I’m wearing one of her favorite pieces of jewelry this morning. I’m dimly aware of it on my wrist as I slide out the limo door. I pretend I’ve selected the dragonfly bracelet in her honor, but really it’s there as a silent reminder that Stafford women do what must be done, even when they don’t want to.
The nursing home director walks by and frowns, probably wondering why I’m still here. If I weren’t a Stafford, she’d undoubtedly stop and ask questions. As it is, she pointedly looks away and moves on. Even after two months back in South Carolina, it’s still strange, getting the rock-star treatment just because of my family name. In Maryland, I often knew people for months before they even realized my father was a senator. It was nice having the chance to prove myself as myself.
I scroll to the photo, look into the face of the young woman who reminds me even more of my grandmother now that I’m right across the table from her. “She had this picture. Do you know the person in it?” Maybe these are woodpile relatives? People my grandmother doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of the family tree? Every clan must have a few of those. Perhaps there was a cousin who ran off with the wrong sort of man and got pregnant?
Why haven’t Elliot and I ever come here?
The answer tastes bitter, so I don’t chew on it very long. Our schedules are always filled with other things. That’s why.
Who chooses the schedules we keep? We do, I guess.
Although, so often it seems as if there isn’t any choice. If we aren’t constantly slapping new paint on all the ramparts, the wind and the weather will sneak in and erode the accomplishments of a dozen previous generations of the family. The good life demands a lot of maintenance.
“I’m sure you’re used to getting what you want.”
His insinuation burns. I’ve been fighting it all my life—the idea that my only qualifications are a cute blond head and the Stafford name. Now, with the speculation heating up about my political future, I’m incredibly sick of hearing it. The family name didn’t get me through Columbia Law School with honors.
“Poor little waifs,” she says to the man. “We take them in when they are unwanted and unloved. We provide them with all that their parents cannot or will not give them.”
I bolt my eyes to the ground and make fists behind my back. It’s a lie, I wish I could scream at the man. My mama and daddy want us. They love us. So did the father who came to see his little boy, Lonnie, and ended up broke down on the porch crying like a baby when they said Lonnie’d been adopted.
I lose track of her voice as the car goes over a hill and comes within sight of the river. May fades like a speck of sun on the water, and Rill comes out. She stretches toward the crack at the top of the window, and pulls in air and catches all the familiar scents.
For just a minute, she’s home.
“They’re perfect in every way,” she says to the guests over and over. “Wonderful physical specimens and mentally advanced for their ages as well. Many come from parents with talents in music and art. Blank slates just waiting to be filled. They can become anything you want them to be.”
Inside my skin, I’m empty and cold, like the Indian caves where Briny took us camping one time when we hiked up over the bluffs. There were bones in the caves. Dead bones of people who are gone. There are dead bones in me.
Rill Foss can’t breathe in this place. She doesn’t live here. Only May Weathers does. Rill Foss lives down on the river. She’s the princess of Kingdom Arcadia.
Her hand is knotted in a fist between us. I take it in mine, pry open her fingers to see what she’s holding, and the minute I do, all the cookies and ice cream from the party come up in my throat. Dirty, round peppermints are stuck so tight to my sister’s palm, they’re melted into her skin.
I close my eyes and shake my head and try not to know, but I do. My mind drags me kicking and screaming to Mrs. Murphy’s cellar, into the dark corner behind the stairs where ash coats the coal bin and the boiler furnace. I see thin, strong arms fighting, legs thrashing around. I see a big hand closing over a screaming mouth, the dirty, oily fingers squeezing so hard they leave four round bruises.
Even the name sounds strange in my mind now. People keep calling me May. Maybe Rill’s still on the river someplace with Camellia, and Lark, and Fern, and Gabion. Maybe they’re drifting down in the lazy low-water summer currents, watching boats pass and barges go by and Cooper’s hawks circle wide and slow, hunting for fish to dive after.
Maybe Rill is only a story I read, like Huck Finn and Jim. Maybe I’m not even Rill and never was.
I turn and run down the steps and across the yard, my dress sweeping up around my legs. I stretch out my arms and throw back my head and make my own breeze, and for a minute, I find Rill again. I’m her.
I drop her on the cot and turn away and grab my hair and pull until it hurts. I want to pull all of it out. I want a pain that has a beginning and an end, not one that goes on forever and cuts all the way to the bone.
This pain is changing me into a girl I don’t even know.
“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you invented some ridiculous story about your fictitious sister and poor Mr. Riggs.”
Blood pounds in my head. I try to make sense of what she’s saying, but I can’t.
“There never was any… Camellia. You and I both know that, don’t we, May? There were four of you when you came here. Two little sisters and one little brother. Only four. And we’ve done a marvelous job in finding homes, thus far. Good homes. And for that, you are most grateful, aren’t you?” She motions to Mrs. Pulnik. […] “There will be no more of this nonsense out of you. Do you understand?”
I come from a world where we would never openly admit to such things, certainly not to someone who’s practically a stranger. In the world I know, a polished exterior and an unblemished reputation are paramount. Trent makes me wonder if I’ve become too accustomed to the constraints that go with upholding public appearances.
“The truth always comes out sooner or later. I’m of the belief that you’re better off knowing about it first.” But even as I say it, I wonder. My entire life, I’ve been so certain that we were above reproach. That our family was an open book. Maybe that was naïve of me. What if, after all these years, I’ve been wrong?
[…] Do we carry the guilt from the sins of past generations? If so, can we bear the weight of that burden?
I crave a simple answer to all of this. One I can live with. I don’t want to find out that my grandmother was somehow paying penance for our family’s involvement with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society—that my grandfathers were among the many politicians who protected Georgia Tann and her network, who turned a blind eye to atrocities because powerful families did not want her crimes revealed or their own adoptions nullified.
I try to imagine having a history like hers, having lived two lives, having been, effectively, two different people. I can’t. I’ve never known anything but the stalwart stronghold of the Stafford name and a family who supported me, nurtured me, loved me.
In the end, I’m a Stafford through and through. I tend to assume that I’ll get what I want.
Which, I realize with a shiver, makes me eerily like the adoptive parents who inadvertently funded Georgia Tann’s business. No doubt some were well-meaning people and some of the children really did need homes, but others, especially those who knew that exorbitant fees were being forked over for made-to-order sons and daughters, must have had some idea of what was happening. They just assumed that money, power, and social position gave them the right.
Maybe I never realized how much being a Stafford is an all-consuming thing, especially here in our native territory. The collective identity is so overwhelming, there’s no room for an individual one.
Once upon a time, I liked that… didn’t I? I enjoyed the perks that came with it. Every path I stepped on was instantly smoothed down before me.
But now I’ve had a taste of climbing my own mountains my own way.
Have I grown beyond this life?
The idea splits me down the middle, leaving half of my identity on each side of the divide. Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me? Do I have to sacrifice one to be the other?
So this was my grandmother’s destination. It’s easy to imagine that she enjoyed coming here. This would’ve been a place where she could leave behind her obligations, her cares, her duties, the family reputation, the public eye—everything that filled those carefully managed appointment books.
“I only took it fo’ safekeepin’,” the woman says. She hands me the tin piece and the papers separately. “That cross been Queenie’s, long time ago. Miss Judy write the other. It’s her story, but she never write the rest. They decide they all gon’ carry it to they graves, I guess. But I figure somebody might come askin’ one day. Secrets ain’t a healthy thang. Secrets ain’t a healthy thang, no matter how old they is. Sometimes the oldest secrets is the worst of all. You take yo’ grandmother to see Miss May. The heart still knows. It still know who it loves.”
I think of the way May explained their choices: We were young women with lives and husbands and children by the time we were brought together again. We chose not to interfere with one another. It was enough for each of us to know that the others were well…
But the truth is, it wasn’t enough. Even the ramparts of reputation, and ambition, and social position couldn’t erase the love of sisters, their bond with one another. Suddenly, the barriers that created their need for hidden lives and secret meeting places seem almost as cruel as those of brokered adoptions, altered paperwork, and forced separations.
The trees lean close after we turn, and I take one look back. I let the river wash away something inside of me.
It washes away the last of Rill Foss.
Rill Foss is princess of Kingdom Arcadia. The king is gone, and so is the kingdom.
Rill Foss has to die with it.
I’m May Weathers now.
May turns to me with purpose, stretches intimately close as if she plans to impart a secret. “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear the tune, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.”
My father moves tentatively to a chair, looks at his mother as if he’s never seen her before. In a way, he hasn’t. The woman he remembers was an actress playing a role, at least partially. For all the years since her sisters found her, there have been two people inside the body of Judy Stafford. One of them is a senator’s wife. The other carries the blood of river gypsies.