Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith?
—Luke 12:27–28Chapter 1
Some would say the ending was hard to believe, considering the way it had begun.
The breeze, faint against the warm thickness the sun had cast, gently ruffled the blossoms on the dogwood trees. The scent of lilac and eucalyptus drifted through the air. Butterflies and bees alike visited vibrant May blooms and made their acquaintance. On the lush grounds at Stone Mountain Manor, waiters decked in starched white shirts and black pants scurried about, passing stuffed mushrooms and chèvre filo cups and refilling crystal flutes. Sounds from the Macon Peach Jazz Band wafted through the air like the smell of a low country boil on a stove top in Savannah. And, of course, black folk were talking.
Gathered around over by the tulip beds, next to the stationary hors d’oeuvres, or seated at the forty white linen-covered tables, black folk were talking about how the Shores had once again upped the ante on how a first-rate celebration should be done. And they were talking about the Shores’ only son, Gerrard, and his fiancée, Marley. About what a fine boy Gerrard had grown up to be—“fine” having different meanings depending on the gender and age of the particular group doing the talking. And about how his fiancée was both beautiful and outgoing (or stuck-up and pretentious, again depending on the circle that was talking). Theirs would be the wedding of the year, for sure, but for today folk were plain happy and counted it a privilege to have been invited to the engagement party.
They studied, measured, and savored every move the couple made. When the couple wasn’t moving but just standing and chatting, the guests soaked that in, too. Gerrard, tall and strapping, was a younger version of his father. His eyelashes, stark against his honey-colored skin, looked as if they’d been hand-dipped in calligraphers’ ink. His smile willed you to forget about your bad mood. He strode as if the wind were watching, awaiting his command, pacing itself to follow him. The wind obliged him, until it ran into Marley and stopped. Not on account of her shapely figure, her long, thick hair, or her ample lower lip—traits that came a dime a dozen among the women of Atlanta. Consensus was that it was the mark. That beauty mark, smack dab in the middle of her eyebrows, held court on its own. It seemed, simply, subtly, to say, “Stop.” And so eyes, smiles, thoughts, and even the wind obeyed.
Marley’s grandmother surveyed the scene, her large, wise eyes sizing up all the characters. “There’s got to be more than two hundred people here,” Ma Grand said. “Maybe three hundred.”
“Probably so,” said Pam, Marley’s mother, her eyes twinkling with joy at the thought. She tossed her sandy brown hair out of her face and leaned forward in her seat as if she were watching her favorite movie. Pam had just finished making the rounds, greeting the guests, and her feet were aching from all the walking she had done in her open-toed satin-strapped heels.
“Good Lord, Pam, that’s nothing to be impressed with! It’s a shame before God!” Ma Grand leaned back in her seat and squeezed her thighs together, mainly out of habit—she mostly wore pants these days. Even when she did wear skirts, she made sure they were long enough that she didn’t need to worry whether or not her legs were closed.
“Mama, please. Let’s just sit here and have a good time. No criticisms, no complaints. Just peace and happiness, okay?” Pam turned her head away quick enough to catch the socially correct smiles from Atlanta’s mayor and his wife as they strolled by Pam’s table. Following immediately behind them were the presidents of Spelman and Morehouse colleges, managing well the task of chatting while munching discreetly on crab cake medallions. Pam returned their polite smiles, crossed her legs, and fought the urge to squeal in delight.
“What they grinning ’bout?” Ma Grand snapped and cut her eyes at the backs of Mayor and Mrs. Stockton. “Ain’t done nothing for the city since he’s been elected, except socialize and support his wife’s shopping habit. These politicians ain’t worth the suits they’re wearing. Atlanta ain’t been right since Reverend King died.”
“Mama, really. Please stop, will you? We’re here to celebrate Marley’s engagement, not to assassinate the character of every person that passes by our table.”
“Why do all these fancy schmancies have to be here in the first place? Is this an engagement party or an inaugural ball? You’d think somebody was campaigning for office or something!” Ma Grand rolled her eyes at no one in particular and shifted her weight in her seat. The cream linen slipcover buckled a bit, and Ma Grand frowned as she tried to smooth the fabric beneath her.
“What are you fussing about now, Ma Grand?” Marley asked, approaching the table. She smoothed a few displaced strands of her grandmother’s silver-gray hair and, satisfied, put her hands on her hips and smiled.
“Like she needs a reason to fuss,” Pam said.
Ma Grand looked up at Marley and tried her best to maintain a scowl, but her granddaughter’s smile broke her every time. She looked away, feigning disgust.
“You having a good time, Gran?” Marley pulled out a chair beside her grandmother and sat. She studied her face—every line, crease, and wrinkle. More than anything, including her own instinct, Marley trusted what she saw in her grandmother’s eyes. It dated back to her childhood, when the family had talked in code around Marley to prevent her from hearing more than what they thought a young girl needed to hear. Marley had quickly learned to search her grandmother’s eyes for answers. They were a book without a cover.
“Are you having a good time?” Ma Grand asked, turning to face Marley. She placed her Parkinson’s-afflicted hand on top of the table and grabbed at a silver coffee spoon.
“Yeah. Yes. I am.” Marley nodded.
Ma Grand looked at her oddly. “Mm-hm. Well, then, that’s all that matters.” She stared ahead.
Marley rested her chin in her hand. She glanced at her mother, who was engrossed in a conversation with a distant cousin she had insisted Marley invite to the party. Pam’s smile was big and wide, her eyes danced, and her skin glowed. Marley looked back at Ma Grand, who was examining a couple seated to her left.
“Gran,” Marley began as she scooted her chair closer to her grandmother. “Tell me what you’re really—”
Ma Grand elbowed Marley’s ribs. Startled, Marley glanced around and saw Ashley and Deanna walking toward her. Her open mouth quickly closed into a smile. Here were her lifelines, of varying degrees. The siblings she had never had. All three girls had grown up in Atlanta and, except for Marley and Ashley, who had been next-door neighbors until the sixth grade, when Ashley’s family had moved to Dunwoody, the girls had never met until they’d bumped into one another lugging bright-patterned comforter sets and Sam’s Club–size toiletries across the Oval on Spelman’s campus and through the front doors of Abby Hall.
“Hello, ladies,” Pam said after waving good-bye to her cousin. Pam looked the girls up and down. “You-all look gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.” She beamed as if she had mothered them all. Pam recalled the girls in their late teenage years, with haircuts and boyfriends that had changed like the weather. She remembered the care packages she’d used to take to them on campus and the home-cooked meals she’d occasionally fixed for them on Sundays.
“Not as gorgeous as you,” Deanna said, smiling at Pam. The girls had always joked that they would never take Pam out with them because all eyes, young and old, would be on her.
“This is something, isn’t it?” Pam grinned.
“It really is,” Ashley agreed, taking in the celebration. Chatter filled the air and hovered comfortably like clouds. On a parquet square in the middle of the tables, several couples bopped to an old Smokey Robinson cut.
“Gerrard’s family really knows how to throw a party,” Deanna added. “I’m so sick of going to functions and eating off of veggie trays, I don’t know what to do. Feed me! Know what I’m saying? Don’t be serving finger food at five o’clock in the evening when you know people are ready for dinner.”
“Really,” Ashley agreed, turning to grab a sesame chicken skewer from a tray as a tall, muscular waiter passed by. The waiter paused, ensuring that Ashley got as much chicken as she wanted and also attempting to make eye contact with her. Ashley met his eyes with a flat, toothless smile, and she quickly turned around.
“Marley, Gerrard’s family obviously thinks very highly of you, going through all this effort to throw an engagement party,” Pam stated as she nodded her head.
Ma Grand chuckled and folded her hands on top of the table. “That’s what you think, huh?”
Marley looked askance at her grandmother. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Honey, just ignore it.” Pam waved off her mother’s comment. “Just ignore it,” she said again, smiling at the Falcons’ head coach and his wife, who were seated two tables over.
“This is a fabulous celebration,” Ashley said, in part to calm Marley’s nerves and in part because it was true. “I’m enjoying myself.”
“Good,” Pam said. “You should be. And you need to stop ignoring the advances of all these good-looking men out here and find yourself a nice, rich, eligible bachelor.”
“Not even looking,” Ashley responded quickly. “I’m dating myself.”
“Oh, good Lord,” Ma Grand said. “How long is this supposed to last?”
“That’s the same thing I asked her the other day, Gran,” Deanna chimed in. She leaned forward in her chair, her cowry-shell earrings dancing around her cheeks. “But you know, you gotta let Ashley do her thing. Live out her phases. You know what I mean, don’t you?” Deanna nudged Ma Grand.
“It’s going to last for as long as I need it to last. You-all may find it hard to believe, but I’m actually quite fulfilled with myself right now.” Ashley certified her response with a quick nod and turned her head. Her hair, neatly contained in her standard French braid, whipped over her shoulder and lay against her chest.
“You must’ve just finished a good book,” Ma Grand said, looking away. “A good book’ll do that for you. But it won’t last long. I’ll ask you again in another two weeks and see how you’re doing.”
“My answer won’t be different, I promise you,” Ashley said.
Marley stared at Ashley, weighing her words. Her straight back and clasped hands were like a fortress around her resolve. Marley wasn’t knocking Ashley’s decision. She admired it. Envied it, even.
She turned and saw Gerrard striding toward the table, his sandstone-colored linen shirt and slacks flowing behind him. He positioned himself behind Marley’s chair, planted his large hands atop her shoulders, and massaged them gently.
“Ladies,” he said, his silky mustache rising perfectly above his smiling lips.
Ashley offered Gerrard half a smile and then looked away. Deanna waved, grinned sarcastically, and said, “Gerrard, we’re absolutely thrilled to see you.” Marley leaned her head against her fist and sighed.
Excerpted from That Faith, That Trust, That Love by Jamellah Ellis. Copyright © 2003 by Jamellah Ellis. Excerpted by permission of Villard, 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.