Fading To White

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Here is a story my grandmother told me about her father, Dr. Love. My grandmother detested eggs. Her father, being a medical doctor in the earlier part of the century, believed strongly that eating eggs daily was key to a good constitution. Dr. Love forced eggs on his family every single morning. One morning my grandmother rebelled against the egg despotism and left her breakfast untouched. She went to school on an empty stomach.

Several hours later, sitting in her classroom, Ellen noticed her mother at the door. She held a plate with a napkin draped over it. Anita had tears in her eyes as she explained to her daughter’s teacher that Ellen would have to eat her eggs. It was a decree from her father. Mortified and weeping, Ellen ate the eggs outside her classroom.

Dr. Love had sent his nice wife to do his bidding. This tale did not endear my great-grandfather to me.

Yet another story about Dr. Love involved his strenuous objections to his daughter’s becoming an actress. He likened the profession to that of prostitution. He was appalled my grandmother would choose acting after a Vassar education and after such a careful upbringing: eggs and Camp Quanset.

After much protest and outrage Dr. Love did go to one production my grandmother performed in—unfortunately a play titled Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath . Dr. Love never saw his daughter on the stage again.

That was as intimate as the revelations ever got. When my grandmother died—a fall in her bathroom killed her- she took her family secrets with her. Although I considered myself quite close to her, I never thought I knew who she was. And now it seemed that many questions would remain unanswered.

Not long after my grandmother’s death, a very good friend of hers phoned me at the Brooklyn apartment where I was living. I will call her Alice. She lived a few blocks away from my grandmother and visited her often. Alice made weekly grocery runs for Ellen and picked up and dropped off library books for her. She also conducted genealogical searches in her spare time and offered to perform one for my grandmother.

After we said hello to each other, Alice blurted, “I feel so awful about your grandmother. I just feel awful.”

At a loss for words I mumbled, “There was nothing anyone could have done. She lived alone. It was an accident.”

“But I feel responsible. I’d done some genealogical research on Ellen’s family, and the results did not sit well with her at all.”

“What were the results?”

“I promised I wouldn’t tell her family.”

Alice kept insisting she was in some way to blame for my grandmother’s death. I kept reassuring her that she wasn’t—and pressed her for information about what she had discovered. At the end of the conversation, Alice grew quiet and then she said thoughtfully, “Now if I tell your mother what I found, I haven’t broken my promise to your grandmother. I’ll tell your mother and then she can decide whether or not she should tell you.”

I should mention that Ellen was my father’s mother. I saw my father infrequently after my parents separated when I was two, but my mother had remained very close to her ex-mother-in-law. Alice knew what good friends they were.

Two weeks later my mother called me, excited. “I found out what the secret was—what your grandmother’s secret was.”

“What’s that?”

“Grandma’s grandfather was a black man.”

Oh.

I was surprised by how little surprise I felt.

My husband tells me I voiced such a suspicion years ago. After a visit to my grandmother, and frustrated by her evasions when she was quizzed about family, I wondered aloud if there might be black blood. My husband laughed at me: “Your family is the whitest family I’ve ever met!” I don’t remember this conversation.

I have reddish brown hair, and it is very fine. I have blue eyes, and you can easily see the blue veins under my yellow-pale skin. I was ignorant enough to think of blackness in the arbitrary way most of white society does: One must have a darker hue to one’s skin to be black. I look about as black as Heidi.

If my grandmother’s grandfather was black, then he was surely the only one in the family. Was this why my grandmother, during our hundreds of talks over the years, invariably changed the subject whenever I asked about family? Because of this one man? My beloved, educated, and Christian grandmother was a racist.

A few months after I learned of the black great-great-grandfather in the family line, I moved to New Mexico with my husband and son, to get the East out of my blood. I wanted to be a pioneer in my family—a family (part of it, at least) dating back from the Mayflower and which had spent several generations, after arriving in Massachusetts, in upstate New York. I would write a novel and take pictures.

I returned east eighteen months after I left. I’d taken some pictures; I never wrote the ending to my novel. I’d realized that what I wanted was to start a serious search for my family.