It appears that my mastery of English is a long-standing tradition….

Last week I mentioned Henry’s genealogy research. Over the past year or two, he’s discovered a handful of fascinating tidbits about my family. It turns out that a large, Southeast regional department store chain, Proffitt’s, was founded by my dad’s great-uncle. That turned out so well for them that they gobbled up a number of other stores over the course of the twentieth century. Then, in 1998, they bought the holding company for Saks Fifth Avenue! (They kept the Saks brand name…it being more well-known, I imagine.) Truly an American capitalist success story.

Henry also discovered that my McArthur ancestors started “from scratch,” as it were. In 1774, Peter McArthur, along with his wife and four children, emigrated to America. In the immigration papers, he listed his occupation as “farmer” and his reason for coming as “High rents & Oppression.” In essence, he was a serf, working the land for his English overlords. He came to America to escape oppression and seek a better life for his family—exactly the same reasons why so many are coming to America today from Latin America. What’s that jingle? “Everything old is new again.”

But those stories aren’t what prompted this post, and my comment about the mastery of English. My mother’s side were those English overlords. We can trace her family back to the Howlands, who were granted a coat of arms by Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. One son of that family, John Howland, came over on the Mayflower and signed the Mayflower Compact. Kneeland Street in Boston is named after yet another locally famous ancestor.

But I’m pretty proud of John Howland’s wife. Elizabeth Tilley, my tenth great-grandmother, was the only woman on the Mayflower who could write her own name. This made her the envy of all the other women on that boat. Now, some of that can be traced to luck—she was born into privilege—but there was also someone in her family who evidently thought that women should be able to write. That was huge in that time and place, and I am grateful for her opportunities.

But aptitude plays a role in our success. I also believe the mastery of English was passed down through our genes. My sister and I are both successful editors, in part because our mastery of English comes naturally. My clients sometimes tell me they can’t believe I catch so much. I haven’t got a degree in English. To this day, I have no interest in diagramming sentences, but I have an innate sense of how the language works, honed by working with it on a daily basis.

In fact, I feel blessed to be able to work with English as a living. It’s a fascinating and complex language. I also haven’t truly mastered it. There’s always more to learn.

I hope that Elizabeth Tilley was grateful for her privilege and her opportunities. I also wonder whether, on a calm day at sea, she might have pulled any women aside and taught them how to write their own names—maybe even pressing those letters into the wood of the Mayflower (since paper would have been scarce and valuable). Maybe there’s a short story in there that I’ll write someday….

I invite you to ponder your privilege and your opportunities. For what can you be grateful today?

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