A great photographer by the name of Bud Lee once told me that photographs can play tricks on you, because when you make a photograph, you are making a record of someone else’s truth, not yours. I was new to the journalism game at the time, and even after working with him for a month on a photographic essay for Esquire, I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. The way I saw it, he was creating his own truth by picking the moment to snap the shutter.
Then one day we set out to get a picture of a pimp. It was 1970, and the streets of Manhattan sported a whole new gangland crop of outrageous characters wearing platform shoes, white suits and floor-length ermine coats. Bud wanted to photograph one of them at home, not out on the street gaming his prostitutes. We spent several days working the streets until one day in a men’s clothing store on 125th Street we found a pimp who would agree to take us to an apartment on the Upper West Side where he kept a girlfriend and his 4 year old son.
To me, at least, the apartment was a disappointment. It had the stark white walls and the sturdy, unremarkable furnishings of a hotel suite, and it smelled of cleaning solutions and wax. The place was totally lacking in the flash of the pimp on the streets, but to Bud, it was perfect. Bud wasn’t looking for garish splendor, but rather to photograph the pimp’s private self in a place where he felt safe enough to reveal it to us. Bud asked him what he wanted to wear, and the pimp took us down the hall to a bedroom where a closet was hung neatly with the outfits he wore on the street: shirts with impossibly huge bat-collars and micro-skinny hip-hugging trousers with bell-bottoms as big around as the wheel of a car. He opened a second closet, and inside on miniature hangers were tiny outfits custom made for his son that matched his own, stitch for stitch, bell-bottom for bell-bottom. He picked out matching red and white velveteen jumpsuits. They were paneled length-wise around the pant-legs and sleeves in alternating colors – red & white, red & white — and the shirt collars were red on one side and white on the other. The pimp and his son changed into the outfits, and Bud asked him where he wanted his picture taken. The pimp wanted to be photographed in the living room with a huge oil-on-black velvet painting of JFK on the wall behind them, because he had been teaching his son about what a great man President Kennedy had been, and he wanted his son to grow up thinking that even he could be President one day.
Bud knelt on one knee and snapped a few frames and we were finished. They were posed standing starkly against the white wall with the JFK painting, and it didn’t look to me like he had gotten anything remarkable enough to make the pages of Esquire, but he told me to wait and see.
The next day we met for breakfast, and he showed me proofs. What he had taken was a picture of unalloyed love between a father and his son. The way they stood close together, the way the father touched his son’s shoulder protectively, and the look of sheer love and pride on his son’s face, told a story that made sense of their costumes and the setting. Bud Lee had snapped the shutter on the camera, but the truth of the moment was theirs. Bud told me that great photographers never forget that they are not the ones in the picture, and great photographs record a moment not the way the photographer saw it, but the way the subjects experienced it – and hopefully, the way they’ll remember it.
I thought of what Bud had told me when we found this photograph, along with about 100 others neither I or my brother and sisters had ever seen, in a shoebox buried under a pile of dirty clothes on the floor of a closet in my father’s bedroom just after he died. Some of the other pictures were quite remarkable, such as a series of snapshots taken by an Army photographer at the change of command ceremony in Bad Tolz, Germany, in 1945, when grandpa was assigned by Eisenhower to relieve General Patton of his command of the 3rd Army after the war.
But the picture that caught my eye was this one. It was taken by my grandmother in the summer of 1951, just before my father went off to war in Korea. On the right is my mother, and standing between us behind the rose bush is my brother Frank, who was then about two years old. Walking between two buildings in the background wearing a work uniform of sweat-stained Army khakis is my grandfather and namesake, Lucian K. Truscott Jr., who only a few years earlier had commanded the 9th Regimental Combat Team in North Africa; the 3rd Infantry Division in Sicily and southern Italy; the VI Corps at Anzio, Rome, and the 7th Army when they launched an amphibious invasion of Southern France; and the 5th Army in northern Italy until he took the surrender of Kesslering’s forces at the end of World War II. That’s me standing on the left, age four.
Everyone in the photo was familiar to me except the black girl standing just behind my brother. She is wearing what would have then been called a servant’s uniform: a black cotton skirt and blouse with detachable starched white collar, cuffs, handkerchief, and apron. Her head is tilted forward, and at first glance, she appears to be watching what we’re doing. But if you look closely, her eyes are looking up, directly into the camera, and she is smiling not shyly, but slyly. The photograph was intended by my grandmother to be a picture of her grandchildren and daughter-in-law, but the moment belongs to the African American girl in the servant’s uniform. Standing at its center, she dominates the picture with her body language and skin color against the whitewashed clapboard side of the farm house behind her. She is the only person who beckons to the camera with her eyes. Her smile comments enigmatically on the people kneeling before her, and by extension, on the whole scene – the garden and the farm and my family and grandma and grandpa and what we were like back then, and how she felt about us, and how she felt about herself at the moment the shutter snapped. Bud Lee sure was right about how a great photograph records a moment the way its subjects remember it, because when I saw it, I remembered everything except her name.
I remembered that the photo was taken at grandpa’s farm outside of Bluemont, a little town in the northwest corner of Virginia near the border of Maryland and West Virginia. My memories of that summer are some of the earliest that I have. For my whole life, I’ve been able to form a picture of grandpa’s farm in my mind’s eye – where the barn and the out-buildings were in relation to the main house, how the formal garden looked in the back hard, and where the creek was just down the hill on the other side of a horse pasture. I remember that we used to walk down a dirt road and cross a one-lane concrete bridge and walk up the hill to Mr. Jones’ house, atop the hill across the way. I remember that mom and dad and my grandparents would sit on the Jones’ front porch having cocktails, and Frank and I would run back down the hill to the creek and throw rocks into the water. I remember that Frank and I used to wake up in the morning and scamper down the narrow staircase next to the kitchen and run out the back door to the barn, where we chased chickens and played with a litter of kittens. I remember that the train set Uncle Jamie had when he was a kid was upstairs in his attic bedroom, and when he came home from college, he took us up there and showed it to us, and that we couldn’t play with it, because it was too hot and dusty up there. I remember that he took us up to the attic one other time, too – this time carrying a bucket of water and two or three paper bags – and when we got up there, I held the bags while he filled them with water from the bucket, and then we opened a small window and threw them down on my father, who was sitting on a wooden lawn chair having a drink with my mother and grandparents during cocktail hour. I remember that we were looked after by a young black girl who had a high, squeaky voice. And I remember that one day, she took us for a walk down the dirt road about a mile to her house, a small log cabin off the road next to several others that were just like it. I remember that mom told us that her cabin and the others had been built by her great-grandparents and other freed slaves on land that was sold to them by their former owners, just after the end of the Civil War.
I don’t know why I remember so much about grandpa’s farm, unless it was because that summer was the first time our father left us and went away for a long time because the Army said he had to. It had to have been traumatic not only for Frank and me, but for mom, as well. Maybe when dad left it was so painful that I surrounded and smothered the wound with memories, to protect myself from the possibility that dad might not come back. Or maybe it was the summer of my memory’s natural awakening, because the months and years that followed are just as fresh to me.
My memories of that summer are those of a child, but the understanding I was looking for now was that of an adult. The picture we found in dad’s closet is my Rosetta stone. All of its elements were present throughout my youth: mom in a thin cotton dress with a ripped seam in the armpit and summer espadrilles with a hole in the toe doing something with Frank and me in the absence of dad, who was following Army orders, gone off unquestioningly to whatever hellhole the Army had sent him; my brother frank, intently and silently focused on what’s going on; grandpa looming in the background, coarse, impatient, scowling with much on his mind, looking like he’s on his way to chew someone’s head off; a black maid, hired by the family for a practical reason, such as looking after the boys, but in actuality, standing there very much aware of and amused by our struggle to follow grandma’s edict to be on our best behavior in the presence of “the colored help.”
The more I studied the picture, the more I thought the girl in the picture held the key to unlocking its mysteries. She would have the answers: What were we doing out there in the garden on what must have been a stiflingly hot afternoon in July? Where was grandpa going, and why did he appear to be so pissed off and anxious? What might have mom been thinking about as she crouched next to us in her slightly shabby summer clothes? Why was grandma out there in the garden taking a snapshot with her Brownie camera, when she was notoriously reluctant to expose herself to the midsummer sun and heat? What was going on in our lives on the farm in Bluemont in the summer of 1951?
Grandpa died in 1965, and grandma died eight years later. Mom died in 1998, a year before dad, and Frank had been too young in 1951 to remember anything about that summer. There was only one person other than me who might be able to answer at least some of the questions raised by the photograph, and so two months after dad died, I flew back to Washington, D.C. and rented a car with the idea that I would drive out to Loudon County and find the farm near Bluemont and find the girl in the servant’s uniform in the picture and ask her what she was smiling about, and what she was thinking as she watched over us in the garden during the summer of the year that my grandfather turned 56, nine years younger than I am now as I write this.
Flying into DullesAirport these days is an out-of-body experience for anyone who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area in the 50’s and 60’s. Dulles was a corn field in the summer of 1951 when we drove to Bluemont from FortBenning, where we had lived in a wing of a converted World War II hospital while dad attended the InfantrySchool, and it was still farmland when we visited grandpa and grandma in Washington upon our return from Germany in 1958. Even when Dulles was first going up in the early 1960’s, it was considered a folly by most people in the Washington area. Who wanted to drive all the way out there far beyond the Beltway, itself a new feature of the distant landscape, when you could hop a plane at National Airport only minutes from downtown and the Virginia suburbs?
In those days, the suburbs of Northern Virginia were, if not strictly rural, at least pastoral. There were dense forests and backwater swamps just south of Mount Vernon, and if you traveled down the old Leesburg Pike through Falls Church a couple of miles past Seven Corners, where of one of the first shopping malls in the country was built, you would soon be driving through subsistence farms that dated back to the 18th Century. Reston, now the center of an enormous high-tech corridor oriented around DullesAirport, was a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Tyson’s Corner marked the far edge of commuting distance, and people who talked of buying a house in the first Reston subdivision sounded like they were thinking of moving to the state of West Virginia.
Today, Northern Virginia from Arlington to Leesburg has been for the most part transformed into Orange County East, an ever-spreading protoplasm of subdivisions, fast food joints, strip malls, motels, car dealerships and small businesses which feed on the effluvia thrown off by the bureaucrats collecting and doling out tax dollars in the nation’s capital. But in 1951, Washington, D.C. was a sleepy little southern town with the pace of a city that had been built on a swamp, most especially in the summer, when the heat and humidity made it feel like one. Despite the oppressive heat, few people had air conditioned homes, but it didn’t take much money to buy a getaway in mountains nearby, where the higher elevations might provide a breeze to stir the fetid summer air. There were cabins in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, and run-down Victorians in the quaint village of Blue Ridge Summit just over the Pennsylvania line. To the west were the 18th and 19th Century farms in the rolling hills of LoudonCounty, in the beginnings of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Grandpa returned from Europe after suffering a heart attack in the summer of 1946, while commanding the 3rd Army and serving as Military Governor of Bavaria. He spent six months recovering from the heart attack, and the next six months – his last in the Army — doing the painful work of de-mobilizing Army units and de-commissioning the officers who had commanded them, many of whom were his friends. He retired from the Army in 1947, and by July of that year, he and grandma had found a farm on 70 acres near Bluemont in LoudonCounty. The farm house had been built in 1797 by Abner Humphrey, who cut his initials and the date into a marble block in the foundation at one end of the house. He was the patriarch of a local family, and the land had been in one branch or another of the Humphrey family for 150 years. Grandpa and grandma took possession of the farm in September of ’47, named it Chatfield after the tiny Texas town where he was born, and immediately began work to update the main house, which had not been much improved upon since the year it had been built.
I didn’t have much to go on, other than the fact that the farm had a Bluemont postal address, and so I began my search with a map of Virginia. I figured that the farm was located several miles from the village of Bluemont, because I had a dim memory that we had to ride in grandpa’s Buick along dirt roads when we drove to the Bluemont general store. I also remembered that grandpa used to call the road next to the farm the Upperville Road, referring to a town south of the farm on U.S. Route 50.
Studying the map on the kitchen table in California, I concluded that Chatfield had to be located somewhere between Bluemont and Upperville, which were only 10 miles apart. That wasn’t much ground to cover, and it looked to me that it would take me only a few hours to find the farm. If I could find Chatfield, I would be on my way to finding the servant girl in the photograph, so I left California with great hopes.
I flew into Dulles late in the afternoon on a Friday in early May and spent the night in Georgetown with Jim Hayter, who was in my Beast Barracks squad at West Point. We had kept up with each other over the years and had remained good friends chiefly because we’ve been unsurprised and amused by the turns our lives have separately taken. That night we ate hanger steaks and frites and shared a nice bottle of Rhone wine at a favorite bistro in Georgetown, and the next morning I loaded-up the rental car and headed west on Route 7.
There are still some working farms on the way to Leesburg, but they are few and far between. You have to drive well past Leesburg to be find land that could be described as rural, and even then, there are signs along the road for subdivisions with names like Foxtrot Meadows and Quaker Mills Estates, making them sound like country clubs that you couldn’t get into even if you had the money.
Bluemont is in the far northwest of Virginia, about a mile down the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Appalachian Trail, and about two miles from the West Virginia line. The village hasn’t changed much since Frank and I begged grandpa to drive us over to Bluemont so we could spend a nickel we had earned working in his garden on a Coke from the ice box at the General Store. Many of the houses in the village date to the early 1800’s, and the general store is still in the same wood-frame building at the crossroads of the Snickersville Turnpike and Clayton Hall Road. I stopped there to ask if anyone knew where Chatfield farm might be, but no one did. I bought a detailed map book of LoudonCounty and a locally printed history of county families. One of the people in the general store suggested that I might try the local historical society, which was just up the street in an old brick county office building. I stopped at the historical society and discovered that it was closed on Saturdays, but a very friendly lady was catching up on some paperwork and saw me looking in the front door. She let me in, and we had a nice chat about Bluemont history, but she had never heard of Chatfield, either. She suggested I try the post office, but it was closed, too. Driving through Bluemont, I passed the local postman making his rounds and stopped to talk to him, but he hadn’t heard of Chatfield, either.
I remembered that the main house was perched on a little knoll surrounded by mature oaks and maples, and that you could see the back of the barn from the road. I also recalled that a stream ran alongside the left side of the road as you drove in from Bluemont, and that just down from the house, there was a one-lane concrete bridge leading to the Jones’ farm on the hill across the way. I thought that if I could find a stream on the east side of a dirt road and, and a concrete bridge between two houses atop two small hills, I would be able to see the barn, and that would lead me to the house. It was a long-shot, but with nothing else to go on, I had no choice but to give it a try.
Sitting in the car outside the historical society, I opened the LoudonCounty map book and discovered that its hills are criss-crossed by a bewildering maze of two lane-blacktops and dirt roads, many of which date back to the 1700’s. I decided to take the first turn south out of Bluemont and drive until I saw something familiar. The roads were named and given county road numbers on the map, but out there in the green hills of LoudonCounty, the names of the roads and their county numbers frequently didn’t match-up with those in the map book.
I turned down Foggy Bottom Road and quickly reached an unmarked t-intersection, turned right and found myself at a dead end. I back-tracked and followed the road to another unmarked intersection and turned right again. Much of the county looks about the same way it did in 1951, especially the land near the western border of the county, in sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I took a few lefts and rights and soon came upon a sign for the village of Bloomfield. But when I looked around for the village, all I saw were a few Federal style farmhouses gathered under old-growth trees around yet another intersection of narrow, winding lanes. If you closed your eyes and opened them again, you could imagine that it wasn’t 2001, or even 1951, but 1851.
The unchanged landscape gave me hope that grandpa’s farm hadn’t changed much, either, so I kept looking out for the tell-tale signs I remembered. But after driving around for the better part of four hours, I had to give up. I was due in Charlottesville late that afternoon for the annual family reunion at Monticello. Having failed in my search for Chatfield, I consulted the map and made my way down to U.S. Route 50 and turned at Middleburg, heading south.
I had driven along every single blacktop, dirt road and farm path between Bluemont and Upperville, and I had driven many of them twice. When I didn’t find Chatfield, I despaired that my memory of grandpa’s farm had been faulty, or that the place had been torn down, or that someone had bought it and changed the house and out-buildings beyond recognition. As I drove to Charlottesville, I was disheartened. The fact that I hadn’t found Chatfield diminished the chances that I would find the girl in the picture. While I was at Monticello, I had a brainstorm. Grandpa’s papers were collected at the George Marshall Library at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, only 100 miles west of Charlottesville. Grandpa was a meticulous keeper of records and a voluminous letter writer, and I thought his papers might include letters or records of his purchase of the farm. So after the reunion, I drove over to Lexington and spent two days at the Marshall Library, with a copy machine going the entire time. I found letters about the purchase of the farm and a lot more.
When I left Lexington, I drove north through the Shenandoah Valley toward Winchester, where I would make the turn east to LoudonCounty. Chatfield was on a postal rural route, so there was no address for the farm in grandpa’s papers, but I had found an old facsimile plat of the property survey and an aerial photograph of the farm. It showed the main house, out-buildings, and the formal garden just the way I had remembered them, and to my great satisfaction, it showed a stream running along the far side of the dirt road, and the bridge to Mr. Jones’ place just where I had located them in my mind’s eye for so many years.
I whiled away the time in my motel room in Lexington comparing the plat and its description of the farm’s acreage to both the aerial photograph and the pages in the map book showing the roads between Bluemont and Upperville. The property survey gave a name to the stream, Beaver Dam Creek, a name to the road running alongside the property, County Road G-22, and it confirmed that the farm belonging to C.H. Jones was just across the road where I had remembered it. The survey also oriented the property magnetically, showing the house facing south, with the road alongside Beaver Dam Creek running generally north-south east of the property line, until the road turned west at the point where the creek ran under the concrete bridge leading to Mr. Jones’ property.
I found Beaver Dam Creek on the map, but it ran for miles across the county, crossing several roads along the way, and none of them were marked G-22. In fact, there was no County Road G-22 in the whole of LoudonCounty, according to my new county map book. I stopped at a gas station along Route 50 outside of Upperville and asked if anyone knew where county road G-22 was, and the owner told me that the county had changed the numbers of the roads some time ago. He said there had been a county road G-22 some years back, but he couldn’t remember what number they had it changed to.
My brief hopes of easily locating the farm dashed, I took a few moments to rough-out an orderly approach to the maze of roads in the map book. I located six places in LoudonCounty where Beaver Dam Creek crossed a road and eliminated three of them because they were not in the west part of the county between Bluemont and Upperville. That left three places on the map which more or less matched the orientation of Beaver Dam Creek and county road G-22 on the survey plat. I marked the map and made a turn north off Route 50 and started looking. Within an hour, I had found all three places Beaver Dam Creek crossed a road I had marked on the map, and I still hadn’t found the farm.
There were only a few hours left before I had to make my flight back to Los Angeles. I was driving down a dirt road looking for a blacktop road that would take me back to Route 50, when I was forced to make a turn down Poor House Lane, a narrow wooded trail leading past several farms that certainly matched that description. I had ended up in a heavily wooded bottom land that I knew was nowhere near grandpa’s farm, which was somewhere in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I came to an intersection I thought I recognized and turned right onto another narrow dirt path that ended in a t-intersection with a blacktop road. I took a guess and made a left turn and drove about a half mile and found myself passing through the tiny cluster of homes called Bloomfield for about the 6th or 7th time since I had begun my search several days before. I was about ready to give up when I noticed a hand-painted sign reading “STORE” leaning against a bush in front of a clapboard addition to a farmhouse. As many times as I had passed through Bloomfield, I hadn’t noticed the sign before. I slowed down and looked for the store, but I didn’t see it. I was thinking that the sign must have put outside with the garbage, but then I noticed a screen door on the clapboard addition. Behind the bush holding up the sign, I could barely see a window with a neon beer sign that had not been turned on.
I got out and peered through the screen door, and sure enough, there was a rudimentary general store inside, with candy and canned foods and coolers full of milk and soft drinks and beer. I opened the door and found an elderly woman seated behind a makeshift counter and asked her if she had ever heard of a farm called Chatfield, where General Truscott used to live, back in 1951 or so. “You mean Rock Hill?” she asked in a scratchy, tobacco-worn voice. I told her I had never heard of Rock Hill, but I knew my grandfather’s farm was around here someplace, because I had records showing the farm was just across a dirt road from Beaver Dam Creek, and I knew the creek was close by, because I had crossed it several times. “Oh, they paved that road a long time ago,” she said. “It used to be called Upperville Road when it was dirt, but now it’s called Airmont Road. It’s the one you’re driving on, right outside there.” She told me they moved the road when they paved it, and that now the creek was on the west side of the road, instead of the east, the way it was depicted on both the survey plat and the aerial photograph.
“Rock Hill is just down the road there a-ways, on your right. You can’t miss it,” she said, pointing a tobacco-stained finger. I still wasn’t sure we were talking about the same place, so I showed her the aerial photograph. “That’s Rock Hill all right. I remember your granddaddy now. He sold the place to a couple’a lesbians, and they’re still in there, just as mean and nasty as can be. Wait a minute. One of ‘em died a while back, but there’s still one’a them lesbians livin’ there, and she’s even meaner and nastier than the dead one.”
Suddenly it came to me that mom had mentioned something years ago about grandpa selling his farm to two women who raised race horses. I thanked the old woman and drove down the road about a mile, and just as the road took a slow bend to the west, I slowed the car and looked around. The old woman had been right. They had moved the road to the east side of Beaver Dam Creek when they paved it, but the creek was obscured from view by a row of mature trees which had shown in the aerial photograph as young saplings. I drove slowly, trying to see through the trees. Finally there was a narrow gap where a dead tree had fallen, and I stopped the car and got out. I had a good view of the back of the barn and I could just barely make out the house atop the little knoll with a few of the old-growth oaks and maples still standing in the front yard. I had driven down the same road the previous Saturday and had missed it, and I had passed it by twice that afternoon, going in both directions.
I drove a little further and found the a gravel drive leading up to the house. A small sign on one of the stone gate posts read “Rock Hill.” As I approached to the house, I rolled down the window, and the piss-smell of boxwood filled my nose. I had found it.
I parked the car and walked into the front yard. The boxwood bushes along the front of the house hadn’t been trimmed in decades and were huge, but they were still right where grandpa had planted them when he moved them from a nearby hedge. A miniature Japanese maple he had planted at the edge of the driveway had engulfed the stone steps from the driveway leading up the walk to the front door. I walked down the gravel drive a little further to view of the whole property. The house was still painted white with black shutters, and the red barn and all of the other outbuildings were just as they had looked over a half-century ago. I walked back to the house and found the side door to the kitchen behind one of the overgrown boxwood bushes. I knocked on the screen door. A friendly young white woman answered, and I introduced myself. I told her that my grandfather had owned this farm back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, and that I’d been looking all over the county for it. She said her name was Bonnie, and she was a day nurse, taking care of old Miss Willis, who was laid up sick in bed. She spoke with an accent that I hadn’t heard in years – a strange blend of Brooklynese with a southern, country lilt that dated back to Cockney accents which had traveled from England to the colonies with indentured servants two hundred to three hundred years ago.
I was carrying the photograph grandma had taken in the garden, and as I showed it to her, I pointed through the open kitchen window, explaining that it had been taken behind the kitchen, in a formal garden that had been on the far side of what were now a pair of overgrown, un-trimmed boxwood bushes. Bonnie looked at the photo and pressed a hand to her mouth in astonishment. “Eww, my Gawd! That’s Ruth! Is ‘dat yew, roight ‘dere, hon? Eww, my Gawd! Just look at Ruthie! Why, she’s jus’ a baby! Hon, yew lookin’ fer Ruthie, yew come to the roight place, ‘cause she still woiks roight ‘ere, cleanin’ house Monday’s fer Miss Willis. She ain’t ‘ere roight now, hon, but I guess she’s been woikin’ roight ‘ere evva since yer grandpa and grandma was livin’ ‘ere. Yew da one ‘dat writes ‘dem books, ain’t yew? I know Miss Willis has herself a couple’a ‘dem books a’yers! Yew should go see her! Hon, she’ll be so ex-soited!”
I asked Bonnie where Ruth lived. “She’s livin’ where she always been, roight dewn the road just a piece. She got a sign outside. Yew’ll not miss it, hon. It’s just on yer roight, says Long Last, is what it says.”
There wasn’t enough time left before my flight out of Dulles to go down to Ruth’s house, but when I returned to Virginia the next month, I found the “Long Last” sign about a half mile south of grandpa’s old farm. There had been major changes since 1951. In place of a log cabin, there was a white cottage with black shutters set back from the road by a neatly trimmed lawn. A large, black dog barked loudly as I got out of my rental car. Ruth’s son Pud (short for pudding) came around the side of the house and gave me a steely look. When I introduced myself, his face broke into a wide smile and he told me to follow him around back.
When I had called her from L.A. and told her I would be there on a Sunday, she explained that she was catering a church dinner that day. I told her I loved to cook, and I would be happy to give her a hand, and besides, working around the kitchen would give us a good chance to talk.
Pud led me through the back door and I found Ruth standing at a Viking range in the kitchen. She had just put an enormous roast beef in the oven. She was easily recognizable — a diminutive woman with graying hair, her face wore the same infectious smile she had in the photograph. We hugged, and she apologized for the disarray of the kitchen, and we got right to work filling roasting pans with broccoli florets and chicken breasts for a casserole.
Ruth was catering a dinner for 200 guests celebrating the 10 year anniversary of the pastor of the Mount Pisgah Baptist church, a small black church in Upperville. It was a fairly new church, and because they met in a very small building in the country, the anniversary service and dinner would be at the Trinity Episcopal Church and Parish Hall in Upperville, a grand stone cathedral on Route 50 that is a copy of a cathedral in Europe. The TrinityChurch was built with money donated by the Mellon family, which has a horse farm near Upperville. It is a distinct measure of how far that part of Virginia has come since the Jim Crow years when my grandparents lived in LoudonCounty that a small, African American Baptist church was having a religious service and dinner in an enormous cathedral and meeting house built by the Mellon family.
I had brought a copy of the photo grandma took in 1951 to give to Ruth. When I showed it to her, she gasped, covering her mouth. “My goodness, look at me in that uniform! Oh, how I used to hate those things!” She explained that all the black women who worked for white families in those days had to wear them. The maid’s uniforms were hot, and the aprons and cuffs had to be starched and carefully ironed every day. For a 16 year old girl who had to walk about a mile to and from my grandparents’ house every day, the uniform was a sign of servitude, as if the color of her skin wasn’t enough to set her apart from the people she worked for.
I told Ruth that for my grandparents, the maid’s uniforms were a part of the way things had always been, and they probably never gave them any thought. She said she didn’t mind wearing the uniform when she was a girl, because my grandparents paid her 50 cents an hour, at a time when the going rate was only 25 cents. Ruth explained that her mother had gotten sick earlier in 1951, and she had to step in and take her place. She worked every day after school, and all day during the summer. Because of the extra money my grandparents paid her, she was able to earn money to help support her family, and enough for nice clothes and books and school supplies.
But the best thing about working for my grandparents was that she didn’t have to cook. “My mother hadn’t bothered with teaching me anything about cooking,” she explained. “And so when she came down sick, there I was, having to take her job, and me, I didn’t know a thing about a kitchen! Every girl who worked for the white folks back then had to cook three meals a day! But not me, because your grandfather did most all of the cooking, and oh, was he such a good cook! I ate three good meals a day up there, and it’s a wonder I don’t look like a butterball in that picture!”
The fact that 16 year old Ruth Basil ate meals cooked by General Truscott and learned from watching him in the kitchen was not surprising to me. Not to say that our experiences were at all equable, but I had done the same thing as a 16 year old when I spent summers at my grandparents’ house near Washington, and over the years, I had seen both of my grandparents take the time to show other black maids how to prepare and serve drinks, hors d’oeuvres and dinners.
Grandma and grandpa certainly had their generational flaws when it came to race, but being disrespectful or cruel was not among them. So I asked Ruth the question to which, if truth be told, I already knew the answer. What was it like to work for my grandparents? “Oh, your grandmother was an angel! And your grandfather was such a fine gentleman. I loved going to their house every day.”
I trusted Ruth’s answer, but my ears filtered it through a lifetime of listening to men who had served as enlisted men under grandpa during the war talk about him with the same sort of reverence. And I had the same sort of filter when it came to my grandmother. Only a few years before, the very patrician wife of one of grandpa’s aides in the CIA had exclaimed over dinner one night, “I learned everything I know from your grandmother. Everything.”
I don’t question either the truth or the motive of what any of them have said about either grandma or grandpa over the years. But it’s hard to miss the soft focus of the lens through which my grandparents, and people like them, are still viewed today, and not only by their grandchildren.