(If you’re here for the first time check out excerpts 1-49 in earlier Blogs )
At the crack of dawn Maddie slunk down the stairs. She found John in the kitchen nursing a cup of coffee and staring at the floor. How long had he been up? Long enough to make a pot of coffee, she reasoned. She herself had tossed and turned most of the night. As soon as she had attempted to say her bedtime prayers last night she knew she regretted walking out on John like that. The anger she had felt at the time had dictated it as the wisest course of action, though. Otherwise she would have yelled or thrown something. What could he have been thinking, to trap his own mother like that?
And did he feel ashamed of Maddie? Or was he just weak in facing a challenge? If so, it did not bode well for their future.
Then she remembered all the kindness that was part of his makeup and reasoned that whatever his motives, she had to try to understand them. And that whatever battle was before them, that they had to face it together, like she’d seen her parents do a million times. She was the one with the role models in that department, and it was up to her to set the pattern.
He looked up and the pain she saw reflected in his eyes made her rush forward and into his arms.
He crushed her to himself, murmuring “Awh honey, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“No. I’m the one who’s sorry. I should have stayed and we could’ve talked it out. John, I promise, I’m never going to run out again in that childish way. Oh, I had such a terrible night!”
“You had a terrible night!” He put their foreheads together. “I couldn’t close my eyes. I was afraid I’d have a nightmare with this woman with a wagging head.” They were both giggling now, the tension ebbing in a big gush.
“John, about your mother, why don’t we just…talk to her about it, get it all out in the open.”
“No, Maddie, you don’t understand. You see, my family, well, we were never big on talking. We don’t talk about stuff like this.”
Maddie was silent; she knew that what he was trying to verbalize was difficult.
“Besides, my mom would be mortified if she knew that somebody, a stranger, knew about her feelings. I think that she’s always been a little mixed up about them herself. I mean, in some ways, she’s a lot more open-minded than most people. At least, I thought she was, from the way she raised me, until…until I went home for Christmas a few years ago…”
He recounted discovering, to his dismay, that his mother harbored a double standard, that she thought all people were the same except that they were not enough the same to intermarry. He also told her about how his mother had raised him, about her friendship with one of the few black families in town, and about the rest of his family. That part seemed especially hard for him to confess.
“I’m sorry Maddie. But there you have it.” He looked up.“What does that look mean? I can’t read it.”
“Here, let’s sit,” she said gently. “John, knowing all that, I don’t understand how you could trap her like that. She must have felt awful.”
“I know, I know,” he grimaced, “but in a way, though, I had to do it. It was either get her out here like that or forget about us. Maddie, this consent thing, it makes it real difficult.”
Maddie was shocked. “John! We can’t force your mother to give us consent! She’s got to feel like it’s right.”
“Well, she can’t even begin feeling like that until she knows you and your beautiful family. And she would never have come if I’d told her you were Black.”
“Well, we could have gone there.”
“No. No. That would have been worse.”
“Because, I would have humiliated her by bringing home a black girlfriend. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but it’s true. This way, she can still go back home and forget about it if she wants to. She still has an out. She doesn’t even have to tell the rest of the family if she doesn’t want to.”
There was a long pause.
“What are you thinking,” John asked.
“Two things. One, you should go talk to her as soon as she wakes up. Tell her why you did this, get it out into the open.”
“Let’s not even bring up the subject of consent at this point. Let’s just let her get acquainted with us. That subject we’ll bring up way, way in the future.”
She saw a grimace flash over his face. “What?”
“I already told her about that.”
“Oh no. That’s not good. That’s too much pressure! Tell her not to worry about that part. That you just want her to get to know me and to have a good time.” A flash of inspiration came over Maddie. “John, didn’t you say she likes art? Why don’t we take her to the Art Institute tomorrow? Do you think she’d like that?”
“Sure. She’s never traveled very much, but I always got the feeling she would’ve liked to go to museums and see things. Maddie,” he reached for her hands and raised them to his lips. “Thanks for being so understanding.”
“John, I love you,” she said. “And…she raised you.”
Mary Pitts at that moment was doing a rare thing. She was lying in bed, clutching the covers to her chest and her body was refusing to get up. Her body, which had unfailingly, and with very rare exceptions over the last fifty years, popped out of bed at six in the morning, to keep her going through an uninterrupted set of daily activities, was refusing to get out of bed.
“Dear, dear God, how am I going to get through this? How am I going to make it till Sunday afternoon?”
She wasn’t sick, at least not in any physical way, and even though she’d slept very poorly this would also not account for it. She was disoriented and had a feeling of dread on her.
When John had called to say he had found the girl he wanted to marry and that her parents wanted to meet her, she had been so keyed up she didn’t know quite where to put herself. For three weeks she had prepared herself mentally, had carefully scrutinized and improved her wardrobe, bought gifts, and even had her hair cut a different way, more modern, because one of the girls at the bank had said it could do with a little smartening up. She had told some of the girls (she called them that because they were her friends, but none of them were girls any more and they knew it), and it had gone around the teller’s floor like a brush fire. It seemed they had all entered into her prospects, and hardly a day went by that someone did not offer some little piece of advice. Rose had gone with her to the jewelry store, and looked over the little jade tree she had picked out as a gift for the girl’s parents.
“Very elegant,” she had said, “You can’t go wrong with that.”
The little jade bracelet she had picked out for Maddie by herself, without anyone’s interference. Maybe it was a little extravagant, but she had such high hopes, such a desire to start things out on the right foot, with the girl who might be her daughter-in-law. And John had described her in such a way as to make her sound almost perfect. Not that she wanted her imperfect. She had a pretty high opinion of her son and felt he deserved the best. But it made it a little daunting, to be meeting a girl that had such a high level of education, the kind to equal the most educated man. Mary counted no such women among her acquaintance. At best she could only imagine them from people in the movies. The women she knew, who had made something of themselves, had scratched their way up by long years of quiet competence and sometimes simply by waiting for the path to be first cleared of all younger men who needed promotion. So it was with considerable pride, and with concealed trepidation, that she had related her merits to her friends.
“I don’t like to say this Mary,” Connie Webb had put in, “but you’ll be lucky if she’s not snooty.”
“No—I don’t think she’ll be that. John says she’s a really sweet girl.”
“Oh yeah,” Rose had said, helpfully, “she’d have to be, to catch John’s eye. That son of yours has the sweetest temper, Mary.”
Mary kept silent, knowing it was improper to brag about her own son.
“Is this the first time he’s wanted to marry, then?”
“Yes, far as I know.”
“But he’s had lots of girlfriends, I bet.”
“Oh, I guess. But he never talked about any of them.”
“Well, then this must be the one. You know what, Mary?”
“I’ll bet she’s just like you.”
“You know what they say about boys picking out a girl that’s the same as their mother.”
They had all laughed at that one, because in a joke there was sometimes a truth. Now it seemed almost bizarre, that Rose had said such a thing, and been so far from the truth.
When Mary had first laid eyes on Maddie at the airport, she had been immediately conscious of how different this girl was from herself. The terminal had been very crowded, and since it was a big flight, a lot of people had turned out to meet it. So it was a long time between the moment she first spotted John smiling and waving at her, and when she actually got to his side. During that time she had registered the fact that he had his arms around a brown-skinned girl, a real looker. She nearly tripped over the luggage of the woman in front of her, one of those small black ones with the rollers and a handle that you pulled it by. She couldn’t remember her thoughts about seeing her son with his arm around a black girl, only the sense of panic that came from looking at the suitcase wheeled on its side. When she reached them John had thrown his arms around her with his usual enthusiasm, and she had felt momentarily reassured. She loved that about her son, that he didn’t mind showing his affection for his mother.
“John! You’re gonna break my ribs.”
“Oh, sorry!” He let go, kissing her and then putting his arm across her shoulders.
“Ma, I want you to meet Maddie.”
She was grateful the girl didn’t kiss her. She had bent over a little though, as she took Mary’s hand with both of her own.
“I’m so pleased to meet you, Mrs. Pitts, so happy.” She squeezed her hand gently and emphasized her words with an angelic smile.
Mary fixed on that look in order to force herself to remember her manners, to push out of her face any trace of shock, any sinking emotions.
“Nice to meet you, too…” She looked at John then, but not quite at him, not enough to communicate any thoughts. “Well, where do we get the luggage?”
“This way,” John pointed, and they walked together, one woman on either side of him.
Mary remembered thinking stupid thoughts in those moments, like that the girl must be rich, because although her own jewelry was carefully selected costume jewelry, surely those pearls in the girl’s ears were the real thing. And though her little sweater and slack ensemble hadn’t been chosen to call attention, they gave her an air of refinement Mary had seen only between the covers of Vogue magazine.
And then there was her voice, which Mary couldn’t help but feel had an oddity to it, both in quality of speech and in the tone. She had asked, “And how was your flight, Mrs. Pitts? I hope it was uneventful.”
“Oh, it was fine,” she had answered, and while she herself prattled on about the details of the trip, Mary wondered what type of black person used such words as “uneventful.”
And when Maddie had said to John at the parking lot, “John, why don’t you go pick up the car, we’ll wait with the luggage. That way your mom won’t have to walk so far,” Mary had jumped in, saying “Oh, no! I can walk, thank you!” because she instinctively reacted to John being ordered around by someone like this girl.
But that sense of things not being in their proper place, of things being upside down, had only increased on the way to this house. Sitting in the front seat of the car, next to John, she had gotten a little bit of a tour.
“Now this is Maddie’s neighborhood, Ma. We’re passing Northwestern University there, see?”
Mary strained to see the imposing structures, but then as they moved away from the campus her eyes took in the surrounding houses, and realized they were more like mansions. The house they eventually pulled up to was imposing, and Mary was conscious of being out of her league. The garage they parked in front of had triple doors. The landscaping of the terraces was like something out of Dynasty, and the door that opened led into a front hall as big as her own living room. It had such elegant, polished pieces of furniture, her fingers almost reached out to caress them. To the left of the hall she glimpsed a room with Aubusson carpets and brocade sofas; to the right she caught a Queen Anne table and chairs, crystal and paintings. Her senses were overwhelmed with the beauty surrounding her. And then her sense of bewilderment had increased, because she had met two people of such caliber that she had no frame of reference for them.
Mr. Hawkins, George, as he wanted to be called, had greeted her with that same two-fisted handshake as his daughter, and said something about always wanting to meet the woman who had raised “this excellent young man.” He was an imposing presence, and Mary felt again that there was something out of kilter, but she couldn’t focus on it because she was taken into the warmest, largest kitchen/family room she had ever seen, and been pressed with a cup of tea and a steady stream of conversation. Maddie’s mother had taken her coat off and shown her to the bathroom, had her things taken up to her room, and asked if she wanted a tour of the house.
“We’re going to be noisy this weekend,” she had said “with my daughter coming in from Australia, with my two grandkids. I hope you don’t mind little ones running around.”
“Me? No, I like them.” Mary didn’t feel pressured to make too much conversation; the other woman was making most of it.
“This is the den,” she said, motioning to a large room with leather and plaid couches, polished cherry wood cabinets and large-screen TV. The artwork on the walls Marry recognized as African. “And that’s my husband’s office,” she said, opening the door to another large room with computer and TV system and a huge, imposing desk. “Mine is upstairs.”
“What…what does he do?” Mary asked, tentatively.
“Oh, George is retired. He’s worked in business for thirty years. But he’s also very involved in other things. Community work and religious activities,” she explained vaguely.
When they came down from the upper floor and a tour of bedrooms, every one of which was like a picture in a home decorating magazine, Mary asked, “What’s that?” pointing to an airy room. It had light tile floors and a beautiful bow window-seat. It was lined with rose oak drawers and cabinets.
“Oh, that’s just the laundry room,” Cora said, opening up the cabinet doors to reveal washer and dryer. “See?”
Mary felt herself coloring up in embarrassment.
When they were done with the tour of the house, which left Mary with an impression of understated elegance, it was this room that stuck most in her mind. Because it was a laundry room with wallpaper and framed pictures! And a beautiful vase of cut flowers on a polished wall table that didn’t have any function except decoration. And because it was so different from the dungeon laundry rooms most women had in their basements.
All in all, this was a house of refinement, not just clean and orderly and well decorated—but a house of beauty and class. These people had money, oh yeah, they had money. And it was one of the reasons Mary felt like things were upside down. In Pitcairn you were used to thinking of Blacks as people with less, much less. One never dreamed of looking up, and feeling shabby and gauche in their presence.
And now, looking around this bedroom, with it’s white plush carpet, and the cut roses in a vase on her bedside, the antique framed picture of a black couple, from the eighteen hundreds by the look of them, sitting on top of the bureau, she felt shabby. It wasn’t just the matched custom draperies and love seat, and the complete bedroom set, and the watered silk wallpaper. It was the weight of the silver frames and porcelain knick-knacks tastefully displayed on antique lace doilies. It was those scattered portraits that spoke of a long line of ancestors, black ancestors, that wouldn’t let her forget where she was.
She inhaled deeply and clutched the neck of her robe, and almost bit on her nails, except that she caught herself in time. She looked at her pink manicure, fresh from yesterday morning.
“Mary, you’ve got to get up. You can’t sit here in bed all day,” she told herself. “You’ve never let anyone make you feel ashamed of yourself and you’re not gonna start now.” And then she thought of John, and how it was very important that she didn’t disgrace him. No matter what, he wasn’t going to be disgraced by her. She was gonna go down there and hold her head up. She’d get through this weekend the same way she’d gotten through all her life. By bowing down to no one.
And then she would go home.
GLOBAL BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION!
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DISCUSSION QUESTION 50: How will Mary deal with her own racism?
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