There is a quiet dignity about Harriet that makes her superior or indifferent to all surrounding circumstances . . . she was never elated, or humiliated; she took everything as it came, making no comments or complaints.
—SARAH BRADFORD, HARRIET, THE MOSES OF HER PEOPLE, 1901
She is old now, near eighty, and feeble—illness and injury, brutality, oppression, and the constant cut of fear having taken their toll—her condition convincing many people that Harriet Tubman has lived out her time and will soon pass into history and legend.
They underestimate her stubbornness, the thick shell of the nut of self-preservation tucked into the curl of her heart. In Auburn, New York, where she lives with her brother William Henry Stewart, her presence is almost boringly well known, she having so memorably and so often performed the events of her life—dramatized, danced, sung in shouts, creating the shadows and cries and frosty streams between slavery and freedom—that she has become, even in 1900, only thirty-five years beyond Appomattox, outmoded, overexposed, a relic of another time and a victim of our country’s old and continuing malady, a propensity for willed historical amnesia.
She has lived in central New York State, in the town of Auburn, for some forty years—more than half her life—even so, many people born since the war’s end don’t know who she is anymore but have to be told, and even then they shrug and wonder, Which war? What slavery? Where? Maryland? And if they do know of her, some of them have wearied of hearing about the terrible days back then and down there. Oh, they think, her again.
The country is sick of hearing about slavery and the South, the war, the disenfranchisement of black men, the masked white terrorists who ride the night. People want to move on.
But not all have forgotten. Some are steady friends, and believe.
Aunt Harriet, as she is often called by those who would idealize her into safe, if nonexistent, kinship, lives a mile south of downtown Auburn, beyond the city tollgate on South Street, where she raises some crops and chickens and, despite her fragility, cares and provides for a number of indigent and infirm people, one of them blind. “Her beloved darkies,” one woman calls them, though not all of them are black. Children, stragglers, panhandlers, the ill, the hapless and disabled, those with no homes or family, people unable to take care of themselves—they wander into her yard, gather beneath her fig tree, and settle in. No one is turned away.
She has spent a good part, if not most, of her life on the road, alone. Today she is on the move again, on her way out of town, going downstate to visit two old friends.
An old woman, small, compact, keen-footed. Layered in clothes: dress buttoned to the neck, boots, dark straw hat, flat-brimmed against the sun. Moving at a quick clip.
Her mother and father and other members of her family once lived with her in Auburn. Most are dead now, but her younger brother, William Henry, born into slavery as Henry Ross, still lives there. William contributes, but he is now seventy years old himself. Everybody in the household is old, infirm, or a child; nobody leaves. And so, ever the caretaker, despite her own age and infirmities, Harriet continues to take to the road to solicit funds from her supporters and to sell eggs and chickens in town in order to keep the operation afloat.
In one photo, her chin is tucked and she looks up heavy-browed, as if wary. Others in the picture—lined up in a row, posing—look straight at the camera, taking it on. Harriet stands at the end, holding a washbasin tightly in her grip, their protector.
The month is June, maybe early July—early summer, at any rate, and halfway through the first year of the new century. One of the people she is going to see is Sarah Bradford, author of Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman and Harriet Tubman, the Moses of Her People. Bradford has traveled from nearby Geneva, New York, where she lives, to visit her brother, the Reverend Samuel Miles Hopkins, Jr., who introduced her to Harriet in the first place. Harriet’s visit is not entirely social; she has been poking at her memory the way we bother a dying fire, searching for stories she forgot to tell Bradford, so that they might be included in yet another edition of the biography, which will be called Harriet, the Moses of Her People and which might sell well enough to pay off some debts and keep the operation of her household afloat a while longer.
Her pace is steady, determined. She cannot read and does not know the train or steamboat schedule; when she travels, she does not seek out such information ahead of time, but—trusting God and a sense of time grander than clocks—sits at depots or on docks, waiting for transportation to arrive. In order to get to the summerhouse in time, she had to leave early, midmorning latest, to be sure of catching the train and steamboat.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the more prosperous citizens of central New York state are fleeing the muggish funk of town summers to settle themselves in mostly unspectacular homes on what are known as the Finger Lakes—eleven bone-slender lakes that yearn toward Ontario, Canada, like reedy children cast from home. Once north-flowing rivers, the lakes were created by the incursion of gouging, south-moving Ice Age glaciers, and in time were tagged with Indian names, among them, Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua. The Finger Lake closest to Auburn is Owasco.
A train runs from town to the lake, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the Owasco Lake depot of which yet stands on the western shore, a two-story rectangular building—wooden and slightly leaning—painted a seaside shade, something between teal blue and aquamarine, vibrant against the ordinary greens and blues of the countryside.
Perhaps Harriet takes the Lehigh Valley train from Auburn to the Owasco Lake depot, then walks to the dock, where she will board one of the small underpowered steamboats that ply the Finger Lakes during the resort season. Or she may simply walk the five miles from town to the landing and then ride the boat, disembarking near the house on the point where the Reverend Samuel Hopkins summers.
This seems likely. And so we see her on foot. And then at the dock, staring at the lake and waiting. And on the boat, looking out, poking a little harder at her memory, squinting into the horizon until hazy pictures come clear.
Often, she seems to be frowning as if in disapproval, when actually she is only thinking.
An injury from slavery days, clearly visible along the middle of her forehead, has left her somewhat incapacitated. She is given to fits of sleeping, which come on her unawares, sometimes mid-sentence. Her head drops, she goes off farther away than sleep, then returns to finish her thought exactly where she left off.
A jokester, memory plays hide-and-seek. Incidents disappear, it seems, forever, then, even unbidden, return, fully colored and intact, down to conversations, colors, the buzz of a mosquito. The incident Harriet is so keen on remembering is one that occurred some seventy or so years ago, the details of which she comes up with on the boat: the kitchen, the voices raised in anger, the look of the baby on its mother’s hip, the sugar bowl on the table seen from the eye level of a seven-year-old.
The boat docks.
Hopkins and his sister have finished their lunch, but they are waiting. In her remembrance of the day, Bradford has her brother ordering a table set for Harriet when she arrives, then—the two women sitting together—waiting on her himself.
“As if,” she writes, “it were a pleasure and an honor to serve her.”
Hopkins brings cups of tea and some food. And the three friends sit together on what Bradford calls a broad, shaded piazza, overlooking the lake. An enchanting scene.
We may well sniff at the presumptive snobbery of Bradford’s “as if.” turning the pleasure and the honor into a virtue on her brother’s part. Without question, the woman who sometimes called herself Cousin Ciceley could be precious. And while steadfast in her devotion to Tubman, the biographer was not immune to the casually accepted racial stereotyping of her time, a practice common even among abolitionists. Beyond that, in any case, “ordered a table set” misrepresents the truth and “piazza” turns out to be wishful thinking.
In fact, Hopkins’s summerhouse is purposefully rustic, a retreat from worldliness and privilege that the minister happily imposes not only on himself but his grandchildren, one of whom—Samuel Hopkins Adams—hated the summerhouse. Young Adams considered the month he spent there every year a kind of sentence, especially since he so enjoyed staying in his grandfather’s grander digs in Auburn, where there were servants, soft beds, and good china. For the grandchildren, the Owasco house meant only tin dishes to wash, grimy kerosene torches to fill, potatoes to peel, garbage to bury. A Spartan regime, inflicted by a learned Presbyterian given to preaching in a swallowtail coat.
Piazza or porch—let us not be too harsh on Sarah Bradford. She has been to Europe and is by birth and upbringing of a class-conscious nature, and so when she describes this scene in 1900, she upgrades.
Maintaining her usual demeanor, Harriet eats her lunch and drinks her tea.
She likes chicken. Maybe Hopkins serves her some.
Eating, she remains quietly impervious to and apart from the attitudes and wishes of her hosts. Her dignity, the ability to maintain a steady indifference to circumstance, helped keep her safe on the road to the North, and after. Had she entertained visions of the tracking dogs, the men on horseback carrying guns, had she responded to the certainty of their presence or imagined what would happen if they caught her, she might never have made it safely out. Or gone back.
Because of their history, the Finger Lakes are spectacularly set but high in humidity. Summer afternoons tend to be close in the countryside between the lakes, so shade would be welcome. Sitting there while their guest takes her lunch, brother and sister watch the little summer steamboat move back and forth across the lake, zigzagging south and then putt-putting back up.
When Harriet pushes her plate away, the three of them sit a bit longer, enjoying the view, perhaps watching the setting sun darken the lake, watching for the boat that will take her back home.
And then she gets to what she has come for.
I often think . . . she says to Bradford, of things I wish I had told you before you wrote the book. . . . Things that happened all those years ago, like the incident she just remembered on the boat on the way over, after all these years, something that happened, she says, when she was very little.
Clearly, Harriet has come to Lake Owasco to pass this story on, hoping to get it into print in the new edition of the biography. Perhaps also—when it came to money, she had to be crafty, diligent, and mindful of keeping her wits about her—she is thinking that new information will create more sales. As she begins—When I was only seven years old I was sent away to take care of a baby—Bradford and Hopkins pay close attention, keeping in mind the importance of imprinting the scene in their minds in order to recall it someday, whether for the page (for us, with our computers, all these years later) or parlor conversations.
Since one of Bradford’s stated goals for the new book is to put up what she calls a fitting monument to Harriet’s memory and to keep it green, she is particularly anxious to hear of the incident.
The past is alive in the present, of course, and it sits at table with brother, sister, and their guest. As Harriet revisits the earlier time, a thousand thoughts and pictures must fly through the minds of the listeners—memories, descriptions, previously known details—and they fill in blank spots as she goes, just as the words to a song dwell beneath the strains of a tune played instrumentally and emerge unbidden in the listener’s ear.
And so, for the moment, we depart the scene on the Owasco porch and fly back to earlier times with Harriet, to revisit and fill in the blanks of the past that lives there with them all, in order to envision the moment and especially to see, reimagine, and try to know her.