Your grandmother never kept slaves," my father says to me suddenly, staring straight ahead as we walk. He should know. Born to her in 1861, in Richmond, Virginia, then the capital of the Confederacy, during what they preferred to call not the Civil War but "the War Between the States," he had been her seventh child, of eight. I, born to him in his sixth decade, by a mother over two decades younger than he, am always eager for these tales that have lain in wait for me, of a childhood that has begun to run alongside my Northern one like its shadow-mate. But he has never said this before.
"What about Aunt Nell?" I say, hushed. Saying "Awnt" as he always does, of the "Mammy" he had adored. Who had adored him back. I found myself wanting one.
"Aunt Nell was a freed woman. My mother insisted on that."
How did you get freed? He didn't say.
He had just come from my grandmother's deathbed. I had been brought in just before. "Say good-bye to your grandmother," he had said. The circle gathered around the great Victorian bed, my two aunts and two uncles, her other remaining children, clearly had not approved, but my father was the head of the family, their support and her favorite.
She lay there much as I had known her, except for the closed eyes. Visiting her by custom every day after school, in her two rooms at the far end of our apartment, I would find her in her sitting room, in her wicker rocker, with its side pocket that held the newspapers she still tried to read on her own. Or I would find her in her bedroom, standing by the two huge wardrobe trunks almost higher than she was, one of them open perhaps, though I was never invited to delve. Though she no longer went outside, the wrappers she wore were always of an outside color, dark gray, and with a thing at the neck that my mother said was a fichu. I was learning a lot that had nothing to do with my century.
As she lay there, the feather mattress she would never discard floated her high, as if it meant to keep her at center still, not just a tiny person who had had a fall. Nowadays we know that the hip breaks before the fall, but this was before. A word that would always have a special sound to me. This is 1924. Born just before the end of 1911, I am twelve.
"Ninety-seven," my one aunt had said, the other one adding softer, "Though out of vanity she only admitted to ninety-four."
Even now a flutter of smiles, though my father, head bent, had not joined in.
"They were married in 1852," an uncle said. "Pa came over from England in '27, we were always told. That book he and his crowd are in lists him as an elder-in 1832. But neither one ever spoke age."
"We could look it up," the second uncle had said. "Maybe time we should."
My father had raised his head, silencing them with a look I already knew the meaning of. Pay respect.
Our family doctor, who usually ran in at the slightest, had come and gone, respecting us. As for hospitals, those were for bloody events, like my tonsils. "Will she have to go?" My father's proud smile had reassured me days ago. "We were all born at home. Including you. We die there."
But that, too, had been before. His fists are at his forehead now. She is floating on her pillow. I have never seen her in disarray. Death-please don't do that to her. He must feel the same.
But that was the moment when my mother had glided toward me-so much younger than they, she was never quite of their circle. Whispering, "Wait in Granma's sitting room."
So I had waited. Along with a wicker chair, in its pocket her eyeglasses and on the table across from it the big Chinese vase with never a plant in it, that plainly had come from another household. And high above, centered on a wall at her left and facing the door, the likeness of my grandfather, who must be so long gone that I have never heard any personal anecdote of him. Nor as I wait there does that seem odd to me, even though Southern as my father's dominant side of the family is, I am used to being whelmed in anecdote. Deferential as we are to our background, this comes with an oddity that can put the milder family ones way out of joint. Or else will in time find itself rather "in"-even fashionably aligned?-with the new century, the twenty-first. Where newsworthy men in their seventies and eighties, some of them known to me, would be having babies with young wives.
For we are odder than most, generationally. With a Pa married late and his Pa wed maybe even later in life-well, my own sense of where I am will be elastically stretched. The man in the likeness on the wall may well have been, probably was, born in the eighteenth century. It's a steel engraving, mind you-or a photo made to resemble one? The answer would be in the dates, which we rather run to at times, but I have never heard the date of his death. Sensing only that when "we" came to New York, where "we" were ensconced by the eighteen-eighties, he may have long since become dry-as-dust fact. There couldn't have been anything disgraceful in his history. Not with that stiff distance between nose and lip, plus a collar suitable to the business address and religion as attested to in that book-and, above all, the whiskers. They are the mid-nineteenth century's for sure-those muttonchops.
Meanwhile, back there in the sitting room, all I know is that I am in-waiting, and learning one thing more. When you await the imminent death of somebody, no matter how loved in her elusive distance, no matter how dreaded that event, you will feel yourself death's accomplice. I crouch there, in that guilt. Until there is my father, at the sitting-room door. He is weeping, in a way I've never seen anybody do. Grunts, deep in the chest. I suppose they are sobs. Behind him is my mother. She says, "Take your father for a walk." As if, for the moment, I am of an age with him.
So now we are walking, along pavement where he had held my hand as I tottered on my first four-wheeler skates. Then past the hill where he had shot me off on my Flexible Flyer sled. In his sixties, he has done what he could. But the greatest gift to me, if at times a burden, is something else. As a storyteller in any gathering, as a famed anecdotalist in business life, he has a particular hoard of tales that have lain in wait for me. He has been giving me his youth.
But like any boy-man, emigrating in his teens from the defeated to the conquerors, from army uniforms of one color to another, and even to a different flag, he has doled it out to me in two parts. I'm pretty savvy about that period called the "belle epoque," though as he gilds his New York portion of it, from Diamond Jim and Lillian Russell seen at Mouquin's and Delmonico, to brass-knuckled John L. Sullivan pounding his opponent while the blood ran, to Mark Twain listened to: He spoke to you like from next door, but you remember it-it does begin to sound, as when challenged my father will admit: "Straight down-the-pike American." And later on, I'll be pleased that he never edited for a girl.
I have heard some also about that intermediate New Orleans, where he learned French, as well as certain words like "Creole" and "quadroon," that when I asked did that mean "Colored," he did not reply.
But of Richmond? Only a boyhood, surprisingly rural-melons poached from neighbor gardens, cockfights crept into in hidden barns. Rather Tom Sawyerish really-and as with Tom's Aunt Polly, the women guarded the household, and did what they could to assert its moral tone. Quite a lot, if my grandmother's role here was any token.
For though Confederate Richmond seldom merged in these reminiscences, when it had, so had she. Or vice versa. In one incident, when my father, rapped over the knuckles with a ruler by a teacher, jumped out the school window, never to return, she stood up for him. "Your grandmother rul...