The white in the room was overwhelming. Marion Miller had lived through eight decades affording her time to get acquainted with a variety of styles. The last two years had found her experimenting with a new monochromatic trend that had resulted in a shapeless room with shadows so sharp they overpowered the lighting. Elizabeth hated entering that room. The rest of the house had also fallen victim to the trend but could at least boast of more vibrant hues. The parlor was pink, the kitchen yellow, and even Elizabeth had participated in inundating her own room with purple.
Sickness had befallen Marion Miller for the past seven months and murmurs among the house staff predicted she would not welcome in the New Year. Elizabeth had heard these whispers. Whispers she tried to ignore because they confirmed what she already felt in the pit of her stomach. Bed rest had dimmed her grandmother’s spry personality. It quieted her. And this was disorienting for someone who had grown up under her voice. Marion gave Elizabeth what her father never would, approval. She allowed Elizabeth to exist in a world that despised her.
Elizabeth’s father had married a woman whose kindness concealed her lack of pedigree. Mary was honest, hardworking, and fragile. The eldest of five daughters and hardly the most attractive. A woman desperate to marry, unaware that a life devoted to her siblings could easily be substituted for a life in servitude of her husband. Her family was poor, ordinary, but they were white. The only prerequisite William demanded. Her piercing blue eyes and yellow hair were all the lineage he needed. Once, he had even flipped her hand over to expose her wrist. Holding it against his own to show his father the blueness of her veins.
Elizabeth loved her grandmother, in the way a child without a mother might, with gratefulness but aware of the substitution. When she was younger her grandmother had given her everything she desired. Horseback riding lessons, singing lessons, piano lessons, no peripheral interest went by unsponsored. William hated this about their relationship. He knew Marion spoiled the child to relieve the pain of being motherless. A habit, he predicted, would embolden the girl’s already resilient constitution. Try though he might, William was never able to sway his mother from committing her life to assuage the girl’s every need.
Similarly, his father, William James Miller III, found Marion’s rearing of the girl to be repulsive. He was a stern, racist man who had fought in WWII and described himself as a self-made businessman. He spoke to Elizabeth in commands, rarely asking any questions unless it was to interrogate her about a presumed crime. He ironed every article of clothing, was never late to church, and kept a white hooded robe with a blood drop cross insignia tucked away where his spare tire should have been.
Hence, when Elizabeth’s hazel curls and tinted skin emerged from Mary the only logical explanation was infidelity. For the Miller men, adultery was a sin they would have liked to see punished through lashing. That such an act was committed with the race they most vehemently despised was a death sentence they deemed best executed by stoning. The girl’s birth was an immediate embarrassment. Mary was confined to solitude in her bedroom. Her sisters were turned away time and again. No servants were allowed to wait on her or the baby. So the young mother and child attempted to heal in isolation; in silence that was only broken when the Miller men would speak about her using words such as whore, n___ lover, and Jezebel near her door.
One day, Mary placed a three-week old Elizabeth in the bassinet she had once so delicately decorated in anticipation of her first child and hung herself from the upstairs bedroom window. She had done so at night and it was the wailing of a hungry and perhaps marginally aware Elizabeth that awoke the household. The two overnight maids stood by the door of the broken woman's bedroom desperately wanting to enter, to sympathize, to aid in any way they could, but fear of the Miller men kept them firmly placed inches from the doorknob.
Finally, in a fit of rage the Miller men. marched up the stairs with Marion treading close behind. They flung open the door to discover Mary’s white, lifeless body swaying in the night; a public demonstration of a private surrender. Had Marion not trailed behind the two men the child would have certainly been disposed of. They hauled the woman’s body indoors, aggravated that she had not considered using one of the high beams within the room to make the process of cutting her down easier for them. The maids were mortified. Marion did not speak a single word. She took the crying Elizabeth in her arms and moved into the adjoining bedroom set to be her nursery. She did not leave the child’s side even when bathing. Maids were required to stand in the bathroom with her holding the baby in their arms in plain sight of Marion. This continued well into the girl’s toddler age until Marion no longer feared that the Miller men would dispose of her as swiftly as they had her mother.
As the child grew, so did the disdain and disregard of the Miller men. What began as outfight insults weakened to backhand comments, and finally settled as a cold shoulder, a blind eye, a deaf ear, body parts a lonely child had no idea how to reconcile. Therefore Marion became the girl’s saving grace quite literally. She belonged to Marion and the hosts of Black servants that worked throughout the house. With Marion she found protection, in the servants she found solace. And in this way Elizabeth was raised. Nursed by pity, lulled in solidarity. She was as her mother’s body had been, tossing in the wind, vacillating between love and hate for herself and for others.
In any other family she could have passed as white. Her mixed features were unique enough to warrant compliment, but faint enough to not garner suspicion. But alas, where friends saw beauty, the Miller men saw hate, where teachers saw greatness, the Miller men saw wickedness, where others saw Elizabeth, the Millers saw a symbol, a mark, a lasting representation of Blackness in a family committed to hatred.
Now, as Elizabeth began to feel the nearness of Marion’s death she began to avoid her more. Distancing herself from the one family member she loved. While in health, Marion and Elizabeth spent countless hours in the same room, even when engaged in different activities. A practice that had begun as a necessity now continued as a tradition that was done by choice. In sickness, Elizabeth kept her distance. She found that the air in her grandmother’s room smelled of masked sickness and this repulsed her though she concealed it. Marion would ask the maids about the girl, but never requested that she be forced to come see her, though the maids always suggested Elizabeth do so. Often they forced the girl to interact with the woman by sending her up to deliver Marion’s herbal tea in the late afternoons.
On September 21st, the eve of her mother’s suicide, Elizabeth ascended the steps towards her grandmother’s bedroom with added caution. Naturally she did not want to break Marion’s porcelain tea set, but there was something extra, a deliberate slowness in her step; a hesitation that exceeded her typical pause. As she crept the door open she found Marion awake though her body limped to one side in defeat. Placing the turquoise colored kettle on the nightstand she served them both tea.
“Why do people keep secrets?” Marion asked her granddaughter in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Grandma?” Elizabeth asked.
“Why do you think people keep secrets?” Marion asked again.
“I don’t know. Maybe because they’re afraid.” Responded Elizabeth.
“Afraid of what?” Marion asked.
“Afraid of the truth.” Elizabeth replied.
Marion sat in silence for a bit contemplating the girl’s response.
“Do you think people are afraid of the truth, or of what people will think of them once they know it?”
“The second one." The girl contemplated. "You can’t really be afraid of what you already know.” She paused. “Perhaps a secret is just a lie you wish you could believe. A truth unknown to everyone else but you."
“Do you think people can be forgiven for the secrets they’ve kept?”
“You always say everyone deserves forgiveness.”
“But should they be forgiven?” Marion asked again, lapsing into a fit of coughing that caused Elizabeth to rise to her feet prepared to seek out help.
“I’m okay, I’m okay.” Marion wheezed, clenching her chest in pain.
“Do you want me to get Ethel?” Elizabeth asked with concern.
“No, no, I’m alright. Just a little dust.” Marion responded, attempting to settle down.
“I have something I want to share with you.” Marion began. “Something you should have known all your life, but fear choked the words within me.”
“Is it about my mother?” Elizabeth asked, feeling her stomach turn as her heart began to race. A feeling she had felt whenever she found herself in the periphery of a truth she knew was being kept from her.
“Yes.” Marion replied. Exhausted and still heaving, she directed the girl to bring her the worn bible she kept in her first drawer.
Handing it to her grandmother, Elizabeth sat upright in her chair. She observed as the now weakened women picked at the corners of the inner back cover.
“Do you need help with that, grandma?” Elizabeth asked, wanting to tear apart the bible, anxious to know.
Marion nodded in weakness.
The girl nearly leapt to her feet. Taking the bible from Marion she tore at its cover until she was able to withdraw a single old photograph.
Elizabeth stared at the picture expecting, desiring more. Marion’s wrinkled hands reached for the photo. As she handed it to her, Elizabeth noticed the photograph had been signed.
“Who is that grandma?” She asked.
Marion stared at the photo in silence. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes before whispering, “Your grandfather.”
As the words slipped through her lips a violent cough arose in her chest, choking the air out of her lungs, allowing the photograph to slip through her fingers. The coughing grew louder and more violent, sending sets of rushing footsteps up the stairs. Propelled by panic or instinct the girl rushed towards the picture, quickly hiding it in her blouse just as the bedroom door swung open.
Her father and a host of maids burst through the door, pushing Elizabeth aside, as they rushed to aid the dying woman.
Stepping into the shadows, Elizabeth withdrew the picture to read its dedication. In beautiful cursive letters the tall handsome man in the leather jacket had written, “To the love of my life, Marion.” Signed, “Odiah Jackson - Tuskegee University, Alabama, 1941".