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Picture a late-June morning in 1918, a time when Montgomery wore her prettiest spring dress and finest floral perfume—same as I would wear that evening. Our house, a roomy Victorian on Pleasant Avenue, was wrapped in the tiny white blooms of Confederate jasmine and the purple splendor of morning glories. It was a Saturday, and early yet, and cloudy. Birds had congregated in the big magnolia tree and were singing at top volume as if auditioning to be soloists in a Sunday choir.
From our back stairway’s window I saw a slow horse pulling a rickety wagon. Behind it walked two colored women who called out the names of vegetables as they went. Beets! Sweet peas! Turnips! they sang, louder even than the birds.
“Hey, Katy,” I said, coming into the kitchen. “Bess and Clara are out there, did you hear ’em?” On the wide wooden table was a platter covered by a dish towel. “Plain?” I asked hopefully, reaching beneath the towel for a biscuit.
“No, cheese—now, don’t make that face,” she said, opening the door to wave to her friends. “Nothin’ today!” she shouted. Turning to me, she said, “You can’t have peach preserves every day of your life.”
“Old Aunt Julia said that was the only thing keepin’ me sweet enough to evade the devil.” I bit into the biscuit and said, mouth full, “Are the Lord and Lady still asleep?”
“They both in the parlor, which I ’spect you know since you used the back stairway.”
I set my biscuit aside so as to roll my blue skirt’s waistband one more turn, allowing another inch of skin to show above my bare ankles. “There.”
“Maybe I best get you the preserves after all,” Katy told me, shaking her head. “You mean to wear shoes, at least.”
“It’s too hot—and if it rains, they’ll just get soaked and my toes’ll prune up and the skin’ll peel and then I’ll have to go shoeless and I can’t, I have my ballet solo tonight.”
“My own mama would whip me if I’s to go in public like that,” Katy clucked.
“She would not, you’re thirty years old.”
“You think that matter to her?”
I thought of how my parents still counseled and lectured my three sisters and my brother, all at least seven years older than me, all full adults with children of their own—except for Rosalind. Tootsie, we call her. She and Newman, who was off fighting in France, same as our sister Tilde’s husband, John, were taking their time about parenthood—or maybe it was taking its time about them. And I thought of how my grandmother Musidora, when she lived with us, couldn’t help advising Daddy about everything from his haircuts to his rulings. The thing, then, was to get away from one’s parents, and stay away.
“Anyway, never mind,” I said as I went for the back door, sure that my escape was at hand. “Long as no one here sees me—”
“Baby!” I jumped at Mama’s voice coming from the doorway behind us. “For heaven’s sake,” she said, “where are your stockings and shoes?”
“I’m just goin’—”
“—right back to your room to get dressed. You can’t think you were walking to town that way!”
Katy said, “S’cuse me, I just remembered we low on turnips,” and out she went.
“Not to town,” I lied. “To the orchard. I’m goin’ to practice for tonight.” I extended my arms and did a graceful plié.
Mama said, “Yes, lovely. I’m sure, however, that there’s no time for practice; didn’t you say the Red Cross meeting starts at nine?”
“What time is it?” I turned to see that the clock read twenty minutes ’til. I rushed past Mama and up the stairs, saying, “I better get my shoes and get out of here!”
“Please tell me you’re wearing your corset,” she called.
Tootsie was in the upstairs hallway still dressed in her nightgown, hair disheveled, sleep in her eyes. “What’s all this?”
When Newman had gone off to France in the fall to fight with General Pershing, Tootsie came back home to live until he returned. “If he returns,” she’d said glumly, earning a stern look from Daddy—who we all called the Judge, his being an associate Alabama Supreme Court justice. “Show some pride,” he’d scolded Tootsie. “No matter the outcome, Newman’s service honors the South.” And she said, “Daddy, it’s the twentieth century, for heaven’s sake.”
Now I told her, “I’m light a layer, according to Her Highness.”
“Really, Baby, if you go out with no corset, men will think you’re—”
“Maybe I don’t care,” I said. “Everything’s different now anyway. The War Industries Board said not to wear corsets—”
“They said not to buy them. But that was a good try.” She followed me into my bedroom. “Even if you don’t care about social convention, have a thought for yourself; if the Judge knew you left the house half-naked, he would have your hide.”
“I was tryin’ to have a thought for myself,” I said, stripping off my blouse, “and then all you people butted in.”
Mama was still in the kitchen when I clattered back down the stairs. “That’s better. Now the skirt,” she said, pointing at my waist.
“Mama, no. It gets in my way when I run.”
“Just fix it, please. I can’t have you spoiling the Judge’s good name just so you can get someplace faster.”
“Nobody’s out this early but the help, and anyway, when did you get so fussy?”
“It’s a matter of what’s appropriate. You’re seventeen years old—”
“Eighteen, in twenty-six more days.”
“Yes, that’s right, even more to the point,” she said. “Too old to still be a tomboy.”
“Call me a fashion plate, then. Hemlines are goin’ up, I saw it in McCall’s.”
She pointed at my skirt. “Not as high as that.”
I kissed her on her softening jawline. No cream or powder could hide Time’s toll on Mama’s features. She’d be fifty-seven on her next birthday, and all those years showed in her lined face, her upswept hairdo, her insistence on sticking with her Edwardian shirtwaists and floor-sweeping skirts. She outright refused to make anything new for herself. “There’s a war going on,” she’d say, as if that explained everything. Tootsie and I had been so proud when she gave up her bustle at New Year’s.
I said, “So long, Mama—don’t wait lunch for me, I’m goin’ to the diner with the girls.”
Then the second I was out of sight, I sat down in the grass and pulled off my shoes and stockings to free my toes. Too bad, I thought, that my own freedom couldn’t be had so easily.
* * *
Thunder rumbled in the distance as I headed toward Dexter Avenue, the wide thoroughfare that runs right up to the domed, columned state capitol, the most impressive building I had ever seen. Humming “Dance of the Hours,” the tune I’d perform to later, I skipped along amid the smell of clipped grass and wet moss and sweet, decaying catalpa blooms.
Ballet, just then, was my one true love, begun at age nine when Mama had enrolled me in Professor Weisner’s School of Dance—a failed attempt to keep me out of the trees and off the roofs. In ballet’s music and motion there was joy and drama and passion and romance, all the things I desired from life. There were costumes, stories, parts to play, chances to be more than just the littlest Sayre girl—last in line, forever wanting to be old enough to be old enough.
I was on Mildred Street just past where it intersected with Sayre—named for my family, yes—when a sprinkle hit my cheek, and then one hit my forehead, and then God turned the faucet on full. I ran for the nearest tree and stood beneath its branches, for what little good it did. The wind whipped the leaves and the rain all around me and I was soaked in no time. Since I couldn’t get any wetter, I just went on my way, imagining the trees as a troupe of swaying dancers and me an escaped orphan freed, finally, from a powerful warlock’s tyranny. I might be lost in the forest, but as in all the best ballets, a prince was sure to happen along shortly.
At the wide circular fountain where Court Street joined Dexter Avenue, I leaned against the railing and shook my unruly hair to get the water out. A few soggy automobiles motored up the boulevard and streetcars clanged past while I considered whether to just chuck my stockings and shoes into the fountain rather than wear them wet. Then I thought, Eighteen, in twenty-six days, and put the damn things back on.
Properly clothed, more or less, I went up the street toward the Red Cross’s new office, set among the shops on the south side of Dexter. Though the rain was tapering off, the sidewalks were still mostly empty—few witnesses to my dishevelment, then, which would make Mama happy. She worries about the oddest things, I thought. All the women do. There were so many rules we girls were supposed to adhere to, so much emphasis on propriety. Straight backs. Gloved hands. Unpainted (and unkissed) lips. Pressed skirts, modest words, downturned eyes, chaste thoughts. A lot of nonsense, in my view. Boys liked me because I shot spitballs and because I told sassy jokes and because I let ’em kiss me if they smelled nice and I felt like it. My standards were based on good sense, not the logic of lemmings. Sorry, Mama. You’re better than most.
Some twenty volunteers had gathered at the Red Cross, most of them friends of mine, who, when they saw me, barely raised an eyebrow at my state. Only my oldest sister, Marjorie, who was bustling round with pamphlets and pastries, made a fuss.
“Baby, what a fright you look! Did you not wear a hat?” She attempted to smooth my hair, then gave up, saying, “It’s hopeless. Here.” She handed me a dish towel. “Dry off. If we didn’t need volunteers so badly, I’d send you home.”
“Quit worryin’,” I told her, rubbing the towel over my head.
She’d keep worrying anyway, I knew; she’d been fourteen when I was born, practically my second mother until she married and moved into a house two blocks away—and by then, of course, the habit was ingrained. I looped the towel around her neck, then went to find a seat.
Eleanor Browder, my best friend at the time, had saved me a spot across from her at a long row of tables. To my right was Sara Mayfield—Second Sara, we called her, Sara the First being our friend serene Sara Haardt, who now went to college in Baltimore. Second Sara was paired with Livye Hart, whose glossy, mahogany-colored hair was like my friend Tallulah Bankhead’s. Tallu and her glossy dark hair won a Picture-Play beauty contest when we were fifteen, and now she was turning that win into a New York City acting career. She and her hair had a life of travel and glamour that I envied, despite my love for Montgomery; surely no one told Tallu how long her skirts should be.
Waiting for the meeting to start, we girls fanned ourselves in the airless room. Its high, apricot-colored walls were plastered with Red Cross posters. One showed a wicker basket overflowing with yarn and a pair of knitting needles; it exhorted readers, “Our boys need SOX. Knit your bit.” Another featured a tremendous stark red cross, to the right of which was a nurse in flowing dress and robes that could not be a bit practical. The nurse’s arms cradled an angled stretcher, on which a wounded soldier lay with a dark blanket wrapped around both the stretcher and him. The perspective was such that the nurse appeared to be a giantess—and the soldier appeared at risk of sliding from that stretcher, feet first, if the nurse didn’t turn her distant gaze to the matter at hand. Below the image was this proclamation: “The Greatest Mother in the World.”
I elbowed Sara and pointed to the poster. “What do you reckon? Is she supposed to be the Virgin Mother?”
Sara didn’t get a chance to answer. There was a rapping of a cane on the wooden floor, and we all turned toward stout Mrs. Baker, in her steel-gray, belted suit. She was a formidable woman who’d come down from Boston to help instruct the volunteers, a woman who seemed as if she might be able to win the war single-handedly if only someone would put her on a boat to France.
“Good morning, everyone,” she said in her drawl-less, nasal voice. “I see you’ve found our new location without undue effort. The war continues, and so we must continue—indeed, redouble—our efforts for membership and productivity.”
Some of the girls cheered. They were the younger ones who’d only just been allowed to join.
Mrs. Baker nodded, which made her chin disappear into her neck briefly, and then she continued, “Now, some of you have done finger and arm bandages; the principle of the leg and body bandages is the same. However, there are some significant differences to which we must attend. For any who have not been so instructed, I will start the lesson from the beginning. We start, first, with sheets of unbleached calico…”
I squeezed rainwater from my hem while Mrs. Baker lectured about widths and lengths and tension and began a demonstration. She handed the end of a loose strip of fabric to the girl sitting nearest and said, “Stand up, my dear. One of you holds the bulk of the fabric and feeds it through as needed—that person is the rollee. The roller’s thumbs must be on the upper aspect of the fabric, the forefinger beneath, like so. As we proceed, the forefingers are kept firmly against the roll, thumbs advanced for maximum tautness. Everyone, up now and begin.”
I took a loosely tied bundle of fabric from one of several baskets lined up along the floor behind me. The fabric was pure white at the moment, sure, but it would soon be blood-soaked and covering a man’s whole middle, crusted with dirt and irresistible to flies. I’d seen photographs of Civil War soldiers suffering this way, in books that depicted what Daddy called “the atrocities done to us by the Union.”
It was my brother, Tony, seven years older than me and now serving in France, who Daddy meant to educate with the books and the discussions. He never shooed me out of the parlor, though. He would wave me over from where I might be picking out a simple tune on the piano and let me perch on his knee.
“The Sayres have a proud history in Montgomery,” he’d say, paging through one of the books. “Here. This is my uncle William’s original residence, where he raised his younger brother Daniel, your grandfather. It became the first Confederate White House.”
“So Sayre Street is named for us, Daddy?” I asked with all the wonder of my seven or eight years.
“It honors William and my father. The two of them made this town what it is, children.”
Tony seemed to take the Sayre family history as a matter of course. I, however, was fascinated with all of these now-dead relatives and would continue to ask questions about which of them had done what, when. I wanted stories.
From Daddy, I got tales of how his father, Daniel Sayre, founded a Tuskegee paper, then returned to Montgomery to edit the Montgomery Post, becoming an influential voice in local politics. And Daddy told me about his mother’s brother, “the great General John Tyler Morgan,” who’d pummeled Union troops every chance he got, then later became a prominent U.S. Senator. From Mama I came to know her father, Willis Machen, the U.S. Senator from Kentucky, whose friendship with Senator Morgan was responsible for my parents’ meeting at Senator Morgan’s New Year’s Eve ball in 1883. Grandfather Machen had once been a presidential candidate.
I wondered, that day at the Red Cross, if our family’s history was burdensome to Tony, oppressive, maybe. And maybe that was why he’d married Edith, whose people were tenant farmers, and then left Montgomery to live and work in Mobile. To be the only surviving son in a family—and not the first son, not the son who’d been named after the grandfather upon whose shoulders so much of Montgomery’s fate had apparently rested, not the son who’d died from meningitis at just eighteen months old—well, that was a heavy yoke.
Untying the calico bundle, I redirected my thoughts and handed Eleanor the fabric’s loose end. “I had a letter yesterday from Arthur Brennan,” I said. “Remember him, from our last trip to Atlanta?”
Eleanor frowned in concentration as she tried to form the start of the roll. “Was it thumbs under, or forefingers under?”
“Fingers. Arthur’s people have been in cotton since before the Revolution. They’ve still got old slaves who never wanted to go, which Daddy says is proof that President Lincoln ruined the South for nothin’.”
Eleanor made a few successful turns, then looked up. “Arthur’s the boy with that green Dort car? The glossy one we rode in?”
“That’s him. Wasn’t it delicious? Arthur said Dorts cost twice what a Ford does—a thousand dollars, maybe more. The Judge would as soon dance naked in front of the courthouse as spend that kind of money on a car.”
The notion amused me; as I continued feeding the fabric to Eleanor, I imagined a scene in which Daddy exited the streetcar in his pin-striped suit, umbrella furled, leather satchel in hand. Parked at the base of the broad, marble courthouse steps would be a green Dort, its hood sleek and gleaming in the sunshine, its varnished running boards aglow. A man in a top hat and tailcoat—some agent of the devil, he’d be—would beckon my father over to the car; there would be a conversation; Daddy would shake his head and frown and gesture with his umbrella; he would raise a finger as he pontificated about relative value and the ethics of overspending; the top-hatted man would shake his head firmly, leaving Daddy no choice but to disrobe on the spot, and dance.
In this vision I allowed my father the dignity of being at a distance from my vantage point, and facing away from me. In truth, I hadn’t yet seen a man undressed—though I’d seen young boys, and Renaissance artwork, which I supposed were representational enough.
“Speaking of nakedness,” Eleanor said, leaning across the table to take the end of the bandage from me, “last night at the movie house, an aviator—Captain Wendell Haskins, he said—asked me was the rumor true about you parading around the pool in a flesh-colored bathing suit. He was at the movies with May Steiner, and asking about you, isn’t that sublime? May was at the concession just then, so she didn’t hear him; that was gentlemanly, at least.”
Sara said, “I sure wish I’d been at the pool that day, just to see the old ladies’ faces.”
“Were you at the dance last winter when Zelda pinned the mistletoe to the back of her skirt?” Livye said.
“You should’ve been down here with us on Wednesday,” Eleanor told them. “Zelda commandeered our streetcar while the driver was on the corner finishing a smoke. We just left him there with his eyes bulging and went rolling on up Perry Street!”
“I swear, Zelda, you have all the fun,” Sara said. “And you never get in trouble!”
Eleanor said, “Everyone’s afraid of her daddy, so they just shake their finger at her and let her go.”
I nodded. “Even my sisters are scared of him.”
“But you’re not,” Livye said.
“He barks way more than he bites. So, El, what’d you tell Captain Haskins?”
“I said, ‘Don’t tell a soul, Captain, but there was no bathing suit at all.’”
Livye snorted, and I said, “See, El, that’s what I like about you. Keep that up and all the matrons will be calling you wicked, too.”
Eleanor reached for a pin from a bowl on the table, then secured the bandage’s end. “He asked whether you had a favorite beau, who your people were, what your daddy did, and whether you had siblings—”
Sara said, “Might be he just wanted some excuse to make conversation with you, Eleanor.”
“In which case he might have thought of one or two questions about me.” Eleanor smiled at Sara fondly. “No, he’s most certainly fixated on Miss Zelda Sayre of 6 Pleasant Avenue, she of the toe shoes and angel’s wings.”
Livye said, “And devil’s smile.”
“And pure heart,” Sara added. I pretended to retch.
“He said he’s not serious about May,” Eleanor said. “Also, he intends to phone you.”
“He already has.”
“But you haven’t said yes yet.”
“I’m booked up ’til fall,” I said, and it was true; between the college boys who’d so far avoided military service and the flood of officers come to train at Montgomery’s new military installations, I had more male attention than I knew what to do with.
Sara took my hand. “If you like him, you shouldn’t wait. They might ship out any day, you know.”
“Yes,” Eleanor agreed. “It might be now or never.”
I pulled my hand from Sara’s and lifted another pile of fabric from the basket behind us. “There’s a war, in case you haven’t heard. It might end up being now and then never. So what’s the use?”
Eleanor said, “That hasn’t stopped you from seeing a military man before. He’s awfully handsome.…”
“He is that. When he phones again, maybe I’ll—”
“Chatter later, ladies,” Mrs. Baker scolded as she strolled by, hands clasped behind her back, bosom straining forward like a warship’s prow. “Important though your affairs may be, our brave young men would appreciate your giving their welfare more speed and attention.”
When Mrs. Baker was past, I tilted my head and put my forearm to my eyes, mouthing, “Oh! The shame of it!” as if I were Mary Pickford herself.
Copyright © 2013 by Therese Anne Fowler