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 room.
"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 wrong?"
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 things people
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.
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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