Once we reached the cabin, Papa hauled a bucket of water from
the well, and Mama called me from my playmates to help serve our
guests. When I carried the first pair of filled cups to where Reverend
and Mrs. Banks sat with Papa, I marked how Mrs. Banks was
shifting in the straightbacked chair, trying to catch a hint of shade
from the lone box elder tree in the tiny yard.
"I'm sorry there's no ice for your drinks," I said as I served.
"Papa don't have an ice room, but if you come visit my house, we
can give you lots of ice and cushions for your chairs, too."
In a flash, Papa yanked me to him. He turned me over his knee
and swatted me hard.
"That big house ain't yours, Mary El, it's the Van Lews'. And
you don't mean no more to them than the cushions or the chairs or
any other thing they got for their comfort. Understand?"
He kept his tight hold on me until I murmured, "Yes, Papa." As
soon as he let go, I ran into the cabin. My Sunday joy curdled to
shame at being treated so in front of Elly and the other children,
and I sobbed myself to sleep on Papa's cornhusk pallet.
I woke hours later, to the sound of low, angry voices in the next
"The child need to know her place is with me, with us, and not
with them Van Lews," Papa said.
"Well, you're not gonna teach her that with a spank," Mama
replied. "Slaveholders can't get enough of beating on negroes, you
need to do it, too? To our own child?"
"What should I done? Smile and pat her on the head? Mary
El can't be acting like she better than other folks just cause a rich
family own her. This is our home, whether them Van Lews let you
here one day a week or one day a year."
"Lewis, you think I like it any better than you? Wake to them,
work for them, doze off at night to them, every moment aching for
you. But what are we supposed to do?"
"For one, you can stop carrying on about we in the house this
and we in the house that. You in the house like them pretty horses in
the barn. There to do the Van Lews' work till you no use to them
anymore, and then-"
Mama caught sight of me, and sucking her teeth hard to cut him
off, she nodded toward where I stood in the doorway.
"What's the matter, Papa?" I asked. "What'd Mama and me do
He rose and walked toward me. I shrank back, afraid he might
hit me again. My terror drew a look of bitter contrition I'd never
seen before across Papa's face. He knelt and reached out both
hands, palms up to me.
"Mary El, you more precious to me than a ice room or fancy
cushions or anything in that big house. Am I more precious to you
than them things?"
I wanted to please Papa, to set everything right between him
and me and Mama. Slipping my small hands into his large, strong
ones, I nodded, my own shame at being spanked fading next to all
the fear and humiliation in Papa's question.
Old Master Van Lew was always a shadowy figure in my childhood,
already suffering from the breathing troubles that everyone
whispered would kill him. In the fall of '44, not long after we'd
exchanged the canvas floor coverings for wool carpets and taken
the mosquito netting off the beds and paintings, he finally passed.
As Mama and I dressed the drawing room in black crepe, preparing
for mourners who would call from as far away as Pennsylvania
and New York, all she said was, "We in the house have
plenty to do, good days or bad, happy times or sad."
We in the house meant the seven Van Lew slaves. Me and Mama.
The butler, Old Sam, who toiled beside us in the mansion and slept
across from us in its garret. Zinnie, the cook, and the coachman
Josiah and their daughters, Lilly and Daisy, who were quartered
together above the summer kitchen at the side of the lot. We knew
outside the Van Lew family couldn't have guessed,
things the Van Lews themselves wouldn't care to admit. We listened
close when Young Master John stumbled in after an evening
at Hobzinger's saloon, reeking of whiskey and raving about being
made to stay in Richmond to tend the family business, when at the
same age his sister, Miss Bet, was fanfared off to a fancy school
in Philadelphia. We discovered the embroidered pink bonnet that
the widowed brother of Mrs. Catlin, a neighbor woman, sent spinsterish
Miss Bet, cut to pieces and stashed inside her chamber pot.
Mama taught me how we were to mark such things and, with a few
spare words or a gesture, share them among ourselves whenever
the Van Lews' backs were turned.
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