Change; not even the quarter, nickel, or dime type was appreciated in our house. I don’t remember ever seeing a spare coin atop a table or amid the dross in the back hall drawer where everything that didn’t have a place ended up. No jar sequestered on a corner of a bureau collected dust and pennies. The thin dimes the tooth fairy brought, once discovered and delighted over, were promptly deposited in our sterling silver piggy banks; each with initials engraved in script. It was as if change didn’t exist. I wonder if coins in a pocket would have been eschewed if they had been called anything else.
My mother, Virginia Stuart Mackey, understood her biological duty was to nurture us children. She found the job difficult. Tall, angular, pale, and blonde, my mother spit my brother, sisters, and me out in her image, and then proceeded to whirl about our lives like an icy comet in an orbit rarely intersecting our own.
Our maid, Ethel, would puff up with pride whenever she said, “Miz Ginny done made a good-looking bunch of chil’ren.” I guess she was right. Each of us had our mother’s hair and blue eyes, although in varying shades. Not one of us had exactly the same color hair or eyes; but there was no question who our mother was. We each, in our own way, had something of her looks.
Soft and round, Ethel was the color of coffee with cream, with big freckles dotting her broad nose. Her wide set eyes were light brown, and her lips were thin. Short, just over five feet tall; she weighed well over two hundred pounds.
I grew up thinking that Ethel and my mother were as close as any two friends could be despite the fact that it was 1957. Even to a child that seemed unbelievable considering they were so different in color, shape, and attitude. Friendship had to be next to impossible: in Virginia it was against the law for a colored person to drink from the same water fountain as a white. Yet, for as long as I could remember, thirteen hours a day, six and a half days a week, my mother and Ethel shared their lives. Well, that’s not quite true. My mother shared her life. Ethel listened and edited her own life. And despite their disparate worlds, their views were remarkably similar; their thoughts intertwined like neglected perennials in an old flower bed.
Each of us children was named for somebody else. My sister Stuart was the oldest and the prettiest; she’d just turned fourteen. She hated her name, though I don’t know if that was because it sounded like a boy’s name or because it was my mother’s maiden name. Next oldest to Stuart was my brother, Gordy, just nine at the time. Gordy was named after my mother’s brother, Gordon Stuart. Then there was me, Sallee; seven and named after Daddy’s father, Sallee. It was an unusual and unfortunate name for a man as far as I was concerned. I was happy to be a girl. Helen, at just four and a half, was the baby of the family and was named for my father’s mother who died days before Helen was born. It was lucky that Helen was a girl; I think my parents would’ve gone right ahead with the name even if the baby had been a boy. I can’t imagine a boy on earth who would have been able to tolerate Helen as a name.
The house we lived in was big like a mansion of the old South: butter-colored stucco with enormous fluted columns and dark green almost black shutters on the floor-to-ceiling windows in the front. It sat in one of the tree-lined neighborhoods that rimmed the University of Virginia where my father had gone to law school. It was the prettiest house on the street. My mother said that if it hadn’t been she would never have allowed Daddy to buy it because of the tacky houses that ran down one side of the property line.
“Not charming like slave quarters,” she’d say to most any visitor. “Just tacky post–First World War housing.” I didn’t know why she thought slave quarters were so charming. The ones I’d seen had been nothing but old, rotting, weed choked, falling down sheds. She definitely wouldn’t have wanted those right next-door. I think the thing she hated most about those houses was their proximity. When our kitchen door was open, you could hear the neighbors talking; the houses were that close. So unless it felt like it was a million degrees inside, she always insisted that our kitchen door stay closed.
A few weeks after her birthday, Stuart decided to have her hair cut short, almost like a boy’s. She made the appointment herself, convincing the barber that our mother knew all about it. When we pulled up in the car to pick her up, my mother took one look at my sister’s head and started screaming. She left the car idling with us inside while she stalked into the barbershop to give the barber a lecture. Clear out in the car we heard her demand in her most offended tone, “How dare you ruin my little girl’s looks?” Still fuming when she got back into the car, she slammed the door and said, to no one in particular, “Cutting girls’ hair without their mothers’ approval. How dare he?” Stuart sat mute in the front seat. She had been acting pretty smug up until then, but I could see she was trying not to cry. As for me, I squirmed with humiliation.
Stuart, especially as she got older, looked more and more like my mother. Adults loved to compliment her on the resemblance; Stuart loathed it. Anything that had to do with my mother was like poison to Stuart, it seemed. She and my mother got along about as well as beets and mashed potatoes. You had to keep them on opposite sides of the plate if you didn’t want to create a big pink mess.
My mother was a beautiful woman and we all knew it; my mother most of all. She wore her long golden hair up in a loose bun, or in a braid wrapped around her head for parties. Her features were delicate. She always wore jewelry that shimmered and jingled when she moved. We were lucky to have such an attractive mother, people said. It boded well for how we would turn out. Sometimes I would look in the mirror and study my face, searching for signs of my mother in it. But I’d ended up with my father’s square face and round nose; features that suited him just fine, but made me look boyish in spite of my long hair.
That long hair was a Mackey girl trademark, as far as my mother was concerned. She took pride in it, delighting in the variations among us, even running her fingers through Helen’s soft curls sometimes. I think that’s why she was heartbroken when Stuart lopped hers off.