Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 1876
AT TWELVE YEARS OLD, my childhood immediately ended. On a chilly February day, Daddy’s body was found floating facedown in the raging, icy James River. I was forced to forget about playing outside after school and instead focus on helping my mother, who afterward would stare hopelessly at the sky, searching for God, and crying herself to sleep at night. Nothing was ever easy again.
The night Daddy died, Momma kept glancing at the old wooden clock on our kitchen wall.
I remembered the worry in Momma’s eyes when the clock read 6:45 p.m. Daddy always arrived home by half past five each evening. She had tried to stay calm, but none of it was normal. She’d paced the rough floorboards that she always kept shined to a high gloss, tracing and retracing her steps across the kitchen.
Daddy had left home early that morning before daylight to work for the St. Charles Hotel. He loved his work and would stand ramrod-straight whenever he’d speak of his job. And each morning, Momma would watch him from the front door in the murky darkness before dawn as he moved swiftly along, with his lunch tucked tightly under his arm, until he was out of sight. His shift at the hotel started at 6:00 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., and Daddy never complained.
That night, the hard knock on the door had made us all shudder. I rushed to open it.
“Oh no, child, you let me get it,” Momma had said, right behind me.
She looked around and laid her eyes on the rifle beside the front door. She hadn’t picked it up, but I’d gone and stood close to it in case there was a problem. Bracing herself, Momma opened the door cautiously. A white Richmond police officer stood there, and immediately she knew something was terribly wrong.
“Mrs. Mitchell?” the officer had asked. She nodded in affirmation. “Can I come in?”
“Yes, sir, come on in,” she’d said, her voice trembling, hesitantly glancing over her shoulder to find me beside the rifle, my eyes on her, curious about this interruption in our routine. The policeman had entered, looking like a Confederate soldier in his navy-blue swallow-tailed coat with a raised leather collar and faded blue trousers. A truncheon at his side, he had his hand on it, ready to use it, even though only Momma, Johnnie, and me were at home.
Momma turned to me and said brusquely, “Get back, child.” Fear exuding from her wide eyes.
I, stubborn as usual, hadn’t budged, moving closer to Daddy’s rifle. Though still young, I was old enough to know how mean the Richmond police officers could be to colored folks, and I had known, even at that age, that I should not and would not move.
“I’ve got some bad news,” the officer had said, stepping into the hallway, kicking dirt off his boots onto Momma’s spotless floor. He’d continued into the kitchen, Momma following.
“What is it, sir?” Momma had asked, wiping her hands on her apron.
He told Momma that Daddy had been found floating in the James River. “Drowned,” she mumbled. Momma stood stock-still.
Then she asked, “How did it happen, sir?”
The officer narrowed his eyes and said, “We think it was suicide.”
Momma started to tremble. Her hands shivered like a leaf as she tried to maintain her posture.
“Thank you,” she said quietly and went to the front door to open it for him, all the while keeping her composure. When the officer walked out the door, she closed it cautiously behind him.
The instant he was gone, she turned around, glanced at us, and slumped down to the floor. We rushed over to her and held her in our arms, tears sliding down Johnnie’s and my cheeks. Momma didn’t believe a word the officer said. And she knew no one would even care.
“He didn’t drown, and he didn’t commit suicide,” she murmured.
Now, every night she is lonesome and tired, mourning for Daddy while worrying herself to the bone for us.
Since then, all I do is think about Momma. Will she be all right without Daddy? Will we ever be able to afford a full meal? Only one slab of bacon remained hanging in the small smokehouse in the back. When my brother Johnnie, only six, whined about being hungry, there was not much I could do. The flour was running low in the kitchen and the lard was just about gone, too—everything had to be rationed. A half a biscuit with a little apple butter would do.
Momma’s eyes were red from crying silently. All I wanted to do was comfort her. But there’s no rest or comfort when you’re suddenly the only parent and support for two children.
Before Daddy died, Momma had already been laundering rich white folks’ clothes for some time, to add to what Daddy brought home from his job. When it became our only way to survive, Momma needed Johnnie’s and my help to not only grow her business but keep our family afloat. And I worried I would have to leave school and work full-time as other poor colored children had to do.
So, we worked. My puny, pruned fingers dried up, and my skin cracked from being in boiling-hot water. The rose water and fatback grease Momma told me to rub on them had little effect, and my brother cried because his hands ached. The potash soap was rough on the skin. My knuckles blistered from rubbing stains out of Momma’s customers’ fine clothes on a washboard.
Momma kneaded each garment like a loaf of bread on the tin washboard. Her wrinkled hands immersed in steaming-hot water, she’d press and roll the clothes until all the stains were gone. And she taught me how to do the same thing.
It was like a supply-chain line—all of us had a responsibility. Johnnie’s job was to keep the fire going under the pots, so that when the clothing was transferred from the soapy pot into the rinsing pot there’d be no wasted time.
Momma was proud of her children—with few complaints, we had become a part of her laundry production line. She was proud of all that we accomplished, and constantly told us so. “I know it is hard, and every day I thank the Lord for my children.”
One of the secrets of Momma’s well-earned reputation for outstandingly fresh laundry was the addition of a dash of water scented with rose petals and lavender to the final rinse. It gave the clean clothing an inviting smell and a crispness that lasted.
Our day always started before daybreak. With our eyes half-shut, we got the clothes done in the early morning chill and left them hanging on the clothesline, swinging in the wind. So, after a breakfast of grits, which kept us full all day, together Johnnie and I would walk swiftly through the dense trees and onto the cobblestone road, hoping to reach school before our teacher rang the late bell.
Each day after school, Johnnie and I would rush home to help Momma deliver the day’s laundry. She would have the clothes ready by midafternoon, having ironed and starched them while we were in school.
Momma had four main customers, each of them snobbish in different ways, and all of them so wealthy they practically owned the town. Mrs. Thalhimer, the wife of the man who owned the biggest and most popular department store in Richmond, was the richest. She had a house full of servants, yet she hired my mother, Lizzie Mitchell, to do her laundry.
Each time we went to Mrs. Thalhimer’s house, I strained my eyes to see beyond the confines of the kitchen and the butler’s pantry where we left the basket of clean clothing. If no one was watching, I’d peek around the kitchen doorway to admire the paisley wallpaper and tall ceilings in the grand parlor. I knew the rest of the house had to be magnificent, with large rooms filled with the finest furnishings, including paintings brought over from Europe. On one of the parlor walls in later years was a masterpiece that I learned was by Monet. I would get glimpses of these things and had determined that one day I would have a fine house just like this.
One rainy evening, we unexpectedly saw Mrs. Thalhimer herself, who normally would have been out playing whist with her friends. Even when she was home, she spent little time in the kitchen, which was where we entered, through the back door, being oh so careful not to scuff up her meticulously shined wood floors. The thunderous downpour had probably brought her home tonight.
“Hello, Lizzie,” Mrs. Thalhimer said, nodding in Momma’s direction. Momma’s name was Elizabeth, but most folks called her Lizzie. “How are you today? And you too, Maggie?” She smiled down at me.
“We’re fine, thank you. Still mourning Willie’s passing, of course, but we’re getting by,” Momma answered with her head hanging down.
Mrs. Thalhimer was wearing a long, buckled, sky-blue dress. She had a waist so tiny I could probably have wrapped my hands around it. Did she eat? I wondered. She was elegant and effortlessly exuded confidence. A queen—and she carried herself in that manner. After thumbing through the basket of laundry we had delivered, she kindly reached in her dress pocket, pulled out a small pouch, and gave Momma a few coins for the day’s work, which clanged as they fell into her hand.
My eyes studied everything around me, especially the furniture in the nearest room, cushiony and fine, with intricately carved wood. I had never seen anything like it. I was in awe of all of it, and couldn’t hold my tongue any longer to ask, “Mrs. Thalhimer, how can I live like you?”
“Hush, child!” Momma scolded, giving me a disapproving look with those deep, dark eyes of hers. “Don’t bother Mrs. Thalhimer with your silly questions.”
But Mrs. Thalhimer appeared to be amused by my brashness and smiled. She glanced over at Momma. “It’s important for her to ask questions. How else will she learn?” Then she turned her attention to me, saying, “You appear to be a bright girl. How could that happen, you ask? Keep asking questions and keep a sharp eye on your mother. Work hard like her, doing the best you can. Then save your money.”
I smiled and nodded, listening intently to her advice. I knew, of course, that the chances of me or any other colored person ever living in a house like hers were close to nil. But I was pleased by Mrs. Thalhimer’s remarks and decided right then and there that I would strive to give truth to her words. I knew the few coins she gave Momma was hardly enough for much.
On the way home, I could see the tension building in Momma’s face. First the creases and then frowns. She felt I had said the wrong thing; colored girls were not to speak without being spoken to, and I had done the unspeakable. Although she didn’t say much, the side eye she gave me and her tight jaw were enough to worry me about a whipping when I got home.
When the scolding came, her voice rose: “You said that like you were a white child, and you know better.”
I lowered my head sadly and didn’t say anything.
Momma said, “The next time you go anywhere with me, keep your mouth shut.”
I thought to myself, Why couldn’t a colored girl ask a question, too?