A pparently among those who consider their social standing some measure of importance, I am to be admired, for I am one of the few Nashvillians who can claim with infallible certainty that a blood relation has lived in this town since its inception. My mother, although a Grove only by marriage, never tired of sharing this piece of family trivia at cocktail parties or morning coffees, convinced that it elevated her own social position far beyond what her birth parents could have guaranteed.
And whether or not she exaggerated the details of our family’s history in the hope of impressing her friends, the truth remains that a poor Carolina farmer packed his bags some two hundred and fifty years ago and set out to cross the Appalachian Mountains, heading west with his young bride, determined to claim a few acres of his own and a better life for his family. He probably didn’t have a penny to his name by the time he stumbled into Fort Nashborough begging for a hot meal and a place to sleep, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the Grove family anymore.
Legend has it that when the Chickamauga Indians attacked the Nashville settlement, they killed my ancestral father as he fearlessly fought to protect his young wife. She grabbed the musket from her dying husband’s hands and continued the fight, killing three Indian warriors herself. Then she fell on top of her husband’s cold, bloody body and held him in her arms throughout the night.
Her name was Bezellia Louise, and for generations since, the first girl born to the eldest Grove male has been named in her memory. Although most official historians dispute any claims of her heroics, my father donated thousands of dollars to the Nashville Historical Society with the belief that eventually some fresh, young academic would see the past more according to my family’s advantage. But whether fact or fiction, I have believed in her courage and passion and was always proud to share her name.
Sadly, the Bezellias birthed before me never cared for this designation, preferring a monosyllabic moniker—like Bee, Zee, or Zell—to their formal Christian name. My own mother disliked it so much that for years she refused to let it cross her lips, calling me only Sister, a generic substitution that summed up her distaste for my name and her inadequate affection for me. I, on the other hand, always wanted to hear it in its entirety, never caring what others thought of it.
But long before I had memorized the details of my family’s story, I understood that I was a girl unlike most others. I had a pony to ride and a closet brimming with neatly pressed dresses. My bedroom was decorated with teddy bears that were handmade in Germany and dolls with porcelain heads that I was only to admire and never to touch. And, most important, I was always cooked for and attended to by people other than my mother, by people with dark skin and families of their own.
Maizelle Cooper was a short, round woman with bits of white hair highlighting her forehead like a jeweled crown. She wore the same short-sleeved, light blue work dress every day, summer and winter. And she always kept a stiff white apron tied around her waist. When she hugged me and pressed my face into her full, round tummy, I could smell a faint perfume of flour and cinnamon and grease. Maizelle spent most of her time in the kitchen, keeping a careful watch over a collection of pots endlessly simmering on a hot black stove. She cooked buttery biscuits and sweet, creamy oatmeal to warm my stomach in the mornings and greeted me after school with a cold glass of milk and a piece of homemade pound cake.
She washed and ironed all of my clothes, even my undershirts, and prepared my baths in the evenings, and somewhere in between sang me songs about freedom and grace, swaying from one hip to the other as if the rhythm of her voice kept her body in perfect balance.
I asked her once why she sang those songs considering it had been almost a century since President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Maizelle just shook her head and said that in all her years on this earth she had seen enough to know that there were many ways one man could make a slave out of another. Then she slowly wiped her brow and pointed to the crooked scar above her right eye. She never told me how it got there, and somehow I knew better than to ask. She imagined it was hard for me to understand all that she was saying from where I was standing, but the good Lord, she said, would make things right one day. She just hoped she’d be here to see it.
Maizelle slept in the basement. Her bedroom was small and poorly lit. The gray stone walls always left it feeling cold and damp down there, no matter how hot the temperature was outside. It was furnished very simply, with a single bed, a chest of drawers, a small wooden chair, and a creaky old nightstand with a reading lamp on top. A toilet, sink, and shower spigot were set a few feet from her bedroom door with nothing but a heavy plastic curtain hanging from an old metal rod for privacy. Mother said that was all Maizelle needed, that she was here to work, not to lounge about. And if she didn’t keep a close eye on her, then that’s exactly what that woman would do. At least that’s what Mother said.
I never asked Maizelle how she felt about living in the basement either. I guess I already knew the answer to that too. And even though I believed that she truly loved me, when she rode the bus home at the end of the week, I knew she loved her own family more.
Nathaniel Stephenson took care of the house, the grounds, and Mother’s midnight blue Cadillac. He was a tall, lean man whose skin was so wonderfully rich and dark it looked like night, and when he smiled, his teeth shone like the stars in the Milky Way. His eyes were a deep brown but sprinkled with bits of emerald green. His mama said that the day he was born he had been kissed by an angel. Maybe. He was certainly one of the nicest men I ever knew, and definitely the strongest, and not just because I could see the muscles rippling beneath his cotton work shirt.
Nathaniel was no more than eight years old when he was hired to clean the stables and feed the horses at Grove Hill during the summer months. As soon as the weather turned warm, his father would drop him off at the end of the drive just before daybreak. He’d gently push his small son out of the front seat of an old red pickup truck, so rusted in spots it looked as much brown as red, and then he’d toss him one last wave and go to work for another white family on down the road. When he came to pick his son up at the end of the day, smelling like manure and hay, he’d find him sound asleep on a cot left on the back porch. Nathaniel always said that hard work was good for a man, but a child ought to be left to play.
My own father used to call Nathaniel Bubba, for brother, and in a way I guess that’s what he was. He taught my father to saddle a horse and to ease a fish off a hook without even flinching. Nathaniel said Mr. Grove used to follow right behind him from dawn to dusk, more reliable than a shadow on a bright, sunny day. But that was a long time ago now.
According to Nathaniel, Grove Hill was once the prettiest place in Nashville, maybe in all of Tennessee. The earth was green and sweeping, and centuries-old oak trees peppered the landscape, providing plenty of shade from the hot summer sun. And nestled among a thick grove of trees stood my home—a big, gracious house built of deep red brick with a large porch that wrapped across the front. Legend has it that my great-grandfather drank too much whiskey one night and painted the brick a creamy white. He had been to Washington, D.C., only the week before and said if President Grant was going to live in a white house, then damn it, so was he. But now the finish was chipped and worn, and you could see the red brick peeking through its tired old coat of paint.
Six large limestone columns lined across the front of the house seemed to act as strong, stoic guards, not only reminding our guests that Grove Hill was an important place but to this day quietly protecting the family that lived there. You can even see where Union gunfire blasted those columns, nicks and cuts in the stone proof of their effort to stop one bullet after another as it sped toward the house.
Nathaniel told me that Grove Hill was actually considered one of the most beautiful antebellum homes still standing, and it was his job to keep her that way. Her formal parlors filled with expensive antiques, an impressive grand staircase with detailed carvings, and a mahogany-paneled library were often featured in ladies’ magazines from Virginia to Alabama. Mother spent enormous amounts of time and money decorating and redecorating the house, always selecting the newest French fabrics and silk-screened wallpapers even before the old ones had a chance to age. To me, though, Grove Hill looked kind of tired and lonely no matter how much attention she was given.
But it was here that my father’s father, and his father, and at least his father before him developed one of the best Thoroughbred nurseries in the South. That’s right, better than any in Virginia, Tennessee, or Kentucky. Robert E. Lee was even known to visit here every spring just to sip a little sherry and inspect the new foals. Grove Hill was a plantation of sorts really, just without the cotton or tobacco or slavery. In fact, my family prided themselves in saying that a Grove never owned another human being. Yet somehow they managed to run a prosperous horse farm with the help of countless black men and women who barely made enough money to buy the shirts on their backs. I guess Maizelle was right. It was just a matter of definition.
Of course by the time I was born, there weren’t many Thoroughbreds left, or any other kinds of animals for that matter, most having been sold to settle some unpaid debts my grandfather generously left for his firstborn son. Thousands of green, tree-studded acres that had once belonged to my family had been neatly packaged into neighborhoods of small, three-bedroom homes—Grove Hills, Grove Park, Grove Woods. They all looked the same.
And even though Nathaniel now cared for the house, in reality his most pressing assignment became pleasing my mother—waxing the hardwood floors, sweeping the front porch, washing the windows, polishing the silver tea service, or whatever else she demanded. My father and Nathaniel never talked about fishing anymore. They never talked about much of anything anymore. Truthfully, my father could barely look his old friend in the eye. But Nathaniel always managed a sweet smile on his face, even when my mother talked to him as if he was a child.
“Bless it, Nathaniel, were you dropped on your head when you were a baby?” she’d snap when she found a dirty windowpane or the porch needed sweeping. Mother, it seemed, was convinced that any black man or woman who did something she didn’t like had been dropped on the head at birth, assuming that the same men and women she trusted to care for her children were unusually careless and clumsy with their own.
“I’m not paying you to sit around and wait for the stars to come out. Now get that window cleaned so I can see out of it. That strong arm of yours is the only reason you’ve still got a job here.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.