induced haze. I cannot do that. I'm not sure how much my dignity is worth, but it's worth more than a couple dozen no-teeth babies. I did let him down easy. For after all, this ship had sailed and it took the mussels with it.