“The Welsh are dark.”
That phrase has been spoken and followed by knowing nods in our family — when there were still heads to nod — for many years. My father’s mother, our paternal grandmother, had dimmed the light in her eyes by the time my sister and I were really aware of her. Her thoughts were her own, and her logic was so convoluted that eventually we who were her grandchildren made no attempt to carry on a true conversation with her
Tess had been beautiful at one time, and our grandfather had waited through a 13-year engagement before she finally married him. The theory held closely by some relatives was that she had delayed until she thought there wouldn’t be any children as a result of their union, but our father was born nine months to the day after her wedding. And then our uncle came a few years later.
The Welsh are dark, indeed. Our grandfather’s family was both Welsh and in the dark. Slate miners who made their way from Wales, they had settled in Missouri to mine coal. Our grandfather was born with physical deformities, but tried to mine anyway as a boy. When he was badly mangled in an accident, his parents let him go to school so he would have something to do. Eventually he ended up working in a bank as a clerk in Independence. He met our grandmother, decided she was the one for him, and endured what couldn’t be changed until she was ready to marry him.
But Tess was ashamed of them and their existence, every bit of it. And her desire for the better things in life for her sons translated into secrecy about the past — even the recent past. She would speak with bitterness and regret, but never affection. As a teenager, I had never seen the little farm where her family had ended up, even though it was just a few miles from where she had raised her own family.
One year when I was about 16, we visited our grandmother at Easter. Our father insisted that we take a ride in the country after the main choir service at 11. All the women in the car kept their hats on, and I tried not to bump the fabric flowers on the window as I watched the scenery slide past. I didn’t recognize the route we were on, but didn’t think much about it until Tess broke her customary stony silence and became visibly upset. She said something underneath her breath to Dad, and Mom (who was sitting in the back seat with my sister and me) turned to us and and opened her eyes wide — which was her silent alarm signal. But Dad drove on and eventually said quietly, “Mom, I want my family to see where you grew up.”
We pulled onto a lane that went a short distance and ended at a tiny farm tucked back under trees that were just beginning to open their leaves. The little Victorian house and the out buildings were all painted white, and the buds were just starting to show on the grape arbor. Daffodils were up and in full bloom, and the forsythia was brilliant. My sister and I got out of the car, and took it all in. In the meantime, Tess stared straight ahead and gripped her cane, her eyes hard with anger.
But her mood was completely lost to us as we soaked in the spring afternoon and the storybook illustration of a farm. Suddenly, the car door opened, and one black lace-up shoe appeared, followed by a cane tip, then another black shoe. Tess emerged from the car, and pulled all five feet-something of herself upright. Uncharacteristically, Dad didn’t go to help her, but let her enter the scene on her own terms.
She looked around, then brushed off the front of her church dress and cleared her throat. She interrupted my sister’s and my oohing and ahhing by tipping her cane towards the house and saying, “That little porch was where I liked to sit in the evenings, especially in the summer.”
She pointed out the barn, the little chicken coop, and all the features she thought we should remember. Then she said, “Well, this has been an adventure. We had probably better go back home and have dinner.”
Later my father would admit to our mother (who was sworn to secrecy but told us girls anyway) that Dad knew the little farm had been restored. The new owners had told him they would be away that day, but to go out and see how great the place looked.