2018.08.05 My program at Oxford requires two major submissions, both of which were due today. One of the assignments was to write the beginning of a novel. As many of you know I have dreamed of a novel called Mayola and Me for many years. It’s about Jessie Alexander, a middle-class mid- westerner who has married into a prominent and wealthy southern family, and her maid, Mayola. Thanks to this assignment, I have finished Chapter One.
Disclaimers. I have no idea if this “works” or not. We won’t get grades or feedback until Friday. Also the account of Jessie’s catch was included in a previous post.
Finally, some of the characters are composites which include traits of people I have met, and Jessie and I have a few things in common. But none of the composite characters are intended to fully resemble anyone I know.
Mayola and Me
I was born with a stainless-steel spoon in my mouth. In the 1950’s. In the great state of Oklahoma, at the geographic and socio-economic center of what Abraham Lincoln called the “Last Great Hope of the Earth.” Or so I was taught. My parents were hardworking, our home was modest, and our annual family vacation consisted of traveling cross country to Colorado in a pink Rambler station wagon full of cigarette smoke, graham cracker crumbs and hot, cranky passengers. We would spend two weeks there, five of us plus a dog, crammed into my Nana’s tiny apartment, before piling back into the hot smoky car for the two-day trip back to Oklahoma.
Thirty years later, Henry and I, and our two children, vacation in Beaver Creek where we ski, in the Blue Ridge Mountains where we hike portions of the Appalachian Trail, and on Dauphin Island where we bathe in the sun and read good books. And I am the mistress of White Oak Hall, considered by many to be the loveliest home in Birmingham, Alabama. And most Sundays, after church, we sit down to brunch at the Birmingham Country Club. Where white-coated waiters with black faces serve fine food on fine china, and fine wine in lead crystal glasses, to fashionably-clad members seated at places set with fine linen napkins and sterling silver spoons. And not just any sterling. Francis I.
But all was not well.
On this crisp October morning in 2001 I had gone to the Club to hit tennis balls. The satisfying THUNK of the ball colliding with the sweet spot on my racquet had become my therapy of choice as I struggled to cope with the relentless stream of crises upending my friends, my family, and my country. The Club’s never-tired ball-pitching machine can deliver up to eighty balls per minute and smashing them back at the machine was balm for my bruised heart and helped quiet the pandemonium in my head. And gave me time to think. And dramatically improved my tennis game. I had become a competent, if not excellent, player, which was surprising because I had always been considered somewhat clumsy and had little interest in sports.
Eleven-year-old Jessie heard a sharp crack as the bat struck the ball. She occupied her usual spot in right field, the position where most captains tend to place their weakest player. Nevertheless, she wiped the sweat from her forehead, shoved a stray lock of unruly hair behind her ear, adjusted her goggle-like glasses, and focused on the ball as it soared upward against an azure sky. The game was tied at 4 in the bottom of ninth. One out with a runner at first.
The high fly ball completed its arc and to Jessie’s surprise and acute dismay it appeared to be heading straight toward her perpetually outstretched glove. Fly balls weren’t supposed to come anywhere near her. But the ball continued its path, lazily it seemed, and Jessie’s heart raced as she realized she might actually have a chance to catch it. Which she did.
The ball fell squarely into her grasp and she clutched it tightly against her chest for safekeeping. And for savoring. She closed her eyes and indulged in a solitary celebration. Giving herself a virtual hug, she envisioned fireworks exploding into cascades of festive red, white, and blue sparks. She heard the pop of a virtual cork. And felt the spray of chilled champagne.
Jessie was snatched from her victory party by the jumbled shouts of her teammates. She struggled to make out their words.
“Jessie,” they seemed to be saying, “congrats on your first!”
Or was it, “You’ve broken the curse!”
Or maybe “Bet you’re so proud you could burst!”
They kept yelling, “Double-play at first!”
NO! DOUBLE PLAY AT FIRST?
“JESSIE! THROW THE BALL TO FIRST!”
The first base runner, who had taken off toward second just as the ball was hit, had now sprinted back to safety. Jessie’s spirits sank to her knees as she realized it was too late to tag the runner or make a successful throw, but in a panic, she hurled the ball anyway. Her throw was wide by two yards. By the time the ball was recovered, the runner had advanced safely to third base.
The next batter hit a game-winning single.
Fueling my battle with the ball machine that morning was news that my best friend, Dianne, had suffered a recurrence of her cancer. It had metastasized and was attacking her liver and her bones. The prognosis was a certain and agonizing death. Upon overhearing me talk about it in the school drop off line that morning, Erica had asked whether Dianne had children. I told her no, and that Dianne was single. “Well,” Erica observed. “At least she didn’t leave behind a family.” I so wanted to slap her.
And like many Americans, I continued to be haunted by the horrific images, which still popped up daily in newscasts and hastily assembled documentaries, of planes exploding into fireballs as they crashed into buildings in lower Manhattan. Fireballs that turned my country upside down. And killed my cousin, Jenny, whose crime against Radical Islam was boarding a plane to Los Angeles that morning to donate a kidney to our aunt. The attacks also sent the US economy into a freefall. The modest inheritance I had received from my father had shrunk by fifty percent since the attacks. Perhaps the same was true of Henry’s not-so-modest inheritance from his father?
Henry Prescott Alexander. The Fourth. My husband. Lover. Rock. Best friend. Or so I had believed for fifteen years. But over the previous few months, he had been acting strangely. He was distant. Critical. I couldn’t seem to do anything right. Nor could our children. And very distracted. Was he really worried about money? Probably not. His family fortune was vast, diverse and well managed. Was it alcohol? Doubtful. Henry had always shown moderation, even when I had not. Drugs? Not at all his style. What about a preoccupation with someone else? Oh, dear God, please no!
It hadn’t always been this way.
During my final semester at OU, I traveled to Birmingham to attend the debutante ball of Dianne’s younger sister. An social invitation service had matched me with the scion of a prominent Birmingham family, Henry Alexander. “Not Harry” he told me when we were introduced. “And certainly not Hank.”
I shook his outstretched hand. “Jessica. And you can call me Jessie. But never, ever Jess.”
Henry had the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. And a shock of delightfully unruly hair. He looked delicious in his white tie and tails.
Mutual friends warned me to be on guard. “His family has more money than Solomon,” they said. “His house has a name. And his elementary school had a headmaster.” They claimed that Henry-not-Hank was the most eligible bachelor in Birmingham, or maybe in all of Alabama. He had been known to break hearts. And the juiciest tidbit of all, that for this event he had been set up with a social nobody from Oklahoma to avoid the appearance of favor toward one of the local contenders.
I should have been intimidated but I wasn’t. Something about him set him apart from the other prep school boys I knew. He lacked their arrogance, their sense of entitlement, and their disregard for the feelings of lesser beings. Including unlikely sorority girls like me who had received bids because their chapter had been ordered to raise its cumulative grade point average.
Giant bowls of white roses graced every surface,nook and cranny in the Birmingham Country Club from the massive front foyer to the back terrace overlooking the golf course. The aroma was intoxicating. Tiny white lights twinkled from ceilings, stair railings, the balconies that overlooked the ballroom floor, and anywhere else the members of the Committee could find. Sensing that I was new to such high brow affairs, Henry kept up a steady stream of amusing anecdotes about the (not so) exalted company around us while offering subtle hints about etiquette and reassurance that I looked lovely. And while I was not a great dancer, he was, and with him leading me, I became Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire.
Put simply, I had a spectacular time at the party and this was not lost on him. “The cool thing to do at these parties, Jessie, is to act bored,” he observed. “You’re having way too much fun.” With uncharacteristic confidence, I shot back, “Guess I missed the memo.”
One person in the household remained exempt from Henry’s increasingly hostility. Mayola. She had been serving the Alexander family for forty years, as her mother did before her. Her indelible bond with Henry was formed in the terrible days after his mother’s mysterious disappearance and grew as Mayola gradually filled the void in left his heart.
Mayola was raised by a dirt-poor single mother whose husband had died heroically in World War II. A member of the 320th Balloon Barrage Battalion, Private First Class Crawford Washington’s platoon had deployed scores of armed balloons to diffuse enemy fire during the Allied invasion of Normandy. Their efforts helped ensure the invasion’s success and were believed to have saved thousands of lives. Private Washington was killed, however, along with most of his comrades. His widow, Ivy, received almost nothing from a so-called grateful nation.
Life got better for Ivy and Mayola several years after the war when an officer from Crawford’s battalion roomed with Henry Prescott Alexander. The Third. At Duke. The officer had known that Crawford was from Birmingham, had been impressed with his hard work and courage, and knew he had left behind a wife and child. He suggested to Henry that his family look into Ivy’s whereabouts and circumstances. A year later Ivy and Mayola were living in a small, but bright and comfortable cottage on the grounds of White Oak Hall.
Like her father, Mayola was smart, industrious, and as racial tensions in Birmingham and throughout the South intensified, she showed considerable courage. There was also a dignity about her that emanated from somewhere deep inside. Despite her humble circumstances, she spoke with assurance and carried herself like a princess.
Which, in fact she was.
The sound of distant drums struck uncharacteristic fear into the heart of Otumfuo Nana Kofi Karikari, King of the Ashanti tribal federation in what is now Ghana. The tone and cadence of the drums suggested they belonged to the rival Fante people and that their warriors were preparing for battle. The Ashanti had long dominated the region because of their wealth, which was derived from their willingness help satisfy British traders’ insatiable appetite for black Africans. The Fante wanted their share of the lucrative enterprise and appeared to be ready to fight for it.
King Kofi ordered his warriors to prepare for a Fante attack. As he surveyed his troops the king’s eye fell on Prince Osei. He wore a red sash, signifying his royal status, across his muscular body. His finely chiseled face was covered with ceremonial markings and framed by a headdress of orange and black feathers. He exuded strength and courage. The king uttered a silent prayer for Prince Osei. His beloved son.
Two weeks later, Osei, badly wounded by a Fante spear, with an iron collar around his neck and manacles on his ankles and wrists, lay near death in the scorching, filthy hold of a rickety wooden ship making its way across the Atlantic Ocean. Forty percent of the captives aboard would die before reaching their destination. Osei did not. He vowed to live. And demanded that those around him do the same. He was taken off the ship in Mobile, Alabama and sold to the owner of a cotton plantation near Birmingham.
Prince Osei Kofi Karikari was Mayola Washington’s sixth great grandfather.
The persistent ring of my cell phone caught my attention. It was probably Jack, wanting fast food for lunch instead of the nutritious meal served by the school. I hoped it was Dianne with her chemo schedule so I could deploy all the friends who wanted to help her through it. More likely it was Henry. What had I done now?
I packed up my racquet, fished my car keys out of my tennis bag, and thanked the attendant who came to put away the ball machine. It was time to face the day.