Down here, in the South, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them. This reflects one side of the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private. Could the feelings exchanged between two individuals so hypocritically divided ever have been honest, untainted by guilt or resentment?
I think so. Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me. I know that my mother tried to raise me properly, but I made her cross as two sticks, so she turned the day-to-day care of her stroppy, unruly child over to Virginia, known to everyone as Gee-Gee, a name given her by my eldest brother, Bob.
I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back. Gee-Gee’s love was unconditional, a concept I might never have believed in had I not experienced it. When the dogs and I came in panting and filthy from our adventures, Gee-Gee sent the cringing hounds away and made sure I had what I needed: food, a story, or a bath. And when I was teased to tears by my brothers and father, or scared, or hurt, I never wondered if I would be protected or comforted. I always was — by Gee-Gee.
No one ever doubted who really ran the household, and my mother used to joke about her own dispensability. Gee-Gee had long ago mastered what William Carlos Williams called “the customs of necessity,” and to her devolved almost all the intimate aspects of our family life, the cooking, laundry, and sheet changing. After my brothers went away to school, I think she was mostly tasked with raising a lonely child in a household that cared very little for children. In 1958, three days before my seventh birthday, my parents went to France for six weeks to visit friends. It was my first year at school and since Gee-Gee didn’t drive, Clayton Campbell, the local taxi operator, would arrive every morning at 7:30. I would climb into the backseat, where my feet didn’t touch the floorboards, and Mr. Campbell would drive me to the whites-only public school, a tall-windowed, white-columned dump of a place.
Gee-Gee worked for my family until her early 90s. At age 100, with her hands curled into gentle claws, she died on Christmas Day, 1994. She was with us for almost 50 years, but to calculate by any form of numeric reckoning the moment-by-moment care and fidelity she tendered our family would be impossible. Yes, I know that she was paid to care for us, and that the notion of equality and reciprocity in an employer-servant relationship is inherently compromised. And I may get my ass kicked by those who think I am perpetuating the trope of the loyal housekeeper Uncle-Tomming her way to the unmarked grave. But Gee-Gee was not a caricature or a type; she was a very real and emotionally complicated person, who devoted a large amount of her time to raising an ungrateful and impertinent scalawag, the same one who now pauses to examine this relationship. I am reasonably sure Gee-Gee was as enriched, and occasionally appalled, by the experience of participating in our family as the rest of us were. And while our home may have been in some ways a replacement for her own, which was rent by racism and death, we did not take her for granted and we knew, even then, that her love was the real stuff that held our family together.
Gee-Gee had a problem with her feet, with finding shoes that didn’t hurt. I remember standing in the women’s shoe section of Leggett’s department store in Lexington, Virginia, and watching the tiny, hunchbacked saleswoman gaping up at my mother’s gestured descriptions of Gee-Gee’s feet. I’m guessing that my mother was doing this because she thought Gee-Gee might not feel comfortable shopping at Leggett’s, where Colored and White signs on the stairway pointed to bathrooms in opposite directions. I have imprinted in my knavish memory an image of the hunchback kneeling over the barbaric-looking foot measurer clamped to Gee-Gee’s metatarsal expanse, but this wasn’t likely to have actually happened for the reason just mentioned, and also because there was no point in Gee-Gee’s shopping, with her size 13 feet, in a ladies’ shoe department.
So, where did she get her shoes, ill-fitting though they were? Only now am I wondering about these things. What about those uniforms? Who bought them? My mother? Gee-Gee? And from where? Was washing and ironing the uniforms part of her noble washerwomanly chores? When? At night, or on Sunday? And how did she get something as simple as her groceries? She had no car; she worked for us six days a week from 8 in the morning until 8 at night and her house was on top of grocery-less Diamond Hill.
I remember an ancient wooden building on the way down Diamond Hill that had a few shelves of extortionately priced canned goods, but no real grocery store until the upper part of Main Street, almost a mile away. This small store, unironically named the White Front, had excellent meat, gave out S&H Green Stamps, and it also allowed its customers, even black people, to charge food and be billed at the end of the month. I know that Gee-Gee had an account and must have shopped there, but then what? Did she haul all her week’s groceries to the top of that hill in one of those woven metal carts the way I saw so many black women doing? But, wait; were stores even open on Sundays back then?
All these questions. The simplest, most elemental things.
During the day, she wore my father’s discarded shoes, razor-sliced to accommodate the corns on her toes. But she arrived at work with her feet painfully crammed into whatever golden lily shoes she had found, wherever on earth she found them. She yanked them off as soon as things quieted down in the mornings and it was just the two of us. After wiggling her toes to restore the feeling, she would sit down on the stepstool and gratefully sink her feet into my father’s laceless shoes, her stockinged toes protruding from the side slits.
Women wore stockings all the time then, even in the middle of the summer, and Gee-Gee would try to beat the heat by wearing hers rolled down to just above her knees instead of hooked to the dangling ends of a garter belt like my mother’s. She often wore my mother’s old silk stockings, whose gossamer runs enlarged into ladder-rungs as the day went on, the seams wobbling crazily. Stocking seams were a particular misery back then, but more for my mother than for Gee-Gee.
It was important for my mother’s seams to run straight up her legs, two apparently converging lines that had the unintended effect of guiding the eye to their dark vanishing point. When my mother was going to town, she would close the bedroom door and twist her head around to examine her seams in the mirror. Then, a ritual familiar to almost any well-off southern white child of the 1950s would play out: powdered, lavender-scented, as cool and white as Lot’s wife, my mother would emerge from her bedroom, grab up her purse and white gloves, and try to make her getaway.
Apparently both parties knew their roles in this drama, but to my observing eyes it seemed new each time it played out on the asphalt bib next to the black sedan beetled under the pine boughs.
“Mrs. Munger! Mrs. Munger!!” urgently issued from the slid-open kitchen windows.
My mother would stop, her expectant face belying the startled look she would try to put on it.
“Mrs. Munger, you cannot go to town with your slip showing like that! And those seams! What would they think of me?”
For Gee-Gee, this was not a rhetorical question. She had reason for concern. Working for a Yankee, albeit one with a Dallas-born husband, was a problem for Gee-Gee, and my parents’ oddball, liberal, atheist, country-club-shunning ways further complicated the picture. Curiously, that my mother insisted on exceeding the normal pay scale for her help, five dollars a week in the ’40s when they first arrived in Lexington, was no comfort for Gee-Gee. The anonymous, threatening letters my mother received as a consequence of this profligacy and the talk around town brought Gee-Gee to the attention of the community, which was not a good thing. Any black person could tell you: the less noticeable you were, the better.
Gee-Gee learned the rules of living in white society early on, though she revealed little to us about her childhood. What we knew was this: She was born to the very young daughter of a former slave in a part of the county where freed slaves had settled, known to this day as Buck Hill. Although Gee-Gee’s mother was black, the man who raped her (or so it is logically presumed by her family) was white. It is likely that her mother died in childbirth because as an infant, Gee-Gee, born Virginia Cornelia Franklin, was brought to Lexington and raised by her mother’s sister, Mary Franklin.
In her late teens, Gee-Gee married Wesley Carter and bore him six children, the youngest of whom was 12 when my mother, new in town and eight months pregnant with her first child, saw her coming down the post office steps. Struck by the image of this powerful, proud, and composed woman, my mother described her to my father in detail at dinner that night. By a twist of fate that to the end of her life still delighted and amazed my mother, the next day she answered a knock at the door to find the unforgettable stranger again. Virginia Carter stood tall and confident on the threshold, wearing a tweed Peck and Peck suit with a velvet collar so worn it appeared to be suede. Her broad cheekbones bespoke some Indian blood, her light eyes and almost straight hair something unspeakable. She asked if my mother needed help and was hired on the spot.
Gee-Gee’s husband, Wesley McDowell Carter, worked as a presser in the laundry room of the nearby Virginia Military Institute. He had problems with alcohol, and more than once Gee-Gee came to work troubled, her face blotchy. One night in the back room of the store on Diamond Street he rose from the card table, headed down the basement stairs, and fell, breaking his neck. Apparently, no one noticed right away, and it was more than a day before Gee-Gee was taken to his body.
Left with six children and a public education system for which she paid taxes but which forbade classes for black children beyond the seventh grade, Gee-Gee managed somehow to send each of them to out-of-state boarding schools and, ultimately, to college.
How did a widowed black woman pay for the housing, the food, the travel, and the tuition to educate six children?
By working 12 hours a day and by taking in linens to iron at night, linens stuffed into white sacks crowding her front door when my father took her home after all day on her feet at our house. What did he think when he saw those bags? What were any of us thinking? Why did we never ask the questions? That’s the mystery of it — our blindness and our silence.
Saturday lunches were important to Gee-Gee, and she went all-out on the menu. With unlikely balletic grace, she lowered the silver serving dishes to our left, two passes at each meal, a third if biscuits were involved, which she always made when we had fried apples and bacon. The apples came from an old orchard above the house and were small, green ones, Pippin or Northern Spy, and difficult to peel. Difficult for me, that is, but not for Gee-Gee. She would sit on the stepstool, the large bowl of apples beside her on the chest freezer, and, with a paring knife, unfurl a spiral of continuous peel, the whitening apple rotating in her pink palm.
When she was done, catching up the loopy tangle of peels in her apron, she would dump them in the compost bucket and carry the apples to the counter by the stove. Sinking a wooden spoon into the bacon grease stored in a sawed-off tin can, she would put the skillet on the burner and start the biscuits. Assuming the warm top step of the stool she had vacated, I would watch her from behind as she rolled out the dough and twisted the rim of a jelly glass into it, trapping the circle of dough in it long enough for her to shake it out onto the cookie sheet.
As far as I could tell, Gee-Gee herself never ate anything, save occasionally when she checked the seasoning from a pot on the stove. Otherwise, the only thing I ever saw pass her lips was ice water from a tin measuring cup that sweated on the counter. Maybe it was a good thing that she never needed to eat, because when we traveled together, as we did for vacations on the Eastern Shore, she could not enter the restaurants. When we stopped to eat at the Howard Johnson’s, gratefully throwing open the doors of the hot car, Gee-Gee stayed behind.
Looking out from the big windows of the air-conditioned dining room, we could see her cooling herself with a First Baptist Church fan, Jesus’ white face serenely waving in the backseat. Emerging from the restaurant with a tin-foil-wrapped cheese sandwich for Gee-Gee, which she would demurely place in her lap, and a Dixie Cup of water, which she would drink, we would resume our trip as if this were perfectly normal.
It’s that obliviousness, the unexamined assumption, that so pains me now: Nothing about it seemed strange, nothing seemed wrong. I never wondered where she peed on the trips to visit my brothers and me at our boarding school in Vermont. Could she hold it until we crossed the Pennsylvania border and the restrooms were integrated? Did any of us, besides her, wonder about that, about what would happen if she just had to go? How could I not have thought it strange that Gee-Gee not only never ate anything but also never had to go, never even got out of the car? How could I not have wondered, not have asked?
My graduation in 1969 was held on a weekend in early June. My parents and Gee-Gee arrived Friday, and I could tell that Gee-Gee was not pleased with what she was seeing. The children of the wealthy were dressed like field hands, with dreadlocked hair and dirt between their toes. Gee-Gee glared at a black kid from my algebra class, and when he flashed the peace sign at her, his arm around a bell-bottom-wearing blond girl, she turned from him with a snort of disgust.
Oh, Gee-Gee, I thought despairingly: This is the future. Up here, we’re all one.
Gee-Gee was having none of it.
On graduation morning I was late getting to the dining hall for breakfast, and all the tables were gone. Benches for the graduates and chairs for the visitors had been arranged at the eastern end of the room, with a processional aisle in the middle. The hall appeared to be empty, but squinting against the sun I saw a lone figure substantially anchoring the first row of the audience seating. Staring straight ahead, white-gloved hands folded in her lap and her back not even touching the back of the chair, sat Gee-Gee, wearing a perfectly pressed linen dress. It was a pale yellow, and centered above her bun was a pillbox hat made of the same fabric. A necklace of white plastic orbs, resembling the South Sea pearls that you now see oppressing the thin collarbones of ladies who lunch, complemented Gee-Gee’s powerfully muscled neck. The skin swelled out above her too-small white pumps and her stockings had compression puckers where the toes were mashed in. No one had stocking seams anymore, but in every other respect she was as elegant and imposing as a dowager queen.
When my parents arrived, my father stood to the side while my mother, in a prim little hat, slipped into the seat next to Gee-Gee. Directly behind them sat Ethel Kennedy, wearing white patent-leather boots, her brood sprawling around her, their shirts unpressed and hanging out of their khakis.
My mother and father leaned toward each other occasionally to exchange some whispered observation, but Gee-Gee remained straight-backed, staring ahead. I knew the warning signs. Her distress, even her occasional anger, was always accompanied by an ineffable and profound sadness: always the pursed lips, the closing of the eyes, perhaps onto visions of injustice and outrage, and the slow, tired shaking of her head, usually accompanied by an “umnh, umnh,” which conveyed wordlessly the extremity of her disgust and sorrow.
Then it started, the eyes closing, the head slowly, almost imperceptibly moving from side to side. As if she could bear it no more, she reached out her immaculate white-gloved hand and with her forefinger tapped my mother on the arm.
The pillboxes came together and Gee-Gee put her lips to my mother’s ear, whispering indignantly: “Mrs. Kennedy is chewing GUM!”
From the book Hold Sill by Sally Mann. Copyright © 2015 by Sally Mann, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved. Hold Still is a 2015 National Book Award finalist.