After my grandfather passed away in the year 1854, my grandmother came to live with us in Baltimore. I was eleven. The move was against her will, having lived in Virginia for many years after immigrating from England with her husband, and arguing the point with my father with many sheets of parchment and veritable gallons of ink that comprised their correspondence.
But, my father insisted that she should leave the empty estate in Virginia and join us all in Maryland. He was a successful accountant for a textile firm, while Mother dedicated all of her waking hours rearing us. My grandmother was to join her in that role, with time for her quilting, and for her watercolors, while mother made social connections in town. Father was seeking to rise in the ranks, and Mother intended to help him through the wives. As for my Grandmother, it was the promise of the company of us children that convinced her to acquiesce to my father’s wishes, she told us later.
At age 65, my Grandmother retained the fiery spirit of someone much younger. According to my father, she’d always been outspoken, without any thought to the consequences of her words. She was impulsive. In my father’s world of carefully observed social discourse, it was something that we children greatly admired in her. To us she’d had always seemed to us to be an adventurer, even if the adventures she had pursued by the time she’d come to live with us were of a more subtle nature. There was something of the pixie about my Grandmother. It was as if she was not of her time, not because she belonged to the age previous as so many of her generation did, but more that she belonged to an age to come.
My father did not understand her peculiar views on the issues of the day, or indeed her approach to the roles assigned to her gender. She certainly did not adhere to the role of forlorned widow, being out on the town great deal of the time on errands and projects of her own design, wandering the countryside out of town, or on trips to the public library, or in writing letters to her older sister Great Aunt Emily who still lived in England, or at her church that hosted her quilting circle. She also took long walks in town as well, sometimes taking us with her to the park, the market, and any number of other places near and far. She described it as her instinct to wander, to ramble as she had done in her youth in the north of England where she had once had “many adventures“. She did indeed have peculiar ideas. They were opinions held by many. And yet many did not suspect that my Grandmother would be among them who did.
We were at dinner one Sunday evening; my younger sister Anna, and Emily younger still, my older brother Roderick, and Charles the eldest of us all. We were dutifully seated that evening, and dressed in our Sunday clothes as our servant Clara served Sunday roast as was our custom at the time. Mother sat at one end of the table smiling beatifically beside my father who was naturally at the head. My Grandmother sat primly at the opposite end of the table with a characteristically mischievous twinkle in her eye. Mr. Gear sat to her immediate left, a young man of twenty who was a part of a powerful family in Virginia with whom my father hoped to make a business arrangement. Mother and Father had met young Mr. Gear at church, and had taken him under their wing in an act of Christian charity, inviting the stranger to their home, an act he would presumably remember upon his return to the offices of his powerful father.
Upon learning that my father had been raised in Virginia, Mr. Gear spoke of his own travels on business to the cotton plantatinons on behalf of his father, meeting with plantation owners to import their cotton to textile firms in the north, like the one for whom my father worked. This could not fail to activate my grandmother’s interest in the young man’s narratives of his exploits there, although she held her peace as he spoke of the virtues of the simple, agrarian life of the slaves in the cotton fields, enamoured as he was with the sound of their melancholic tunes as they toiled. But, even she had her limits, which we’d find out about soon enough.
Clara set a turine of vegetables on the table next to him as he spoke.
“Never have you heard such sweet and divinely inspired music, like angel song. It is the sound of contentment itself, although with a tinge of melancholy which made it all the sweeter. They are a remarkable species. It was as if God himself made them for our pleasure, like the birds.”
Clara filled Mr. Gear’s water glass.
“Perhaps these laws to keep them on the farms should they stray away from those fields seem to be self-serving to many of the abolitionist persuasion. Yet, I cannot help but think that our stern polices are merely for their own benefit in the end. Our laws are only inspired by a greater law, to protect even the lowliest among us. The law of nature, if you will, as overseen by an officiate greater than any on earth.”
Clara refilled the gravy boat.
“After all, does not the Holy Scripture itself command that a slave should return to his master? Does it not also say that all worldly principalities are set in their seats by the Almighty, ruling over us as we rule over our subordinates?”
Clara disappeared from the room without a word, carrying an empty bread basket, her expression unchanged, unhindered.
“My goodness, Mr. Gear,” said Grandmother with a sweet smile. “What an utter pack of balderdash!”
Mr. Gear stopped, and smiled awkwardly, looking to my father at the other end of the table with a questioning gaze. My grandmother continued, maintaining a sweet smile, yet with an edge to her voice that was somehow as terrible as a roaring lion despite her cordial smile.
“My dear sir, I fear that you have rather proven the point that just a little experience and knowledge must be as dangerous and as corrupting a force as no experience or knowledge at all. The same must be said of your appalling and ham-fisted command of the scriptures.”
“Mother,” my father interjected. “I’m sure that Mr. Gear holds nothing but the most benign intentions …”.
But, my Grandmother continued.
“No, doubt, no doubt, Charles. He knows not what he does, I’m sure. It’s a very good thing that my son has set a place for you at his table this evening, Mr. Gear. Truly! For surely one of such tiny-minded ineffectuality would otherwise be made an immediate victim of the elements.”
At that, my mother gasped. We children looked on, amazed. Mr. Gear’s face blanched, and then flushed red all in an instant. Then, he spoke in a hoarse, strangulated tone. “Madam, with all due respect, I must insist …”
“Can anyone be truly contented who is also enslaved, Mr. Gear? Those songs of sorrow are certainly inspired, as you’ve said. But not by the divine. In fact, they are inspired by quite the opposite, sir. Their song is not the product of a contented life of simplicity, but rather by the anguish of missing children, never to be heard from or seen by their parents ever again. That is the woeful song which you compare so carelessly to the singing of the angels, Mr Gear. ”
The poor young man’s eyes widened, his mouth held in a stupified “o”.
“Their children are sold from under them, like your firm deals in cotton, sending it up river to be used as grist. The same goes for wives and husbands, sir, with love’s divine blessing split asunder in order to serve the baser demands of profit. It is remarkable that you have spent so much time in a place while completely failing to understand the fundamental differences between its charms and its evils.”
“Madam, I assure you …”
“You apparently have done so in favour of a belief that your surroundings were, and presumably are yet still, designed merely for your pleasure alone, with the anguish of others merely as a trifle, a distraction for you with which to later amuse us at this table this evening. I weep for future generations with one such as you at the helm of industry, sir. And as for slaves returning to their masters, Mr. Gear, I suggest you follow suit yourself, and return to whatever masters you serve. For I observe not their authority here, nor anywhere else.”
And so he did, as quickly as his Southern manners would allow.
“Why did you get angry at poor Mr. Gear at the dinner table tonight, Grand-mama?” I asked her as she completed her reading of a volume of Aesop’s Fables to us. Anna had fallen asleep beside me, as had been her custom during every story time. Emily had fallen asleep before Anna, as was hers.
She smiled and stroked my hair. Anna turned in her sleep next to me, and so my Grandmother whispered her response. “I wasn’t angry at poor Mr. Gear alone, my sweet Virginia. And perhaps I was rather harsh with him. I fear also that I must make amends to your poor Father and Mother as well. Tonight, Mr. Gear took on the accounts of many like-minded people who stand on the other side of a great divide from my own thinking. It is a schism that grows ever wider in our troubled history of late. For many believe that if the Negro were our equal, he would not have allowed himself to have been made subservient to us. This thought is at the heart of all manner of evils in our land, my love.”
“But why? Why are there slaves, Grand-Mama?”
“Because there are those who feel that the world was made for their use alone, handed down from the Throne of God Himself into their hands. But, I say it is the man who resists the temptations of greed and the drive to dominance over others who is the greater man. That is the example Our Lord gave us, when He he turned from that very temptation in the wilderness, set before him by the Devil who offered him power and glory over others. Instead, He wandered the world with few possessions and many friends, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, defending the woman accused of adultery, and he brought them all back into the Temple again where the hypocrites sought to deny them entry. ”
“I don’t understand, Grand-Mama,” I said.
“Meet me at the quilting circle tomorrow.” she said. “I will show you, my love.”
My Grandmother’s church was on the outskirts of town. After we left the schoolhouse, Emily, Anna, and I set off to meet our Grandmother there as had been arranged. Roderick and Charles were blithely uninformed as to the nature of our meeting. But, our talk of meeting Grandmother in time for her quilting circle was enough to disinterest them. My mind was full of curiosities about what lay in store, for I knew that my Grandmother meant for our meeting to be more than it appeared. For, her comings and goings had been mysterious since she had come to live with us in the months previous. We had never been invited to her church before, since we attended our own with Mother and Father in town. My sisters and I were straying into an undiscovered country where our Grandmother ruled supreme. We couldn’t wait to get there.
As we wandered, and as our conversation flitted from one topic to another as butterflies alight on flowers one by one, we noticed the directions that Grandmother had given to us had taken us to a part of town that we’d never explored. It began to us to feel like a clandestine mission that we were on, and each of us I’m sure felt the thrill of excitement at the prospect. The people we met on the street were strangers to us, many of them being the faces of Freeman who had come up from the Southern States. It was a fearful time for them after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law only a few years before, commanding that all cities and states aid in the capture of escaped slaves, even those fugitives who had settled into the sheltering arms of a free state such as our own beloved state of Maryland.
Indeed, I’d overheard my brother Charles speak of slave hunters capturing supposed escapees from the plantations in VIrginia and the Carolinas, with many among them who had never been slaves at all. And yet away they had been taken according to the law, with the blessings of a judge. The thought of that filled me with fear as well, that one should be taken so cruelly, and sent to a life of toil and imprisonment for no other crime but being Negro in a world where it was the white man who sat in the seats of judgement over all.
As we reached the edge of town, we caught sight of our destination as it had been described to me. The church building was a modest wooden structure, not unlike the schoolhouse from whence we’d come. Grandmother waited for us on the church step, a smile beaming from her face when she saw the three of us, holding hands, and crossing the dirt road and up the path to meet her at the door of the church. She kissed and hugged us in turn.
“Ah, my lovelies. It is a sore thing that I have not up until now greeted you here. I am glad that I have remedied this, and on such a fine day. Come! Come into this house of worship! You must meet my friends, and they must meet you!”
We entered to see a circle of five women set about at quilting down a short aisle of pews, looking up at us as we entered. They were unknown to us, but I had never felt such an immediate sense of welcome. Indeed, they had every reason to be suspicious of us, as they were Negroes and we were not. It dawned on me with very little surprise, that my Grandmother’s church was indeed an African Methodist church. What father would have said had he known! For even then, I was sure that he did not.
“Children, this is Cicily, Harriet, Belle, Providence, and Martha, They are my friends. My friends, these are my grandchildren, the ones of which I’ve shared so many tales.”
We greeted each women in turn, catching sight of their needlework as we did so; intricate patterns on cotton quilts, with that cotton derived from the plantations for which so many of their people had toiled.
“Who are these quilts for, Grand-Mama?” asked little Emily.
One of the women, Belle, took her by the hands. “They are for the Sojourners, Child. We use the gift that the Almighty gave us, taking the fruits of his fields, and making quilts to keep the innocent, and the oppressed as warm as can be in during cold nights of travel.”
“Where are they going? Where are the Sojourners heading?” Asked Anna.
“They go north, north, so far north, to the coast, to lands by the sea, and far from them who seek to keep them enslaved, Child.” said Providence with a beaming smile.
“Our quilts keep them warm as they sleep in the wilderness, ” said Ciclily. “Like Moses and the Children of Israel, they flee from the land of Pharaoh and into a Promised Land. We are their haven of rest as they make their way.”
“Remember what I told you, Virginia,” my Grandmother said to me. “That some men seek to possess the world, and to possess the very spirits of others to do so. Our circle is dedicated to the eradication of that unlawful possession, and the impulse to pursue it. For men must never seek to own another man, must never seek to enslave him in a world where justice must rule.”
“You help the slaves, Grand-Mama. That is why you got so angry at Mr. Gears. But, I fear for you, Grand-Mama, should they find you to be at the head of this secret circle.”
Grandmother put her hand on my head. “My dear, it’s true that I stand opposed to the law of the land, and it is true that I have brought you into my confidence; all of you girls, who I love with all of my heart. But, it is not I that leads the fight against darkness in this humble house of worship, with quilts, with clothes, with reading lessons, with food, with a multitude of things that we pass along from the Almighty who in turn cares for us. No.”
“Then, who is the great hero who leads the circle, Grand-Mama?” I asked.
“I will introduce you to one who is yet unseen, my loves. Come.”
The five women waved as we made our way behind the pulpit, and into a back stairwell to a cellar. As we descended, I felt a strange sense that whatever we would all find at the bottom of those stairs would change our lives forever. Whether it would make our lives easier or more difficult, I could not then say. But, I trusted my Grandmother completely, and utterly. I knew that even in danger, I would be safe so long as I was with her.
When we all reached the bottom of the stairs, Clara was there. She embraced each of us, and with a kiss. “I am so glad to have you, children. Welcome to our haven of rest,” she said. “And let me introduce you to our friends. This is Benjamin, Ruth, little Isaiah, and baby Sarah. They are fleeing from a place where the masters mean to sell them to three different plantations, to break up their family forever. So, they are running away north to Nova Scotia. It is a long way, a powerful long way. ”
There in the darkness was the haggard, and yet beautiful family. They were tired. The fear that they must have carried with them lingered on those smiling faces. But, their gratitude was all the stronger. Isaiah was about my Emily’s age, and he clung to his mother as Emily sometimes did. Sarah was a babe in arms, swaddled and asleep in a quilt that resembled one of the ones the five women above were making.
But, it was not the sight of the family that commanded my attention. It was Clara, the dutiful and silent presence in our home as our servant was transfigured before our eyes into a strong, fearless leader of the just, and protector of the weak. I understood in that moment that the complexities life could not be contained by any rude system of man’s devising, and neither could human courage.
“Clara, you are the great heroine that Grand-Mama has spoken of? But, you are our servant!” I said.
Clara laughed. “Yes, child. I am a servant in your house, in cooking, and cleaning, and errand-running. But, I am the servant of many in the whole earth as His disciple, children. Come nightfall, Benjamin, Ruth, Isaiah, and little Sarah must leave, and they must take our quilts with them for comfort, and as a sign to our brothers and sisters farther north that they have come through our station. They must go north to the next station. It is here where I have served best.”
“This is a great, great secret you’ve shared with us,” I replied.”Why did you keep it hidden from us? Why didn’t we know who you really were all along?”
“That’s why you are here, children. Your Grand-Mama convinced me that if the Lord said suffer the little children to come unto me, then I must provide the way to see his will be done through them, too.”
I was in awe of Clara, so silent in our house, and yet here appearing before us like a prophet of old, and with a voice shimmering with wisdom. Then, Emily spoke.
“We mustn’t say anything to Mother and to Father, and to Roderick or Charles,” said Emily. “I know that we mustn’t.”
“Isn’t it a sin to tell a lie, Grand-Mama?” asked Anna.
“No,” I said suddenly as the clouds began to part in my mind. “It is a sin to let the wicked prosper, while the innocent suffer, and while we have the power to prevent it. Emily is right; we mustn’t tell Father, or Mother, or Roderick, or Charles. They would not understand. I saw them at dinner. I saw their faces as Grand-Mama spoke. I hear them when they speak to Clara, and to others, too. It is not their fault. They are not young enough to change their minds, nor old enough to have gained the wisdom to realize that they can.”
Our grandmother looked at us there in the dark, as the little family in the corner too tired to speak looked on fearfully. “Yes,” she said sadly. “For the Lord’s will brings not peace, but a sword. And the slashing of that sword I fear we have yet to endure.”
“And soon, I must leave you, children,” said Clara. When the family here is safe and away to Philedelphia, I must return to Virginia. I am needed there, and I wanted to say good-bye to you. But, I shall return if I can.”
“No, you mustn’t!” cried Anna. “They will get you!”
Clara smiled wanly, and for an instant she was as silent as we’d always known her. “Here,” she said to us. “You must each take a quilt that we have made for the Sojourners. You are Sojourners yourselves now.”
Then she gave us each a quilt, kissed us all, and Grandmother took us home.
After that night, we never saw Clara again.
Katherine Margaret Spencer Collins, my Grandmother, stayed with us until her death just before Mr. Lincoln was elected. I was seventeen, and having taken up her mantle by then, I too served in the station of rest, as did my sisters with the women and men of the parish. I taught the parishioners at the church how to read as my grandmother had done, including the “Sojourners” who came through more regularly in the years leading up to the war. Belle took over the Station, silent and submissive as a housekeeper in Baltimore as Clara was, but the head of our circle otherwise. I accepted her authority gladly, for she had much to teach me. From her, I learned that I too was moving from station to station, with wisdom as my quilt.
As the war progressed, Anna became a nurse and worked in the field hospitals. Both Roderick and Charles joined the Union Forces. We lost both of them as they fought the rebels at the Battle of Sharpsburg in September of ’62. My father died from the grief of those terrible losses. After the War Between The States was won, all three sisters and our Mother too took up the cause to suffrage, and in the education of freed slaves who made their way northward as they had before emancipation.
I sit in a chair near a window and look out onto the grass of the yard where my great-grandchildren play. I am old now, one decade older than my Grandmother was when she died. I remember my parents, my brothers, both of my sisters, Belle my mentor. I have buried them all. And I see a world that has changed from bad times, to better, to bad again, to times such as these when all around would forget the horrors of the past rather than working to ensure they are never repeated. Slavery is long gone, and yet the stench of it remains, and the hatred between those who do not share the same color of skin endures. Women can now vote thanks to the nineteenth amendment passed five years hence, that which we fought so hard to accomplish. And yet very few women roam and ramble as my Grandmother had once done without great judgement cast upon them, still bound up as they are by the confines of expectation. We are still on a great and winding and rocky road, and there are still many who seek to possess the world, and all of those in it at any cost. But, I am so tired now.
Despite the warmth of the sun that streams through the window, I gather the material of the old and beloved quilt in my gnarled hands as best I can.
I pull it tightly around me.