The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove

by Susan Gregg Gilmore
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Overview

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore

Nobody in Nashville has a bigger name to live up to than Bezellia Grove.  As a Grove, she belongs to one of city’s most prominent families and is expected to embrace her position in high society.  That means speaking fluent French, dancing at cotillions with boys from other important families, and mastering the art of the perfect smile. 
 
Also looming large is her given name Bezellia, which has been passed down for generations to the first daughter born to the eldest Grove.  The others in the long line of Bezellias shortened the ancestral name to Bee, Zee or Zell.  But Bezellia refuses all nicknames and dreams that one day she, too, will be remembered for her original namesake’s courage and passion.
 
Though she leads a life of privilege, being a Grove is far from easy.  Her mother hides her drinking but her alcoholism is hardly a secret.  Her father, who spends long hours at work, is distant and inaccessible.  For as long as she can remember, she’s been raised by Maizelle, the nanny, and Nathaniel, the handyman.  To Bezellia, Maizelle and Nathaniel are cherished family members.  To her parents, they will never be more than servants.  
 
Relationships are complicated in 1960s Nashville, where society remains neatly ordered by class, status and skin color.  Black servants aren’t supposed to eat at the same table as their white employers.  Black boys aren’t supposed to make conversation with white girls.  And they certainly aren’t supposed to fall in love.  When Bezellia has a clandestine affair with Nathaniel’s son, Samuel, their romance is met with anger and fear from both families.  In a time and place where rebelling against the rules carries a steep price, Bezellia Grove must decide which of her names will be the one that defines her.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307395030
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/17/2010
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 9.82(w) x 11.06(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

SUSAN GREGG GILMORE is the author of the novel Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen.  She has written for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Born in Nashville, she lives in Tennessee with her husband and three daughters.

Read an Excerpt

chapter one

A pparently among those who consider their social standing some measure of importance, I am to be admired, for I am one of the few Nashvillians who can claim with infallible certainty that a blood relation has lived in this town since its inception. My mother, although a Grove only by marriage, never tired of sharing this piece of family trivia at cocktail parties or morning coffees, convinced that it elevated her own social position far beyond what her birth parents could have guaranteed.

And whether or not she exaggerated the details of our family’s history in the hope of impressing her friends, the truth remains that a poor Carolina farmer packed his bags some two hundred and fifty years ago and set out to cross the Appalachian Mountains, heading west with his young bride, determined to claim a few acres of his own and a better life for his family. He probably didn’t have a penny to his name by the time he stumbled into Fort Nashborough begging for a hot meal and a place to sleep, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the Grove family anymore.

Legend has it that when the Chickamauga Indians attacked the Nashville settlement, they killed my ancestral father as he fearlessly fought to protect his young wife. She grabbed the musket from her dying husband’s hands and continued the fight, killing three Indian warriors herself. Then she fell on top of her husband’s cold, bloody body and held him in her arms throughout the night.

Her name was Bezellia Louise, and for generations since, the first girl born to the eldest Grove male has been named in her memory. Although most official historians dispute any claims of her heroics, my father donated thousands of dollars to the Nashville Historical Society with the belief that eventually some fresh, young academic would see the past more according to my family’s advantage. But whether fact or fiction, I have believed in her courage and passion and was always proud to share her name.

Sadly, the Bezellias birthed before me never cared for this designation, preferring a monosyllabic moniker—like Bee, Zee, or Zell—to their formal Christian name. My own mother disliked it so much that for years she refused to let it cross her lips, calling me only Sister, a generic substitution that summed up her distaste for my name and her inadequate affection for me. I, on the other hand, always wanted to hear it in its entirety, never caring what others thought of it.

But long before I had memorized the details of my family’s story, I understood that I was a girl unlike most others. I had a pony to ride and a closet brimming with neatly pressed dresses. My bedroom was decorated with teddy bears that were handmade in Germany and dolls with porcelain heads that I was only to admire and never to touch. And, most important, I was always cooked for and attended to by people other than my mother, by people with dark skin and families of their own.

Maizelle Cooper was a short, round woman with bits of white hair highlighting her forehead like a jeweled crown. She wore the same short-sleeved, light blue work dress every day, summer and winter. And she always kept a stiff white apron tied around her waist. When she hugged me and pressed my face into her full, round tummy, I could smell a faint perfume of flour and cinnamon and grease. Maizelle spent most of her time in the kitchen, keeping a careful watch over a collection of pots endlessly simmering on a hot black stove. She cooked buttery biscuits and sweet, creamy oatmeal to warm my stomach in the mornings and greeted me after school with a cold glass of milk and a piece of homemade pound cake.

She washed and ironed all of my clothes, even my undershirts, and prepared my baths in the evenings, and somewhere in between sang me songs about freedom and grace, swaying from one hip to the other as if the rhythm of her voice kept her body in perfect balance.

I asked her once why she sang those songs considering it had been almost a century since President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Maizelle just shook her head and said that in all her years on this earth she had seen enough to know that there were many ways one man could make a slave out of another. Then she slowly wiped her brow and pointed to the crooked scar above her right eye. She never told me how it got there, and somehow I knew better than to ask. She imagined it was hard for me to understand all that she was saying from where I was standing, but the good Lord, she said, would make things right one day. She just hoped she’d be here to see it.

Maizelle slept in the basement. Her bedroom was small and poorly lit. The gray stone walls always left it feeling cold and damp down there, no matter how hot the temperature was outside. It was furnished very simply, with a single bed, a chest of drawers, a small wooden chair, and a creaky old nightstand with a reading lamp on top. A toilet, sink, and shower spigot were set a few feet from her bedroom door with nothing but a heavy plastic curtain hanging from an old metal rod for privacy. Mother said that was all Maizelle needed, that she was here to work, not to lounge about. And if she didn’t keep a close eye on her, then that’s exactly what that woman would do. At least that’s what Mother said.

I never asked Maizelle how she felt about living in the basement either. I guess I already knew the answer to that too. And even though I believed that she truly loved me, when she rode the bus home at the end of the week, I knew she loved her own family more.

Nathaniel Stephenson took care of the house, the grounds, and Mother’s midnight blue Cadillac. He was a tall, lean man whose skin was so wonderfully rich and dark it looked like night, and when he smiled, his teeth shone like the stars in the Milky Way. His eyes were a deep brown but sprinkled with bits of emerald green. His mama said that the day he was born he had been kissed by an angel. Maybe. He was certainly one of the nicest men I ever knew, and definitely the strongest, and not just because I could see the muscles rippling beneath his cotton work shirt.

Nathaniel was no more than eight years old when he was hired to clean the stables and feed the horses at Grove Hill during the summer months. As soon as the weather turned warm, his father would drop him off at the end of the drive just before daybreak. He’d gently push his small son out of the front seat of an old red pickup truck, so rusted in spots it looked as much brown as red, and then he’d toss him one last wave and go to work for another white family on down the road. When he came to pick his son up at the end of the day, smelling like manure and hay, he’d find him sound asleep on a cot left on the back porch. Nathaniel always said that hard work was good for a man, but a child ought to be left to play.

My own father used to call Nathaniel Bubba, for brother, and in a way I guess that’s what he was. He taught my father to saddle a horse and to ease a fish off a hook without even flinching. Nathaniel said Mr. Grove used to follow right behind him from dawn to dusk, more reliable than a shadow on a bright, sunny day. But that was a long time ago now.

According to Nathaniel, Grove Hill was once the prettiest place in Nashville, maybe in all of Tennessee. The earth was green and sweeping, and centuries-old oak trees peppered the landscape, providing plenty of shade from the hot summer sun. And nestled among a thick grove of trees stood my home—a big, gracious house built of deep red brick with a large porch that wrapped across the front. Legend has it that my great-grandfather drank too much whiskey one night and painted the brick a creamy white. He had been to Washington, D.C., only the week before and said if President Grant was going to live in a white house, then damn it, so was he. But now the finish was chipped and worn, and you could see the red brick peeking through its tired old coat of paint.

Six large limestone columns lined across the front of the house seemed to act as strong, stoic guards, not only reminding our guests that Grove Hill was an important place but to this day quietly protecting the family that lived there. You can even see where Union gunfire blasted those columns, nicks and cuts in the stone proof of their effort to stop one bullet after another as it sped toward the house.

Nathaniel told me that Grove Hill was actually considered one of the most beautiful antebellum homes still standing, and it was his job to keep her that way. Her formal parlors filled with expensive antiques, an impressive grand staircase with detailed carvings, and a mahogany-paneled library were often featured in ladies’ magazines from Virginia to Alabama. Mother spent enormous amounts of time and money decorating and redecorating the house, always selecting the newest French fabrics and silk-screened wallpapers even before the old ones had a chance to age. To me, though, Grove Hill looked kind of tired and lonely no matter how much attention she was given.

But it was here that my father’s father, and his father, and at least his father before him developed one of the best Thoroughbred nurseries in the South. That’s right, better than any in Virginia, Tennessee, or Kentucky. Robert E. Lee was even known to visit here every spring just to sip a little sherry and inspect the new foals. Grove Hill was a plantation of sorts really, just without the cotton or tobacco or slavery. In fact, my family prided themselves in saying that a Grove never owned another human being. Yet somehow they managed to run a prosperous horse farm with the help of countless black men and women who barely made enough money to buy the shirts on their backs. I guess Maizelle was right. It was just a matter of definition.

Of course by the time I was born, there weren’t many Thoroughbreds left, or any other kinds of animals for that matter, most having been sold to settle some unpaid debts my grandfather generously left for his firstborn son. Thousands of green, tree-studded acres that had once belonged to my family had been neatly packaged into neighborhoods of small, three-bedroom homes—Grove Hills, Grove Park, Grove Woods. They all looked the same.

And even though Nathaniel now cared for the house, in reality his most pressing assignment became pleasing my mother—waxing the hardwood floors, sweeping the front porch, washing the windows, polishing the silver tea service, or whatever else she demanded. My father and Nathaniel never talked about fishing anymore. They never talked about much of anything anymore. Truthfully, my father could barely look his old friend in the eye. But Nathaniel always managed a sweet smile on his face, even when my mother talked to him as if he was a child.

“Bless it, Nathaniel, were you dropped on your head when you were a baby?” she’d snap when she found a dirty windowpane or the porch needed sweeping. Mother, it seemed, was convinced that any black man or woman who did something she didn’t like had been dropped on the head at birth, assuming that the same men and women she trusted to care for her children were unusually careless and clumsy with their own.

“I’m not paying you to sit around and wait for the stars to come out. Now get that window cleaned so I can see out of it. That strong arm of yours is the only reason you’ve still got a job here.”

First Chapter

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove

A Novel
By Susan Gregg Gilmore

Crown

Copyright © 2010 Susan Gregg Gilmore
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307395030

chapter one

A pparently among those who consider their social standing some measure of importance, I am to be admired, for I am one of the few Nashvillians who can claim with infallible certainty that a blood relation has lived in this town since its inception. My mother, although a Grove only by marriage, never tired of sharing this piece of family trivia at cocktail parties or morning coffees, convinced that it elevated her own social position far beyond what her birth parents could have guaranteed.

And whether or not she exaggerated the details of our family’s history in the hope of impressing her friends, the truth remains that a poor Carolina farmer packed his bags some two hundred and fifty years ago and set out to cross the Appalachian Mountains, heading west with his young bride, determined to claim a few acres of his own and a better life for his family. He probably didn’t have a penny to his name by the time he stumbled into Fort Nashborough begging for a hot meal and a place to sleep, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the Grove family anymore.

Legend has it that when the Chickamauga Indians attacked the Nashville settlement, they killed my ancestral father as he fearlessly fought to protect his young wife. She grabbed the musket from her dying husband’s hands and continued the fight, killing three Indian warriors herself. Then she fell on top of her husband’s cold, bloody body and held him in her arms throughout the night.

Her name was Bezellia Louise, and for generations since, the first girl born to the eldest Grove male has been named in her memory. Although most official historians dispute any claims of her heroics, my father donated thousands of dollars to the Nashville Historical Society with the belief that eventually some fresh, young academic would see the past more according to my family’s advantage. But whether fact or fiction, I have believed in her courage and passion and was always proud to share her name.

Sadly, the Bezellias birthed before me never cared for this designation, preferring a monosyllabic moniker—like Bee, Zee, or Zell—to their formal Christian name. My own mother disliked it so much that for years she refused to let it cross her lips, calling me only Sister, a generic substitution that summed up her distaste for my name and her inadequate affection for me. I, on the other hand, always wanted to hear it in its entirety, never caring what others thought of it.

But long before I had memorized the details of my family’s story, I understood that I was a girl unlike most others. I had a pony to ride and a closet brimming with neatly pressed dresses. My bedroom was decorated with teddy bears that were handmade in Germany and dolls with porcelain heads that I was only to admire and never to touch. And, most important, I was always cooked for and attended to by people other than my mother, by people with dark skin and families of their own.

Maizelle Cooper was a short, round woman with bits of white hair highlighting her forehead like a jeweled crown. She wore the same short-sleeved, light blue work dress every day, summer and winter. And she always kept a stiff white apron tied around her waist. When she hugged me and pressed my face into her full, round tummy, I could smell a faint perfume of flour and cinnamon and grease. Maizelle spent most of her time in the kitchen, keeping a careful watch over a collection of pots endlessly simmering on a hot black stove. She cooked buttery biscuits and sweet, creamy oatmeal to warm my stomach in the mornings and greeted me after school with a cold glass of milk and a piece of homemade pound cake.

She washed and ironed all of my clothes, even my undershirts, and prepared my baths in the evenings, and somewhere in between sang me songs about freedom and grace, swaying from one hip to the other as if the rhythm of her voice kept her body in perfect balance.

I asked her once why she sang those songs considering it had been almost a century since President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Maizelle just shook her head and said that in all her years on this earth she had seen enough to know that there were many ways one man could make a slave out of another. Then she slowly wiped her brow and pointed to the crooked scar above her right eye. She never told me how it got there, and somehow I knew better than to ask. She imagined it was hard for me to understand all that she was saying from where I was standing, but the good Lord, she said, would make things right one day. She just hoped she’d be here to see it.

Maizelle slept in the basement. Her bedroom was small and poorly lit. The gray stone walls always left it feeling cold and damp down there, no matter how hot the temperature was outside. It was furnished very simply, with a single bed, a chest of drawers, a small wooden chair, and a creaky old nightstand with a reading lamp on top. A toilet, sink, and shower spigot were set a few feet from her bedroom door with nothing but a heavy plastic curtain hanging from an old metal rod for privacy. Mother said that was all Maizelle needed, that she was here to work, not to lounge about. And if she didn’t keep a close eye on her, then that’s exactly what that woman would do. At least that’s what Mother said.

I never asked Maizelle how she felt about living in the basement either. I guess I already knew the answer to that too. And even though I believed that she truly loved me, when she rode the bus home at the end of the week, I knew she loved her own family more.

Nathaniel Stephenson took care of the house, the grounds, and Mother’s midnight blue Cadillac. He was a tall, lean man whose skin was so wonderfully rich and dark it looked like night, and when he smiled, his teeth shone like the stars in the Milky Way. His eyes were a deep brown but sprinkled with bits of emerald green. His mama said that the day he was born he had been kissed by an angel. Maybe. He was certainly one of the nicest men I ever knew, and definitely the strongest, and not just because I could see the muscles rippling beneath his cotton work shirt.

Nathaniel was no more than eight years old when he was hired to clean the stables and feed the horses at Grove Hill during the summer months. As soon as the weather turned warm, his father would drop him off at the end of the drive just before daybreak. He’d gently push his small son out of the front seat of an old red pickup truck, so rusted in spots it looked as much brown as red, and then he’d toss him one last wave and go to work for another white family on down the road. When he came to pick his son up at the end of the day, smelling like manure and hay, he’d find him sound asleep on a cot left on the back porch. Nathaniel always said that hard work was good for a man, but a child ought to be left to play.

My own father used to call Nathaniel Bubba, for brother, and in a way I guess that’s what he was. He taught my father to saddle a horse and to ease a fish off a hook without even flinching. Nathaniel said Mr. Grove used to follow right behind him from dawn to dusk, more reliable than a shadow on a bright, sunny day. But that was a long time ago now.

According to Nathaniel, Grove Hill was once the prettiest place in Nashville, maybe in all of Tennessee. The earth was green and sweeping, and centuries-old oak trees peppered the landscape, providing plenty of shade from the hot summer sun. And nestled among a thick grove of trees stood my home—a big, gracious house built of deep red brick with a large porch that wrapped across the front. Legend has it that my great-grandfather drank too much whiskey one night and painted the brick a creamy white. He had been to Washington, D.C., only the week before and said if President Grant was going to live in a white house, then damn it, so was he. But now the finish was chipped and worn, and you could see the red brick peeking through its tired old coat of paint.

Six large limestone columns lined across the front of the house seemed to act as strong, stoic guards, not only reminding our guests that Grove Hill was an important place but to this day quietly protecting the family that lived there. You can even see where Union gunfire blasted those columns, nicks and cuts in the stone proof of their effort to stop one bullet after another as it sped toward the house.

Nathaniel told me that Grove Hill was actually considered one of the most beautiful antebellum homes still standing, and it was his job to keep her that way. Her formal parlors filled with expensive antiques, an impressive grand staircase with detailed carvings, and a mahogany-paneled library were often featured in ladies’ magazines from Virginia to Alabama. Mother spent enormous amounts of time and money decorating and redecorating the house, always selecting the newest French fabrics and silk-screened wallpapers even before the old ones had a chance to age. To me, though, Grove Hill looked kind of tired and lonely no matter how much attention she was given.

But it was here that my father’s father, and his father, and at least his father before him developed one of the best Thoroughbred nurseries in the South. That’s right, better than any in Virginia, Tennessee, or Kentucky. Robert E. Lee was even known to visit here every spring just to sip a little sherry and inspect the new foals. Grove Hill was a plantation of sorts really, just without the cotton or tobacco or slavery. In fact, my family prided themselves in saying that a Grove never owned another human being. Yet somehow they managed to run a prosperous horse farm with the help of countless black men and women who barely made enough money to buy the shirts on their backs. I guess Maizelle was right. It was just a matter of definition.

Of course by the time I was born, there weren’t many Thoroughbreds left, or any other kinds of animals for that matter, most having been sold to settle some unpaid debts my grandfather generously left for his firstborn son. Thousands of green, tree-studded acres that had once belonged to my family had been neatly packaged into neighborhoods of small, three-bedroom homes—Grove Hills, Grove Park, Grove Woods. They all looked the same.

And even though Nathaniel now cared for the house, in reality his most pressing assignment became pleasing my mother—waxing the hardwood floors, sweeping the front porch, washing the windows, polishing the silver tea service, or whatever else she demanded. My father and Nathaniel never talked about fishing anymore. They never talked about much of anything anymore. Truthfully, my father could barely look his old friend in the eye. But Nathaniel always managed a sweet smile on his face, even when my mother talked to him as if he was a child.

“Bless it, Nathaniel, were you dropped on your head when you were a baby?” she’d snap when she found a dirty windowpane or the porch needed sweeping. Mother, it seemed, was convinced that any black man or woman who did something she didn’t like had been dropped on the head at birth, assuming that the same men and women she trusted to care for her children were unusually careless and clumsy with their own.

“I’m not paying you to sit around and wait for the stars to come out. Now get that window cleaned so I can see out of it. That strong arm of yours is the only reason you’ve still got a job here.”

Continues...

Excerpted from The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore Copyright © 2010 by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
Born in 1951, Bezellia was named after her father's ancestor, a woman who fought off Indians who attacked their Nashville settlement. Young Bezellia wore her ancestor's moniker proudly, hoping to live up to the first Bezellia's name. Bezellia's father was a wealthy and busy doctor, from a well respected Nashville family. Her mother was a woman from 'the wrong side of the tracks' who desperately desired to fit into Nashville society. She was an unhappy woman, of whom Bezellia said "Mother with a cup of coffee in her hand was not a particularly kind or attentive person and (that) Mother with a gin and tonic in her hand was simply mean and withdrawn." Two household servants, Maizelle and Nathaniel, were loyal to the Grove family. Like another Southern novel, Kathryn Stockett's popular The Help, they were always available to provide the care and attention to Bezellia and her younger sister that they didn't get from their parents. Bezellia's mother treated them badly, and Maizelle and Nathaniel usually took it without complaint (except when Maizelle would occasionally spit into her boss's cup of coffee), although since the book is written from Bezellia's point of view, perhaps that is how Bezellia saw it. Another recent novel, Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin, showed a more troubled and realistic relationship between the white employers and their black household employees. Nathaniel's son Samuel comes to help his father one day, and sparks fly between Samuel and Bezellia. Nashville in the 1960s was not a place where a young white lady and a young black man could have an open relationship, and if Bezellia's mother or other townspeople found out, all hell would break loose. The setting of the novel in the 1960s is key, as it addresses the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and the feminist movement through the eyes of young people. It was an exhilarating, frightening time for all, but especially for young adults looking for their place in the world. What I though this novel addressed really well was the concept of how your youthful experiences follow you through to adulthood. As the story progresses, we see why Bezellia's mother, who is a very unsympathetic character, became the sad, lonely, bitter alcoholic she was. She ends up being the most complex character in the novel. It also addresses an age-old dilemma for young people; what do you owe your family and what do you owe yourself? Bezellia goes away to college, but when family issues press, she must decide what comes first: her responsibility to family or to herself. Many readers will be able to relate to that. At various points in the novel newspaper articles about the Grove family are inserted. It gives the reader a perspective of the family from the town's point of view. The first page is Bezellia's birth notice and the final page is her death notice, but perhaps Gilmore will grace us with the two-thirds of Bezellia's life that isn't in the book. She is a character worthy of more exploration.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In Nashville, teenager Bezellia Grove knows her affluent family is dysfunctional mostly due to her shrewish sop of a mother but also somewhat due to a cowardly father. He hides at work while she tears into the help (Maizelle Cooper the maid and Nathaniel Stephenson the chauffeur), and her daughter as the affluent glamour image is what the matriarch thrives for. Bezellia turns to the Black employees for a sense of family and does her best to protect her younger sister Adelaide from mommy dearest. In 1965 then fourteen years old Bezellia and Nathaniel's son Samuel are attracted to each other, but kept apart as unacceptable by their families for different reasons. Three years later, Bezellia visiting her maternal grandparents meets the farmer's son wannabe singer Ruddy Semple; he also is from an unacceptable family but his whiteness makes him a few notches above Samuel. Bezellia goes to college as the family hits economic hard times and dark secrets surface. This is an interesting look at the life of a white southern female as she struggles with her desires and what her heritage allows. Although the story line is overly fashioned with a zillion too many regional stereotypes that survive (in this novel) well into the twenty-first century, Bezellia's internal conflict between her southern belle upbringing and her improper lifestyle makes for an overall fine saga. Susan Gregg Gilmore's underlying premise is that we have come a long way since the 1950s thanks to pioneers risking their places (and lives) in society, but also have a long way left to journey, if equality is to become the de facto way of life. Harriet Klausner
ThomLamonde More than 1 year ago
Susan Gregg Gilmore's second novel, The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, once again captures the true spirit of southern living. For those of us who feel a special affinity for the traditions and values of a southern upbringing, Susan's words and stories carry special meaning. When reading her stories, you can almost feel the warmth of a Georgia evening or envision the high bluffs of the Chattanooga hills. She continues to bring wonderful stories to life - I can't wait to read what comes next in the Gregg-Gilmore legacy!