Authors: Katherine Hall Page
“I'd love that,” Sophie said and told her what she planned for tonight, noting Lydia's approval.
The dog started to pull on his lead. “Now, Charlie, you be good,” Lydia said, then turned to Sophie. “He thinks he rules the roost and maybe he does. He's my only company since my husband passed ten years ago.” She paused for a moment before adding, “I'm on my way over to my church, First African Baptist. I volunteer as a guide and in our small shop. If you have the time, would you like to come with me?”
“It's at the top of my list of places I want to visit and haven't yet,” Sophie said. “I know it's the oldest African American congregation in North America and that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but not many details.”
“Oh, there's so much more. I hope I won't bore you. For
example, it's the place where Dr. King first gave his âI Have a Dream' speechâa moment I have never forgotten. I'm getting sidetracked already! I just have to put Charlie in the yard and get my purse. Meet you out front in ten minutes?” She pointed to a narrow brick house painted the color of churned butter with a wisteria vine covering the two stories that must have magnificent blossoms come spring. It was just the kind of house she was looking forâsomething about it said a happy family lives, or lived, here.
Sophie nodded. “This is so kind of you. Is photography permitted? If so, I'll get my camera.”
It was, and Sophie hurried back home.
An hour later, she was reluctantly leaving the church. She had taken up too much of Lydia's time as it was. In a quiet voice Mrs. Scrivenâher surname that of the name of the Savannah owners of her deceased husband's ancestorsâhad related the history of the church, starting in December 1777 with the purchase of land by free and enslaved African Americans. The slaves used money they'd saved to buy their freedom for the freedom to worship instead, and the first church was built at night after long, torturous days in the indigo and rice fields. Lydia described it all so vividly that Sophie knew she would hold these images in her mind foreverâthe many miles walked from the plantations to attend services by an astonishing number of African Americans. The congregation numbered 1,400 by 1841. As Lydia pointed out, of the first pastors pictured in the stained-glass windows, the first six names were all prefaced by “Born a slave.”
But it was the twenty-six sets of apparently random holes drilled into the pine floor of what was now the lower auditorium of the church that moved Sophie the most for what lay belowâa cramped space where men, women, and children had huddled awaiting safe passage on the Underground Railroad. The holes were the only ventilation, and the pattern wasn't random at all to those who knew. It was a Kongolese Cosmogram symbolizing the four movements of the sun and the journey of the body from the physical to the spiritual world. A symbol of hope.
There were other tunnels beneath present-day Savannah; one in Crawford Square, Lydia said, and no doubt many more undiscoveredâor still kept secret.
With a promise to come to a service soonâjudging from the drum set to the left of the altar, some of them would prove very livelyâSophie bought a book of photos and pictures on the history of slavery in Savannah that focused on First African Baptist to send to the Fairchilds. She also bought a small square wooden box with a quilt square carved on the lid from the shop. She hadn't known the stories of what each quilt, draped over a fence or gate, symbolized, sending messages in the calico of safety, danger, food, and more for those following “The Drinking Gourd.”
Lydia had hugged her and, keeping her hands on Sophie's shoulders, looked squarely into her face and said, “I don't know what you saw or didn't see the other night, but be careful. We may all smile at you and greet you as a friend, but just like any place on this earth, Savannah has a dark side. You know you can come knock on my door any time, day or night. I don't sleep much these daysâdon't want to waste precious time before I meet my Maker. Besides, Charlie's snore is a loud one.”
Heading now for Parker's Market and last-minute gifts at the Savannah Bee Companyâshe had already sent gift baskets of honey and honey-related items to many on her listâSophie turned the woman's words over in her mind. And was warned.
Tom came home for lunchâeasy to do, since it was a mere hop, skip, and a jump over the tombstones in the old cemetery that divided the church from the parsonage. His face did not indicate this sort of merry behavior and Faith's heart sank.
“Did you know Amy is not going to read âThe Queens Came Late' in the pageant?”
“Oh no! She's done it since she stopped being a sheep. And she was so excited when Roberta asked her that first year.” Roberta
Ballou, the church school director, had added poetry and song to the pageant to provide more parts. Parents had been delightedâand that did seem to be what the whole thing was about, keeping the parents happy. The kids were happy with whatever part they were assigned.
“The Queens Came Late” was a wonderful Christmas poem by Norma Farber that described their arrivalâ“The Queens came late, but the Queens were there . . .” and the gifts they brought. Much more sensible than the frankincense and myrrh from the Kings, Faith had always thoughtâ“. . . a homespun gown of blue, chicken soupâwith noodles, tooâand a lingering, lasting cradle-song.”
“Did Roberta say why Amy doesn't want to do it?”
“Because the pageant is the
service and I'm not a child anymore,” came a firm voice from the door. Amy stepped into the room. “And you can't make me.”
“Of course we can't and don't want to.” Tom was by his daughter's side instantly. “Come have lunch with us.” He put his arm around her shoulders and led her to the chair next to his. “Mom made egg salad.”
It was Amy's favorite, and the choice was no accident.
“A half, okay? I'm not really very hungry.”
Faith put the food in front of her daughter with a tall glass of milk. “We thought you liked reading the poem and you have such a fine voice.” This was true. No stumbling, partly because the Fairchilds had always recited it together Christmas morning and all of them had it memorized.
“I'll still say it with you and Ben here,” Amy said, taking a bite of her sandwich. “Good egg salad, Mom. I'll finish this later. I've been thinking.” Amy swallowed hard. “There's only Monday and Tuesday, plus Wednesday's a half day, so I really should stay home to help you. I can come to work and do stuff. You know I'm good at baking.”
This was true, but Faith said to herself when you fall off the horse, etc. Tom stepped in before she could think of the best way to phrase the no. “That's extremely thoughtful of you, honey, but
school is your job just now, like Mom's and mine. We'll be at work and you'll be at your work.”
What was implied was you go whether you particularly like your job or not. Amy didn't argue, but her sad face made Faith angry all over again. She was itching to tell Tom about the phone conversation with Laetitia when he jumped up.
“Damn, I'm late for a meeting!”
Amy giggled. “Quarter in the jar, Dad, and good thing only we heard you. And . . .” She pointed upward.
Ben, in his never-ending ways to raise money for his trip, had instituted the practice. So far only Tom and Faith were contributors, and Faith vowed the moment Ben's plane left the ground for La Belle France she was sticking the Mason jar back with the canning goods never to be used again except for natural purposes.
Tom gave his wife and daughter quick kisses and rushed out the door, leaving his coat behind. At least his socks matched today, Faith thought, and was glad he had spare outerwear at church. It was supposed to snow later. She regularly replenished the supply with all the coats he left at home in a kind of revolving door. Occasionally she was even able to spirit away some of the tattered items he held on to in his belief that they were still good enough to wear. Maybe so when he was in high school. . . .
“So you're not mad at me?” Amy said.
“Of course not. I'll miss hearing you do the reading, but I know you're growing up and you
be deciding what you want to do.”
Amy nodded, sighed, and covered her sandwich, putting it in the fridge before she left the room. Who was all this growing-up stuff harder on, Faith wonderedâher daughter or her? Maybe a toss-up.
She would have to bring Amy to work this afternoon, thoughâand yes, she could mix some of the cookie doughs. It was a very busy weekend for Have Faith, the last before Christmas. Since he'd made the call to the search committee head and arranged to preach in January, there had been a spring in Tom's step that Faith hadn't
seen in a while. She knew what she had to do. Tom came firstâalways. But that wasn't going to make it any easier, or her happier as she contemplated the holidays. Their last Christmas in Aleford?
“So I hear you've become a churchgoer, Sophie,” Randy said. “Glad someone in the family is paving the way for the rest of us.”
“Randall Lee Watson! You know I go to church every Sunday, and I've been a member of the Altar Guild and the Flower Committee since I married your father right in that same church.” Gloria turned to Sophie. “I know we may not make it every Sunday, to be truthful, since we spend so much time out here, but I am there in spirit. Have you been going to services? It is your denomination, right?”
The whole family was having a Sunday dinner at Bells Mills that was so festive and sumptuous it made Sophie wonder what would be weighing the table down here, or in town, at Christmas. There was an enormous baked country ham with a brown-sugar glaze, pickled peaches that had been put up last summer, corn pudding, baked Vidalia onions, collard greens, cream biscuits, heavy cream that is, and oyster stew to start. All of it was the work of Blanche Harper, longtime housekeeper and cook at Bells Mills, with help from her granddaughter Tiffany. There was also the ever present cruet of hot sauce that made Sophie's eyes water just to look at, but that Will put on everything from scrambled eggs and grits to fried chicken. A Southern thing, especially Southern males.
“Randy must have heard that Ruth Stafford and I went to Saint John's to look at the decorationsâand the church itself. Neither of us had been inside. It was stunning.” She added hastily, “I'm sure Christ Episcopal will be beautiful, too.” She certainly didn't want to slight a member of the Altar Guild
Flower Committee who also happened to be her stepmother-in-law.
“It is, and if you don't have a chance to get there before, we always go to the candlelight service on Christmas Eve after a small
family dinner at the house. We like to dress up for it. Black tie for the men and I get some of my jewelry from the bank to go with a new Christmas gown each year!” She sounded as giddy as a schoolgirl contemplating what to wear for the prom.
“It sounds wonderful,” Sophie said.
Anson was beaming from the head of the table. “You be sure to wear some of the sparklers Will gave you, my mother's and his mother's. I had thought you might wear a piece at your welcome partyâGrandmother Aurora's pearl choker is famous in Savannah, better than any of Queen Mary's, my father said when he gave it to her for their tenth anniversary.”
Will was sitting directly across from his wife and seemed about to say something, but Sophie beat him to it.
“They are all exquisite, especially the pearls, but my mother had brought a necklace and bracelet that she particularly wanted me to wear, and I didn't want to disappoint her.”
“Of course,” Anson said. “But you go all out this holiday, you hear, darlin'. You'd shine without them at the parties, but it would give me pleasure to see Will's bride wearing our family treasures.”
Family treasures that Sophie had never heard about, let alone seen. She looked over at her husband. There was no mistaking the relief on his face, and he gave her what she read as an apologetic smile.
“It was nice of you to do something with Ruth,” Randy said, picking up the previous topic. “I worry about the girl so far away from her family at this time of year. I caught her weeping the other day.”
Sophie was puzzled. She had thought Ruth was happy not to have to spend the holidays with her family in Chicago. Was there something else going on? Her love life or lack thereof ? She resolved to ask the young woman for lunch, or a drink after work. Christmas was speeding toward them. Only a few more days. It would have to be Monday or Tuesday. She'd also have to do some serious shopping for a formal dress. As she savored a mouthful of ham, she felt her spirits rise. After all, she had the shoes. Killer ones.
Conversation rose and fell around the table as the main course
gave way to a chocolate layer cake, lemon buttermilk chess pie, and a compote of winter fruitsâplump prunes, dried apricots, sliced apples and pears in a slightly spicy sweet syrup. Besides Anson, Gloria, Randy, Carlene, Patty Sue, Will, and Sophie, two elderly female cousinsâMaxwells or Watsons, Sophie wasn't sureâwere in attendance. They seemed to be permanent fixtures at family gatherings, and though they weren't sisters, they looked like twins, especially because they both wore 1950s shirtwaist dressesâoriginal?âin identical shades of lilac. For old ladies, they seemed to have the appetites of a teenage boy and kept up a steady litany of appreciation throughout the mealâ“Uh-huh, I do love a good cream biscuit” and “Nobody does a pickled peach like Gloria's Blanche.” The other guest today was the ubiquitous Miss Laura, who was seated between Will and Patty Sue. Before dinner, Sophie had taken the Realtor aside and told her that the house hunting would have to wait until after the holidays, especially since Will would be able to join them then.
“Of course, Sophie,” she'd said. “I am simply run off my feet what with everything going on and it won't slow down until New Year's Day. Last night I believe I was at seven soirees, although with all the champagne and punch I can't be sure. You were at the Beauregards', I saw.”