Growing up the Army, we spent a couple of weeks on the road pretty much every summer. The Army would assign dad to a new duty station, the moving van would pull up, they’d load up our stuff, into the back seat of the car would go brother Frank and me, and off we’d go down two lane roads with the windows rolled down and hot summer wind in our faces. The first place we would stop on our way to dad’s new assignment was almost always Washington, DC, where we would visit our grandparents for a few days. Then it was back into the car for the two hour drive to visit our great grandmother and great aunts at Wild Acres, their place just outside Charlottesville, sometimes, as in the photo shown here, to lay a wreath on the gravestone of our 5th great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson.
We called our great grandmother “Gran,” but her name was Mary Walker Randolph. She lived most of her life at Edgehill, the Randolph family estate located about three miles as the crow flies down the mountain from Monticello. Edgehill had been owned by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Mr. Jefferson’s first grandson, who inherited it from his parents. His mother was Jefferson’s oldest daughter Martha, who married into the Randolph family and the Edgehill plantation when she wed Thomas Mann Randolph in 1780. They had three children, the second of whom was a son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph Jr. He married into the Meriwether family and had eight children, one of whom was our great grandmother. She was born in 1866 at Shadwell, the farm quite close to Edgehill where Jefferson himself had been born in 1743. Her grandfather, the first Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was born in 1792 and lived until he was killed in a carriage accident in 1875 when Gran was 10. Thomas Jefferson Randolph and his family moved up the mountain from Edgehill and lived at Monticello and managed the place during the last years of Jefferson’s life. He sold Monticello as executor of the estate when Jefferson died in bankruptcy in 1826, and moved his family back to Edgehill where he lived until his death.
During the first 10 years of my great grandmother’s life, when she sat down to dinner each night at Edgehill with her extended family including her grandfather, she was dining with a man who had spent the first 34 years of his life with Thomas Jefferson. So when my brother and I visited Gran every summer in the 1950’s, we were only one dead person – Thomas Jefferson Randolph – away from our 5th great grandfather, Mr. Jefferson himself. Which is either a comment on how young these United States are as a nation, or on the incestuous ness of the Randolph and Jefferson families. Probably both: Thomas Jefferson Randolph Jr. married a distant cousin in the Meriwether family, and my great grandmother married one of her close Randolph cousins, and when he died, she married another. It was said over the years that among the Randolphs in years past, there was really no one good enough for them but another Randolph. Snobbery? Perhaps. Clannishness? Certainly. But there was also just pure closeness: Shadwell, Jefferson’s birthplace, is only a mile from Edgehill, which is in turn only a couple of miles from Monticello. They were born close; they lived close; they married close; they died close; and they were laid to rest close together in the graveyard at Monticello, where today my father and mother and brother Frank lie alongside them.
The tail end of Reconstruction finally caught up to the Randolphs not long after the turn of the 20th Century, and they had to sell Edgehill and send the sons and daughters around a world far from the little corner of Virginia where the family had lived for going on 200 years. My great grandmother and great grandfather took their daughter Sarah to Bisbee, Arizona, where her father would take a job as physician in a copper mining firm. There in Arizona in 1919 at a local cotillion, she met a dashing young cavalryman by the name of Lucian K. Truscott Jr. and on March 29 of that year they were married and began their life together in the Army. My great grandparents remained in Arizona until 1935 when they returned to Virginia and bought a small former roadhouse on the edge of Charlottesville which they fixed up and called Wild Acres. It was quite a step down from the mansion and hundreds of acres that was Edgehill, but it remained the family home until 1957 when Gran died, the place to which all the Randolphs would return to live life in the old ways.
Wild Acres was 30 acres of Virginia woods and pasture with a big house and a little house, as they’re called in the South. The big house is something of a misnomer, having only three bedrooms and a single bath, a kitchen and a great room in the front that was both living and dining rooms combined. The little house, located across a creek and up a small hill, was just a small guest cottage with a couple of rooms.
There was a vegetable garden, a creek that ran clear over a pebbly bottom, a chicken coop, a hog pen and a couple of out buildings. The place was located just outside of Charlottesville off a county road that I can’t recall going anywhere except back to town. My brother Frank and I used to visit there when I was little – four and five – and then later when they said we were “old enough to appreciate it.” Appreciate it we did, my brother Frank and I. It was a strange, mysterious, magical place for us as boys, and in my memory it has stayed that way for 60 years. The place had been a speakeasy, gambling joint and brothel during prohibition, and in the early 50’s, all of that illicit history was lodged deep in the stone walls and down in the basement, which Frank and I found so scary, we used to hold hands going down the stairs. Wild Acres had a special, rough opulence I’ve never found anywhere else. Summers there were as lazy as anyone could make them in those days, and that was pretty lazy.
A vine-covered low stone wall surrounded the big house; the chicken coop was off behind some bushes to the left with the garden next to it, the pig pen just beyond, down by the creek where the hogs could wallow. In the front yard, there were ancient oaks and in back, a long sloping lawn ran off and became a pasture not far off in the distance. On the right was a shed, a place of must and cobwebs and old wood and iron tools. There was a huge foot-pedal grindstone that Frank and I used to get whirring like the wind. Grandpa showed us how to hold an axe-head to the stone, sparks flying. That’s right: a couple of five or six year old boys out in the shed sharpening axes almost as tall as we were. All around us were pieces of oily old Gravely garden equipment – tillers and saws and mowers – that smelled of gasoline and sweat, smells I allow to accumulate among my own garden equipment so my kids can catch something of the aroma of my boyhood.
Behind the garage was a hothouse for tiny chicks to be hatched and raised in, and a rabbit hutch, and there was a water pump right outside the door of the kitchen. In my memory, the place remains almost too good to be true, and it very nearly was: blackberry bushes in the woods, fresh eggs in the morning fried up by Mattie, the cook, freshly slaughtered chicken or Virginia ham for dinner, and if we had been good for an afternoon – a rarity I am sure – we’d be given an ice-cold Coke in a green glass bottle during a hot, lengthy cocktail hour on the lawn under the oaks.
Then there was Mattie’s husband Robert, the gardener and handyman, who mom whispered to us “drank,” which had absolutely no meaning to either Frank or me since everyone around us drank every single day from five to seven or so, and continued into the night after dinner. We used to follow Robert around the property on his rounds as he trimmed bushes, watered flower beds, hoed the garden and every day at 4 o’clock, filled two galvanized garbage cans in the trunk of his car with water from the Wild Acres well. We were told that he drove the cans of water home to where he and Mattie lived in a house without a toilet or running water. Once we asked why Mattie and Robert lived in a house without running water, and I remember my grandmother sighing and explaining to us that was just the way things were. Looking back, Virginia in 1952 might as well have been Virginia in 1852 when it came to black folks like Mattie and Robert.
Robert taught Frank and me our first curse words and just as importantly, how it was possible to piss in the woods, an act which we thought a proper rebuke to the woods’ darkness and scary mystery. One evening I made the mistake of telling dad about learning to piss in the woods from Robert, for which he was scolded. Frank and I made up our minds that night in bed never to tell our mother or father about the things that little boys learn from magical teachers like Robert.
My great grandmother was in her late 80’s and early 90’s in the 1950’s. She lived in the back bedroom of the big house, overlooking the sloping rear lawn. She was tall and thin with silver hair that hung most of the way down her back. Her face, like all aging Randolph faces, was unlined and looked somehow like a baby’s, as if she had gone so far in years she had turned around and come back. Every day in the late afternoon, Frank and I were pulled out of the creek or the work shed or wherever it was we had gotten filthy, dropped into a hot tub, scrubbed clean, dressed in freshly pressed shorts and white short-sleeve shirts, and sent into Gran’s room to visit. Etched in my memory is the sight of her sitting alone by the back window, watching the birds on the feeder outside, brushing her hair with a sterling silver brush, carefully collecting the hair and stuffing it into an engraved sterling silver box to be saved for the birds to make nests in the Spring. She was so old she couldn’t remember where she put her glasses, or some days even who we were, but scenes of half a century before were as clear to her as the hot Virginia sky on a sunny day. She would tell us about the years after the war – the Civil War – the hard times that had followed, and how those times had changed things for the Randolphs. Soon she would tire and mom or one of our great aunts would come for us, and she would take a nap.
But the next day she would be happy to see us again, asking us to put out fresh bird seed, pointing out the different birds that frequented her sill. The red cardinal and its dusky gray mate, the house finches and sparrows, the catbirds and cowbirds and blue jays and other feathered bullies. Her birds were all that really mattered to Gran by that time in her life, I guess, and their importance to her filled the house like the comforting aroma of a fresh-cooked meal. Books on local birds could be found everywhere, field guides and pictorial reference works, and it seemed everyone at Wild Acres spent some time each day talking about Gran’s birds. She was the second to the last generation of great Randolph ladies, Gran was. My grandmother and her sisters Carry and Agnes and Mary Walker were still alive back then, along with their brothers Thomas, Hollins, and Frank. They were in their 40’s and 50’s by that time, but to Frank and me, they already had the ancient, stately mien of Gran, stooped slightly most of them, going to gray, with a sadness that time was passing them by hanging about them like a shawl. I guess my great grandmother was lucky to be coming to the end of her life by then. She wouldn’t live to witness the passing of yet another Randolph homestead, Wild Acres, when it was sold to a developer in 1958. She would die thinking of her birds and the little silver box filled with her hair, stored for their nests in the spring.
Frank and I were awed by all of our great aunts and uncles, but by Aunt Aggie most of all. She smoked Fatima cigarettes in a long black holder and ran the house at Wild Acres after the death of her husband and her oldest sister, Carry. She shared her mother’s fascination with birds and I remember her spending hours sitting on a couch in the living room overlooking the side yard, admiring the birds as they went about their feathered business. For small boys, we spent an inordinate amount of time with Aunt Aggie and Aunt Mary Walker, who we called Miss Moo, her Randolph family nick name. We used to play a game with them, asking question after question until we came up with one hard enough that either Aunt Aggie or Miss Moo announced that in order to answer such a difficult question, she would have to put on her thinking cap. This was a signal for us to rush to the linen closet in the hall and hunt for an old sleeping bonnet they kept on a shelf in there, which would be donned with great ceremony while either of them pondered the answer to our question. We were infinitely disappointed on those days when we failed to come up with a question difficult enough for the thinking cap.
At some point during each of our visits to Wild Acres, mom and dad would take off in the car for a private vacation of their own, leaving us in the care of Aunt Aggie and Miss Moo and sometimes Grandma. They would put up with our antics for a day or two and finally tiring of our rambunctious ways, they would pile us into the back seat of an old three-port-hole Buick and drive us up the mountain to Monticello. Mr. Jefferson’s house was very different in those days from the way it is now, with a visitors’ center and tour buses up to the mountain and guided tours of the house. Back then, all you did was drive up a dirt road, stop at a little guard house and pay a quarter and park along the side of the house in a gravel lot that covered what had been Mr. Jefferson’s vegetable and flower gardens. Aunt Aggie and Miss Moo, however, didn’t have to stop at the guardhouse and drove straight up on the lawn near the front door and parked on the grass under a big tree. Miss Moo would open the door of the Buick and get out and call out, “Waaaalker! Waaaalker!” in her soft Virginia drawl. Then she would sit back down on the front seat and fan herself, waiting for the arrival of Walker, one of the Monticello groundskeepers. After a few moments, a tall black man about her age would amble around the corner of the house, and leaning on the roof of the Buick would say, “How are you today, Miss Moo? You want me to watch the boys for you?” “Yes, Walker, would you?” And off we’d go, shot from a cannon, usually never to encounter Walker again until he would deliver us to the Buick in the late afternoon.
The interesting thing about Walker’s appearance at the side of the Buick on those hot summer mornings was his familiar manner with Aunt Mary Walker. No one outside of the family called her Miss Moo except for Walker the Monticello groundskeeper. I was too young to think to ask about what their relationship had been in years past, but it seems reasonable to think that Walker may have been descended from a slave family at Monticello and could have grown up on the farm at Edgehill just as Miss Moo and Aunt Aggie did. In any case, they had been friendly long enough that he called her Miss Moo, which still seems remarkable these many years later for 1950’s Virginia.
Some of my fondest memories from the summer weeks we spent at Wild Acres are of those days at Monticello. To say that Frank and I had the run of the place would be putting it mildly. Down into the basement store rooms we would go, and off into the so-called “dependencies,” the below-ground slave quarters and work rooms that ran in two long rows from each side of the back of the house below the level of the lawn. Up the narrow staircases we would scamper with our pockets full of pebbles, and out an upstairs window we would climb to hide behind the wooden parapets edging the roof of the house, from whence we would pitch our pebbles down on the occasional unsuspecting tourist. I can recall climbing through Mr. Jefferson’s bed from his dressing room to his office and playing in the dome room upstairs, which seemed as big as a gymnasium to us. In time, Frank and I figured out that if we got muddy enough and tracked enough of a mess through the house at Wild Acres, we could pretty much guarantee ourselves the rest of the day at Monticello. So down to the creek we would go, through the living room and kitchen, out the door and back through the house again. Moments later we would be in the back seat of the Buick waiting to outfox Walker and lose him amongst the magic of Monticello once again.
The dining room, at one end of the great room at the front of the house, with a cathedral roof and windows overlooking the front yard, was the central gathering place and most important room at Wild Acres. For it was there, around a long mahogany veneered table, with all of the members of the family seated in rank and file down both sides, that Randolph family tradition was carried forth, that the Wild Acres way of life had its finest hours. A painting of a hauntingly beautiful young woman, which must have been done sometime in the mid-19th Century, hung high on the all at the head of the table. I don’t think anyone ever said who she was, but I remember thinking as a boy that she looked like my great grandmother must have looked in her 20’s – withdrawn, pale-skinned, her mouth fixed in an expression of youthful sorrow, her eyes holding the dim light that illuminated her few years. The painting seemed to set a mood, a grand presence which complemented what took place at the table.
I don’t recall any of my Randolph relatives attending church, or even any talk of religion, but at dinner each night, the eldest male said grace: “May the Lord bless us and make us thankful for these and all thy other mercies, for Jesus Christ’s sake, Amen.” When grandpa was at the head of the table, usually on weekends, after saying the grace that had been passed down through the generations of his wife’s family he would grin like a little boy, grab his carving knife and fork and growl in that acid-scarred voice of his, “Now let joy be unrestrained!” Everyone would laugh, the kitchen door would swing open, and Mattie would serve the meal. Fresh squash and sweet potatoes, hot beaten biscuits, great hunks of roast beef, perhaps a Virginia ham so salty you had to follow each bite with a swig of ice water from the sterling silver polo trophy goblets set at each place. Everything was right out of the garden, the beef from a farmer down the road, the ham from a local smokehouse. Everyone dressed for dinner, my father in a coat and tie, grandpa in a crooked bow tie, the Randolph ladies in long, flowing, summery prints, Frank and me in pressed white shirts and shorts and slicked-back hair. Conversation never lulled. Manners were as crisp and fresh and delightful as garden cucumber. White napkins lay starched in our laps. The silverware, some of it from Edgehill, shone brightly at each place setting.
It was all as elegant as dinners at Edgehill must have been years and years before, and it happened that way every single night without fail. My grandmother and great aunts spoke in tones that are gone now – an English accent with a slow, spine-tingling Virginia drawl. As boys, Frank and I were made to feel as much a part of the Randolphs as possible. They wanted it to get into our blood, those old folks did. They wanted us to grow up knowing at least a little of life as they had known it – slow and studied and graceful and wonderful beyond words. And we did. I have some of that silverware from Wild Acres in the sideboard in the dining room, not far from the room where I’m writing this. It’s part of the family legacy and used for special occasions, of course, but sometimes I get it out and set the table the way it was set at Wild Acres in memory of all of those marvelous Randolph women who taught Frank and me so much.
Life in those years in the early 1950’s was the last gasp of what was left of the Randolph reign in Virginia, an aristocracy that had begun with John, the first governor of the state, and ran through the Jeffersons, the Meriwether Lewises, ending finally at the former speakeasy that had been transformed into Wild Acres. Never again would any of the Randolphs have a grand place in the country to which the family could retreat. Everyone seemed to sense that the end was near, that soon expenses and the age of Gran and the great aunts would cause the closing of Wild Acres. The last years out there must have been bittersweet, although I don’t know for sure, because we spent the mid-50’s in Europe following dad’s career in the Army. By the time we returned in 1958, the place had changed. Gran had died in 1957, Aunt Aggie was presiding, and the pressures of running the place made it impossible for her to spend the time with little boys that had meant so much to us before. There was a sense during the last hot Virginia summer that Wild Acres’ time had come and gone, that there was little left to hang onto. Robert was drinking more than ever toward the end, mom told us. The lawn was not always properly mowed; the outdoor furniture needed painting; the pigs were gone from their wallow; the chicks had grown up and the brooder was empty; only a few chickens remained, pecking around the house. Even the garden was weedy.
Some of the magic was gone for Frank and me. We were a little older, and the woods were not as dark and deep and frightening. The walk down the drive to the mailbox no longer seemed like it was a mile long. Rides in the wheelbarrow — long hours of thrills we gave each other in daredevil rides down the ravine and up the hill to the little house — were not half as breathtaking. Mattie, still cooking in the linoleum-floored kitchen, looked strained and tired. I remember my father saying that Mattie and Robert didn’t know what would happen when the place was sold, and a few years later hearing from him that Robert had gone blind, and all they did was sit and rock on their front porch in Charlottesville. He didn’t know where they got their water. Their kids were taking care of them. No longer was there a Randolph homestead that needed the care of Mattie and Robert.
When Wild Acres was sold, my great aunts moved into apartments in Charlottesville and Washington, resplendent with the furniture and china and silverware and even the smells of those days at Wild Acres. They went on to take care of themselves and each other, but it wasn’t the same. Apartments didn’t need a Mattie or a Robert. History had passed them by – the Randolphs, Mattie and Robert, all of them, leaving only us to remember.