In my mind, the nine months from the first of June 1962 until the end of February of the following year were what I afterward called “the year of death.” I suppose it was the worst year of my life in many ways, certainly the most painful. And yet, as I have so often seen since, it was a year of discovery and change, and ultimately of hope. And there were wonderful parts too—the first time I fell in love, the first time I learned to really see someone else, the first time I dared to venture outside myself. And most importantly, it was the year that I discovered the truth, and truth always sets us free. So maybe I should call it not the year of death, but the year of freedom.
This is how it happened, as best I can piece those first days together from what I’ve been told and from what I lived.
John Jason Middleton, my forty-year-old father, lifted his arm and waved happily to his wife and my mother, Sheila, as she headed to the large aircraft. Then, on an impulse, he ran out of the glass doors and caught her in a tight embrace, kissed her on the lips, and pressed his hand against her fine silken hair. She laughed at him, her jade eyes twinkling and her wide, delicious mouth painted bright pink. “See you tomorrow, sweetheart.”
He watched as his wife and many of their friends boarded the Boeing 707 bound from Paris to Atlanta. The three-week trip with over a hundred other Atlantans had been perfect in every way. A dozen different scenes flashed through his mind. Dancing with Sheila. Sheila on the Champs-Elysées. Sheila, arms piled high with packages from Galéries Lafayette. And of course Sheila weeping in front of a Rembrandt ... a da Vinci ... a Raphael.
Ah, Sheila! At thirty-eight, she was already called one of Atlanta’s premier artists, and the contacts she’d made in Paris could almost assure a noteworthy exhibition there next spring. He squinted to get another look at his wife as she disappeared into the huge jet. The other members of the tour were tucked safely inside the plane as it taxied for takeoff.
But he and Mama had agreed two nights before to fly home on separate planes. Daddy, ever the cautious one, had preferred not to be on the same flight going home—for me and my brother Jimmy’s sake. The others on the trip thought him silly, but I’m sure he must have had a premonition of what was to come. And several business options had presented themselves on Friday, so he had a good excuse to stay another day.
“Of course, Jason darling! It’s a marvelous idea.” Mama had sung the words in her slow, smooth Southern accent. Then she had pouted. “But what a bore to be on the plane all those hours without you!”
To which he had guffawed and playfully pinched her. “Yes, you’ll be bored stiff, I’ll bet. Nothing to do but chat with Rosalind Williams and Anne Berry and Elizabeth Bull.”
“But you, dear Jason?” she said in mock sadness. “I’m thinking of you.”
He laughed again hearing her words, both of them knowing how he relished the thought of a few hours alone to catch up on business before he got back to Atlanta.
The jet sped down the runway of Orly Airfield with the bright Paris sky at midday shining down on it, sending gleaming reflections from its sleek metal exterior. Daddy felt the familiar jump in his stomach as the plane accelerated, then an immediate sense of relief to see it poised, ready to pierce the sky, nose pointing confidently upward.
Then, as he was about to turn away, he saw the silver bird hurtle forward without leaving the ground, heavy streams of white smoke trailing behind it. The plane screeched to the left, wobbling horribly for what seemed an eternity as the white smoke turned black. Daddy watched, horrified, screaming out loud as the nose of the plane struck the runway with the force of an earthquake, splitting the pavement apart. There was the sound of an explosion and then the airplane burst into fierce, lapping orange and blue flames.
He ran toward the glass doors with a dozen other dumbstruck eyewitnesses, tripping over himself, and made it onto the field before a man in an Air France uniform stopped him, warning, “You can’t go out there!”
“My wife’s on that plane,” Daddy cried hysterically.
“I’m sorry,” the Air France official told him. “My brother’s on it too.”
Daddy stood there in shock, imagining the excruciating heat, hearing somewhere on a distant runway the scream of sirens. Hearing his own anguished voice, weeping and calling out, “Sheila, Sheila ...”
June 3, 1962
The way I always heard it afterward was that Ella Mae was sitting in church on the morning of June third, fanning herself the way she always did, her big straw hat covering the coarse black hair that was beginning to be laced with gray. She was a large woman, strong, sturdy, and jovial. When she would smile and show her white teeth amidst her ebony face, ah, to me, it was such a simple and profound picture of contrast. Dark and light that blended into one of the most beautiful faces that my young eyes had ever seen. Ella Mae was my family’s maid in the year 1962. I lived on the northwest side of Atlanta in a big house. I had no idea where Ella Mae lived when she wasn’t at my house. She was as much a part of my family as my mother and father and my thirteen-year-old brother, Jimmy. I loved Ella Mae, and even though the tides of racial change were sweeping through our country, and her skin was black and mine was white, I had never seen the difference between us in all of my sixteen years.
It was, in fact, the events of the next nine months that forced me out of my cocoon. But I am getting ahead of myself.
At nine in the morning on June third at the Mount Carmel Church in southeast Atlanta, the pews were filled, the singing loud and joyous. The black bodies were swaying to and fro, as Ella Mae loved to describe it, and a young soloist in the choir stepped forward to belt out the last verse of “Oh, Happy Day.” It was a modest church of red brick and white woodwork that needed painting, and the pews had worn gray cushions. But it had ten breathtakingly beautiful stained-glass windows, and the piano was in tune, and the choir, my, could they sing! So caught up were they all in singing and praising the Lord that no one seemed to notice that Pastor James was awfully late getting to his place. When he finally did step into the sanctuary and up to the pulpit, the singing stopped abruptly with one look at his stricken face.
“My brotha’s and sista’s in Je-, in Jesus,” he said, stumbling over his words, something Ella Mae said he had never done before. His eyes were glistening as though he was trying to blink back tears. “Our hope is in the Lawd.” The usual amens were suppressed. Every member of the congregation waited, hearts beating hard.
“I have jus’ received the tragic news of a plane crash in Paris. A charter plane carryin’ some of Atlanta’s citizens crashed early this mornin’ in Paris.” There was a gasp throughout the congregation. “That plane carried on it many of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens. The pain I feel for these people ...”
But Ella Mae never heard the rest of Pastor James’s eulogy or his sermon. She let out a loud wail of “Lawd Jesus!” and abruptly got to her feet. “I gotta git to Mary Swan and Jimmy,” she cried out loud, but really talking to herself, and she left the church in a blur, barely noticing the others who reached out to her or asked, “Ella Mae... ?”
They figured it out later, and it made perfect sense that Ella Mae would be thinking about us, her chil’un, as she liked to say. Thinking about me asleep in that big house, oblivious to the fact that my whole life had just come to a screeching halt.
When I came downstairs that morning, the house was uncommonly quiet. My little brother, Jimmy, was still asleep, and I was still dreaming about the great Raven adventure and nursing my tender ankle. It was Sunday, and Grandmom and Granddad Middleton, Daddy’s parents who were staying with us while Mama and Daddy were away, had already left for church. If Mama and Daddy had been home, we would’ve been at church too. But Grandmom had told us the night before that we could “slee-eep eyan,” as she pronounced it in her dignified Southern way, and we had not argued. Later in the afternoon, Grandmom and Granddad would take Jimmy and me to the airport to pick up our parents. I could hardly wait. They’d been gone for three long weeks, and I was anxious to hear about their travels.
Ella Mae, the maid who had worked for us for as long as I’d been alive, was always there on weekdays. I could imagine the sound of her vacuum in one of the bedrooms and the smell of her fried chicken permeating the air and whetting my appetite. Sometimes, when I got home from school, I’d sneak into the kitchen and steal a chicken leg, devour it, and toss the bone into the trash can before Ella Mae could discover it. She knew, of course, and fried several extra pieces for my brother and me to enjoy after school.
But today there was no smell of chicken or soft, distant zooming of the vacuum. Today was Sunday, the third of June, and Mama and Daddy were already on the plane en route to Atlanta from Paris. I glanced at the grandfather clock in the entranceway as I came down the long, winding marble staircase. Nine thirty-two. Only six more hours.
My mother was a well-known painter in Atlanta and the South, often absent traveling to what I considered exotic places for art exhibitions. I’d grown up in the ample lap of Ella Mae, loving the smell of her soft black skin against mine as she read to me from Uncle Remus or sang songs about Jesus loving me, this I know. She was like a second mother to me.
Ella Mae’s black hair was short at the time, but I remember when I was little I used to run my fingers through it and love the coarse feel and the way she let me twist it around my fingers and braid it. She never put on makeup that I could tell. Her eyes weren’t that big, but she would lift her eyebrows and somehow show the whites of the eyes when she was mad. Her nose was straight and wide, which I thought was absolutely perfect because mine was so little and turned-uppish, and I always wanted to sketch her face. It was the most real face I had ever seen.
We called Ella Mae sturdy or round, but Mama, who loved to sneak up with a phrase from her French mother, would say, “She is not fat, just un petit peu enveloppée.” I poorly translated that to mean she was well padded, but it sounded much more sophisticated in French.
I found Ella Mae that morning of June third in the den, listening through the static on the radio and rocking herself back and forth, back and forth, moaning, “Lawd Jesus, have mercy on us. Have mercy.”
I don’t think she heard me come into the room, because she let out a scream and then a “Lawd, chile, you done scared me ta daeth,” and when she looked at me, that beautiful round face was shining with tears.
I’d never seen Ella Mae cry until that day. She was not supposed to cry. She was there to wipe my tears and listen to my stories and laugh at my pranks, but I felt a funny little quiver inside to see her face all wet with crying, and a cool shiver ran through my body.
“Ella Mae, what’s the matter? Why are you here today? Why aren’t you at your church?”
“My, my, chile. My, my,” she said, shaking her head and pulling me toward her and holding me in her strong black arms, snuggling me in her big bosom the way she used to when I was a little girl.
“Ain’t got no good news today, we ain’t.”
“What do you mean, Ella Mae?” It was then that I had my first premonition that whatever was making her cry would do the same to me when I found out. If it was bad news, I didn’t mind hearing it from Ella Mae. I only wanted to get it over with before Mama and Daddy came home from the airport. Three weeks of touring museums around Europe with one hundred of the city’s most generous art patrons had kept my parents away. I wanted everything to be perfect for their return.
“They’s been a crash. A terribul crash, sugah. A plane in Paris, takin’ off early this mornin.’ ”
The words froze me in place, and I narrowed my eyes, making them hard and angry, as if I were daring Ella Mae to tell me something too horrible to be true. “What plane crashed?” I mumbled after a moment.
The doorbell rang before she could answer, and we both jerked ourselves up. I left the den, ran through the entrance hall, and pulled the front door open, hearing my heart hammering in my chest. Our neighbor and Mama’s best friend, Trixie Hamilton, was standing there looking stricken. Trixie was in her late thirties, petite and blond and loads of fun, but she had nothing happy on her face at that moment.
“Mary Swan,” she whispered and pulled me close. “Oh, Mary Swan. I came right when I heard the news. I was on my way to church. I wanted to be here before you got up.” Ella Mae’s eyes met Trixie’s, and she shook her head slowly. Trixie must have understood something, because she led me through the big hall to the kitchen, which was decorated in bright red, yellow, and blue—what we called Mama’s artistic touch. Adjoining the kitchen was the breakfast room with a sturdy round oak table around which our family ate all our informal meals. We each took a chair, and Trixie held my hands.
“There’s been a crash. A tragic accident. The plane ...” She cleared her throat and started again. “The plane your parents were on that left Paris this morning has crashed. They don’t think there are any survivors.”
If I had been six, I would have melted into Trixie’s arms or Ella Mae’s bosom and sobbed for hours. But I was sixteen, at that awkward, proud age when even those closest to me seemed at times distant. I sat there rigid as a board and numb, and Trixie just sat there too, her arms wrapped loosely around me as though she was afraid to squeeze me because I might break.
It was Ella Mae who, crying quietly, fixed a glass of orange juice for me and one for Trixie, and then she took my hands as she had done so often in my life and began to hum very low and reverently, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.”
It was when she was humming the part about nobody knowing but Jesus that I began to cry. And then I wept and I heaved, and the most excruciating pain I had ever known wracked my body. Not physical. A pain so deep down in my soul that it felt like a type of death itself. We sat there, me crying and Trixie biting her lip and Ella Mae humming, for a long time.
We went back into the den and listened to the radio, sitting there numblike, as the persuasive voice of some man selling sedatives ended, and the neutral voice of the newscaster came on the air, announcing the most awful tragedy in the most impersonal way. Then it would switch to singing commercials, and the hard-sell adman would come back on again, while we listened in agony, waiting. Waiting. Waiting to hear a list of names, waiting for a phone call to confirm our worst fears, waiting for time to start ticking again and assure us that there was a future out there. That morning, the morning without fried chicken or the sound of the vacuum cleaner, was a day when I, on the brink of womanhood, became again just a skinny flat-chested girl who wanted more than anything else to curl up in her maid’s lap and be rocked to sleep.
It was Trixie who got up the courage to call the Air France office on Forsyth Street. The line was busy for so long that we gave up and just sat again, Trixie smoking one cigarette after another. The phone must have rung around ten-thirty, its shrill clanging bringing us out of our stupor. And not one of us wanted to answer it. But Ella Mae picked it up and said in a voice much changed from her usual robust greeting, “Middleton residence.”
She listened intently for a moment, then screwed her face up in a perplexing expression and began to yell. “Hello. Hello! Who is this? Whatcha sayin’? Is you tryin’ to trick us, Mista? Hurt us more than we already be hurtin’?”
Then she paused, leaned in even closer to the phone as if she were trying to peer through the lines to check out the caller. Finally she let out a “Lawd be praised, it is you, Mr. Middleton!” which caused me to jump up and grab the phone from her hand.
“Daddy! Daddy! Is it you? Is it really you? Ella Mae heard at church about a plane crash, and we thought it was yours....”
But Daddy’s voice was filled with anguish and punctuated by sobs as he said through a crackling phone line, “Mary Swan, sweetheart. Mama was on the plane. Mama ... Mama died in the crash.”
“No!” I screamed because the horror had been replaced by a moment of hope, and now the horror struck again. I let the phone drop and sank to the floor as Jimmy came into the room, his face holding a thousand questions. Trixie took the phone and Ella Mae held on to Jimmy, and somehow we got through the agony of that hour. I do not know how. All I remembered later was the delicious sound of Daddy’s voice and then the sound of it breaking and then the realization that Mama was gone. Daddy was stuck thousands of miles away from us, alone in his grief, and we were in shock. I did not know anything except a shattering pain in my chest and a desire to run, run backward in time to when life was the way it had always been.
After Daddy’s phone call, after so many tears, I fell back onto the couch in the study, completely exhausted. Grandmom and Granddad arrived soon afterward. They had been in church when they heard the news. As soon as they walked in the front door, I could tell they’d been crying, something I had never seen them do before. But Grandmom tried not to show it as she wrapped her tiny arms around me. She wasn’t even as tall as Trixie, and her hair was a beautiful snow-white, and she wore a bright lavender suit that almost matched her eyes. I always thought of Grandmom as really classy and so full of life. But today she seemed frail, almost gaunt.
Granddad was a big man, a former football player at Georgia Tech. He had a rather timid personality in social settings, but everybody said he was a genius at business where he dealt with the most intimidating men with a firm hand. That morning Granddad didn’t look timid or tough. He looked broken.
The only thing I could think of saying was “Daddy’s alive!” They stared at me pitifully.
“Poor child,” Grandmom mumbled, pressing me into the lavender suit so that I could smell her perfume.
“It’s true, Frank and Jennie,” Trixie confirmed. “JJ just called.” She bit her lip and blinked back tears. “He and Sheila decided to take different flights.” She cleared her throat. “He saw the whole thing.”
“Good Lord,” Granddad whispered, and Grandmom gave a whimper that must have been a mixture of incredible relief and unimaginable sadness.
People started coming right away to the house to check on us, and Ella Mae and Trixie and Grandmom and Granddad faithfully stood guard, receiving them graciously and protecting us from all but a very few of those who came to offer their condolences. The conversations seeped up the stairs to Jimmy’s bedroom where Jimmy and I were sitting crouched by his radio, and they always went the same. People in tears, Trixie explaining that Daddy had survived, the relief and then the pain when it was confirmed about Mama. All I wanted to know was when Daddy was coming home. But for that I would have to wait again.
Trixie came upstairs around noon with a tray of sandwiches. Her eyes were all puffy, and she sniffed and explained, “The street looks just like a parking lot, cars lined up for a mile in each direction, and I heard some women whisper that it’s like that all over town, in front of every house who had someone on that plane.”
When Jimmy and I peeked out the windows, we couldn’t believe it. It did look like a parking lot with a bunch of people coming to a church service, walking all dressed up toward our front door. Only they weren’t carrying Bibles but covered casseroles and tins of cookies. I pressed my face against the cool windowpane. I felt dizzy and weak and hot, like I had a fever.
Ella Mae came up at two and whispered, “Chil’un, it’s yore preacher here with his wife. You’d best come on down.”
“I can’t,” Jimmy sniffled. “I don’t want to see anybody, Swan. Not a soul. You go down there. Please.”
And so I did. We were Episcopalians, and Grandmom and Granddad and Daddy and Mama went to the Cathedral of St. Philip right up the street from us. The cathedral, which had recently been rebuilt, was a magnificent building constructed of what was called Tennessee quartzite—a pretty yellow-hued stone. It sat up on a hill on a small promontory that jutted out, not into water, but into Peachtree Road just as the road veered right, so that you couldn’t help but notice the beautiful cathedral as you drove by. Jimmy and I usually went to church on Sunday mornings, although we’d slacked off the past few weeks with Mama and Daddy gone.
Walking slowly because my head felt so light and my ankle was still sore, I made it to the bottom of the staircase. Dean Hardman was there, extending his hand. “God bless you, Mary Swan. What an awful tragedy.”
Mrs. Hardman gave me a warm hug. “We’re so sorry about your mother,” she whispered with a voice that had real compassion in it. Trixie had already told me that almost twenty people from our church had died in the crash. I wondered how many families Dean and Mrs. Hardman had already been to visit. I felt sorry for them.
But I had nothing to say at all except, “Thank you for coming.” We sat in the fancy living room with the high ceiling and the sculpted cornices and the oil paintings and Oriental rugs, the Hardmans and Trixie and Grandmom and Granddad and me, with Ella Mae looking on, until Dean Hardman insisted she take a seat too. I stared down at my hands, which I kept twisting around in my lap, occasionally lifting one to wipe my nose. We must have sat there like that in absolute silence for fifteen minutes. And somehow that seemed the right thing to do.
Then Dean Hardman cleared his throat awkwardly and said, “There will be a memorial service at St. Philip’s on Tuesday morning for all those who perished.” He stood up, shook my hand again, and I swear I thought this middle-aged man was going to start bawling like a baby in front of me. His eyes were all misty, and Mrs. Hardman blotted her eyes with a white-laced handkerchief. I started crying again, and she hugged me tight and I let her.
When the people called from the newspaper to ask for information about Mama, I guess it was Grandmom who answered all the questions. I was back upstairs with Jimmy, who was lying listlessly on his bed. The next phone call was Daddy again.
Grandmom answered the phone and burst into tears when she heard his voice and kept repeating, “Oh, Johnny, thank the Lord. Johnny, I’m so sorry.”
We were all crowded around the phone, and I heard him tell Grandmom, “I’ll be home as soon as I can. Can you and Dad hold things together?”
“Of course, Johnny. We’ll take care of the children.”
But then Jimmy grabbed the phone. “Please come home, Daddy,” he wailed. “It’s the worst thing in the whole world. Please come home.”
I don’t know how many times Jimmy and I went up and down, up and down that winding staircase that afternoon, but we did it together, and somehow I felt a bitter-sweetness at putting my skinny arm around Jimmy’s even skinnier shoulders and being a real big sister to him.
The telegram arrived at three-thirty. It came from the officials of Air France, and I guess everybody who was related to someone on the plane got one. I took it out of Ella Mae’s hand and screwed my face up to read it. I’d never received a telegram before: In this time of sorrow I convey to you on behalf of Air France our sincerest condolences. Please also know that I am at your disposition for any assistance we can render. It was signed Henri Lesieur, General Manager in North America for the airline.
I gave the telegram back to Ella Mae and said, “There’s not a thing they can do to help, and they know it.” Jimmy just sniffed and nodded.
Late that afternoon Trixie went downtown to buy copies of an “extra” edition of the Atlanta Journal—the first “extra” published by the newspaper on a local story since Margaret Mitchell was fatally injured in a street accident thirteen years earlier. Trixie was gone for over three hours, so long that we were afraid there’d been another accident. When she finally got back to our house, she was crying again.
“All the streets going downtown near the Atlanta Journal Constitution building at Forsyth Street are jammed with traffic. You can’t believe it. You just can’t believe it. Nobody can. Not a soul can believe it.” Her hands were trembling as she held out five copies of the special edition, and Grandmom and Granddad and Ella Mae and Jimmy and I each took one. I sank to the floor right there in the entrance hall, staring at the picture on the front page. In the foreground were a bunch of firemen with their hard hats on, and behind them was the tail of the plane all broken and sticking up toward the sky. The caption read, “Charred section of tail only recognizable part of plane.”
“Oh my gosh,” Jimmy mumbled.
On the right-hand side of the front page there was a long, long list of the Atlanta victims, typed in alphabetical order and bold print. I felt as if I might faint. The names were too numerous to fit on the front page but spilled over to another page, one after another, husbands and wives, a few children, and almost every one was a name that I recognized.
I saw Mama’s name before the others did, and I let out a little sob. There it was, right after Mrs. William Merritt of Peachtree Battle Avenue and right before Mrs. Lawton Miller of Argonne Drive: Mrs. John Jason Middleton of Andrews Drive. Somehow, seeing her name in black-and-white made it final and sure. There was no way to fantasize that she had somehow escaped, especially when I examined the photo of the remains of the plane.
One of the main articles said that Mayor Ivan Allen was heading for Paris late that afternoon. “With this much of Atlanta there, I think we ought to be on the scene,” he had said. And then the mayor had spoken on behalf of the whole city. “Atlanta has suffered her greatest tragedy and loss.” And Mr. Carmichael, who was a close friend of Daddy’s and the chairman of the board of the Atlanta Art Association, was quoted as saying, “It’s like an atomic bomb has hit Atlanta. It’s the most tragic thing for all of us. At the Art Association, it has simply wiped out our basic support. These were the hard workers, the people we depended on.”
Mama and Daddy had always been very involved in the Art Association. I had grown up seeing my parents off at the door, me clinging to Mama’s leg and then to Ella Mae as they left for some fundraising affair, both of them looking elegant. And now Mama would never dress up again, wearing the tight-fitting luxurious satin gowns for which she was known.
I couldn’t bear to read anything else. I left the paper in the middle of the hall, ran up two flights of stairs and into my bathroom, and vomited. Then I fell on my bed. I was still lying there, in the same clothes and the same position, when I woke up late the next morning.
The Swan House by Elizabeth Musser
Copyright © 2001, Elizabeth Musser
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.