My grandmother asked if the well-spoken new teacher was "the kind of person we'd like to invite to dinner." She probably wouldn't come, my father said, because she was a chilly sort and hadn't seemed to like him very much. But Nonie insisted on asking her and she came. Her name was Elizabeth Waring, but by the end of the evening she asked them to call her Lisbeth. She had been orphaned at eight and raised by two uncles and a live-in maid. The first thing she said when she walked into our house was how wonderful it must be to live in such a house. "I fell in love with her first," Nonie liked to recall. "And then, one night, when the three of us were playing cards, Harry finally looked across the table and realized what he could have."
Flora came with her father, Fritz Waring, to my mother's funeral. They rode on passes because he worked for the railroad. My mother had caught pneumonia during a stay in the hospital. "There was a bad epidemic that year---if only they could have gotten Sulpha in time they might have saved her." When I was older Nonie explained that it had started with a miscarriage. "They'd been trying to get you a little brother or sister, but I guess you were meant to be one of a kind, Helen."
I was three when my mother died and have no recollection of the funeral, or of fifteen-year-old Flora, though Nonie told me Flora would sit me on her lap at meals and try to feed me little morsels from her plate, which I refused. "One time she cried into your hair. She had been telling us how, since she was a small child, she and your mother slept in the same bed. She confided to us she had always slept with one leg over Lisbeth to keep her from going away. At this point your father rolled his eyes and left the table.
"It was a very strange week for us. This was the first time we had met any of your mother's people. This little man with shaggy eyebrows and a bulldog face steps down from the train with his arm around a sobbing young girl in a black coat way too old for her. 'She feels things,' were Fritz Waring's first words to us. Immediately after the funeral, he apologized for having to ask us to drive him back to the train station. He had to be on duty next day. 'But we've hardly even spoken to the two of you,' I said. 'Oh, Flora can stay on with you awhile,' he said, 'if she won't be any trouble.'
"I was pretty surprised but I tried to hide it. I told him we would love to have her stay on for a little while. After all, this was your mother's own first cousin. Shouldn't we want to know her better? And, as a student of human nature, I have to say I found Flora's visit eye-opening. It was interesting to observe how very different two girls could be who had grown up in the same house. Though of course there was the big age difference: Lisbeth was twelve when the infant Flora came to live with them. Even their speech! Whereas Lisbeth spoke like a stage actress and held herself back in speech and person, Flora's Southern accent was so thick you could cut it with a knife and she burbled and spilled herself out like an overflowing brook. She asked us the most intimate questions and offered disconcerting tidbits about her people in Alabama. She wanted to know why your mother was in the hospital in the first place and where everyone slept, and she would stand in the open door of the wardrobe where your mother kept her clothes and snuffle into her dresses. She told us proudly that the black coat she wore had been borrowed from the Negro woman who lived with them. One time when she was retelling how she had slept with her leg over your mother "so she wouldn't abandon her," she went on to explain that her own mother had left town as soon as she was born. Your poor father found more and more excuses to go out on errands and by the end of Flora's visit he was taking his cocktails up to his room."
Excerpted from Flora by Gail Godwin. Copyright © 2013 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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