- excerpt from Inheritance, a novel
My mother drowned in the ocean, caught in a rip tide in the early morning when she went swimming alone, as my father and the local residents of the southern Italian village had warned her not to do, and from then on I could never swim in salt water, even the most calm, preferring lakes to even the shallowest of bays. When my grandmother, Ami Reed, would take me for vacations to the North Fork of Long Island, where the bay is so shallow at low tide even a small child can walk a mile into water reaching only to her knees, I would often get a dryness in my throat and a clenching in my stomach. The feel of the salt and the knowledge of tides reminded me of the ocean at the edge of Montauk where my grandmother, my father and I had stood for long moments, watching a frigid wind carry the white ash of what remained of my mother's body away, some of it drifting into the water below, some into the sky, floating, as if it might never fall to earth again. My grandmother, a writer with an almost religious faith in the power of words, read a poem, and we all went to lunch at a restaurant where they tried, unsuccessfully, to convince me to eat my favorite dessert of chocolate chip ice cream covered with hot fudge.
From then on I preferred the lake near our cottage, just an hour up the Taconic, where I could fully relax, where I could swim and float, then open my eyes to see land circling all around me, a frame of security that enabled me to close my eyes again and let the water carry me along, surrendering to its gentle currents and pulls, its unsalty feel. Often, when I floated this way, I would imagine that I had gone with my parents on their doomed Italian trip, as I had begged them to allow me to do. I was sure I could have somehow stopped my mother from doing something so stupid as swimming alone in the early morning. And when I read the A.A. Milne poem about James, James, Morrison, Morrison, Wetherbee George DuPris, who took great care of his mother though he was only three, I felt faint with anger and regret. For although that young boy had failed to prevent his mother from disappearing forever when she went down to the end of the town without him to watch over her, surely I, a precocious girl for five (everyone said and I believed) might have succeeded where he had failed. I was born reliable, and organized, I am told my mother said of me. Even at two, as other children threw their things around the room, I loved putting things away. I take care of my possessions and, when I am able, of people, with an assiduous attention, at times an oppressive vigilance, as if orderly habits, environments and disciplines of all sorts could protect you - much like a soft quilt on a freezing cold night - from life's incredible chaos, always threatening both from outside and from within. It is in this spirit that I look back on my sixteenth year as a turning point, its events, even now, giving me a perspective - a form to hold all the overlapping stories that have shaped my life ever since.
Even under the large oaks and graceful birches, the air felt hot and still the summer of my sixteenth year. The breeze off the lake didn't pick up until well after dark, and during the day the water was bath-warm and stagnant. I had been swimming with a group of girls I liked well enough; they had left me at the bottom of the hill that lead from the lake to the road, then to another steep hill, and finally to the downward slope that lead to our small house. The black tar seemed to emit visible heat rays as I trudged up and down.
A map of the village would look like a wheel, several spokes emanating from a central colony store where teenagers infamously hung out. When my mother was young, for she had spent her childhood summers here too, boys drinking beer and smoking Luckies or Kools rolled up the sleeves of tight tee shirts to reveal muscular shoulders, while girls sat on the railing, leaning over just enough to expose whatever cleavage they had. Now all of them smoked marijuana. The boys' bodies were hidden under enormous tee shirts and loose shorts, the girls' cleavage exposed by tight halters ending above belly buttons decorated with tiny diamonds or gold rings. As a child, I had been content to spend a month in the country where the lake and a day camp provided pleasure and friends. But increasingly I preferred solitude and even loneliness to the discomforts of white social life. I was sick, I told my father that summer, of being treated with that mixture of careful politeness and hostility by the white kids - you can smell it it's so strong - and yes, even in this famously progressive village which was in reality as racially conscious as any other part of the country, as likely to form color lines, especially when kids got old enough to date. It's totally isolating, I told him, knowing perfectly well, even if I hadn't yet formed the right words, that as a black girl my sexuality was both highly exaggerated and completely ignored. Finally, Jake, my father, asked me if I would prefer to rent out the house in the summer, or even sell it once and for all.
I didn't want to cause any upset in the already precarious relations between my father and my great-grandmother for whom the cottage at the lake, belonging forever in her mind to her favorite granddaughter, was her only true home, nor did I seek any change as dramatic and irreversible as the selling of the house which would feel like a new version of the old death to my father, I thought. I was unhappy in the all white community though I had known it since my birth, and was vowing to somehow make this my last summer there, but the house evoked my mother for me as much as it did for the rest of the family. I loved the calm, quiet lake even when it was murky, the dark nights filled with cricket sounds, reading stories in the slowly cooling evenings with my grandmother, my father and my old great-grandmother, Hannah, as we lounged on the small porch.
On the morning that lead to Hannah's remembered story, after returning from my swim and in spite of my damp bathing suit and hair, I felt unusually hot and breathless. By the time I reached the top of the second hill, which felt like a mountain, its black tar burning in the sun, I thought I might faint. I dragged my towel behind me on the gravel and left it in a heap on the grass lacking even the energy to hang it on the line as I would normally do, and I pushed the screen door open without wiping my feet - both of these actions, I noted vaguely at the time, a sign that something was wrong. My great-grandmother was sitting in a rocking chair in the small living room reading, and she looked up only for a moment when I walked in. Finally in the shaded, screened-in porch, I collapsed on the day bed and fell asleep.
I slept better on the porch that summer than in the room I shared with Greatgram at the back of the house. Each night, I would try to sleep while she sat at her narrow vanity table, staring at the collection of photographs of her children, her grandchildren, her sister May, a brown tinted one of my mother on her sixteenth birthday (which I stared at for long hours myself, secretly, when I was alone in the room,) and one of herself: a dark haired young woman with a rounded figure, a long fitted jacket buttoned up to her chin, her skirt falling just above her ankles revealing high black boots. Her eyes were still dark and large, and even at ninety-four a trace of the beauty she had been famous for as a young and middle-aged woman could sometimes be seen. Now, her hair was white and bushy with yellowed ends and streaks. She'd comb it straight back revealing an unusually smooth forehead for one so old, and the yellowish white contrasted with her black eyes and olive skin. In the city, she cut her hair every three weeks and gave herself a perm, followed by a blueing which resulted in an acrid smell permeating the house for hours and a head full of tight, purple curls. She looked much older then, I thought, and was glad she'd left her chemicals and rollers at home, saying that in the country where mostly we stayed to ourselves, she could give her hair a rest.
She wore long dresses she called pinafores with buttons from the square neck to the narrow ruffle at the skirt's edge. Short sleeves revealed heavy arms, loose flesh hanging, wrinkled and deeply tanned by the summer sun. One dress was pink with tiny purple flowers, another gray with tiny blue flowers, the third, my favorite, a navy blue with no pattern, except the buttons on that one were round silver flowers Hannah had taken from her button box to replace the plain white ones that remained on the other two.
Each of the flowered dresses was worn for three days, the blue one on Sunday when she accompanied my father and me, and my father's mother, whenever she was staying with us, to a nearby diner for a special Sunday dinner of hamburgers, French-fries and malteds. If the night was cool, Hannah would wrap a thin cotton shawl across her shoulders, white to match her summer sandals. After dinner, singing Nat King Cole songs at the wheel of his old beige Dodge, my father would take us all to the lake where we would watch the sunset and slap mosquitoes off our faces and arms. Hannah loved the lake. Dressed in a black swim suit whose skirt reached her knees, she'd wade in and splash her face, arms and chest with fresh water. She would not go anywhere near salt water - it made her sick, she said, a preference I did not question since it converged conveniently with my own. When the red sun had sunk beneath the horizon, we would drive home in the dark listening to my father's slightly off key Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you . . . the phrase repeated over and over because he didn't know any more words. Before bed, we would eat the delicious chocolate sweet called Sour Milk Cake Hannah baked every Thursday afternoon.
At night, as she undressed in the narrow bedroom illuminated only by a candle, I watched her roll down her thick, beige knee high stockings held up by thin, pale blue garters, the hose, as she called them, not for looks but to support her old veiny legs which felt unsteady when she walked. Looking into the round mirror near the window, she unbuttoned each round silver button with breathtaking care until she could take the dress off her shoulders like you would take off a coat, exposing the pinkish tan corset she always wore, its laces and stays across her torso holding her in but loosened in the informal summer days. She'd worn a corset like this since her teenage years, she said, so by now she'd feel naked without it, as if she were going to sleep; and there was a nakedness to her without the corset, as I saw her in the mornings, her old woman's body hanging and curving without shapely restraint. As soon as the corset and underwear were removed, she blew out the candle and put on her loose, cotton nightgown in the dark, her body visible only in silhouette.
I took pleasure, that summer, in deriding my great grandmother's habits, since I blamed her, in part, for the confusions that seemed to be drowning me. (I pictured myself drowning like my mother, gasping for breath in the depths of the sea.) But I admired her eye for color and pattern, the carefully chosen beige cotton sheet matched with the blue comforter, its neat lines of white leaf patterns bordering the sides, or the pale yellow sheet used on alternate weeks with the dark red comforter, the same white leaf pattern looking brighter against the red; the lace doilies on her bedside table, a clean one each week, one a circle, one a star, one a long rectangle that hung over the sides; and most of all, the three small drawings of a bay at different times of day framed in black wood, matted on pale green and hung in an even line on the wall near her bed. When I asked why she took these three drawings wherever she went despite her expressed dislike for the ocean and the bay, she said she didn't know. She liked the pale colors, she guessed. And I believed her, until that summer when the story came back to her as a result of the arrival of my father's new friend and the book by Ruth Hughes.
She bought it during one of her aimless afternoons strolling through a bookstore. It was a best seller, and though Hannah was a slow and unconfident reader, she often read deep into troubled nights or during slow, inactive afternoons, her mouth opening and closing, as if novels and stories were food. I had noticed the glossy illustration on the cover of a black man and a white woman, both in 19th century clothes, the insert of a photograph of a contemporary black woman, the writer herself. I had seen Hannah reading it for weeks; it lay on her bedside table where she took it up in the middle of many nights when she thought I was asleep, her reading glasses at the end of her nose, her mouth moving fast.
Damp from sweat and in the deepest, dreamless cycle of sleep on the porch bed, I awakened to my father's loud, welcoming shout and an unfamiliar female voice saying, Jake! Hey Sugar, and I would always remember the oddness of hearing someone call my father the name I had always been called. I sat up, bathing suit dry now and skin itching. I tried to pull my fingers through my still damp hair but was stopped by the tangles, and in this position, hands on head, I stared at my father who was out in the yard at the foot of the hill embracing a woman in a wide brimmed, black straw hat, its crown encircled by a band of tiny pink roses. She wore a white dress, sleeveless and cut low at the neck. A long scarf, the same pale pink as the roses, draped over her shoulders all the way down to her waist. She kissed Jake on the mouth and almost tripped. Then, holding onto his arm and returning a delighted smile, she bent down to remove shiny, black sandals with high narrow heels. She came through the porch door behind him, barefoot and holding his hand.
This is Corinne Robinson, Sugar, my father said. He rubbed his chin and cheek, rough with a day's growth of beard, and pulled me up from the day bed where I had remained staring at the elegant apparition who had come in from our scraggly lawn, seemingly cool in the awful heat and acting as if she were enchanted by the little cottage with its worn wooden furniture and multiple patterns covering pillows, a couch and an old area rug. My father held my shoulders and gently pushed me in front of him. And this - this is my treasure, the beautiful Princess Samantha. But we who know her well call her Sam.
I was still reeling from the shock of the smile I had seen on my father's face moments before - a smile for this beautiful stranger that up to that moment had belonged to me alone. Miss Corinne Robinson curtsied, and her large hat toppled off her head. I looked down and saw pink roses made of silk surrounded by tiny green silk leaves and vines, then up to tight black curls that shone in the afternoon sun. Skin the color of the bark of a maple tree glistened with what was in reality perspiration but which, to me, seemed like some sort of magic powdery star dust visible at the edge of sharp cheek bones and across a wide forehead. When her hat fell onto the floor, mid-curtsey, Corinne laughed loudly at herself.
Well, so much for my planned elegant entrance, Princess Samantha, she said with a bow of her head. May I call you Sam?
I nodded, transfixed, not knowing whether to be enraged at my father or join him in falling in love. Then I looked around to see my great-grandmother peering at us from the darkened living room where she had remained, holding her book.
And you must be Mrs. Sokolov, Corinne said, walking toward the old woman. I'm so pleased to meet you, she added, holding out both her hands.
My father looked nervous. This was no simple meeting of two women, one old and white, living her last days comfortably thanks to the generosity of her grandson-in-law who possessed an unusual sense of family obligation; one in her late thirties, beautiful, obviously charming, and black. A Negro, as Hannah said when she was being polite; a colored girl, as she once referred to someone's maid until Jake corrected her in an angry but controlled tone. That's what we used to say, Hannah had tried to explain, a half-hearted apology. We don't say that now, Jake responded, emphasizing the we. Then he leaned forward on both elbows at the table where we all sat eating dinner and added, We've discussed this many times, Hannah, over and over, and I don't want to discuss it again. I am black. And my daughter, your great-granddaughter, is black. Hannah looked straight at him, then at me and finally down at the table again. Slowly, she removed her napkin from under her fork, delicately wiped her mouth, and excused herself. I never heard her raise the subject with him again.
When Corinne reached for Hannah's hands my great-grandmother allowed them to be taken with a strange submissive air. A look of joyful surprise passed over her face, but it quickly turned into distress, and she withdrew her hands. Pleased to meet you, she said. Later that evening when Jake and Corinne went for a walk around the lake and we were in bed, Hannah said abruptly, more to herself than to me, I know you say you're black Samantha, like your father always insists, but your skin is the color of mine, and your hair curls in the same way mine did when I was young.
I stared at the ceiling, hoping she was half in, half out of the present, as she often seemed to be, or inhabiting past and present at once. I turned toward the wall, fixing my eyes on the patterns of light and shadow cast by Hannah's green shaded bedside lamp.
She remained silent for a while, perhaps respecting the turned back but more likely struggling to remember what she wanted to say, what she had said before, what new piece of information she might impart to me. If she repeated herself frequently, she was also aware at times that she did so, and she was embarrassed by this evidence of her mental slippage in her old age. Soon she began talking again, almost as if I weren't there, retelling stories about the five significant women in her life: her mother Rena, her sister May, her daughters Sophie and Rena, and her granddaughter, Maya, my mother, who had been named for her great aunt and godmother, May. I listened to the stories, filled with information I already knew, but I stared at the wall, ruthlessly keeping my eyes from Hannah's face, believing I knew perfectly well where she was headed. Each woman represented something lost, or something that still had the power to enrage Hannah even after so many years. This would lead to more current anxieties and expectations of disaster. She'd warned me for years that if my father married again I'd be exiled to an orphanage, banished by a cruel stepmother to the care of callous municipal administrators or, worse, Catholic nuns. Now, she was afraid of her own banishment again. She was perfectly aware that, Maya, her own Sophie's child, had been the only relative who loved her enough to give her a home in her old age. Asher and Sophie, her favorite children, were dead, and her daughter Rena would never consider taking her in although at seventy she was physically and mentally as strong as a woman of fifty. The only person between Hannah and poverty and loneliness, or what was to her the intolerable ugliness of an old age home, was my father, Jake Reed, a relative by marriage, a black man - or a half Negro as she called him behind his back, insisting this was her way of paying respect to his white mother and my grandmother, Ami Reed. Once I had heard her refer to him as a schvartzer when she was talking on the phone. A schvartzer but a good man, she had said. When I asked what it meant, Hannah replied, Nothing. Dark skin, that's all.
She talked about her mother for a while, how she had always preferred May, then how May, and not Hannah herself, could make their father smile. As she retold the old history, holding a small photograph of her parents set into a round, elaborately designed silver frame, Hannah's voice broke, and I nearly went to her but forced myself to remain staring at the wall. She talked about her daughters, looking at a photograph of them taken when they were girls. Rena, the daughter she could never forgive for loving her father best, and Sophie, her baby, with whom Hannah had lived for years until Sophie became ill and Maya took on the responsibility for Hannah's care. Sophie, idealized as the good daughter, and Rena, blamed as the bad one, to the end of their mother's days, none of them ever grasping the irony of the similar positions Rena and Hannah occupied as rejected elder daughters and thus the possibility, never attempted let alone achieved, of sympathy either for each other or for the inevitable emotional tangles of maternal life. Rena was a bitter, cold old woman, and Hannah could be her match - except for a streak of vulnerability that, when it was ascendant, rendered her child-like and dependent so that even as a small child I wanted to care for her, stroke her, cheer her up.
Try to go to sleep, Greatgram, I finally turned to whisper, but her face was registering fast moving emotions now, as it had when she was introduced to Corinne. She'd taken the book from the table and was tapping it angrily with her palm as she spoke. Your father, she said. He might marry this woman, Corinne. And you'll have to be prepared, Sammala, for . . . . She stopped herself, began again. There are no halves in this. Jewish mothers have Jewish children. So that makes you a good Jewish girl. Like your mother, and like me.
I don't need to hear all this again, Greatgram, I shouted. I don't want to hear who you think I am. I got out of bed and stomped outside, slamming the screen door at the end of the room. I sat on the back lawn for a long time, pulling up tufts of grass and throwing them as far as I could see in the moonlight. A good Jewish girl. A good Jewish white girl. The words rang in my head so loud I had to cover my ears. I was angry at my father for putting up with Hannah, not yet able to distinguish between anger at him and anger in his behalf. I was furious at Hannah for what I saw as pure hypocrisy, taking sustenance and solace from people for whom she really had nothing but contempt. I was angry at my dead Grandma Sophie, a smart but compliant woman who always began and never completed family stories leaving me with long fragments that never seemed to end. And I was angry at Ami, my father's mother who I called Myami, a name that expressed the depth of my love, but who always insisted race didn't matter at all, making me feel invisible, like I was hidden behind a mask I could neither claim nor remove. I hated them all that night, lying on the warm grass and gazing every so often toward the front of the house where, I supposed, my father and Corinne would be sleeping together in his bed, and I hated this beautiful stranger with her promising warmth too. But more than any of them, that night, I hated my mother for leaving me with it all.
I had a vague memory of her, or perhaps I had made it up - she is standing in the middle of the room, her hands on her hips, her chin raised in defiance - she must be arguing with my father, and I always think, or remember, or imagine, she is defending me against some infraction or disobedience he thinks is important. I think I hear her say - she's only a child - and then - a passionate and exuberant child. My mother's voice is fiery hot in this memory, and I am clinging to her - I can almost feel my head pushing into her waist - I am defiant along with her, and feeling somehow proud. Instead I am alone, unprotected and ashamed, as if either I had not been good enough to keep her or smart enough to save her. Yet, if she had lived, I might have been furious at her for being white at some point, because that seemed to be the cause of the anger I reserved for myself that night. Twice, I scratched my skin so fiercely I drew blood.
The whole problem, I realized, had little to do with skin color, because I didn't look dramatically different from Hannah, and she was right about our hair looking a lot alike, mine almost as dark as my great-grandmother's had been. But there was enough of my father, and his father Jacob Reed, in me to make a difference. I remembered my grandfather's gentle teasing, his ready smile, his long silences, his skin as rich and dark as Corinne's, and I felt comforted when I could see his features in my own. I could pass for a dark skinned Italian girl if I'd ever wanted to, but it was the last thing I wanted. If I was ever mistaken for any kind of white among white people, I was quick to set them straight. Black people, who were accustomed to seeing all sorts of varieties and mixtures appear over the generations, could always see what I saw when I looked in the mirror or made my way through the world. Neither straight hair, nor fair skin, nor hazel eyes could ever fool them completely, and I'd seen people much lighter than myself walk into a room full of black people, trailing whispers - mmm, hmm - meaning - yeah, she's black - nodding their heads and raising their eyebrows, completely unbothered by the finer ambiguities of cultural identity. In this atmosphere, I felt safe, seeing that as long as I proved my belonging to them, I could belong.
I returned to the room somewhat calmed by the coolness and darkness of the night, as well as by the memory of my grandfather. The light was still on and I grabbed a band-aid from the dresser to cover the scratches on my arm.
What did you do? Hannah asked.
Thorns, I said. I stood still and looked down at my bare feet, then at her. She was sitting up in bed, her old gnarled fingers laced in her lap.
Please, ketsela, she said. Sit here. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. She sighed deeply. I know I was wrong. Your father - he's been better to me than my own flesh and blood. And he won't let anything bad happen to you. She frowned at her own words, as if hating to relinquish her angry beliefs.
I looked up, curious about the altered mood and tone.
I've been sitting here thinking, Hannah said. Remembering things I haven't thought about in so many years you can't even imagine such a long time at your age. I'm ninety-four years old, Samantha. I make mistakes. I want to tell you a story about something that happened long ago - when your own grandma Sophie was only a baby - long before your Mama was even born.
She began with the parts I had heard before - how much she missed her sister when she moved to Norwalk, Connecticut from the Lower East Side of New York City. She skipped over intervening years, as she'd always done before, and spoke of the difficult times after her husband's early death from a heart attack. There was little money, because it turned out Michael had invested heavily and lost equally heavily in the stock market. Asher and Sophie were still teenagers, and, with the help of Rena and her new husband, Hannah and her two youngest were settled in the Bronx where they lived on a moderate sum saved from the sale of the Connecticut house and a small income Hannah earned as a private hairdresser. Clients came to her house - she had told me that part before, but this time she explained where she had learned to cut hair in layers, an almost magical technique that made thin hair look thick and thick hair look shapely instead of wild.
Her name was Belle, Hannah said. At the foot of her bed, my back against the wall, I stroked the silky edges of embroidery on the summer sheets, relinquishing my anger as soon as Hannah began telling parts of the story never told before. Belle means beautiful in French, she said. Names are important, Samantha, and I'm going to tell you about yours.
For the next hour, I was enraptured as a part of my great-grandmother's life I had never known before took shape and sound. I could see the young woman who loved the sea emerge in a kind of shadow within the face of an old woman who had come to dislike it and all its crawling, slimy creatures. She lifted her arm to straighten the framed drawings above her bed, reached over to adjust the lace doily that draped under her bedside lamp, and confessed her old habit of rearranging. She no longer did it in her mind, she said, had not even thought about it in maybe fifty years or more. But she remembered it tonight when I stormed out of the room and out of some old opaque darkness she found herself trying to rearrange the day, changing the words she had said.
Just like when I was young I used to rearrange things I saw - streets, rooms - to make them more beautiful. Vay iz mir.
When your mother married a colored man - I mean a Negro - we used to call them schvartzers - blacks - that was wrong - now it's not wrong - so- when your mother married him, I was terribly upset. It was natural, I think. People want their families to be like them. Not different. It wasn't until you were born that I accepted Maya's marriage, and when they invited me to live with them after Sophie died - you can imagine, Samantha, what a relief it was, so I wanted to help with your care, and, well - have an influence on you.
Make me white, I thought, looking up angrily, but Hannah was looking across the room, and she kept staring past my shoulder for all the time it took her to tell the main parts of the story - about a fish store, a long walk with a man named Samuel around the loading dock at the edge of the Long Island Sound in Norwalk, Connecticut, about the time Belle, Samuel's wife, cut her hair. In halting words, she recounted how she once loved to walk on the Sound beach, even in winter, about Belle's unborn child and an oyster she tasted only one time in her life, about a story she had heard during that time that went all the way back to slavery.
She was pregnant - Belle - Hannah whispered. This writer, this Ruth Hughes who wrote this book - she touched the glossy cover in a kind of caress - she must be the child.
She didn't tell the story in sequence, but moved from one association to the next, every so often repeating the refrain - Oh, how I admired him. And then she'd say the words again in a different rhythm - How I . . . admired him . . . After the last time she said it, she remained silent for a while, then finally looked at me and said, I found a picture of the Arctic Circle in one of Michael's books when we left Norwalk. I remembered something Samuel had told me about a strange dream, and I started dreaming something like it myself. By that time, we had moved to another town, and soon not much was left except the dream. I remembered the two of them, of course, and some of what happened, but - - I forgot - - I must have forgot what I felt. The dream came back about ten times in my life. Sometimes I'm walking. Sometimes I'm falling, and always the ice is shining so bright - but it's so hard, like a rock - and everything's white. I'm falling, I fall, but I never die, or break apart. I just get up and keep walking over the ice - it's safe somehow, not frightening, even though I think I might never see another person again. That's when I wake up. I'm always freezing, or so hot I have to pour cold water on my face and neck. I don't know why, but the dream always makes me hot or cold. Very cold. Or hot.
Everything white? I whispered, all the summer thoughts rushing through my mind, the white kids my mother would have belonged to, Corinne's dark brown skin, the vague reassurances I cherished in the story of my father's parents, Myami and my grandfather and their life together. And she was pregnant? When you . . . when . . .
But Hannah spoke right over me, as if once interrupted she might lose it all once and for all. After we moved, I never heard from Samuel or Belle again. When Maya married your father I thought about them, and some of it came back to me, the things I learned from Samuel, the times he told me about his life, and about slavery. Every now and then, in the past years with everyone talking first about civil rights then about racism, I remember other things - terrible things about what was done to people, killings, and - things as bad as the Holocaust, Sammala - terrible, terrible things. Then I remember . . . She stopped herself, unfolded her hands and touched her forehead, closed her own eyes with her fingers. And other things, things you're too young to hear about. And then I have the dream, and the whole thing fades away again. It's as if they go to some faraway part of my mind. I haven't thought about them in a long time. Then, this summer, I go to the book store in our neighborhood, you know, and I find this book. It was in her lap now, her hands folded over it. And it seems to be the same story. All the pieces are the same - so it must be the same people - I never knew all the names, or I forgot them too, but I knew his name of course. Samuel. And Belle. It's written by their daughter, this Ruth Hughes. And then she comes. Corinne Robinson, and . . . her hair, and around the mouth, she reminds me a little of Belle, I think. His wife.
My face felt tight. I swallowed saliva.
That's the story Samantha. Hannah sighed. But you're too young to understand about such forgetting. It must seem strange to you. But I'm talking of something that happened almost sixty years ago. More than half a century - can you imagine how long a century is, day after day? The lines on her face seemed to deepen, her skin to fade to an even paler shade. Now I can see him again, just as clearly as I saw him all those years ago. I told my children about them - how Negro people were slaves, like us. Like the Jews. And how some of them were brave - like him, and his father. How much they wanted to be free. I must have thought about him fondly when Maya called you Samantha, after the story her Mama, my Sophie, had told her about him. Maybe I even thought about him when my Maya married your father, a black man, Jake.
I could not make sense of it all, but I understood something of what Samuel and Belle had meant to Hannah and, suddenly, to myself. The connection, some pattern as intricate as a genetic family tree, and the fact that I had no idea how to name it, or follow it, caused me to feel a hunger as strong as I sometimes felt in the morning when I'd fallen asleep and missed dinner the night before. I wanted nothing more, in that moment, than to leave the room, go to the kitchen, and eat.
Yes, I can see it must have been quite a business, Hannah was saying, for his father and his people to escape from slavery just like the Jews - and for the Samuel I knew to make a life for himself at those times. I'd forgotten about telling my children a little about him, but Sophie remembered how I used him as an example of how important it was to try to be independent and free. She picked up a photograph of May and stared at it. I suppose that's what really made me so angry at her, though I never breathed a word of it to her or anyone else. She was so free, and she was the one they loved best - my mother's favorite and my father's too. With all his harsh words, and how he could bury himself for days in his Bible and Talmud, May could always make him smile. He'd talk to me about his studies and try to interest me in his interpretations, but you know what Samantha? He never really looked at me. He'd talk looking down at his books. I'd pay close attention, telling myself it was a kind of love. But if he really wanted me to understand he would have educated me, no? I suppose the truth was hardly anyone would listen to him, so he had to talk to one of his children, and he didn't have a son so he chose me, only because I was older and more able to understand. I tried to give him the answers or questions he wanted, but maybe what I really wanted - - - oh, it didn't matter what I said anyway. He didn't want to listen, only to talk. It's a crazy thing, Sammala. He was a cruel man in many ways, a cold man and a selfish man, like my husband. Maybe even a not so intelligent man. I don't know - that's what your great-grandfather, my Michael, believed. But I adored him, and only tonight remembering the look on that man Samuel's face when he looked at me, when we talked, I think I didn't only want to make my Papa smile, like May could. I don't know but maybe at the real bottom I wanted him to look at me, to act like he was talking - not just talking - talking to me.
She put May's photograph down so abruptly it fell onto the floor. I got off the bed, replaced it on the table, and stood there silently, not knowing what to say.
That's enough now, Hannah barely whispered. Don't be angry at your old Greatgram. She took my hand, brought it to her lips and kissed each finger separately, then the palm, then the knuckles. Go to sleep, ketsela, she said.
I crawled into bed, welcoming the blankness of the wall again. Hannah's old endearment echoed in my brain, and as though in a hollow tunnel of sound, behind it came Samuel and Samantha, then my father's voice calling me Sugar, then the roll of the ocean carrying my mother's ashes away.