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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Forget Me Not: The Illusion

Zelina and Florence Richards, Public Domain
Zelina and Florence Richards, Public Domain

What is it like to be forgotten? It is similar to wondering if a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound if no one is present to hear it.

When I encountered the graveyard with numbered stones, why did it matter so much for me to find their identities?

Dylan aside, it was my turn to be significantly affected by a simple twist of fate. It is all too common and much too easy to end up in a challenging place brought forth by unforeseen circumstances. Whether or not it actually happens to you is neither here nor there. At the time of discovering the 298, I stood at the edge of the abyss, a place I had only imagined or viewed from a safe distance. I knew that it was dark—lonely and previously uninhabited—and I was meant to be there for many reasons, which remain in a constant state of revelation. I was able to see clearly for the first time.

Poverty is constant. It comes in many forms, colors, and shapes brought forth by an assortment of conditions. Some are born into it, others fall into it, some are driven by the hands of others, and some actually choose it. 

The poor have better overall survival skills than the middle and upper classes. In order to exist, many have learned to be creative and innovative. There are ineffective and wasteful government programs—exploited by both recipients and those with political agendas—that have exhausted their resources. It is safe to say that it’s a tangled mess.

To me, the dilemma is not only within broken systems. I wanted to know how one gets there and, in turn, gets out, and if getting out is entirely possible. When I was free-falling into financial destitution, unemployment, and hopelessness, I learned that the only place to turn was inward.

Facing fear in a rigged system while raising children—keeping them warm, fed, and sheltered—is downright perilous and unpredictable. I became a survivor in a completely different sense than what I was accustomed to or even knew existed.  

It stopped mattering how I got there. I needed to figure out where there was and how to get out. Then, it was vital to know what and where out was. This is tricky, yet looking back, unexpectedly simple. Out is in. Setting aside my own fate, the drive to understand how people did and did not survive in the nineteenth-century Poor Farm down the road became an obsession. 

As I walked along the rows of numbered stones, I longed to tell them that I was listening and that their existence would no longer be hidden, buried, or burned in fires from long ago. The more information that I unearthed illuminated how much more I needed to learn. 

We know very little about the commoners and the very poor because our history books are written by wealthy, affluent individuals, primarily from a white male perspective. What we know is an illusion. It takes effort and diligence to get at the truth. It is worthwhile, and I believe we owe it to the forgotten and ourselves to find it. Now, in these times, it is increasingly apparent that the truth has been and continues to be grossly distorted. 

Going back to writing the first book in the series, why Abigail? I chose Abigail, the root essence, as the primary narrator for many reasons, mostly because I understand her fate. I get how a series of events can result in one’s fall, color a person’s character, and make life unimaginably burdensome. Abigail was a victim of circumstances. 

My awareness of this phenomenon was heightened when I learned that I am a direct descendant of the Ingersoll’s of Salem, Massachusetts. I devoted an entire semester at Vermont College to seventeenth-century Salem Village, Massachusetts, and the events leading to the Witch Hysteria. I wasn’t interested in the traditional, well-known assumptions packed into the history books as we know it. 

I obtained nuggets of vital interest, and primary sources tucked away in church and town records, and various private collections, diaries, and genealogical records—my own family book! My family played a critical role as plaintiffs, holding initial "witch" inspections at the famous “Ingersoll House,” which is still standing. I went to the Peabody Essex Museum and viewed documents signed by Nathaniel Ingersoll.

I continued digging and discovered that this church cop thing went back to the 1620s when Richard Pettingel (my 8th Great-Grandfather) patrolled Salem Village to ensure that people followed the Sabbath rules. He was also a grand juryman in the Ipswich Tryalls. I believe that this was his ticket to early-release from indentured servitude. I spent years researching the Puritans and my family’s role in the madness.

Perplexed and horrified by my findings, my studies brought me back to early pre-Christian origins—the Gnostic Gospels and ancient texts, primarily the Nag Hammadi Texts. I became immersed in ancient feminine wisdom. I was at a fork in the road, considering Harvard Divinity School when everything changed (like it always does).  

Under the influence of the 298, I decided to earn my MFA in Creative Writing, advance my history studies, and, most importantly, answer the call. 

There is a combination of motivating factors fueling the writing of the Etched In Granite Series. First and foremost, it is a collection of stories remembering another dark time in our nation’s past that has gotten away with being forgotten. Abigail, Nellie, Sarah, Silas, Samuel, and many others will have no part of it, and neither will I.

1 Comment

Oct 23, 2020

This part of your blog struck me, "History books are written by wealthy, affluent individuals, primarily from a white male perspective." This probably has nothing to do with what you are talking about at all, but I do have a story here that relates to a playwright and the War of The Roses. When I was in college I took a Shakespeare class. I read Richard the III and thought wow this is intense and thought Richard III was diabolical. I never thought Shakespeare was writing this play in the time of the Tudors, the family that takes the throne from Richard. Years later I was looking for a project to write about. For some reason I chose Richa…

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