Tom And Sally And Frank And Me

PrintPrintEmailEmail

 

 

I can remember to this day the first time my brother and I went to the graveyard at Monticello. Our parents and grandparents had taken us down to Charlottesville for a meeting of the Monticello Association, the family organization of the descendants of Mr. Jefferson’s two daughters, Maria and Martha. The association owns and maintains the graveyard at Monticello and meets yearly to go over family business and pay its respects to Mr. Jefferson. There is a longstanding tradition that the youngest members lay the wreath upon the obelisk that marks the grave of our sixth great-grandfather. Somewhere in a box high on a shelf in a closet upstairs is a photograph of my brother, Frank, and me, decked out in our Sunday best shorts and open-collar shirts, approaching the grave, carrying the wreath between us. I must have been about five, and Frank about three. The black-and-white photograph reflects an innocent, blissful time in our lives.

All my memories of that time are in black and white, among them those of the drives we made with our parents and grandparents to Monticello from Washington, D.C. Our grandfather was Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., the commander of the VI Corps and the 5th and 3d Armies during World War II. His wife was Sara Randolph Truscott, who had been raised at Edgehill. a plantation a few miles from Monticello. The drive in those days, as much of it is today, was along two-lane blacktops that ran through hilly fields of corn and second-growth forests concealing the horrors of the Civil War battlefields beyond. I can still see the old Buick as we hung out the back windows, zooming our hands like airplanes in the superheated dusty wind of a Virginia summer. In such conditions, back when air conditioning wasn’t even a rumor, you had to make a few stops for iced teas and Cokes, for a cold, wet hand towel for Grandma to dab on her forehead. There was a place we used to pull up to on our way to Charlottesville. It was one of those wood-frame diners with a few gas pumps out front. Inside were a lunch counter and a few booths and greasy fans desultorily stirring the fetid air. I remember one time Frank and I wanted to use the bathroom. Someone pointed out the door, around the corner of the building. We scampered outside onto the gravel parking lot and found a little outbuilding with one door marked “white” and another marked “colored.” We were very young. We came from a life in the Army that even in those days—this was 1952 or 1953—was completely integrated. Yet, instinctively, we knew we were “white” and so we used the “white” bathroom, but when we got back in the car, headed south, we asked our grandparents why there were two separate bathrooms, one “white” and one “colored.” There was a moment of silence before either of them spoke, and I think it was my grandmother who answered. “That’s just the way things are,” she said softly.

Down in Charlottesville my great-aunts Aggie and Mary Walker (everyone called the latter Miss Moo) lived on one of the last pieces of land owned by their branch of the Randolph family in Virginia. It was called Wild Acres. At one time, during Prohibition, the main house had been a speakeasy, and it was rumored that there had been gambling and maybe even a little prostitution in the basement. But now it was a graciously furnished country home, with a chicken house and a pen for a few pigs and lots of space for little boys to play in the creek and romp through the woods. There was a black couple who worked there, Robert and Maddie. Robert was the gardener, and Maddie cooked and kept up the house. Robert would drive Maddie home at night in a car I think they borrowed from one of my aunts for that purpose. Frank and I used to help Robert fill two garbage cans with water every day, just before he would take Maddie home. He carried them in the trunk, the lid tied with a piece of wire. We probably did it dozens of times before one day it occurred to me that I had never seen anyone else with garbage cans full of water in the trunk of his car, so I asked one of my great-aunts why Robert always took those cans of water away when he drove Maddie home. She patiently explained that their house was in a part of town that didn’t have running water. I asked her why they didn’t have running water. “Because they’re poor,” she said. I can still remember talking with my brother about how Robert and Maddie were so poor that their house didn’t have running water. We asked Robert why they didn’t have running water one day in the woods, when he was clearing undergrowth and Frank and I were helping him carry the cut branches to a clearing where they could be burned. “You boys don’t need to be asking questions like that,” Robert told us. We were pretty good boys and we didn’t ask any more questions after that. But we kept listening, and we kept watching, in the spirit of a time when little boys like us were to be seen but not heard.