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 blacksmith.
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 even start."
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 watching me.
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.
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