I met Dobbs on the day my world fell apart. It was 1933 and most everyone else’s world in the good ol’ United States of America had fallen apart years ago. But I had survived virtually unscathed for four years. The Depression, as far as I could tell, had hardly invaded my niche of paradise.
And then it came to a screeching halt, along with Herbert Hoover—on the last day of his presidency. The banks died, and so did my world.
It didn’t start off as a terrible day. In fact, it felt as if there was electricity in the air. I slept in late that Saturday—I had gone to a fraternity party over at Georgia Tech the night before, and I was worn out. Mamma woke me at ten, as I’d asked, and after gobbling down my grits and eggs, I joined my whole family in the dining room, where our wireless radio sat perched on the buffet. The announcers were in a ruckus of excitement, describing the scene there in Washington, D.C. “There are crowds and crowds here stretching across ten acres of lawn and pavement, all awaiting the president-elect. . . .”
Mamma and Daddy and my younger siblings, Barbara and Irvin, and I scooted as close as we could to the radio. Jimmy and Dellareen, our servants, were there too, with their five children. Mamma had invited them over on that Saturday—they usually only worked for us on the weekdays—to hear Mr. Roosevelt being sworn in.
It was as if all of America was holding her breath, waiting to see if maybe this new president could save us from ourselves. I felt a nervous anticipation, Mamma kept her society smile plastered on her face, but Daddy did not try to hide his dark mood. That very morning, March 4, 1933, every last bank in America had closed its doors, and Daddy was a banker. The country was afraid—or maybe terrified was a better word. As we waited for the speech to begin, Mamma went over to Daddy and pecked him on the cheek. “Holden, I believe Mr. Roosevelt is going to get us back on track.” “It’s too late, Dot,” was Daddy’s reply. Typical, I thought to myself, irritated that he might spoil the drama of the moment. I guess Daddy had every reason to be pessimistic. As one of the heads at Georgia Trust Bank, he looked at the economic situation with little hope for a miracle cure—no more reliable than the fancy elixirs that Jacobs’ Drugstore proposed at the soda fountain. “He’s simply a charmer, that Mr. Roosevelt,” Daddy said to Mamma. “He’s never said one practical thing about how he was going to change things. His speeches are optimistic rhetoric with a little humor mixed in. No one knows the man.” Mamma patted Daddy’s hand and gave a little shrug. We could hear music in the background, and every once in a while the announcer cut away to a commercial about Coca-Cola or Sears and Roebuck Company or Haverty’s Furniture. Finally it was time for the new president to speak. Dellareen hushed up two of her little boys who were squabbling on the floor. I sat on the dining room table, my feet propped in Irvin’s lap, and no one told me to get down. I think we were all praying for a miracle. Everybody in the United States needed a miracle. Bankers and servants and everybody in between. Republicans and Democrats, old people and young. My parents were staunch Republicans, but personally I was happy to see Herbert Hoover leave office. I’d had enough of “Hoovervilles” and a hundred other things we had mocked the poor president for. The thought of change excited me. Mr. Roosevelt’s voice crackled across the radio lines, and we all leaned forward a little more. . . . This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. . . . We all listened, enraptured—except perhaps for Daddy—by the voice of Mr. Roosevelt, his paternal tone reassuring, confident, pronouncing words I thought could produce miracles. “And he embodied that strength and optimism by pulling himself out of the wheelchair and making his shriveled-up legs walk across the stage to the podium,” the announcer ranted after the speech ended. I hoped that the new president’s speech had buoyed dear Daddy’s spirits. I had watched his mood grow more and more morose over recent months. My father often confided in me—things about his business which I found fascinating. But lately he’d spent a lot of time alone in his study, and the night before I had overheard him arguing with Mamma about the banks closing. Mamma had a positive outlook on life, which helped soothe my brooding father. His moods were as dark as his hair—hair that was black without a trace of gray. I thought it odd that my father, so often melancholic, looked young and vital, while Mamma had rings under her pretty green eyes and her dark blond hair needed dyeing every other month, an extravagance that we had never even thought extravagant until Daddy had come home the month before angry and forbidding poor Mamma to go to the beauty parlor. Mamma was resourceful and figured out a way to get her hair cut and dyed on her own—Dellareen knew lots about fixing white ladies’ hair. I’d watched Dellareen preparing her concoction and hoped to heavens it worked, so that my Atlanta friends wouldn’t think that the Singleton family had fallen on hard times. That Saturday in early March, Mr. Roosevelt had soothed the nation with his words, and I actually felt hopeful. I had friends, parties to attend, dates galore, and now the new president was somehow going to fix the nation’s economy. And the banks. Oh, please, the banks, especially Daddy’s. “Perri, I’d really like for you to go with me to the train station in a little while,” Mamma said after lunch. Irvin had scooted out to play baseball with friends at the park, Barbara was over at her best friend Lulu’s house, and Daddy had retired to his study. I wanted to walk down the street to see my friend Mae Pearl and ask her what she thought of Roosevelt’s speech. I made a face. “Aw, Mom. Why?” “Josephine Chandler is going to pick up her niece who’s arriving from Chicago. She’ll be staying at the Chandlers’ for the rest of the year and is going to attend Washington Seminary.” “Starting school now—in March?” “I think her family’s come on hard times, and Mrs. Chandler has offered for the girl to live with her and get an education.” Everyone has fallen on hard times, I thought, a little frustrated with Mamma for ruining my afternoon plans. But this girl was lucky. The Chandlers’ lived in the biggest house in the neighborhood and had parties almost every week in the summer, and loads of girls I knew would have given up iced tea in August to spend time in the Chandler home. “Holden, we’re gonna take the Buick to the Chandlers’,” Mamma called back to Daddy. He must have grunted his approval because the next thing I knew we were driving down Wesley Road towards Peachtree in Daddy’s two-door Buick Victory Coupe. Daddy was so proud of that car that he hardly ever let Mamma drive. He’s in a good mood on account of Mr. Roosevelt, I thought. Mamma, always a little nervous behind the wheel, made me nervous too, but I tried not to show it. Mrs. Chandler was waiting for us, her driver ready to take us in the Pierce Arrow convertible to the train station. Oh, it was an elegant car! She climbed in the front passenger seat, and Mamma and I huddled together in the back as the breeze of early spring tousled our hair, lifting and twirling it like new leaves on a dogwood tree. “Her name is Mary Dobbs Dillard. She’s sixteen or seventeen and will be in your class at school, Perri.” Mrs. Chandler turned in her seat to speak to us and her perfectly coiffed hair blew slightly in the wind. “I hadn’t seen her in years, and then I went up to Chicago last fall and found her there with my brother and his wife and their other children, in a very difficult situation. I insisted she come down here. She’s quite intelligent and deserves a good education. “My brother, Billy, bless his soul, he means well. All kinds of benevolent ideas to help others, but it seemed to me like his family was starving while he handed out his charity. I wanted the two younger sisters to come as well, but Billy’s wife, Ginnie, said they were too young to live away from home.” I pictured Mrs. Chandler’s niece in my mind—skinny, hollowed-eyed, meek, hungry—and imagined that Mrs. Chandler’s brother looked something like the subject of the famous photograph by Dorothea Lange—my hero in those years—called “White Angel Breadline.” It showed a group of beat-up men, old-looking but probably not old, waiting in a breadline, and it focused on one man, facing the camera, a worn hat on his head and a tin cup cradled in his hands. He was leaning on a fence, and he looked completely destitute. We pulled up to the elegant Terminal Station, with its arches and tall towers, and Mrs. Chandler, Mamma, and I hurried into the station and found the track where the destitute girl of my imagination was scheduled to arrive. A few minutes later, in a mist of steam and fog, Mary Dobbs Dillard stepped off the train, and I gasped. My first sight of her was spellbinding. Mary Dobbs was the most gorgeous girl I had ever laid eyes on, but in a strange, unorthodox way. She had softly-tanned skin—not at all the perfect pale that we considered stylish—and thick wavy black hair that she wore loose to her waist. Her eyes were black—truly, big black oval onyx stones—and her face was a perfect oval too, with high cheekbones and skin that had never known a blemish, I was certain. She was small-boned and not particularly tall, but she looked strong, a determined kind of strong. She wore a faded dark blue cotton dress that hung all wrong on her thin, thin frame. Maybe her family had fallen on hard times, but she did not look meek. She stood straight up, shoulders back, and had an expression of wonder on her lovely face. “Hello, Mary Dobbs,” Mrs. Chandler said, giving her niece a friendly pat on the back. Mary Dobbs set down a small suitcase, off-white, scuffed, and well-used, to say the least, and threw her arms around Mrs. Chandler and hugged her tightly. “It is so, so good to be here, Aunt Josie!” Wearing a startled expression, Mrs. Chandler politely undid herself from Mary Dobbs’s embrace and said, “I’m so glad you made it safely.” Then she turned to Mamma and me and said, “Mary Dobbs, I want you to meet dear friends of mine, Mrs. Singleton and her daughter Perri.” Mary Dobbs surveyed us, gave a warm smile that showed a perfect row of teeth, and reached out and took my hand, shaking it up and down forcefully. “Nice to meet you,” she said, and added in a whisper to me, “I’ve dropped Mary. I just go by Dobbs now.” We met eyes, briefly, and I felt my face go red. “Well, Mary Dobbs,” Mrs. Chandler said, “I’ll get my chauffer to retrieve your bags.” She motioned to the driver, but before he could start up the steps to the train, Dobbs shook her head, pointed to the worn suitcase, and said, “This is all I have.” Again Mrs. Chandler seemed surprised, but she recovered quickly and said, “Well, if this is all, then I suppose we can be going.” The driver took the suitcase from Dobbs and headed out of the train station, with us following. On the way home, I sat in the back seat with Mamma on one side and Dobbs on the other. I watched, fascinated, as Dobbs’s long black mane flew out behind her like a flag in the May Day Parade. I didn’t know another girl with long hair.
Mamma gave me a little nudge in the side, which meant, Say something, Perri! So I asked, “Have you ever been to Atlanta?”
“Once or twice, a long time ago. I don’t remember much, but my father has described parts of Atlanta to me.” “He’s from here?” Dobbs looked at me with suspicion. “Well, yes. My father is Mrs. Chandler’s brother. He grew up in the house she lives in now.” My face heated. Of course, what a stupid question! I wanted to tell her she was amazingly lucky to be living in that huge house, but that would not have been polite. For whatever other faults I had, I did know I must be polite, especially with Mamma sitting in the seat beside me. I also wanted to ask Dobbs about her life in Chicago, but considering what Mrs. Chandler had said about their situation, I didn’t think that would be polite either. So we sat in silence. Mamma turned to me and tried to make conversation. “Perri dear, why don’t you tell Mary Dobbs a little about your school, the girls in your class? I’m sure she’s eager to hear about it.” I scowled a little. She didn’t seem eager, she seemed overeager, her eyes wide with enthusiasm, and that annoyed me. “Washington Seminary is the name of the school. I guess you know that—” Dobbs cut in, “Oh yes! Washington Seminary—and it’s not a seminary at all. It’s ‘an efficient and beautiful school for girls’—something like that. There are thirty experienced teachers and four courses leading to graduation, and you have a French club and a Spanish club and all kinds of sports—basketball and field hockey and a swim team— and May Day festivities . . .” I stared at her with my mouth open. She sounded like an advertisement for the school as she spoke with an accent that was certainly not Southern. She gave me a warm smile and said, “Aunt Josie sent me last year’s yearbook. I’ve read it through. Facts and Fancies.” “Oh. Well then, I guess you know everything there is to know. Nothing much I can add.” Mamma glanced at me with disapproval in her eyes, and I shrugged. “No, I don’t know everything,” Dobbs said sweetly. “Of course not. Tell me something about yourself.” I did not want to talk to this effervescent girl, but Mother nudged me in the ribs. I rolled my eyes. “I’m seventeen, in the junior class—there are thirty-two of us—I write for Facts and Fancies, and I’m a photographer. I head up the Red Cross Club, I’m vice-president of the junior class, and I’m in the Phi Pi sorority. I love parties and my circle of friends attends two or three a week. Dances, you know, and all the swell boys are there from the boys’ high school, which has the most boring name in the world—Boys High—and from the colleges in Atlanta—Georgia Tech and Emory and Oglethorpe. And several girls in my class are pinned. “After school we go to Jacobs’ Drugstore and order Coca-Cola or something else from the soda fountain. I love to ride horses. Fox hunting is my favorite. Let’s just say I’m rarely bored.” Dobbs stared at me the whole time with a tiny smile spreading across her lips. She cocked her head and just kept staring—jet black eyes looking straight through me—and said, “Well, thank you for that monologue, Perri Singleton. But I’m sure there’s a lot more to you than that. It will be nice to get to know who you really are.” I glared at her, stuck my nose in the air, and turned to Mamma, who always said when I was mad, lightning bolts flashed from my eyes, “seeking someone to sizzle.” Dobbs did not seem to notice but leaned forward and said, “Aunt Josie, wasn’t Mr. Roosevelt’s speech fabulous! ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself!’ He’s going to bring this country around! I just know it! The way he said we have enough, but that we just haven’t been using our resources the right way, is the plain truth!” Dobbs sat beside me in her rags and talked on and on about the “religious tone of Mr. Roosevelt’s address” and how he put words to the feelings of the American people. Mrs. Chandler nodded politely but looked as if she were more worried about getting a crick in her neck as she twisted around in her seat to look at Dobbs. I thought to myself, She’s just trying to impress Mrs. Chandler. I finally shot Dobbs my lightning-bolt look, and she smiled back at me, completely unfazed. “What did you think of the speech, Perri?” When I didn’t respond, even after Mamma elbowed me twice, the three of us sat in silence again. Thank heavens we arrived at the Chandler place a few minutes later. I mumbled “Nice to have met you,” and Dobbs said, “Likewise. See you on Monday at school.” “What a strange person,” I said to Mamma as she drove the Buick back home, and turned onto our street. “She’s a bit dramatic, wouldn’t you say? Babbling on and on about the new president as if she knows it all, in her potato-sack dress and pitiful suitcase. I’m glad we wear uniforms at Washington Seminary. At least the girls won’t have to see her wardrobe. Yet.” “Shh now, Perri. Yes, she is a bit different, but I think she’s simply very excited to be here, considering where she came from. She’ll fit in fine, I’m sure. Please try to introduce her to a few girls on Monday. And don’t judge her too soon.”
Sweet Mamma, she always gave people the benefit of the doubt.
Dobbs to me spelled trouble. We got back home, and Mamma parked the car in the driveway. “Holden, dear. Holden,” she called out lightly once we were in the entrance hall. “I made it just fine in the coupe. Not one bump or scratch. But I left the car in the driveway, as you like. I’ll let you maneuver it into the garage.” She chattered along, walking back to Daddy’s study. I had turned to go upstairs when Mamma uttered a tiny shriek and came into the hall with one hand over her mouth and holding a piece of Daddy’s stationery in the other. “Your father . . .” she started. “We’ve got to find your father!”
She ran out the back door toward the garage.
I felt my heart pumping so strangely in my ears, and my vision went momentarily blurry, taking in the horrible expression on Mamma’s face. Then I followed her out the door and took off at a dash in the opposite direction from Mamma—across the back lawn to the stables where Daddy kept his horses. Riding and fox hunting were his favorite hobbies, and I imagined he had gone on a trail ride. I flung open the door to the stable. The long hallway was empty, save a few strands of hay probably dropped by the stable boy from the morning feeding. The horses, all five of them, were pacing nervously back and forth in their stalls, nickering. “What is it, fella?” I asked, as I ran my hand along the forehead of Windchaser, Daddy’s favorite. Then I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. I turned and went into the tack room, and there I saw it—Daddy’s leather tasseled dress shoe turned on its side where it had fallen amidst a few strands of hay and shavings. I looked up to see . . . Daddy’s lifeless body was swinging from the rafters, a lead shank around his neck, his long legs in their dark gray business slacks, moving almost imperceptibly, one foot hanging shoeless. The guttural scream that issued from inside me seemed to go on forever. Then I fainted. That was where they found me, Jimmy and Dellareen and Ben, their oldest son. Ben splashed water on my face, and as I came to, I looked to the side and saw tall, thin Dellareen running out of the stable gate to where Mamma was approaching, grabbing Mamma around the waist, and pulling her away from the stable door. Mamma fought with her, but Dellareen’s strong dark arms engulfed Mamma, dragging her away while Mamma’s stricken face looked at me and screamed “Holden, Holden, Holden.” I remember the fierce determination on Dellareen’s face, and I remember her words too. “You ain’t gonna see none of it, Miz Dorothy.” Then Jimmy, who was as thin as Dellareen and not any taller, picked me up, carried me back to the house, and laid me down on the sofa in the sitting room, and Dellareen placed a damp cloth on my head. I guess Jimmy and Ben got Daddy down. The afternoon became a blur of people parading in and out of the house. I was thankful that Barbara and Irvin were still gone. I sat petrified—like a piece of old wood—on the sofa, watching people in a type of fog. Mrs. Chandler and her servant showed up first, then Daddy’s business partner from the bank. Later his good friend and accountant, Mr. Robinson, stopped by, and Mr. Chandler came off the golf course, dressed in his plaid knickers and polo shirt. Little by little the house filled up with people, and the stench of body odor—all of ours, all of our grief let out from the pores of our body—permeated the downstairs. Evidently, after some discussion, Mrs. Chandler called Lulu’s house, where Barbara was playing, and the coach of Irvin’s baseball team, and asked if the children could stay over until after dinner.
After a while, Mrs. Chandler took Mamma upstairs, and at one point, I heard Mamma wailing, “Poor Perri! And how am I going to tell Barbara and Irvin?”
I was still sitting on that sofa, arms wrapped around myself and just plain numb, but when I heard Mamma’s stricken voice, I said to Dellareen, “I’ll tell them.” She looked at me, startled, and shook her head. “No. No, Miz Perri. It ain’t yore place.” “I want to. I need to. Mamma can’t do it. You know that.” I still had not shed a tear, but my face was burning with the fever of tragedy, and I could feel the red splotches on my cheeks. Dellareen squeezed my hand, her brow wrinkled with worry, her face shiny with perspiration, her servant’s uniform, usually impeccable, soaked under the arms with her sweat. She took my face in her calloused hands and looked me straight in the eyes. Dellareen had known me from the time I was “knee high to a grasshopper,” as she always put it, and that day she read my mind. “It ain’t your responsibility, Miz Perri. You understand that? I know you loved your papa and he loved you, and he wouldn’t want you carryin’ this on yore shoulders.” The tears came readily, and I let Dellareen pull me into her arms while I cried. Finally, I whispered through the ball in my throat, “I wanna see Mamma.” I found her propped up in her bed with Mrs. Chandler beside her. Mamma’s pretty powered face was smudged with mascara as she wept softly. She reached out to me. “Perri, Perri.” Then she whispered to Mrs. Chandler, “Perri’s the one who found . . . who found . . .” I squeezed Mamma’s hand, and Mamma pulled me into her arms. I stood there leaning down over Mamma for a few seconds, feeling her tiny arms around me, the weight of her body, so frail, holding on to me, it seemed, for life. I held her tight, and from somewhere outside of myself, I pronounced the words, “It’s gonna be okay, Mamma. Somehow it’s gonna be okay.” But in my mind, I was thinking, Nothing will ever be okay again, unless I make it okay. It’s up to me now.
Some things I just know. For sure. Don’t ask me how. I just know them. And from the moment that Mother (and eventually Father) insisted I leave for Atlanta—Atlanta! A southern town!—I knew that my life had just bifurcated in a way that would have repercussions for my whole family. At first I resisted, of course. I like to do things my way. “Aunt Josie means well,” I told my parents. “Certainly, there are benefits to a good education. Certainly, it can be a wise investment for the long term. But what about you? How can I leave both of you and Coobie and Frances up here in Chicago, wondering where the next meal will come from while I gallivant around in Atlanta?” Father pronounced the words that always convinced me. “It is for the larger cause, Dobbs. You need this.”
A larger cause! I loved causes, and especially the one Father referred to: propagation of the Word of God. So off I went on the train to Atlanta with one measly suitcase in my hand and my head swimming with ideas of adventure, possibilities, a whole new world to conquer! I was bursting with excitement inside over Mr. Roosevelt’s inauguration. I’d listened to his speech on the radio when I’d changed trains in St. Louis—in fact the conductor had postponed us leaving so that everyone could hear it. So on the last leg of my two-day trip down to Atlanta, I kept thinking to myself, Franklin D. Roosevelt is God’s man for such a time as this. He will help pull America out of this mess!
Father always said we were in this mess—otherwise known as the Depression—because of man’s greed and God’s judgment and a whole bunch of other things mixed together. He was probably right, but with Roosevelt in office, America could mend her evil ways and start over again! So I stepped off the train with a big smile on my face, anticipating a new beginning for me and for America. Aunt Josie and her chauffeur met me at the station along with Mrs. Singleton and her daughter Perri. The first thing I felt was a stare of disapproval. Aunt Josie’s eyes said it first and then Mrs. Singleton’s and Perri’s too. Astonishment. Then pity. They recovered quickly, and we rode home in one of the fanciest cars I’d ever seen. Aunt Josie sat up front with her chauffeur—his name was Hosea—and I was in the back with Mrs. Singleton and Perri. I started rattling on, as I always do, to Aunt Josie, and she politely listened. I talked a lot, but I also could tell pretty quickly what someone else was thinking, and Perri Singleton’s face told me that she didn’t like me one bit. Yet. Hosea turned the car into a long, private drive, framed on either side with stone posts which would have fit nicely in a Roman piazza, I imagined. Father had tried to prepare me for the Chandlers’ home, describing it to me and even showing me an old photo, but as Hosea drove around the bend, I stared, my mouth almost hanging open, at a sprawling—and imposing—white stucco house, something fit for English nobility. Hosea pulled the car under a covered driveway to the right of the house. My aunt called this “the porte-cochere,” which I later realized was French, except she pronounced it in long, drawn-out syllables—po-wart co-share, which meant absolutely nothing to me. When we stopped, Perri almost jumped out of the car. Perhaps she thought I had lice or some other terrible ailment that came with poverty, but she got in their car with her mother and they drove away without a glance back at me.
I got out of the Pierce Arrow and followed Aunt Josie as she walked me in a circular tour around the property. Acres and acres of open land surrounded the house. To the left of the mansion were the garages for cars, and off behind the garages, a stable that Aunt Josie said was with filled with horses as well as a cow and pig, and farther out, in the fields behind, beautiful vegetable gardens, and the servants’ quarters off to the left of the stables.
Then she shaded her eyes with her hand, squinted, pointed and said, “Down the hill to the right by the little lake is the summer house. It’s such a lovely spot. The orchestra plays there when we have lawn parties.” She said this without a hint of pretension, so I nodded as if I were used to staying at a mansion with property that spilled out everywhere and attending parties with a live orchestra playing. I had arrived in Atlanta at the pinnacle of spring. The dogwoods and azaleas were beginning to declare the joy of rebirth, the air was mild, the daffodils were swinging their happy yellow heads back and forth, the sky was a soft pastel blue, and the scent of hyacinths tickled my nose. I twirled around with my hands outstretched and soaked it in. Fresh air and rebirth! I twirled around one more time. Aunt Josie’s face once again wore a regard of disapproval, so I stopped and followed her back to the porte-cochere, and we walked inside. The best word for Aunt Josie was buxom. Or well-endowed. Or sturdy. She had the same Dillard nose as Father, straight and pointed down, and eyes like Father’s too—dark brown—but they weren’t nearly as flashing and passionate as Father’s. Her hair was a pretty cherry-brown color, like Father’s had been before he lost half of his and the rest turned gray.
Overall, Aunt Josie was a large, striking woman, dressed in tailored silk and pearls. She seemed to me the kind of woman you’d like to have around if you were inviting a hundred people to your house for a fancy affair, but not so much the person you’d want to confide in about a boy. Which I did. I was fairly exploding to tell someone about Hank. But I kept my mouth shut.
I’d seen Aunt Josie for the first time in years when she’d come to Chicago to visit us—her baby brother and his family—back in October. It turned into a disastrous visit, to say the least. She saw where we lived and that there was no food in the icebox and the state of our clothes, and she was livid at Father.
“You’re preaching to others and not taking care of your own family. Haven’t you read the Scriptures? Saint Paul calls you an infidel!” Father was all torn up about her saying that, but Mother stuck by him and said that they weren’t called to speak to the people who had means, but to those who had nothing, and he wasn’t going to pass around the offering plate to people fallen on such bad times. God would provide. The day after Aunt Josie left for Atlanta, a man came to the apartment and handed Father an envelope with twenty dollars in it. We whooped and hollered. Just like every time, God had provided for us; money came out of nowhere. And besides that, before she returned to Atlanta, Aunt Josie left a bag of clothes for Coobie and Frances and me, and she bought us enough groceries for two whole weeks. I wondered if she realized that God was providing through her too? The front hall in my aunt’s mansion was paneled from floor to ceiling in some kind of dark, gleaming wood, and the ceiling was sculpted like something I’d seen in a history book of the European Renaissance, and there was an enormous stone mantelpiece above the fireplace. I wanted to stop and take it all in, but Aunt Josie had already turned to the right and started upstairs. The staircase was split in two sides that wound around above the porte-cochere entrance, and the dark walls leading to the second floor were decorated with big oil paintings of what must have been family members. Most were portraits of somber-looking people, but I recognized one of Father as a child with a little dog in his lap. “Well, here’s your bedroom, Mary Dobbs. I hope you’ll find everything to your liking. You’ve got the bathroom right there to yourself, and there are fresh towels and sheets in the linen closet. Parthenia, the servant girl, changes everything twice a week. You can put your clothes away in the chest of drawers and the closet. I’ve put a few other things that you might need in the closet for you. “The upstairs telephone is in my room. If you need to make a call, just tell me. Your Uncle Robert doesn’t like us to call long-distance very often, but I’m sure your parents want to hear you’ve arrived safely.” She ruffled her nose, frowned slightly and said, “Your parents don’t have a telephone, do they?” “No, that’s correct.” “We’ll send a telegram.” At that moment, the telephone actually began to ring. “Let me go get it,” Aunt Josie said and hurried down the hall.
Walking into my new room, I surmised that God had very generously provided again. The bedroom seemed almost as big as our whole apartment in Chicago. Large-paned windows overlooked the property out back. I could see the stables and the servants’ quarters, and if I opened the window and stood on my tiptoes and leaned out as far as I could—which, of course, I did—I could see the summer house down the hill perched beside the little lake. I closed the window, twirled around again, laughed, let myself fall backward on the big bed with its fluffy comforter, and stared up at the white-laced canopy overhead.
Then I deflated, thinking about Mother and Father with my little sisters, Coobie and Frances, huddled together in that small apartment. Mother had cooked the last of the chicken three days ago, and before they took me to the train station, we’d picked every scrap of meat off the bones and boiled the bones to make broth. I imagined them hungry, and it made me want to go right back to Terminal Station and catch the next train to Chicago.
Suddenly Aunt Josie hurried back into the hall, calling down the stairs, “Hosea! Hosea! Come quickly. Yes, yes. There’s a problem. A big problem.” Almost as an afterthought, she stopped by my doorway. Her round face was pasty white. “I have to leave. There’s been, there’s been a terrible . . .” She didn’t finish the sentence, and I heard her pumps making a racket on the stairs as she rushed down them. I sat there bewildered. My practical, competent aunt had looked as if she had just been clobbered over the head and was seeing stars. I waited to hear the news of what had happened, but Aunt Josie didn’t come back upstairs. After a few minutes of a general state of commotion, with Aunt Josie calling out to Hosea and someone else, the front door slammed. I heard the roaring of a car engine, and then the house fell silent. I tried my hardest to imagine what possibly could have happened to fluster my aunt to such an extent. Had Uncle Robert had another heart attack? Originally, I was supposed to come to Atlanta in early January, to start the new term at Washington Seminary, but on the day after Christmas, Uncle Robert had keeled over in front of the Christmas tree. Massive heart attack. It had taken him two months to recover, and hence my arrival in March. Something downright horrible had happened, but there was no use in me trying to figure it out, so I turned my thoughts to Hank. Hank! Working in the steel factory, hurrying to night classes, preaching at the little church with Father. I wondered if he really meant it—that he would wait for me. Surely he did. Some things I just knew were supposed to be. I had wanted to tell Mother and Father about Hank. I felt sure they had noticed something, and then I wasn’t at all sure.
Coobie, my bratty little sister, noticed though. She whispered to me before I got on the train, “Has he ever kissed you?”
My face turned red, and my expression must have given me away, because she clapped her hands together and squealed, as only Coobie can, “I knew it!”
I closed my eyes and remembered our first meeting. I saw Hank standing in the alleyway behind our apartment, dressed in a white cotton T-shirt and overalls and a smile. That first time he smiled at me, I started coughing. I couldn’t stop staring at his eyes, periwinkle-blue, as if the brightest, cloudless sky had floated down and drifted into them, filling them with life and laughter; and his hair, a blondish-brown, was straight and needed a trim, but the bangs falling over his eyebrows made him all the more delectable. “Hello, my name is Hank Wilson,” he said. “I’m looking for Reverend William Dillard.” He smiled again and then looked down at a piece of paper he was holding in his hand. I giggled nervously, recovered, and said, “You’re at the right spot. Come on in, and I’ll take you up to meet him.” I motioned for him to follow and then added, “By the way, I’m his daughter, Mary Dobbs.” “Nice to meet you, Mary Dobbs.” We walked into the apartment building and climbed the steps to the second floor, and right before I opened the door to our apartment, I turned to him and said, “Everyone calls my father Reverend Billy.” At that first encounter, eighteen months earlier, when I had barely turned sixteen and he was already twenty, I had wanted to say, “I’m gonna marry you.” But I refrained. I could keep my mouth shut when needed. “Henry ‘Hank’ Wilson,” I said out loud to the empty Chandler house. He had promised he would write as soon as I left, and I wondered how long it took a letter to get from Chicago to Atlanta. After I unpacked my little suitcase—all of my clothes fit into two drawers in the chest—I opened the closet. Hanging inside were three school uniforms and two other dresses—pretty, feminine dresses, the kind I had never even dreamed of owning. Had Aunt Josie bought these for me? I giggled, touching one of them, feeling the cool, fancy fabric. The lovely slim day dress with a tailored bodice was bright pink with tiny white flowers and had an oversized belt, a white ruffled collar, and cuffed sleeves! The absolute newest fashion. I took it off the hanger, quickly undressed, and slipped it over my head. It fit perfectly. I buckled the belt and stared at myself in the full-length mirror on the other side of the bed. I was glowing! I looked like a woman, with curves in all the right places. I wished Hank could see me in this dress! The price tag was still on it, and as I glanced down, my eyes grew wide. My family could eat for two months on what the dress had cost. I wanted to waltz from room to room, barefoot, in the elegant day dress, but I feared that someone might find me strutting around like a movie star. Embarrassed, I changed back into my humble attire, caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and realized just why the Singletons and Aunt Josie had regarded me with pity. The plain dark blue dress, stained and faded, did look pitiful. Mother had wanted me to wear the pale green suit she wore at Father’s revival meetings, but had I refused to take that from her. “You can be so stubborn sometimes, young lady! Aunt Josie will faint when she sees you in that old thing,” Mother said, but I didn’t change my mind. Turned out Mother was just about right.
I ventured across a very wide hall with numerous doors opening into different rooms. The walls were papered in beautiful floral colors, and gold sconces hung on either side of a small table at the top of the stairway. Another portrait, this one I recognized as Grandma Dillard, hung above the table. On the table lay a beautiful oversized book called Birds of America by John James Audubon. I started turning pages, enraptured by the gorgeous paintings of birds.
Later, I peeked in my aunt and uncle’s bedroom—even bigger than mine—and went immediately to the vanity chest with the little mirror above. Silver-framed family portraits sat neatly on the vanity along with my aunt’s silver comb-and-brush set. I peered down at one photograph. Sure enough it showed Father sitting in Aunt Josie’s lap when he was a baby. I felt a gentle relief that although Aunt Josie disapproved of Father’s vocation, she nonetheless had enough affection for her little brother to keep this picture in her bedroom. Going downstairs, I stepped into the fancy hall with its dark wood walls. Off to the right of the hall was a room with high ceilings and a grand piano, another fireplace and more fancy furniture—winged chairs and sofas the likes of which I had only read about in novels and seen in magazines that my school friends passed on to me. I wandered from room to room, each elegant in it own way, until I arrived in the kitchen at the back of the house. What a kitchen! The white Frigidaire stood almost as tall as me, the oven looked big enough to bake five chickens at once, and the sink was made of porcelain! No one was there, although evidence of dinner preparations lay along the shiny dark green counter.
I leaned over to see what was in the sink, when I heard, “Hello. I guess you’d be Miz Chandler’s niece.”
I turned around to see a colored child staring at me. She was about eight or nine, her hair all in braids that were attached with bright little ribbons, and she was wearing a blue servant’s dress with a white pinafore over it. “Hello. Yes. I’m Mary Dobbs Dillard.” “Uh-huh. I’m Parthenia Jeffries. My momma and papa work here for the Chandlers. We live down there in the quarters.” She threw a skinny arm out towards the backyard. “Nice to meet you, Parthenia.” Then, “Where is everybody?” “Ain’t ya heard?” “All I know is that my aunt received a phone call and got very upset and left the house. And it seems like everyone else did too.” “Mr. Singleton passed.” “What?” “Yep. He’s done passed, and Miz Chandler went over ta help and Papa and my brother, Cornelius, went too and I was told ta stay here, so I did.” It slowly registered. “Do you mean that Mr. Singleton died?” “Yep.” “Would that be the Singletons who have a daughter named Perri?” “Yes, ma’am, and Miz Singleton is Miz Chandler’s best friend. A tragedy.” She stared at me when I didn’t say anything. “I’d best be gittin’ dinner ready now.” She went to the counter where carrots and potatoes lay and then opened the Frigidaire and took out a hunk of meat. I stood there, shocked, thinking about Perri Singleton with her pretty see-through green eyes and her blond hair, cut in the latest bobbed style, and the way she had disliked me right away, and I hurt for her. Right then and there I started crying for a girl I had only just met. I started to leave the kitchen, but Parthenia said, “You don’t have ta go. I’m not embarrassed by you crying. I just stopped crying myself.” She handed me a white handkerchief that she retrieved from a frilly pocket on her pinafore. “Mr. Singleton was the handsomest, nicest man you’d ever want to meet. He always brought me cherry candy when him and Miz Singleton came over to play bridge.” Parthenia sniffed loudly as if to prove she had been crying. “Was he sick?” Parthenia’s eyes flew open wide, the whites showing around her dark face. “No, he wasn’t sick. The picture of health. Miz Singleton’s the one who’s all scrawny. But Mista Singleton wadn’t sick at all, s’far as I know.” She hesitated. “ ’Cept for mebbe in his head.” I didn’t know what to do with that information, so I asked, “Can I help you with anything?” She stared at me as if I were standing naked in front of her, then went back to peeling carrots. “I can do something. I know how to cook.” “Ain’t proper for guests to help with the meals. We’s hired help.” “Oh. But no one’s around to see me helping.” Looking almost fearful, she shook her head and said, “Ain’t proper.” I left it at that. She concentrated on every movement as she sliced first the carrots and then the potatoes. “How old are you, Parthenia?” “Eight and three-quarters,” she stated proudly. “I have a little sister who is seven and two-thirds.” Parthenia looked up with big puppy-dog eyes, frowned slightly, trying to hide a smile. She failed. “What’s her name?” “Coobie.” “Coobie? I ain’t neva’ heard of a girl named Coobie.” I almost remarked that I had never met another Parthenia but resisted. “Her real name is Virginia Coggins Dillard, but that somehow got shortened to Coobie.” “I don’t have any sisters, but I got my brother, Cornelius. He’s gettin’ near to fourteen, and he’s a genius with his hands, but he kain’t talk none. Neva’ said a word in his life, he hadn’t.” “Ah,” Once again, I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Well, I have another sister named Frances. She’s thirteen going on thirty.” That made Parthenia laugh out loud. “Mama always sez I’s eight going on eighteen.” Somewhere in the house a clock chimed four times. Parthenia looked startled. “Uh-oh. I’m late. I got to get the water boiling.” “Are you in charge of dinner?” “Well, it used ta be my mama, but she’s ova’ at the Alms Houses for stealin’. . . . She didn’t do it, though, and everybody knows it.” She made a face and added under her breath, “I knowed it most of all.” “She’s in jail, but she’s innocent?” Parthenia frowned and said, “Well, it’s not exactly jail, but it’s where the destitute live. And then they keep the colored prisoners there to work the fields. My poor mama wishes she could come back home. Every day she prays that the Good Lawd would let someone find those silver knives and then she could leave.” “Silver knives?” And right away, Parthenia spun her sad tale. “Mama was accused of stealin’ Miz Chandler’s silver knives, but she didn’t do it. They was knives that specially meant a lot to Miz Chandler, from her granny and all, and they wuz worth thousands and thousands of dollars, and one night after a big party, they went missing. We looked all ova’ everywhere for them, with no such luck. “And then Miz Becca, she prances in all high and fancy and starts accusing Mama, saying she stole ’em.” “Becca—my cousin? The Chandlers’ daughter?” “Yep, she’s the oldest one, and I don’t care for her a bit.” “Ah.” “We searched high and low and o’ course we let them come into the servants’ quarters and look and look and they neva’ found none of those silver knives, but they found the silver serving spoon that had gone missing too, and so Mama had to go to the Alms Houses anyway on account of a white lady accusing her and then the evidence they found.” “That’s horrible!” “Sho’ is! And the way my mama done he’p raise Miz Becca from the time she was born an’ all.” Parthenia shook her head and, scowling, said, “Jus’ goes to show you kain’t trust nobody.” “How long has she been there?” “She’s bin there almost one whole month. Those things went missing after the big Valentine’s party the Chandlers had.” “How much longer does she have to stay?” “ ’Til we kin can earn enough money to pay for the five knives, but ain’t neva’ gonna be able to do that ’cuz, like I said, they’s worth a whole bundle of money. So me an’ Cornelius’ll always be workin’ and neva’ be able to go ta school no more. And it ain’t Mama who did it.” “You know who stole those knives, Parthenia?” Her face went blank, and then she looked fearful as she backed away from me. “I don’t know nuthin’, nuthin’ at all, Miz Mary Dobbs. I promise I don’t know nuthin’.” She turned her back and said, “I gots ta get this dinner made.” I didn’t ask any more questions, but as I stood beside the big iron stove, I wondered at the story I’d just heard, and I wanted to help Parthenia and her family. I had no idea how I could help, but maybe God did. With her back to me, Parthenia said, “So Papa and me and my brother, we do the best we can. I’m a pretty fine cook, I am. Bin heppin’ my mama since I was five.” She grunted slightly as she leaned down and lifted a heavy pot from under the stove. “Here, let me help you.” I filled the pot with water from the faucet, and then Parthenia struck a match and got the gas eye going, and before long she had a pot roast in the oven and vegetables cooking on the stove. The aroma of good food cooking in the kitchen wrapped around me, and I relished it for a moment, almost tasting it. The Chandlers’ kitchen represented bounty to me. When six o’clock came and still no one arrived home, Parthenia said, “Do ya wanna see the stables?” I shrugged. “Why not?” We went out the back door, passed the garage—big enough for five cars—and walked into the stables, where we stood in the hallway looking at the horses and ponies, their fine arched necks and velvet muzzles sticking out over the wooden half-doors to the stalls. Parthenia patted one. “This here’s Red. He’s my favorite.” “Do you ride him?” Again that shocked look, the whites of her eyes lighting up her face like two big exclamation points. “No! But sometimes I he’p Cornelius feed ’em.” As we walked through the stables, the smell of fresh hay and oats greeted me. “And ova’ there is the pig and chickens and the cow.” We had just left the barn and were halfway down the hill to the lake when we heard a car engine rumbling in the driveway. “Uh-oh. We’s gotta git back to the main house, quick!” Parthenia took off at a gallop with me following behind. We rushed in the back door, letting the screen door slam shut, and hurried into the kitchen, out of breath. A few minutes later, the man who had driven us home from the train station, came into the kitchen. He nodded to me and said, “Hello, Miz Mary Dobbs.” He had a serious expression on his face, and he was big—not just tall, but big in every way, and every inch of him seemed to be muscle. I thought I would never want to make Hosea mad. But then he knelt down, and Parthenia ran over to her father and hugged him tight around the neck, and he didn’t seem threatening at all. “Is it really true? He’s dead? And did ya haveta cut him down, Papa? Did you and Cornelius haveta do it?” He glanced at me with a worried expression, patted Parthenia’s braids and said, “Shh now, little one. You be askin’ too many questions, and they’s not appropriate for a child. Sho’ does smell good in this kitchen. Who done fixed such a delicious smellin’ meal?” Parthenia beamed. “It’s me, Papa.” He picked her up, hugged her close, and swung her around, and then he took the roast out of the oven, sliced it, and ladled meat and potatoes and carrots onto two plates for us. “We gonna take the rest of this dinner out to the car. The Singleton’s gonna be needin’ as much food as they can git.” In five minutes he was gone. I spent the first evening at the Chandler house picking at the pot roast and vegetables at the little kitchen table with Parthenia. I had lost my appetite. Later that night, I lay on my bed and thought of my friend Jackie, her wavy brown hair, the naughty eyes; I could almost hear her robust laughter. And inevitably I saw the coffin, in my mind’s eye. Saw Mother in tears and Father standing by the grave, his round face so pasty white, and him unable to speak, and Jackie’s mother all doubled over with grief. The room started spinning, and I half expected the canopy above me to float down and tangle me up in its fluffy folds until I suffocated. Clutching my stomach, I sat up and waited for the dizziness to pass. Then I closed my eyes and saw pretty Perri Singleton disapproving of me, her eyes flashing defiance—albeit a very quiet and respectable defiance—as well as a fierce kind of pride. She seemed like a girl who had determination and spunk. I wondered if she had enough to get her through this tragedy. And as I imagined her sitting somewhere in her house, tears running down her cheeks—those cheeks that had two perfect crimson spots on them when I’d embarrassed her—I just felt my heart rip in two, and I knew what she needed. I went to the chest of drawers and opened the top drawer where I had put my pitiful lingerie. Underneath a pair of panties I retrieved a thin, light-blue hardback book. “Patches from the Sky,” I read the title out loud, remembering when Hank had handed me that book all those months ago. Just thinking of it made my heart soar and then beat hard.
I was sitting in one of the back pews of the church, hunched over a history book and fiddling with my hair, making a tiny braid and then letting it unravel.
“Hey there, Mary Dobbs!” Hank came and sat beside me. “You doing all right today?”
He stood there for a moment, then said, “You don’t look so good. Something’s wrong. Do you want to talk about it?” Hank had been helping Father for two or three months and we had struck up several conversations, but today what was bothering me was a lot deeper. “Do you ever doubt?” I asked him. “Doubt what?” “Everything. The faith you were raised to believe, the purpose of being alive and human—just everything.” He sat down on the pew in front and turned to face me. “Only about every other day.” His answer took me off guard. “Really? You, a Bible college student. You have doubts?” “Sure. Sometimes.” Hank Wilson struck me as a solid young man, not flirtatious, not overly ambitious, not obnoxious. Level headed. We sat there in the back of the church without saying another word. I don’t know what was going through his mind, but I was thinking about Jackie and how she had died at the age of eighteen and how horribly much it still hurt, even a year and a half later. Finally I whispered, “Someone I cared about died, died quickly, young, and it wasn’t fair at all.” “I’m sorry to hear it.” He didn’t say anything else, just let me sit in the silence. He stayed with me for probably a half hour, never saying a word. Still his presence calmed me. The next day, Hank showed up at the church. He had one hand in the pocket of his pants and held out a small book in the other. “This is for you.” “What is it?” “Just a book I think you might like. It was my grandmother’s.” As he gave me the book, our hands brushed together, and I felt a flush come to my face. I hesitated. “I can’t take this.” “My grandmother told me to pass it along to someone else who needed encouragement, who was hurting down deep.” “Oh.” I blushed again and turned my face down so he wouldn’t see the tears that had suddenly glazed my eyes. I had told him about Jackie, and he was trying to help. “Thank you,” was all I could choke out. “She said God used that little book to help her, as part of her pathway through grief.” Hank gave me a half smile. “You don’t have to keep it if it doesn’t help you. My grandmother gave it to me after my father died. I was having a real hard time accepting his death and was mad at everyone living and dead. Especially God.” I glanced up at him, took the book, and again said, “Thanks.” That had been months ago. Now I was absolutely sure I needed to pass the book along to Perri Singleton. It happened the same way every time. I just knew. Father called it the “nudging of the Holy Ghost” and Mother laughed at him and said, “It’s good ol’ woman’s intuition.” It didn’t matter. I knew. I sank to my knees beside that bed and said the Lord’s Prayer out loud and then prayed for my family and Hank and the Chandlers and the Jeffries. I finished by saying, “And please watch over the Singleton family and be very near to them in their grief.” I was about to get off my knees when I thought of something else. “Oh, and Father, thank you for Perri Singleton. I think we’re going to be good friends. Amen.” Just another one of those things I knew.
~from The Sweetest Thing, by Elizabeth Musser, c2011, published by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.