Excerpt of The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
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Standing beside Papa, Mama seemed small in a way she never
did when she bustled about the Van Lew mansion. Although she
was not a heavy woman, she was fleshy in a way Papa was not.
Her skin was even darker than his, so deep and rich and matte that
whenever I saw flour, I wondered that it could be so light in color
yet as sheenless as Mama's skin. Her brow and eyes curved down
at the outside edges, making her seem determined and deliberate,
whether her mouth was set straight across, lifted in one of her
warm smiles, or, as was often the case, open in speech.
But for once, Papa was talking before Mama. "About time you
ladies arrived. We got plenty to get done this fine morning." Papa
spoke with the soft cadence of a Tidewater negro, though he hadn't
seen the plantation where he was born since he was just a boy,
when his first owner apprenticed him to Master Mahon, a Richmond
Mama's voice sounded different from Papa's, as sharp as though
she and Old Master Van Lew had come from New York only the
day before. "What can we have to do at this hour on a Sunday?"
"High time we return all that hospitality we been enjoying at
the Bankses. I stopped over there on my way home last evening,
invited them to come back here with us after prayer meeting."
"That whole brood, over here?" Mama eyed Papa's cabin. The
four-room building had two entrances, Papa's on the left, and the
one for Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, the elderly free couple
who were his landlords, on the right. Even put together, Papa's two rooms were
smaller than the attic quarters where Mama and I slept in the Van
Lew mansion or the summer kitchen where the cook prepared the
Van Lews' meals. One room had but a fireplace, Papa's meager
supply of foodstuffs, and a small wooden table with three unmatched
chairs. The other room held his sleeping pallet, a wash-basin set on
an old crate, and a row of nails where he hung his clothes. The walls
were unpainted, outside and in, the rough plank floors bare even in
winter. The only adornments were the bright tattersall pattern of the
osnaburg curtains Mama had sewn for the window and the metal
cross Papa had crafted at Mahon's smithy.
The way Mama frowned, I could tell what she was thinking.
Broad and tall, Henry Banks was a large presence all by himself, a
free colored man who risked enslavement to minister to the slaves
and free negroes who gathered each week in the cellar of his house.
A two-story house big enough to accommodate him, his wife, and
their six children. On those Sundays when Mama, Papa, and I were
invited to stay after prayer meeting for dinner with their family, I
savored the chance to amuse myself among all those children. So
though Mama frowned at Papa, I was delighted to hear that the
whole pack of youngsters was coming over today.
Besides, Papa was already soothing Mama. "It's warm enough
to do our entertaining outside. All we got to do is borrow some
chairs and plates and whatnot from the neighborhood, so it'll all be
ready when we get back here." He smiled. "Honestly, folks'd think
you married a fool, the way you carry on, Minerva."
To everyone else in Richmond, colored or white, Mama was
Aunt Minnie. But Papa always called her Minerva. Whenever he
said the name, she made a grand show of rolling her eyes or clucking
her tongue. So I figured Mama wasn't nearly so put-upon as
she pretended to be, planting her hands on her hips and shaking
her head. "Don't you start with me at this hour, Lewis, don't you
Papa winked at me. "Don't you dare stop, she means. And
I ain't one to disobey her." With that he hustled me and Mama
about, gathering up what we needed to serve our guests before he
hurried us off to prayer meeting.
All through the morning's preaching and praising, my head
buzzed in anticipation of hosting company. Each week, when
Mama, Papa, and I walked back from meeting, I took care to lag
a few paces behind, then come barreling up between them, my
arms flailing in the air. Mama and Papa would each grab one of my
hands and swing me forward, calling out, "Caught." Once caught,
I walked the rest of the way between them, my hands in theirs,
my face beaming. But this Sunday I was so excited to be with the
other children I forgot all about getting caught until Papa turned
around, his big eyes searching for me. I wrinkled my nose at him
and went back to chattering with Elly, the oldest and prettiest of
the Banks girls. When I looked ahead again, Papa was no longer
Excerpted from The Secrets of Mary Bowser
by Lois Leveen. Copyright © 2012 by Lois Leveen.
Excerpted by permission of William Morrow Paperbacks. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.