Dedicated to the memory of Lily Heth Dabney, another of my heroines
Dressed to the nines, and she is eighty-six!
A gold lamé gown,
Savage pearls in her pierced earlobes!
That her Grandmother Haynes wore
A century ago!
In Washington City!
Before the War!
The exclamations are all mine, not hers—
And silent. My questions all silent, too:
Who does the woman think she is?
Where does she think she’s going in that outfit,
At her age, in her health?
It’s not as though I don’t know, her son,
And she doesn’t herself know
And the black maid who dresses her, Lula Mae,
And everybody else who cares at all to,
Does not know
In precisely what plot of cemetery ground
This woman will be lying six weeks hence
. . … . . at most.
”Let me do it,” says Lula Mae
About everything. Snapping the golden snaps
As she stands behind her mistress, towering above her,
Towering even in heel-less carpet slippers
(“Where does Lula Mae find such slippers any more?”)
Pulling the snaps together with her powerful brown hands,
Pulling the gold cloth over the white powdered back
Of my beautiful mother.
I stand in the doorway, watching, watching,
Waiting in my black-tie and dinner jacket
Which I have not worn in ten years till tonight
But which I brought with me on the plane
For her sake, at her request.
And Lula Mae arranging the almost too silvery white mane
(Silvery. Almost like, but not quite like, the blue heads
Of her “less well bred contemporaries”
With whom she is “reduced to associating”—
So few of her very own sort are left.)
The long silvery white hair thinned by time and perhaps
(Party hats, shopping hats, church hats—
Wide brimmed hats, cloche hats, turbans,
Whatever the fashion is)
But hair thickened tonight, filled in, ratted by Lula till it
Even me, who remembers the old, real thickness
The old, burnt umber color, everything, how every hair
And every strand once grew and fell, fell tenderly and
Over a child that had mumps or measles
And needed attention
And no doubt once upon a time
Over a lover, a husband.
And now Lula Mae’s handsome hands
Pushing her down onto the dressing-table stool
Like a child. But she is not yielding like a child.
Her knees and her hips yield
But her posture is unaffected by standing or sitting.
With her long body and short legs she sits
Almost as high as she stands.
When I remark on this, she says,
“A long torso means a long life—
Plenty of room for all the vital organs.”
It is one of her jokes.
It is something, in fact, that her Grandmother Haynes
used to say
About herself, in her late eighties, too,
Not before the War, in Washington City
But back in Tennessee, the War over
And everything gone but her diamonds (raked from the
And her flat silver (buried and then a year later exhumed
“Thirty yards N.E.walking in a straight line from the
And her faded finery, including the black lace mantilla
(From which she was never parted by war or economic
Proud and witty till the end, that old lady,
Herself finally buried in the shade of that same sycamore
Proud till the end of what she had endured
Proud of all she had survived.
In her gold lamé, my mother recalls it all
And regales us with it one more time, me and Lula Mae.
Seated there on the silk-skirted dressing-table stool
With Lula Mae kneeling before her, sitting
Straight as if corseted, which of course she isn’t
With the false hair Lula has piled on her head
And the false figure just as deceiving
Which Lula also has arranged,
The dress cut low in front, though not so low as to reveal
The old scar from her mastectomy (forty years back
When I was twelve, the operation that she survived
When others were not surviving it.)
Lula Mae is massaging her miniature feet,
Working them into the miniature gold slippers, tiny feet
But swollen, almost beyond recognition as feet
Until they shall be forcibly shod by the firm hand of Lula
One feels the pain in the room. In one’s own feet.
But my mother doesn’t bat an eye. Not a wince from her.
Lula hesitates considerately,
Balancing the right slipper lightly in her gentle palm,
Looking up, questioningly.
But Mother, not returning the look, says,
“Go ahead please, Lula Mae.”
And herself goes ahead with whatever the funny thing is
She is saying to me.
“There!” Lula Mae says at last. “There you are.
We’ve got you in them. Now, you can go to the ball,
And to me: “Ain’t she a pretty thing?”
(Archly, knowing how little I like her to play the black-
My mother gazes down at her swollen feet.
“Ah,” she sighs. And then suddenly she is laughing:
“This is one Cinderella who won’t lose a slipper at the ball.
We’ll have to take them off with the can opener, Lula Mae.”
And Lula laughs so hard she has to hide her face
In her hands, still squatting there. She rocks back and forth.
I think she is laughing. I hope she is laughing.
Then her frizzy old wig goes askew on her head
And she throws up her hands to hold it on.
She’s like a mad woman, there on her haunches
Her whole body throbbing and shaking,
Her big hands holding her head on
. . . .. . . . And Mother sits very erect, watching her.
Wearing her most serious expression, she watches Lula Mae.
Now we are standing in the narrow side hall, Mother and I.
We are almost on our way. The car and driver
Are patient outside in the porte-cochere.
Suddenly I remember where it is we’re going.
I’d never thought we’d really go. Not
When she telephoned long-distance and asked I come out
And play her escort: The Golden Wedding Reception
Of a couple she hardly knew the names of.
Still, it was to be at the Club, wasn’t it?
Everyone would be there, wouldn’t they?
“And I might possibly never go to such a grand affair
Again.” Incredible words, I say to myself.
Imagine! But we keep it up, she and I.
And now I see the whole evening before me,
See just how it will be, “Are you sure you want to go,
Are you sure you ought to go, after all?” I ask
With a forced smile, dropping down before her on a straight
”Why, sure, she ought to go!” cries Lula Mae,
Appearing from nowhere, the Fairy Godmother.
Holding wide the silk-lined mink cape,
She swoops down upon mother
Enfolds her in the cape.
For a moment the leathery-brown arms are wrapped
About the lighter brown fur like a belt.
She holds Mother as if she were a baby
In a blanket. She all but kisses her
But doesn’t want to spoil the rouged cheek.
She says: “Sure, she ought to go.
My dàrlin’s going to have the time of her life.”
Now I am on my feet again.
Mother stares up at me with eyes bright as a child’s.
The coloring of her rouge and lipstick seems real—
More than real.
As real as a doll’s coloring.
She is more real than life.
She is something Lula Mae has put together
To amuse a sick child with.
It is such a party as one goes to in one’s dreams.
That is, in nightmares of a milder sort.
At most there are six faces
In all the vast clutter of faces
Which I think that I can match with names
And in half that number
It is the wrong name I actually come up with.
Yet, sticking like pitch to Mother,
I am smiled upon by everyone.
A faithful son at such an affair as this
Is everybody’s hero. And my beautiful mother
Is everybody’s heroine. They flock to her
And stand about listening to her famous bon-mots,
Her jokes, her stories. When it is crudely suggested by
That she might be the oldest person present, she says:
“I don’t mind being old;
There’s just no future in it.”
—A moment’s hush, then a burst of laughter.
“Dear lady, with your high-piled silver tresses
And your golden draperies, you are
Like a Greek goddess mingling tonight
Amongst the mere mortals of the Country Club.”
—He is “some old professor emeritus
From the University.” Or so someone whispers in my ear.
I feel myself blushing. She blinks at him
Twice or three times.
And then, after only a moment’s reflection:
“As to my golden draperies—
Greek accusative, Herr Professor—
They are of course in honor of the occasion,
Bought new for our dear friend’s wedding anniversary. . . .
Something old—that’s me.
Something new—that’s the dress.
Something borrowed—that’s my son’s strength.
Something blue—that’s the hair piled so high on my old
She is the belle of the ball, without rival.
Everyone comes paying homage to her.
Almost everyone. Only her “medicine man,”
As she calls him, her beloved doctor
Keeps his distance,
He whom we met on the steps outside the Club
And had our exchanges with, brief and awkward,
Out there in the vestibule. I see him eyeing her
From far across the room, and again from a nearer point,
Eyeing her with dark, deepset eyes
Out of his long, sad face.
Twice at least I see him moving toward her,
He is a man my age. I watch him closely.
Each time he approaches us, he lets himself be intercepted,
Averted, drawn aside. How easily
He permits it. How eagerly he greets
Those who intercept him and keep him from us—from her.
They, too, no doubt are his aging patients.
But to my mother he will not come. Never.
And of course I have known all along he would not.
From the moment I saw his face
In the dim light on the outside steps I knew.
He looked at her as though he had seen a ghost.
He could not believe his eyes.
She? At such an affair? Dressed to the nines?
With what she had inside her?
He gave no sign of recognition.
This woman who resembled his dying patient
Whom he regarded as already dead, really
He would be a fool to mistake the one for the other.
Then, face to face with her
In the bright light of the vestibule
His curt greeting to her is all but insulting.
He cannot help it, though.
He wishes only to turn, with his knowledge
Back into the uncertain dimness on the steps outside
And on back into the blissful darkness of his primitive
What does he know of death? Certainly nothing at all, he
says to himself.
He knows only about the cessation of life.
She must not ask him to go beyond that with her.
The terror seen in the eyes of most patients
Is no less repulsive to him than its opposite
Whatever the opposite might be called.
There can be no proper greeting for death.
There can be no attitude at all toward death.
If there is any real way of dealing with death,
Says her beloved doctor to himself,
Then all his success at preventing and relieving pain
Even at saving life
Is such a small thing. Hardly worth considering, by com-
. . … But the beloved doctor could not turn back into the
And he could not brush past my mother in the vestibule.
For one awful moment his eyes met mine.
All that could pass between us was our disbelief—
I don’t know of what precisely—And
I don’t know which of us
Pitied the other more.
And then the arriving guests
Pushed us on inside and into the party
And parted us. . . . And the evening became an eternity
In which the stricken doctor could not even manage
Could not bring himself
To say goodnight to Mother.
Home at last, though.
She had done it!
In the car, sitting together in the back seat,
She held my hand tight, never slackening, all the way.
A kind of thing she hadn’t done in years,
And then only when I was in trouble
When I was waiting to face Father
Over my newest act of rebellion
Or my latest incompetence.
The clasp of the hand
Brings it all back:
My foolish first marriage that wasn’t really a marriage,
Flunking out of college,
Hitchhiking to the Gulf Coast,
Shipping out work-a-way on a Waterman Line freighter
Never writing them a word about where I was
Then rolling in home
In dirty clothes and too drunk to speak
And finally, worst of all, deserting to the literati.
And then at last forgiveness:
Father forgiving me, because he was dying,
(Tears streaming down his cheeks—his only words since
No longer speak) me forgiving Father, because he was dying
(Myself speechless too)
Mother forgiving both,
And saying there was nothing to forgive.
. . … . . But all the way home she holds my hand
And talks again of her Grandmother Haynes, only
Of her Grandmother Haynes.
Of her bravery during the War,
Her husband on the Union side,
Off lecturing at Boston and Philadelphia,
Raising money to relieve the suffering
Of loyalist upcountry Southerners,
And her own twin brother, the Confederate Senator,
His musical voice and old-fashioned rhetoric
Resounding through the halls of the capitol at Richmond.
She adored them both, husband and brother,
Wrote each of them a letter every day that passed
And suffered for them both,
Staying at home with the eleven children and the freed
Persecuted by her neighbors on both sides,
Accused by each side of supporting the other,
Even of spying,
Of sending information from Boston to Richmond
And from Richmond to Boston, and so on to Washington.
Two of her children died, and one freed slave went berserk,
Thought he was was Jeff Davis and tried to surrender to
But she, Grandmother Haynes, never surrendered
To either side, and never betrayed either side.
She looked after her children, ran the farm,
And gave a dance in the parlor at least once a month.
People said she was vain and frivolous.
She was most assuredly both—and capable and hardworking
And brave, too. Toward the end of the War,
Sometime during the last weeks of it,
Her neighbors burned the house and barn,
And even set fire to the summer kitchen and the smokehouse.
Then her husband, Grandfather Haynes, came down
And took her and the children through the lines
To Princeton.”It’s a pretty place,” she wrote her brother.
“To see it, you wouldn’t suppose there had been a War.”
But now the War was over
She and Grandfather Haynes and the children
Had to go back to Tennessee and be poor as church mice.
They were as poor as if Grandfather Haynes had been on
the losing side.
All she had was her flat silver and her diamonds and her
They say she wore her black lace mantilla
To do the milking in.
And her brocades and silks to hoe corn
And chop cotton.
Her husband turned Methodist
And took up preaching seriously,
Preaching religion to the covites
And to the mountain folks and the Black Republicans
“Who were in sore need of it,” his wife pronounced.
But she approved. “It’s doing good where good is needed,”
She said. “Besides, there’s more money in preaching
Than in farming—nowadays.” One day her brother, the twin,
His whereabouts unknown to her for more than a year
Appeared in the cowshed doorway,
In his cutaway and starched shirtfront.
His silk hat in his hand. He had been to Brazil.
He was on his way out West now, to make a new beginning,
Traveling under an assumed name: Ben Smith.
“What a pity,” she said to him,
“To have to be known as Ben Smith the rest of your life
When you are really Landon Carter of Tennessee.”
They embraced, shedding tears for their happy reunion,
As she reported it,
And then parted without tears
But with long looks as he retreated on foot
Out of the barn lot and down the Valley Road,
Both of them knowing they would never meet again
In this life.
Home at last, yes,
And I have almost forgotten whether
It is my mother I am with
Or my Great Grandmother Haynes.
Though I have heard it all recited before
Time and again, and in the same words,
It never seemed so real.
The two women never seemed so nearly one.
Franklin, her driver, is at her other elbow.
Together, we very nearly carry her inside.
“She was vain and frivolous—and brave,”
Mother says, as much to Franklin as to me.
(Franklin knows the stories, too. He and the good doctor
Have been more son to her than I, in these last years.)
“It’s a combination people find it hard to understand.
But they shouldn’t. It’s not uncommon, do you think?”
Lula is waiting in the lighted doorway.
We traverse that last ten feet
Under the porte-cochere and across the porch.
As we make our way with her
It comes over me how near the end she is.
More than that, it sweeps over me how little even there has
In her life. Wars have raged
Always on the other side of the world for her.
She has not even had to choose
Between neighbors, or not choose.
She did not even have a twin brother
To be torn away from.
Or an idealistic, impractical husband
To stand behind. (Hers was faithful,
Adoring, and a good provider.) Her only child
Never even gave her a scare—not of dying, anyway.
Even his rebellions and desertions and incompetences
Were healthy in their way!
But what is evident somehow
Is that she is every bit the heroine
She would have been had she been called upon to show
Her colors. She has been always ready
And would have been up to whatever
Might have come. And all this she knows! She knows.
Yet she is not jaded or disappointed
At not having had her chance to show.
And that, what is that?
Why, that is better than having shown.
It is something more than life.
Death doesn’t exist for it, Beloved Doctor.
Just inside the door to the side hall, Lula
Is waiting. She does not take one step forward.
She waits in her self-appointed place
For us to deliver our charge.
She does not even open her arms
Until we are in the doorway and standing before her.
Then she throws wide her arms and clasps her mistress to
As though she were, herself, the angel waiting on the other
“My honey, my darlin,” she says, hugging her, petting her.
And I hear Mother’s muffled voice: “Lula Mae, I’m so
”Of course. Sure you are,” says Lula Mae.
I stand there beside Franklin, feeling empty handed.
There is nothing else for me to do.
“I’ll put up the car,” says Franklin. He is lucky.
And he leaves me alone with just Mother and Lula Mae.
“Maybe she ought not to have gone, after all,” I say,
Not knowing anything else to say.
“She had to go,” Lula says.
“I think she had a wonderful time,” I say,
Not thinking of anything else to say.
“Of course she had a wonderful time,”
Says Lula, still holding Mother, and looks at me over
As if to say, What else did you expect of her?
“Anyway, I’m glad you waited up for her,” I say.
And Lula, with a look of even deeper wonder
Asks with her eyes: What else did you expect of me?