Camp Chase Gazette

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A Short Story

Posted on Friday, November 13, 2015 at 7:27 am

Camp Chase Gazette Nov/Dec 2015 coversMy name is Alexander Baine Weddington. My father gave me the nickname Xander. The slaves call me Xandy.  I was born on the cool crisp evening of September 12, 1842 in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. The county seat was Marion. I am the only living child born to Gracylen Alexander Weddington and Euphemia Abigale Baine. Mother had 11 babies after me, yet none lived. Papa married mother on Christmas Eve of 1840 in the ballroom of our family plantation home. Papa built the home for mother as a wedding gift. Mother gave the plantation its name. Our home is   known as Abigale Grove. It is the largest plantation home for miles around in the sleepy community of Mars Bluff, South Carolina. Other plantation homes are minuscule compared to Abigale Grove.

The house is quiet and Mother has taken to her bed chamber for the next 24 hours. I do not understand why seclusion is required when a death occurs. The silence of the black draped hall clock makes it difficult to sleep. By morning, the entire house will be shrouded in dull black cloth. Even the house servants will be properly dressed in mourning. Mammy stores the attire for the house servants in the trunk room on the third floor. She has always taken charge when a death occurs on the plantation. White, slave, or buckra, mammy sees to every detail for a family in mourning.

After a restless night and the occasional cry from mother’s bed, morning arrived.  I slowly moved from my bed, chilled by the cool flooring, and glanced out across the quarters. Every cabin was hung in black crepe above its door and front windows. Papa took care of his people. He loved them as family. The cabins in the quarters had glass windows and good strong wood floors. Just like the big house. I knew the big house would be matching in sadness as well. As I refreshed myself and dressed for breakfast, a feeling of intense sadness struck me as I opened the door of my room.  Across the hall heavy thick black curtains hung over the entrance into mother’s room. It appeared as if her room did not exist. As I descended the massive stairs of our large family plantation home, death rituals were around every corner. Glancing into the formal parlor, all light was hidden behind the same style draperies as seen masking Mother’s bedroom entrance. The piano, mirror, clock, harp and portraits were all draped in black crepe. For the first time since hearing the news, I realized Papa was gone. Papa’s library resembled the formal parlor including his desk and chair hidden under a black drape.

Mammy in her mourning garments motioned for me to enter the family dining room for breakfast. A black lace tablecloth beckoned me to sit and try to eat as the sadness continued to envelop me. The tea set before me had a black border and was used only when sadness was upon the plantation.  As I left the dining room, I respectfully touched Papa’s chair hidden under its crepe enclosure and graced with late season flowers and greenery. I feared going into the lower floor of the house, as I knew Papa was down there shrouded by a white sheet lying on a cooling board awaiting the arrival of the photographer. Our death room had been used often since the start of the Great War. We had the only home in the community with a proper death room and families for miles around used it in their time of need.

Wanting to adjust my tie and frock coat before stepping onto the porch, I could not, as the hall mirror hid my reflection in black.  As I opened the front door, I was startled by Tom, the gardener and grounds keeper. He had just hung the large black wreath on the door beckoning all to the news of a death in our home. I walked a few feet in front of the house and after passing the marble statue, I forced myself to turn around quickly.  Mammy must not have rested through the night, as the house reflected her meticulous signs of mourning expressed by all wealthy southern families. As I gazed upon the four floors of our 1840s plantation home, every window, door, railing and banister was festooned in black crepe. Mother and mammy must have been saving various fabrics in black for many years. Even ribbons of black had been tied on door knobs and window hardware. I turned facing the road at the end of the tree lined drive and saw Ephra draping the stone wall and gate at the entrance to the plantation. Now the guest will begin to arrive offering their condolences. I continue to stroll around the grounds. A small family plot behind the slave quarters now calls my papa’s name. Big Jake, the favorite of all papa’s people, was digging the grave to hold papa forever. Four generations of our family lie within the stone enclosed cemetery, including the babies. A huge magnolia will shade papa’s final resting place.

I slowly walked to the back of the house and stared at the servant’s entrance to the lowest level. I new Papa was just beyond the door in the death room. I gained strength and composure. Slowly opening the door I walked down the long narrow hallway. I knew Mammy and Eliza were in the death room from the low respectful sound in their voices. I stood in the doorway of the death room. Papa’s body was blocked by Mammy and Eliza yet I knew what was being done. Eliza replaced the melted ice under the cooling board while Mammy washed Papa’s hands and face in vinegar. I heard her tell Eliza “da photograffie mans betta hurries as da vingur bes runnin low.” I watched Mammy carefully cut locks of Papa’s hair and wrap in brown paper. She called Elijah from the warming kitchen and sent him to Mr. Adams to make Mother’s mourning locket in time for the wake and funeral. I glanced at papa and closed the door quickly.

My mourning clothes were in the laundry room and Mammy said she would press them soon. Three other house workers, Janie, Cloe and Cicely, all dressed in black, were sewing mourning cockades for the men in our family who would be arriving soon. I ascended the servant’s stairs and sat in the plating room with Mary and her two young daughters. Papa never sold, broke a family or traded a slave. He would add rooms to a cabin or build a new cabin if needed. When Papa heard of mistreated servants and slaves on other plantations, he would go to the owner and buy these slaves and they became a part of our family.

The activities increased in the house and I retired to the smaller library on the third floor, once used as my classroom. As I squeezed myself into the small desk chair I used as a child, melancholy gave rise to thoughts of Papa. I watched Papa help build a church building for his people to freely worship in. A school house was also constructed. Papa hired a teacher from up north to teach his people to read and write. I attended school in the quarters on many occasions when my tutor or mother was sick. Papa was threatened often for spoiling his people, but he did not care and said he would shoot anyone who tried to interfere with his running of a plantation. The men of the community always left Papa alone for every one feared him. The papa I knew was good and kind.

I dozed and realized two hours had passed. I quietly returned to my bedroom as Mammy exited from behind the black curtain. She was carrying an empty tray from Mother’s lunch. Mother followed the guidelines for mourning from an old 1833 etiquette book belonging to her grandmother. Not having contact with male family members was another part of mourning I did not understand. Mother would be out of seclusion soon and I could see her. I needed to feel her arms around me.

I suddenly heard a loud knock on the massive double oak doors. I knew silence was the norm when entering a house of mourning. The knock told me the person was young and did not know the proper Southern practices. I was right. The photographer was a young man of 20.

I was surprised he was not fighting for the cause. I quickly went downstairs and met mammy at the door. She invited the young man in after scolding him for knocking too loudly. He set up his studio wares in the back family parlor. This parlor was a private retreat area for papa, mother and me. Mammy had a chair ready for the image to be made. She called for Papa’s body to be carried into the room. Papa was set up in the chair as if he was taking a nap. His Bible was placed in his hands. Tom hid behind the chair to hold Papa’s head in position. I returned to the kitchen so as not to watch the photographer’s session. Mammy was in control. I had no need to worry. Eliza was busy baking funeral biscuits to be given to the guest and those attending the wake and funeral.  I ate two of the biscuits while hiding out in the kitchen.

I knew my duties as the elder and only surviving son would commence soon. I wanted to be a little boy again sitting on papa’s knee. Returning to my room to change before the mourners arrived; I heard a soft knock on the door. It was mammy bringing my mourning clothes, cockade and two handkerchiefs. One dipped in peppermint oil, the other tied with penny royal. These were to be used to cover the odor that may escape from papa’s body. We heard of northerners using an embalmer to prepare bodies for burial and keeping the body in full appearance for up to one week. I quickly changed my clothes and went down stairs to the formal parlor. We did not need to have paid mourners as papa was so well known in the community.”

Mammy ordered all the proper paper, stationary, envelopes and calling cards. She was able to shop in town as any female could. She was even allowed to enter through the front door of all shops. As a small boy, I remember a shop keeper telling papa his people had to stand outside or enter through the back storage area. When Papa finished his tongue lashing, Mammy sashayed through the front door along with Mother. Mammy was often mistaken as a free woman of color due her beautiful clothes mother purchased for her and the amount of respect she was given.

Mammy’s preparations were laid out in meticulous order on the table in the formal parlor. The coffin was in place and Papa was displayed as if he was royalty. Mammy glanced my way for an approval of her work. I was extremely pleased and knew mother would be also. Chairs were arranged and the prayer bench served as the altar as well. Mother walked in accompanied by two of her older cousins, all dressed in black. She too was pleased with the arrangements and appearance of Papa. Mammy’s vinegar baths over the last two days had been a success.

Mother and her cousins took the first sitting up and fanning duties. I went to the warming kitchen with Mammy to discuss the funeral and burial. The funeral invitations had arrived and were quickly hand delivered. The service would be small and held in the formal parlor. The next day Papa will lay “in-state” in the church he built for his people. A third service will be held at the family plot and all invited would attend. The minister from the local Methodist church would conduct the services. Mother’s older cousins, two spinster sisters, were appalled that Papa would lay in a slave church. Mother quickly set them in their place and demanded an apology be offered to Mammy and her eldest daughter who overheard the conversation.

Mother entered the warming kitchen to give her approval of the food being prepared for family and friends. She made sure enough was prepared for all those in the quarters. I returned to the parlor and found Uncle John, papa’s youngest brother, sitting by the coffin. Mourners were arriving to pay their respects. Most entered through the front door while a few of the dirt farmers were more comfortable entering through the back door. Floral arrangements of greenery had arrived   and the parlor had the aroma of a pine forest. This was a blessing due to the sudden warm weather.

The private service in our parlor was touching and Mother attended with composure. Few widows attended funeral services, due to their frailty and weakness, but Mother was determined to set a new standard. Her elderly cousins could be heard engaging in the smelling salts. I giggled to myself as I remembered many days on visits with the cousins and both would have the vapors when a situation was taken out of the correct Southern norm. After the private service, Papa was carried by six of his people to the church in the quarters.  A black pall covered the coffin. Mother selected to sit with the body surrounded by her people. Friends and relatives reluctantly visited the quarter church. A second service was held with Uncle Will, the black minister, performing a beautiful tribute to Papa and Uncle Will’s prayers brought tears to the eyes of all attending. Spiritual songs were sung by the black choir. Papa’s body remained in the quarter church. I sat up all night with Uncle Will. The day had been warm and fans were needed to keep the flies off Papa’s body. Papa would be laid to rest at 11 a.m. the following morning. Hundreds are expected to attend, including slaves and workers from surrounding plantations. Mother asked Uncle Will to give the final prayer. The Methodist minister gave his permission, even though it was not requested.

We were blessed with a cooler morning for the burial and close to 800 attended, most being our people from the plantation. On last inventory, I remember Papa saying 500 lived in the quarters. Mammy stood behind mother at the cemetery. When mother realized this she insisted a chair be provided for Mammy as she was a part of our immediate family. Mother held Mammy’s aged worn hand as they both wept for Papa.  Mammy, although nearing 80 years of age, did not look a day over 60. She delivered Papa and raised him after his mother died. Today Mother was burying her husband, while Mammy was burying her son.

I looked around at the tired, worn faces and sighed at my new responsibility of caring for Papa’s people. How could I take on my new responsibilities? I wanted to join the Confederacy. Papa had already paid the Confederacy twice to leave me alone.  Yet deep down I knew I was needed to fight for my state’s rights. I knew of many “outliers” whites hiding in isolated regions of South Carolina in order to avoid the conscription and drafts for the Confederacy. I would not hide. The sound of a hymn brought me back to reality and I listened with reverence. At the close of the burial service, Uncle Will gave his prayer, which was more like a sermon. Mother, Mammy and I returned to the carriage for the short trip back to the big house. Mother and Mammy both agreed to keep the house in mourning a little longer as the Virginia cousins would be arriving late due to the trains being needed for the war efforts.

It took longer than expected for the mourners, including papa’s people, to leave the grave site. By 3:00 p.m., we were summoned to view the grave and the floral tributes. I requested Elijah to bring the carriage so mother, myself and mammy could ride out behind the quarters to the family plot. While driving slowly and with great care under mother’s direction, we arrived at the cemetery. Before stepping down to help the womenfolk, I motioned to mother it was time and she handed mammy a small package. Looking confused Mammy looked at me and I nodded for her to open it. She burst into sobs for mother presented her with a gold mourning broach containing a lock of Papa’s hair. Mother had sent a note over earlier to Mr. Adams to make a memorial for Mammy when he made the mourning locket for mother. Mammy became speechless, which was not the norm for her, and clutched the broach to her heart. After Mother pinned it on her and Mammy composed herself, we proceeded as a family of three to view Papa’s flowers and greenery.

Papa’s grave was festooned with late season flowers in blazing colors of orange, yellow and reds. The greenery of cedar, cypress and pine brought back memories of hunting excursions with papa during my youth. Elijah had been thoughtful enough to bring two small folding chairs for mother and mammy.

It was dark when we returned to the plantation house. Mother requested Elijah take the long way back and drive up the lane to the house. In each window shone a candle and the house was lovely in the grey cool night. Mother sent Mammy to bed for fear she would catch cold. Mammy had a small room on the first floor just beyond the formal double parlors. This had been her room for 18 years. It was furnished with pieces as nice as our rooms on the second floor. I asked for supper to be sent upstairs and mother and I retired for the evening. The day was over.

-By Cliff Grimsley