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The Girl Who Was No Kin to the Marshalls

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981

It began bank at her birth, or at least her baptism, when she was named Clare Colston for the mother of her Richmond grandmother. Although this fact endeared her to her relatives in Richmond, it endangered her in Lexington, a dark, alien, and mountainous land ruled by her other grandmother, Margaret Lewis Marshall Marshall. The grandmother for whom Clare’s older sister, Maggie, was named.

Every June their parents used to dump the two of them up there while they tootled off for two weeks of vacation—two bleak weeks for Clare, two blissful weeks for her sister, who could do no wrong in Lexington just as surely as Clare could do no right.

If there was one thing in the world that Grandma Marshall could not abide, it was a child who was timid, a child who hid tear-splotched postcards from her mother underneath her pillow, a child who slunk around the halls, jumping back as if she had just seen a snake when her own grandmother happened to walk past her, and worst of all, perhaps, a child who would come creeping in, in the middle of the night, and tiptoe all the way around the enormous walnut sleigh bed her grandparents slept in to wake up her grand father, whispering, “Come help me. Please. I can’t make the water stop running in the John.”

The madder Grandma got, the more timid Clare got. Finally, one Easter night when they were visiting there, as Clare lay in bed she heard her grandmother saying to her mother downstairs:

“Mark my words. You are making a mistake to let that child grow up sensitive and timid. Which is just plain self-centered, if you ask for my opinion. How can you expect her to develop any backbone?”

Clare’s mother murmured something.

Then Grandma’s voice, strong and clear again: “Of course she can’t help the fact she’s so much less attractive than her sister. Who has inherited the Marshall coloring. . .” (That meant dark, curly hair. And fair, rosy skin.). . .”while Clare,” she was saying, “is like all of the Colstons” (Clare’s father’s family) . . .”Blond and pale and pasty. Every time I look at her I think, “That child can not be kin to me.”“

At the breakfast table, during those interminable visits in June, Clare would stare into her plate, the Blue Willow pattern, trying to imagine she was halfway round the world from Lexington and Grandma, standing on that tiny bridge with those tiny Chinese people who, she could tell from a certain apologetic hunch in their posture, were every bit as sensitive and timid as the Colstons. She would stare into her plate so that she wouldn’t have to look at all the portraits and the photographs of dark-haired, rosy-skinned, flashing blue-eyed Marshalls, lined up on the walls, like an infantry division, backing Grandma up.

Actually, the least ferocious-looking Marshall in the bunch was the old Chief himself, his leathery face webbed with tiny wrinkles. But at least some of them looked like laugh wrinkles. And what she took to be his napkin was tucked into his collar, as if he were expecting to sit down to breakfast, too.

Way down by the sideboard, over Granddaddy’s shoulder, there was even more significant visual relief. A steel engraving of Robert E. Lee—full face in his double-buttoned uniform, with soft white hair and beard and eyes that twinkled with a quality she read as sympathy, since he, too, was no kin to the Marshalls.

A slight exaggeration. You would have had to go a long way in Virginia to find a person who was absolutely no kin to the Marshalls. But General Lee was distant kin, at best. As were the poor old Colstons. And heaven knows her grandmother had made it very clear that didn’t count.

After they had sat for what seemed several hours at the breakfast table, Grandma would pick up a brass belle (literally, a tiny lady with a clapper under her hoop skirt) and ring for the maid to clear the table.

The maid was a robust, dirty-blonde, pink-kneed girl from Hogback Mountain with a reputation on the campuses of Washington & Lee and V.M.I, that Clare’s high-minded grandmother chose simply to ignore.

Her name, it just so happened, was Virginia. And she would bump open the swinging door with one enormous haunch, turn and glare at Grandma with her freckled arms folded on her bosom and say, “What d’ya want?”

“You may clear the table now, Virginia,” Grandma would answer with a sigh indicating she would never, ever, quite recover from her dislocation from the better-mannered colored maids of Portsmouth and the genteel customs of Tidewater in general where people drove around in “cyars,” and cultivated “gyardens” and sometimes even tried to dignify their “gyarbage.”

As they pushed their rickety Victorian chairs back from the table, Grandma would train her steel-blue eyes on Clare and say, “It’s time for you to walk your grandfather to V.M.I.”

Released, at last, Clare would bound out to the sitting room to fetch his leather pouch and pipe, while he’d unhook his khaki officer’s cap from the coat rack in the hall, and off the two of them would go. Never once did she question the necessity of walking her grandfather to work. Or ask why her sister was kept at home with Grandma. All she ever wondered, every now and then, was how Grandaddy got to work when she was gone.

By that time he was treasurer of The Virginia Military Institute, a job his friends and cousins got him in the early 1930’s when his small bank, the Bank of Tidewater, in Portsmouth failed.

As the screen door slammed behind them, she would slip her fingers into her grandfather’s rough tobacco-stained hand, and they would cross Washington Street, then step onto the bright white cement walk that ran, like a hem, along the bottom of the lush green lawn of Washington & Lee.

Now Grandaddy was a Marshall, too, of course. He was, in fact, her grandmother’s double second cousin. And Clare always assumed, though nobody ever told her, that the main reason Grandma married him was so she wouldn’t have to change her maiden name.

But Grandaddy didn’t seem like a Marshall. Not Grandma’s kind of Marshall anyway, which Clare came to understand later was a relatively rare kind—a City Marshall, fully urbanized, even worse, Tidewaterized. While Grandaddy was a Country Marshall, the more common kind that grew up poor as Job’s turkey in Fauquier County right after the Civil War and rode a horse or mule five miles a day to a two-room schoolhouse to acquire a fairly modest education.

Of course she didn’t understand these distinctions back in those years when she was eight and nine and ten. All she understood was that if Grandma was a Marshall, then Grandaddy was different, thank the Lord. He seemed to have no standards where people were concerned; liked practically everybody that he ever met. Up to, and including, her.

So she could forget her troubles as she walked along beside him, taking two short steps to every one of his sharp-creased khaki strides, while that huge green hill of Washington & Lee, crowned with white pillared buildings, striped with bright white ribbon walkways, revolved like the canopy of a giant merry-go-round above them.

By the time they had climbed up through the gates of V.M.I, and onto the Parade Ground she would be giddy with relief, saying absolutely anything that came into her head. But then it would be time for Grandaddy to lean down and give her a whiskery, tobacco-smelling kiss and disappear into one of those crenelated, taffy-colored castles. And there he had to stay till one o’clock when she could come to fetch him back for lunch and a game of croquet or maybe rummy.

In the meantime there was a whole morning before her. She would turn then and pick her way back along the edge of the Parade Ground trying not to notice the bruise-purple mountains hovering above her, like the pictures of the Marshalls at the dining room table, trying not to wonder what her sister and her grandmother were planning.

Soon after she had dropped back down the cement walkway into Washington & Lee, she would pass Lee Chapel, just about the time the two ladies who worked there would be propping open its bright, white double doors. The wonderful thing was that she didn’t have to pay to get into the Lee Chapel and Museum. All she had to do was say, “Major Marshall’s grandchild,” words that worked exactly like “Open Sesame.” Looking back, she suspected that they must have had a policy of free admission for the families of both college faculties. But back then she was convinced that the miracle was rooted in the awesome power of the Marshall name (a power she could borrow now and then and use on innocent outsiders, who didn’t understand the paradoxes of genetics, but a power she could obviously never really own).

Though the lady at the table with the tinted postcards was used to her by now, Clare still felt obliged to mumble “Major Marshall’s grandchild,” and the lady would then press her lips together, nod, and say, “Make yourself at home.”

Which is exactly what she did.

Pushing open the inside door she would step into the cool, clean, absolutely empty chapel, with its bright white walls and curving ceilings, its long white wooden benches lined up in review before the platform where General Lee was sleeping on his marble camp bed with his marble Army boots (square-toed ones she noticed, not round-toed like Grandaddy’s) sticking out from underneath his too short marble Army blanket.

She remembered best one drizzly morning, the last week of their visit in 1944. She had a book with her that day, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, so she slipped into a pew and read there till her back began to ache. Then she walked up on the stage, through the archway in the center, and plopped down on the floor beside Lee’s statue. The light for reading was wonderful back there, coming as it did through a window on the side and reflecting directly off the marble. And she felt so at ease beside that gentle, sleeping man.

As irony would have it—she had even managed one day to get Grandma to admit it—General Lee was better born than the Marshalls. So much better that he didn’t have to worry about who took after who. She had heard one of the ladies explaining to a tourist that Lee liked all his students, no matter who they were or where they came from. And he liked children, too. She took that to mean all of them, even timid ones who weren’t but so attractive.

On a warm day she could sit and read beside him for half an hour maybe. (In those days of World War II and gas rationing, it wasn’t very often that a tourist would disturb her.) But on this particular day, the hard chill of the marble floor soon worked through her cotton skirt and underpants, so that she had to stand up, and rubbing her behind to restore the circulation, clank on down the iron steps to the museum in the basement

In the hall down there was a photograph of Lee as a civilian in a floppy gray hat, sitting on his horse, Traveller, as relaxed as anybody else would be sitting in an armchair. And since Grandma was making Clare take riding lessons every afternoon, she stopped and studied the photograph a while.

“Now that’s what I call horsemanship,” said the shorter, fatter museum lady, as she passed her standing there.

“What made him so relaxed?” Clare asked.

“Love,” the lady said, “Just plain love between a man and animal who’d ridden through so much together. So much dust and rain. And all those muddy, bloody battles. They had learned to communicate like two parts of one body.”

Clare couldn’t help but notice how loose Lee held his reins. Probably because he didn’t even need them. With a slight shift in his weight, or pressure from his leg, he could tell Traveller exactly what he wanted.

After that, Clare wandered down to General Lee’s office, which was just as he had left it, the ladies always said, so that visitors could have the feeling that he might be coming back. Maybe that was why Clare could not quite work up the nerve to sit down in his tufted black leather chair and read at his octagon-shaped table.

Instead, she walked on down the hall, took a hard right at the end, and flopped down on her stomach beside the tall glass case that had the skeleton of Traveller inside it. There she set her book down, opened flat, in a rectangle of daylight sifting through a window in the thick white basement wall.

She felt as much at home beside the bones of Traveller as she did upstairs beside the statue of his master. And secretly she longed to break open that case and write her name, Clare Colston, on a chalk white rib, the way so many students had written theirs before her.

It was curious, really, that she felt so much at home there when, at that point in her life, the thing that scared her most, next to Grandma, was horses. Live horses, of course. With long, enormous muscles and sweat-soaked, smelly skin. Horses that could bite your fingers off, if you didn’t hold your palm perfectly flat when you offered them a carrot. Horses that could get mad and lay their ears back flat and give a mean kick sideways, the way her sister’s would, as he cantered past her and poor old Buck.

Buck was what they gave her at the V. M. I, stables, a swaybacked veteran from the cavalry of World War I (when they were in the midst, of course, of World War II). A sweet-natured, gentle thing. Terrified as she was of all horses in general, she could not help acknowledging that fact about old Buck. And things would have been all right if her grandmother had been content to let her walk and trot and, maybe every now and then, canter. But Grandma was a pusher, bound and determined that each child would go home with a skill she had lacked at the time she was committed to her care. And that third summer of lessons, when Grandma noticed Clare had managed, finally, to learn to walk and trot and canter, she insisted it was time for her to JUMP.

Clare was so alarmed when her grandmother announced the plan at breakfast that she actually talked back to her for once: “Oh, why, Grandma? Why? Can’t I just pull Buck over to the side and let Maggie and White Lightning take the jumps?”

“Are you afraid to jump?”

“Yes,” she said. “I am.”

“Then don’t you see? That that’s the very reason you have to learn to do it.”

No, she didn’t see. But she was more afraid of Grandma than she was of jumping. And for that reason she began to jump.

One afternoon of that last week in 1944, a day or two after the rainy morning in Lee Chapel, she was trotting Buck up to a three-foot rail that she had taken fairly easily before. But this time, at the last minute, Buck shifted his footing, and Clare bumped out of the saddle as well as both her stirrups, and took the jump straddling his neck.

As Buck came down to the ground and started cantering around the bend, Clare felt herself falling in that awful stretched-out time of a slow-motion movie. First, she tipped over sideways and began slipping down the horse’s side (the side facing the ring, thank heavens, not the stucco wall). Then she found herself hanging with one leg hooked over the horse’s neck, the other leg swinging free under his stomach. And her head was down there, too, turned and watching, with a curious detachment, as the back hooves did a fancy dance sideways to avoid stepping on her as she fell.

What she felt a second later, sitting in the dust without a scratch or bruise on her, was not fear but gratitude to Buck.

“Are you hurt?” Grandma called from the bench where she was sitting, her black shoes pressed together, her face crumpled into wrinkles as she looked into the sun.

“No,” said Clare, standing up and brushing the dust off the jodhpurs, two sizes too big, they had borrowed from the daughter of a Captain Somebody who taught mathematics.

“Then you know what you have to do now. Don’t you?”

“Yes,” Clare said, “I have to get back up on Buck. And take the jump again.”

During all of this, the corporal in charge of the V. M. I, stables, the person who was meant to be giving them their lessons, had not said a word.

Clare walked over to Buck, who was standing waiting for her with his long reins drooping. First, she ran her hand down his sweat-soaked neck, to thank him. Then she gathered up the reins, stuck her toe in the stirrup, and pulled herself up into the saddle.

The wonder of it was that she still wasn’t feeling scared. If anything, she felt apologetic. Because she knew if she’d been riding right, with thighs and knees and calves clinging to Buck’s sides, the way that Lee rode Traveller, she would not have lost her balance in the first place.

After they got home and took their baths, Maggie went off to the movies with a girl she knew from camp, leaving Clare to spend the rest of the afternoon alone with Grandma.

As they walked downtown to get some meat for dinner, Clare didn’t speak to Grandma, because, as usual, she couldn’t think of anything to say. But as her grandmother was pushing open the door into the butcher’s shop, she said to Clare out of the blue: “I was proud of you today.”

It was as if Grandma had given her a diamond, and Clare took that little piece of praise and turned it over in her mind to get every single glint of glory from it. She felt absolutely radiant with glory, as she stood beside the slanted white and glass meat counter, watching the butcher trim the fat from the pork chops, watching Grandma tear a coupon from the perforated sheet in her meat ration book.

But then, two minutes later, she was in trouble again. Her grandmother had just dropped the pork chops into her string shopping bag and was looking down at her: “What would you like to do now?”

“Oh me. I don’t know,” Clare said, suddenly impaled on this unexpected question. What was she supposed to say? If she said she wanted to do something Grandma didn’t want to do. Oh, dear. What would happen then? “I don’t know,” she said again.

“How can anybody not know what they want to do?”

The finely wrinkled skin on Grandma’s neck was getting red. Which meant, of course, that she was getting mad at her. So Clare looked down at the floor and began to trace an arc in the sawdust with her sandal, trying to keep back the tears she could feel coming on, tears that would make Grandma FURIOUS at her.

Suddenly she felt her grandmother’s fingers lifting up her chin.

“Try to think of me.” Grandma’s bright blue eyes were boring into hers now, so she couldn’t look away. “You’re not being fair to me. What I want to do is what you want to do. But there’s no way I can do it, if you keep on being shy and hiding what you think from me.”

So Clare took a deep breath and blurted out, “Can you take me to the Library to get another book?”

“Of course I can, but I took you there on Tuesday. You checked out The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I thought at the time it was too advanced for you. Is that the problem? It’s too long?”

“I’ve finished it,” Clare said.

“Good for you,” Grandma said. And then, she let go of Clare’s chin, but still looked straight into her eyes and added, “I’ll say this for the Colstons. I always did hear that they were smart.”


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