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I HAVE LONG SINCE learned not to believe idle stories. Heaven knows I grew up on them. For years as a child I was terrorized by family stories of great Uncle John being killed at Blue Licks by Indians. Or how Uncle John escaped from Indians after running a gauntlet and his brother Sam was captured and Uncle John ransomed him for a barrel of whiskey.
Not to mention Mammy Sally’s stories about Jaybird reporting once a week to the Almighty about our misdoings for which, somehow, we’d be punished. Jaybird reported only to God, she said.
But for some reason I did believe the rumor told to me by my sisters Frances and Elizabeth of how, only weeks after our mother’s burial, our father was courting another woman.
I believe it because my older sisters were friends with Dr. Warfield’s daughter, Claire. And he’d been in attendance at my mother’s death and was a friend of my father.
They tell me this woman is from Frankfort, the state capital where my father goes frequently because he is a state senator. They say she has a seventy-three-year-old mother who is the head of society there. That she herself wants to be called Betsy, and that she hopes to lift our family to new standards of elegance.
Grandmother Parker, who lives just up the hill from us here in Lexington and is my own mother’s ma, says it is an indecently short time after Ma’s death for Pa to go courting.
My sister Frances says Pa sent his new lady a miniature of himself painted by Lexington’s own Matthew Jouett.
Elizabeth Humphreys she is called. I made it my business to find out everything I could about her. She is no stranger to Lexington. Two of her uncles taught here at our Transylvania college.
She is going to bring her own black servants with her when she comes. I wonder how that will sit with Mammy Sally.
Jaybird can tell God all he wants about me. I know already that I do not like her.
IT WAS IN THE AIR a long time, this silent courtship of Pa’s. Auntie Ann, his sister, who ran the household since Ma died, warned us not to ask him about it. So we didn’t. But we watched him closely at the dinner table to see if he was changing toward us.
For all we could see, he wasn’t.
He still asked Levi if he’d been a good boy that day and ruffled his hair when he asked it. He still told my spoiled sister Ann how pretty she was. He still discussed social matters with Elizabeth and Frances. And he still promised me a pony if I was a good girl. He’d been promising me a pony for ages. As long as he kept promising, I figured my hope for a pony was still alive. Though I did wonder if a pony would fit in with Betsy’s idea of a new standard of elegance.
No, he wasn’t changing toward us. He was still Pa, who loved us and wouldn’t let anything come between us.
SOMETIME AROUND CHRISTMAS in 1825 my father called us all into the front parlor after dinner and cleared up the rumors. I was seven years old.
“My situation has become irksome,” he said. “People of ill will are saying bad things about me and my intended, Elizabeth Humphreys. So I have become engaged to this dear lady and hope soon to wed. I need to complete my domestic circle so I can enjoy the repose and happiness which the world can never give.”
Pa talked high words sometimes. But we understood. Frances and Elizabeth kissed him. I hugged him because I wasn’t going to be left out of any part of his domestic circle.
THAT’S HOW WE LEARNED we were to get a stepmother. But I didn’t see the need for one. As far as I was concerned, the domestic circle we had was complete enough. Mammy Sally ran the kitchen and the other servants. And I didn’t see anything wrong with Auntie Ann running the house. She even did the male chores when Pa was away, oversaw the carriage, disciplined the servants, and bought the staples. Only bone I had to pick with her was that she favored my little sister Ann too much. Ann was the darling of her eye. I was almost eight the year Pa wed and Ann was going on two, and Ann took all the attention from me. Same as she’d taken my name when she was born. I was Mary Ann up until then, until they gave the second part of my name to her, and now I’m only Mary.
It’s a lonely name, I can tell you. It needs a second part. Anybody can see that.
Elizabeth and Frances have their own set of fine-feathered girlfriends who can’t talk about anything but dresses and boys. Levi, a year older than me, and George, only one at the time, had the full attention and love of Pa. All I had was Grandma Parker to stand up for me. And she was fifty-two.
I HAVE HAD A LOT of afflictions in my life, don’t think that getting a stepmother was the first of them. Now that I am nineteen and about to leave Lexington, Kentucky, to live with my sister Elizabeth and her husband in Springfield, Illinois, I can write of them without hurting too much.
Before I was three years old I lost my place as the youngest in the family to brother Robert when he was born. When I was four I lost my baby brother. Robert died at fourteen months. I was uncommonly fond of Robert and his death affected me terribly. Then when I was five I lost part of my name. At seven I lost my mother when my next brother, George Rogers Clark Todd, was born.
At almost eight I got a new stepmother.
WE WERE TO CALL her “Ma” Pa told us in one of the most stern moments I ever recollect seeing him in. “Not Betsy, but Ma.”
We all said yes.
“And if you have any concerns about the household, bring them to her. She wants to be in charge.”
Concerns about the household? I’d had nothing but concerns since Auntie Ann had left us, as soon as Pa and Betsy came home from their wedding trip.
Concerns about the household? That phrase went through my mind as I stood in the kitchen and watched, transfixed, as Judy, one of Betsy’s slaves, stood grim-faced, her two hands holding a large bowl of soup. I could smell the soup from where I stood. I loved that soup, all made with preserves from our garden.
Across the kitchen stood Mammy Sally, who had made the soup. She’d caught Judy sampling it from the serving bowl and scolded her.
“Here, take your ol’ soup,” Judy said and threw the bowl on the floor.
The smash of the china bowl sounded throughout the house. The soup splashed all over the place. I even got some on the hem of my dress. Mammy Sally backed away, held her hands to her face, and cried. “Who wants your ol’ soup.” Judy stamped outof the kitchen.
Just then Pa appeared at the kitchen doorway. “What is this? What’s going on here?”
“Judy threw the soup on the floor,” I told him.
He looked shocked. I felt sorry for him. So much for repose and happiness, I thought. And, as if he could read my thoughts, he looked at me. “Mary, go and get your mother,” he said quietly. Then he turned and went back into his study.
For a moment I thought that he really meant my mother. The look on his face was so confused that for all I knew he could have been wanting her then, just like I was. But I ran upstairs to get Betsy.
She was seated at her dressing table, making up her hair. “What’s all the noise?” she asked.
I just stood there like a jackass in the rain. “Ma,” my voice cracked when I said it. “The servants are fighting. There won’t be any soup for supper.”
“And why is that?”
“Judy threw it on the floor.”
“Well, she must have had provocation.”
So that was the way it was to be. Her servants could do no wrong. “Pa needs you,” I said.
She stood up. “Is there no order in this house?”
I shrugged. “Your Judy threw the soup when Mammy Sally found her eating out of the serving bowl.”
“There must be more to it than that.”
New standards of elegance, I thought.
“And you don’t have to look so pained when you call me Ma, either. Now say it again. And say it strong.”
I swallowed. “Ma,” I said.
Tears came to my eyes. “Ma.”
She swept past me. “I hope I don’t have to speak to your father about you. Now go and tell the others to come to the dinner table.”
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