Chapter 6

The hours spent in reporting the strike were interesting but they were disheartening, too. Teaching was whatever you might suppose teaching in an average Southern public school to be. My time at our rambling white house behind the elms and oaks was what came nearest to being worthwhile. When I had an afternoon free, my mother and I, aided occasionally by one of those unappreciated Negroes who work in Southern Ladies’ gardens for fifteen or twenty cents an hour and left-overs from diner, planted the serpentine borders that edged a new lawn with flowering locusts at one end and a giant oak at the other.

“I know people think we can’t afford this garden,” Mother would observe, speaking with the incorrigibly broad “a” which made her and her four sisters seem different in the opinion of persons who were not acquainted with their James River Ways. “But we haven’t spent much, have we? Most of the roses came from slips people gave me to put under glass jars. That boxwood was rooted from a piece I snatched off Grandpa Lewis’s grave when I was in Charles City. We’ve spent a lot of time and work—but not much money.”

Mother could use her hoe almost as well as the Negroes or I could and she had what we call green fingers. Whatever she stuck in the ground seemed to flourish, for she was one of those natural gardeners whose love of raising plants is born in them rather than acquired. We worked peacefully until she wanted to place clumps of red flowers in beds of every color.

“Keeping red to itself like a leper is just a new-fangled notion,” she said. Neither of us gave in; I had the same incomparable determination to do my own way; there could be little compromise. She planted red verbenas near all the pink and yellow blossoms and I moved them when she was unaware. Red flowers in our garden were constant travelers.

Sometimes Mother became tired and lay down on one of the beach chairs under the grape arbor. The air of October was fragrant with the odor of heliotrope and petunias and lavender; the noises of he street did not reach the quiet of his small haven walled by shrubs and trees. Mother lay still and for a long while we did not talk. Intently, and with some detachment, I studied her in my mind. Not just the reclining figure—not just the clear blue eyes and the auburn hair turning ray and the face which was pale enough to need a touch of rouge she scorned when spotted on my sister’s cheeks—but an adventurer who had withstood so much that I should not have blamed her if she stuck to an easy chair for the rest of her days. We fussed because her daily nap lasted from two to three and nothing short of a catastrophe might disturb her during that hour; but, really, it the naps had been much longer or more frequent, her right should not have been questioned. She had worked hard. She had suffered endless struggles.

After the Surrender, people along the James River were very poor and if the father of the house could not provide for his daughters their only resource was to sit and to pin or, if worse came to worst, school-teaching was reasonably genteel. But other labor, except, perhaps, a little fancy work, God forbid! And at such an early age my mother had begun to stray. When the young people of Charles City County dared one autumn evening of the early nineties to stage a corn-shucking bee, how surprised her sisters had been and how appalled my grandmother was when Mother shucked ten barrels and capture all the laurels of the day. My grandmother belonged to a traditional school of Virginia ladies who were supposed to be so modest that they never allowed their husbands to see their bare feet and so retiring that they shed tears at the thought of a well-born girl being engaged in the work of the world. If my good grandmother had lived long enough, she would have found the example of porch-rocking ad piano-playing disgracefully ignored and many other precepts set aside.

The corn peg which spoke for my mother’s early victory was carefully preserved in our home. Whenever I saw it I thought that there were no words to describe the labors accomplished since that October corn-shucking so many years ago: the dancing classes, the dairy, the pickle-making, the paying guests, the antique collecting, the endless schemes a clever woman had thought of to make money, not for herself, but for her sons and daughters.

“Mother,” I said now, interrupting her reveries, “I reckon you can’t sit in this garden without thinking how it used to look when there were stables and horse troughs down there where the weeping willows are now. god only knows how hard you and Father worked. But Father had his hunting, his horses, and later, of course, golf. I never felt that you had much but work. Oh, yes, you read and saw your friends and enjoyed flowers, but mostly there was just work.”

“Don’t you know most mothers are willing to make sacrifices to give their children the best education possible?”

“I’m not sure. Youi forget about all the empty-headed mothers we know who think more of getting in local society than they do of their children’s education. I don’t believe for a minute that most mothers, especially I they were untrained as a you were, would have done so much or reached so high. I now most parents in strained circumstances would have been content with less. You had to have the best schools in this part of the country. We had to get graduates and then post graduates. You demanded a lot of us because you demanded so much of yourselves. Good heavens, Mother, when we though of what our going to school cost you in hard work, no wonder we felt disgraced if we missed the Honor Roll by a fraction of a point.”

“I know I was a tyrant,” Mother smiled. “But it’s too late to make me over now. Wait thill you have children of your own and you’ll see how difficult it is to know what to do.”

“One thing is certain. I shall never do so much.”

“Oh, yes, you will. I was willing to do any amount of saving and stinting to send my daughter to Sweet Briar and to send you buys to the University. No doubt you’ll worry yourselves old before your time sending your children there—or maybe you’ll be more ambitious and cast your eyes toward Oxford or Cambridge—for that’s the way it goes.”

“Not so sure,” I said and my gaze wandered back to the drooping willows where, a decade before, had stood the stable in which my father (before and after his business hours), my brother, and the hired man, had filled tall pails while the guernseys jerked at their stanchions and fretfully swished their tails. It all came back as clear as yesterday.

When the warm milk was brought up the back steps Mother was waiting at the door and it was she who superintended or actually did the straining and cooling and bottling. Friends and relatives were glad to buy our fresh, scrupulously tended milk which was delivered at their doorsteps by none other than my most unwilling self. From grammar school days until the time I became an important senior in high school it was my sad fate to be condemned to the life of a milk-boy. It seemed to me that I was the most unfortunate of all human beings, the child of cruel parents. I read David Copperfield and felt that the troubles of Dickens were mild compared to mine. Once before high school days, an extra burden was placed upon me. I was told to stop by my aunt’s house on the way from school and to get the table scraps which she was saving for our newly acquired flock of Rhode Island Reds. Walking up Main Street with a covered basket, while giggling little girls cried, “Trash boy! Trash boy! Smelly little trash boy!” had seemed to humiliating to be borne. At that time Miss Maggie Brown and Miss Kate Toot were teaching me at Sunday School and I knew the Collects and Catechism and I put money in my Mite box during Lent but sometimes I hated God and was quite certain that He hated me in turn and took advantage of me because He could do anything He pleased.

And when I became a senior in high school, omniscient, more sophisticated than I could ever hope to be again, to think that I was still made to deliver pints and quarts of sweet milk before school and to deliver the empty bottles in the afternoon when everyone could see me in the act! What a cruel heritage this was that made me milk-boy and driver of cows, for while other high school seniors lay abed at six-thirty in the morning, I was driving Guernseys and Holsteins out to our rented pasture where they graze upon tender clover and thick-tufted grass. Trudging bitterly behind those slow-moving cattle, I sought refuge in dreams, dreams of a great musician or a great artist or a great poet, dreams in which I returned to this little town resplendent with wealth and fame, so famous in fact that people would say, “Just think, once he used to set a quart of buttermilk at my Mama’s door every Saturday.”

Just about that time a tail would swish upward and my feet came unromantically back to earth as I walked in new-laid dung.

O cruel world! O hideous town!

Many times I went homeward and rushed into the white house to throw myself upon my bed in despair, cursing the day I entered so ignominiously into this vale of tears. It never occurred to me that my parents worked many times as hard as I dd or that my education might be paid for by the quarts and points, which I regarded as mortal enemies, thrust upon me by parents who seemed to have no hearts for their very own.

“God only knows how I hated that dairy,” I said aloud now to my mother, who laughed as I did to think that the little comedies of yesterday could have been so serious and so real.