Harriet Beale, self-absorbed, obsessed with her beauty and unusual vocal talent, travels a long journey from Southern privilege in Virginia to sordid motherhood in a trailer, from low self-esteem, based on a perfidious father’s love, to musical success and a fortunate marriage to a man she feels she doesn’t deserve. She is not who she has always thought she was, finds a sister previously unknown to her and discovers that she is the daughter of her family’s former colored maid, a no-no in post-segregation Virginia, and an unknown white man, who only the reader knows to be her father.
Having won first prize in an important German musical competition, she and her husband, Jake come back home to find stability and the beginnings of a real life in Winchester, Virginia, where she grew up. Because of her insecure upbringing and need for reassurance and love, she has earlier committed an unspeakable injustice to a faithful family retainer and suffers intense guilt for her transgression until she finds safety with her husband, Jake. His unquestioning love for her has transformed her, but she has not and cannot reveal her dark secret to anyone. As the best solution she can come up with, she writes a letter of explanation to her infant son, to be opened on his twenty-first birthday.
By Paul Svendsen
My name is Sarah Washington. I’ve been the maid for the Beale household for as long as I can remember. I met Jimmy Washington about twenty years ago. He was a fine-looking man, light-skinned with smooth hair, tall, well-built, kind; he used to smile a lot, had good teeth, was church-going, honest, didn’t drink, in short, everything a woman could want, the answer to her prayers, as they say.
He’d been working for the Adams’, a nice family (as nice as white folks can be, that is) since he was fifteen. He had a girlfriend named Janelle who gave him three boys. One of them, little Antwan, was very artistic. He liked to draw and, when other children were making mud pies, he would take that same mud and make interesting-looking shapes and little men out of it. The other two, Willie and Jamahl didn’t amount to much, but the main thing is that Jimmy raised all three of them by hisself because Janelle ran off when they was babies.
Annabelle Adams, the daughter of Harold Adams, the dairyman, married William Beale after WWII began. He was a sweet-talking, good-looking man who wanted to marry her because he knew she was rich. Nobody thought much of him, though. He was too mush-mouthed and didn’t seem to have any money, old or new (Money’s the most important thing to white folks.) They got married, bought a big house with her cash, settled down and started to have children.
They took Jimmy and me with them. I already had a baby daughter, Ophelia by Kelvin Taylor, now deceased. Mr. Beale wasn’t a bad man, but, as soon as I saw him, the first time he came to the Adams’ house for dinner, I knew he was trouble. There was something in his eyes that said,
“Stay away.” One night, when Miss Annabelle was upstairs getting ready for bed, he pinned me up against the wall in the kitchen and got me in the family way. The Beale’s sent me away to a place where white folks took care of me. I liked that. They treated me like a queen. On June 23, I had a beautiful little girl. She was almost white. Mr. William was her daddy. When I got back to the Beale’s, Miss Annabelle said she’d been pregnant and had lost the baby on the same day mine had been born. She talked me into giving up my little girl and letting her raise her as her own. She called her Harriet Louise. It hurt every time I looked at little Harriet, but white folks don’t care how you feel. We don’t let on what we’re thinking and feeling, nohow. I let Miss Annabelle take her ‘cause I knew the little one would have advantages I couldn’t give her. Miss Annabelle swore me never to tell nobody and I ain’t never told a soul. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s keep a secret,… and cook, of course.
After I got back from having my baby, Jimmy and me got married in the little A. M. E. Church, down the road. I’ll always remember that day. To me, working for the Beale’s was just a job, except for seeing Harriet, but Jimmy was really attached to the whole family, especially
the little girls. He never knew about Harriet. He thought she was Miss Annabelle’s and Mr. William’s. Don’t ask me how they fooled him, but they did. Harriet, was special, real pretty and good-natured, different from the others. She had dark eyes, black hair and smooth skin. Jimmy would sit with her on the front lawn for hours and tell her stories. The other girls were cute, too, but Harriet was his favorite. The rest of the family was uppity sometimes, but never Harriet. When she was older, she would always try to get Jimmy and me to eat in the dining room but we never wanted to. We had our own life, too. It was bad enough that we had to leave our house every morning and tend to someone else’s wants and needs.
Well, to make a long story short, Annabelle lost the house because of William’s gamblin’ debts-white folks gamble, too- and she started drinkin’ too much. She’d always liked her bourbon whiskey, but after Mr. William left, she had a glass in her hand all the time.
The family broke up and we had to find other folks to work for. It didn’t bother me too much, but Jimmy got real depressed and one day killed hisself. I found him hangin’ from the rafters of an old shed out back of our house. I
never did find out the reason, but it was pretty bad when I discovered him just hangin’ there.
After Jimmy’s funeral, which lasted all week, I stayed with the Hancocks next door, even though I didn’t like them very much and they didn’t like me. Now there were some uppity white folks! The Beale house was sold to a man named Vance. He died pretty soon after and left it to his son, Jake, who lives in Florida now. I remember him from when he was little. He was real sweet and polite. Used to come over and play. His father packed him off to live with relatives after his wife died. I guess it was because the poor little thing had no mama He must be a man by now.
The house stood empty after old man Vance died, but I’ve been looking after things, until now. I’m expecting Mr. Jake any minute. Excuse me, I’ve got things to do.
June 23, 1970, Winchester, Virginia
Jake Vance watched the receding twilight shapes of the Smoky Mountains in the rear view mirror of his battered blue VW beetle. The shades of purple were shrouded in a ghostly velvet haze. It’d been a long time since he left Florida and he was tired of driving. Virginia felt like home again. Twelve years was a long time, but right now he felt that a part of his soul had always been in the Shenandoah Valley.
The paved part of the SR 41 ended and the potholes and muddy ruts began, making the steering wheel shudder in his hands as he guided the rusty car over the pitted road. The windows were open and the perfume from the flowers beside the road was somehow familiar to him. It awakened all sorts of childhood memories, the nearer he came to 10 Apple Tree Drive.
The familiar big house loomed in the distance through the birch tree haze. He drove on, then came to a rural mailbox, just the same as he remembered it, and turned into a long driveway. As he came closer, he saw the familiar big number ten next to the front door. There it was, the sprawling old place. The shingles were wooden and a sludgy dark brown. He remembered Jimmy, up on a ladder, creosoting the outside. Looked like it hasn’t been done since, he thought. The acrid smell of the coating still hung in his imagination and he could see the can and the brush in his mind, standing next to the front door. He stopped in front of the house, sat motionless in the car, enjoying the warm feeling in the pit of his stomach and thought about taking possession of the house and outbuildings. It held so many memories for him. Annabelle Beale had sold it to his father for much less than it was worth. Now that his father had died, it belonged to him, and he wasn’t even sure what to do with it. It probably needs a lot of fixing up, he thought.
The oily Esso gas pump with the round glass tank on top, in the front yard, had grown a bit more rusty but still looked the same. He opened the car door, noting from the squeak that he should get the oil can out sometime and give it some attention. He’d been driving all day and his back was stiff. Before getting out, he thought, How little has changed since I used to play here. The house looks pretty much the same. I wonder if Harriet Beale still lives in the area. I wonder if she’s married, he thought, sadly. She’d be about my age. He put his feet on the ground, for the first time in six hours.
As he approached the front door, an elderly, fierce-looking dog came out of the bushes, limping toward him, showing its teeth, its tail stiff and elevated.
“Hey girl. Nice doggie.”
Jake’s soft voice and his smile reassured the dog. She stopped growling and wagged her tail.
The screened porch looked the same, although the door hung off its hinges. By the look of the grass, which was a little too long, the house hadn’t been lived in for a while. The hedges needed trimming and the hydrangeas were at the end of their blooming time.
All this, in spite of the efforts of Sarah Washington, the friendly, middle-aged black lady, who had served the Beale family with her husband, Jimmy for years. She was getting creaky with premature arthritis, the “Arthur”, she called it, by definition, and didn’t have the energy any more to keep the Beale house, as they still called it, in tip-top shape.
He continued along the path, which was intruded upon by clumps of crabgrass, and saw, out of the corner of his eye, a figure of a woman from the side, who waved feebly,
as she came toward him. She was bent over and extended both her hands in welcome, The familiar smile was there. Jake had a sad twinge of recognition. The lady who had been his second mother in the old days, was old and worn-out looking. Her clothes were the same, delightfully shabby and bordering on the threadbare, but, in his eight year old mind, she’d been beautiful then, or at least he’d thought so. A trace of prettiness remained in her lined face. Her skin was light, almost white, and she had a fine straight nose. She appeared preoccupied with her body. It was obviously not responding the way it used to.
“Is that you, Mister Jake? I wasn’t expectin’ you for another few days.”
Sarah Washington’s light brown, weather-beaten face creased itself into a wide smile and she respectfully removed her caved-in gardening hat.
Jake was almost moved to tears. “Sarah! It’s been years.” He kissed her on the cheek “How did you recognize me? Last time you saw me I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine.”
“I didn’t know it was you, suh, but we don’t get no visitors around here. Who else could it be but you? I knew you was comin’ sometime. It’s so good to see you. Sorry the place looks a little run-down, but I can’t do as much as I used to. Jimmy don’t like to come around here no more.” She beamed with affection.
“Can I go inside and look around?”
“‘course you can, Mister Jake. It belongs to you now.”
Jake opened the crooked screen, then the green front door. He remembered helping Sarah scrape and repaint it. He noted that it looked in need of a repainting right now. It was blistered and peeling. The door was already slightly ajar, and he walked into the grand entryway. He viewed it through the eyes of an eight year old. Back in the days when Patsy, Mary and Harriet were young it had seemed much more grand.