Every year the Wilson family
has a family reunion the first weekend in May. We seldom went as it usually
required a long drive or bus trip, a hotel room and meals as well as the
reunion fee. One year it was in Charlottsville and we attended that one, and
once when it was in Harrisonville we went because we could stay home and the
trip wasn't too long. In fact, Dad had been able to borrow a car both times
so he’d decided we could afford it. I’d met a lot of Wilsons and people who
had married Wilsons, but mostly the things were for the adults. When Mom
mentioned it was in Lexington this year and she'd like to see some of the
folks, Sam asked why she didn't go. She talked about the difficulty getting
there and the money it would cost and he said, “You get the money for the
reunion and Derek will drive you down. We'll pay his costs.” Mom argued, but
So it was that Mom and I
headed for Lexington in the Spyder. At the motel, we checked in and
freshened up before we registered for the reunion. After we got our official
name tags, we went to the reception in the ballroom. The cocktail hour was
in full swing and I noticed more than a few kids my age and younger were
helping themselves to drinks. Sam and Brad had given me wine and helped me
develop a taste for it, but that was definitely done around the family table
and not often. I had no desire to get drunk. I got a Coke and drifted around
the room, finally spotting a group of young men I guessed to be my age and
just older. When I joined them, a few nodded, acknowledging my presence, but
the center group pointedly ignored me. I soon learned they were all from the
more elite, historically-black colleges or were headed to one. As they
talked, I wondered why many of them bothered since their time in college
time seemed to be devoted to partying, not studying.
Dinner was okay, but nothing
special. We were seated in some kind of arrangement determined by some
unknown law and I knew no one except Mom at our table of six. I was seated
next to an elderly lady. I learned she was Dad's grandmother's sister and
she said I should just call her Auntie as, “everybody does.” She asked me
all sorts of questions and we had a good conversation about a lot of things.
After dinner, there were speeches about family history and Wilsons who
played a part in this or that. Some of it was interesting, but most made me
wonder if, maybe, focusing on the past allowed people to avoid the present.
I stopped by the desk before
I went to the room and asked where I could run in the morning. The young man
on duty, who wasn’t a whole lot older than I was, said, “Name's Harold. When
do you plan on running?”
“Derek,” I responded.
“Breakfast is from 8:00 until 9:30 and I planned on doing ten miles, so I
guess I need to start around 6:00, 6:30.”
“Good. Sounds like what I
had in mind as well. I'll meet you here at 6:30 if you’d like and we can run
“Great. See you then.”
As I walked down the hall
toward the elevator, I could hear the party going strong. When I glanced
into the ballroom, I saw several of the guys who had more or less snubbed me
earlier looking the worse for wear. In my room, I left a wake up call for
6:00 and turned in for the night.
I was awake a few minutes
before the phone rang with my wake up call. I took care of bathroom
obligations, dressed in running shorts and shoes and was ready to leave by
6:15. I flipped on the TV and saw the morning was clear and bright with a
cool temperature; perfect for running. When I reached the lobby, Harold was
just walking in the front door. Coming down the hall from the elevator was
another person dressed for a run, a young woman and, if I recalled
correctly, a cousin.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Looks like you two are ready for a run.”
“We are,” Harold said. “My
name's Harold and this is Derek.”
“Bernice. Derek, I think we
are second cousins or something like that. Your dad was Alonzo Wilson,
“Then we're second cousins
once removed—I think. I can never keep that straight.”
“I don't try,” I said,
grinning at her.
“Mind if I join you guys?
Well, I guess I need to know how far you are running.”
“We're planning on ten
miles,” I answered and got a look from Harold. I was sure he would have cut
it short to have Bernice run with us.
We ran at an easy pace so we
could talk. I learned Harold was a junior at Washington and Lee and planned
to go into the hospitality industry so his work was part of his college
studies. Bernice was a student at Sweet Briar. They were surprised to learn
I was just a high school senior. “Where will you be next year?” Bernice
“Maybe Old Commonwealth.
They offered the best scholarship, but I'm still short. My dads will help,
but I can't ask a lot of them.” Before we had reached the five-mile mark,
the two had pulled my life’s story out of me. Harold had caught the 'my
dads' and that had immediately provoked a round of questions.
On the way back, we learned
more about each other and what they thought about college life.
After I had showered, shaved
and dressed, I went down the hall to Mom's room and knocked. She was ready
to go to breakfast and we went together. Auntie was seated at a table alone
and I asked if we could join her. “Delighted,” she said. “You are very wide
awake this morning,” she observed, “unlike most of your age group.”
“Well, Cousin Bernice—I
don't know how we are cousins, but she says we are . . .”
“She right's. She's Aaron's
“She, Harold, who was on the
desk last night, and I ran this morning, so I have been awake for some
“Bernice keep up with you
two guys?” Auntie asked.
“She did, all ten miles.”
“Maybe she'll outrun some of
the worthless guys raising hell here last night.” Auntie then gave us the
benefit of her evaluation of the parents producing undisciplined young men
and women. “They were threatened with eviction from the motel last night
when they kept a loud party going after being told 11:00 was the deadline
for noise. My room is right above the ballroom and you wouldn't believe the
noise and some of the things being shouted down there.”
Harold had offered to show
Bernice and me around Lexington as, despite the fact that it was only thirty
or so miles northwest from Sweet Briar, Bernice had never visited here. Same
for me and I lived only thirty miles further northeast. We, of course, had
to see the campus of Washington and Lee including a visit to the Holy Shrine
where R. E. Lee is buried. We had a great morning and as lunch approached,
Harold said if we didn't have to be back, he'd treat us to lunch, which we
didn’t and he did. After lunch Harold asked if we had ever been to Natural
Bridge. Neither of us had. He asked if we would be interested. I hesitated,
thinking 'three's a crowd.'
“Sounds a lot more
interesting than listening to a bunch of people play 'mine's bigger than
yours' about one branch or another of the Wilson family. Really, they're all
dead so what difference does it make now? Wanna go, Derek?” Bernice asked.
“Come on, Derek, you'll
enjoy it,” Harold urged and seemed sincere, so I went. We spent the
afternoon there and just enjoyed the countryside and each other. I was
surprised that the two of them never made me feel like a third wheel.
Bernice invited Harold to the reunion picnic and he accepted, but reminded
her he had duty at the hotel third shift, midnight until eight in the
morning. She made a point of asking me to join them, but I just as pointedly
begged off, much to Harold's relief, I'm sure.
At the picnic, I noticed
Auntie sitting by herself again, being ignored. I knew she didn't get around
very well and needed help with getting her own food and all and wondered why
she was not being cared for. I went over and asked her what I could get her
to eat and she told me, adding that I should make it small portions.
I loaded a plate for myself
and fixed one for Auntie. A young girl of twelve or so came up behind me and
asked if she could help. I smiled and said, “Sure. Grab two glasses of sweet
tea, if you would and come with me.” She did and we walked over to Auntie
and I gave her the plate and took one of the glasses of tea and set it in
front of her. Auntie said to the girl, “Thank you, Ms . . . what's you
“Shawnese Wilson,” she said.
“Then you are William
Howard's daughter,” Auntie said.
“How did you know?” Shawnese
asked, a curious look on her face.
“Honey, there's hardly a
member of this family I don't know—well, their name and their parents,
grandparents and a lot of great grandparents. You are as good looking as
your mama. Thank goodness, you got her looks and not that of your daddy's
bunch of Wilsons. They have produced some ugly women.”
Shawnese cracked up and
said, “You know that's the truth, Auntie!” and the two enjoyed a good laugh.
I thanked Shawnese again and
she ran to join a bunch of girls around her age.
Auntie and I had started
eating when she dropped a bombshell. “Got a steady boyfriend or do you just
fuck around?” she asked.
“How do you know I’m gay?
What do you mean ‘got a steady boyfriend’?” I stammered. I was of the darker
persuasion but, I can tell you, my red face would have been clearly visible
from the moon! Auntie was shaking with laughter. I finally smiled weakly and
said, "Well, Auntie, neither.”
“Don’t worry, just an old
lady’s instincts, I guess. Anyway, man as good looking as you and no
boyfriend. What's the problem?”
“I think it's called
homophobia,” I responded. “I heard my dad rant and rave about candy-ass
niggers taking over and what should be done about it enough to know to keep
my mouth shut. Even if he had approved, I'd still have had to deal with the
prejudice and hatred in our small town and especially in our
African-American community. Thanks, I’d just as soon pass on that.”
She smiled at me and said,
“Well, as I said, not to worry. Anyway, I understand you have a problem and
I know I have one. You need money for room, board and books and I need
someone in my house. Think we might be able to live under the same roof?” I
guess I looked puzzled because she said, “Look, it's this way. My kids
raise holy hell if I am alone and I can't seem to find someone to stay with
me without it costing an arm and a leg. Would you like to look over my place
and see if maybe we could come to some agreement which would help both of
us? My place is in walking distance of the Old Commonwealth campus and I
have space. Of course, I wouldn't expect you to make a commitment sight
unseen. You can fly back with me and see if you think you can deal with the
situation. I already talked to your mama and phoned your dads. All three
thought it was a good idea. None of my kids made this reunion, but I talked
to the one who runs the show and she says if we can work something out,
fine, but if not, it’ll mean we’ll have to come to some other
arrangement—and that means the home.”
“Well, I certainly don't
want to turn down the offer. Of course, the athletic staff will have to give
the nod as well. Also, I have to take Mom back to Stanton.”
“Your mom said your dads are
taking care of that. If you're interested, they'll bring down clothes and
make arrangements for you to be out of school Monday and Tuesday.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Sounds
like it might be a win-win situation.”
Sunday there was a special
service at R. E. Lee Memorial Church in the afternoon for the Wilsons. I was
surprised that it was there and was an Episcopal service. Pleased, too,
since otherwise all the preachers in the family—there were at least half a
dozen—would have had to dazzle the crowd trying to outdo each other and we
would have been there until the first snowfall.
After the service, Sam and
Brad met us at the motel. When they were introduced to Auntie, she said,
“I'm sure this place doesn't have a decent cellar, but probably something
better than Mad Dog 20/20. Care to join me in a bottle while we discuss this
young man's future?” She ordered a bottle of wine, Coke for me and Mom and
some snacks. We enjoyed them and talked about just about everything except
my future. After we had talked for half an hour, she said, “Pity more young
men don't have dads like yours, Derek.” I agreed.
She then explained her
situation in more detail and what my living with her would entail so I could
make a decision about living with her. “I think I have some IOUs at Old
Commonwealth to call in if the coaches don't like our arrangement. Also, the
young man has a history of taking his training, diet and all seriously.
Bradford, you need to write letters about that and have his swimming and
diving coaches do as well.” We also talked about practical things such as
insurance and making sure there would be no problem with my getting medical
treatment should I need it.
Our flight left Roanoke at
seven so we had to rush to get away by 5:30. We made the airport in plenty
of time and Auntie and I arrived at her place shortly before midnight. When
Auntie showed me to the guest room, I just tumbled into bed and was asleep
as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Auntie called me at 9:00 and
said breakfast would be ready in twenty minutes. I followed kitchen sounds
and smells and found Auntie in the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Pancakes and sausage patties suit you?” she asked when I arrived.
“Sounds great,” I said.
“You have a busy day,” she
said. “I thought I'd give you a tour of the house and we'd talk about your
living here, then at 2:00 you have a meeting with the Dean of Student Life
about being a day student. Following that, you have one with your aquatics
coach about housing, meals and all since you'll not be living on campus.
After breakfast, I suggest you take a look around outside, then I'll show
you the inside.” We had a very nice breakfast while she asked me about
school, friends, etc. After breakfast, I started helping her clear and as
soon as I had the table cleared, she said, “Go on outside and look around
while I finish cleaning up.”
The house was huge, an old
Victorian in immaculate condition. The porch across the front and around two
sides of the house had the expected Victorian gingerbread, but it was
especially elaborate. One of the side porches was screened. There were
matching second floor porches, all screened. The house was set back from the
street and the front yard was well groomed with many flowers. Rose-covered
arbors separated the front yard from the two side ones. When I walked around
the house, I saw the backyard was three times the size of the front and
enclosed by a board fence which made it completely private. There was an
area paved with flagstone in a back corner and I could see it was set up for
eating outside. A rose arbor covered a glider swing with its two gliders
attached to a common platform which stood near the flagstone area. It was
perfect for two people or couples to sit facing each other and keeping its
gentle motion going with an occasional push against the common platform.
Back inside, Auntie showed
me the front parlor, what I would have called the formal living room, and a
large formal dining room. She pointed out that the arch between the dining
room and parlor was wide enough to allow the dining table to be extended
through it into the parlor. “You can seat a crowd for a sit-down dinner,”
she explained. Her suite, which included a very large sitting and bedroom as
well as her bathroom, together with the large guest room and its bath took
up the other side of the downstairs. “None of the downstairs is off limits
except my suite,” she told me.
“I expect you might like to
have friends in for dinner now and then as I am sure they would enjoy a
decent meal after campus food. You are free to do so. I guess you might want
to party some and you are free to do that here, too, so long as you realize
that if it gets too wild, I'll just have to join in.
“Well, that's it about it
downstairs,” she said. “I think I might be good for one trip upstairs, but
don't expect to see me up there again. My old knees aren't up to the climb.”
I laughed and swept her hundred pounds max into my arms and carried her up
the wide staircase and set her on her feet. “My, this place is a mess! I
haven’t been up here in years. I guess fifteen or so. I even stopped having
it cleaned after the grandchildren grew up. When my children visit, they
prefer staying in a hotel. Well, there are three bedrooms up here.
Originally there were five, but Jason and Jackson, my twin boys, would never
be separated. As soon as they could get out of their cribs, regardless of
where we put them, they would end up in the same crib. When they were ten or
eleven, they wanted a room together, and I thought I'd just have a carpenter
come in and cut a door between the two rooms, but they had their own idea.
The wall between the rooms was moved, making the room in front twice as
large as the one in back. The back bedroom was Paul’s. It’s almost a true
bedroom since he bought a king-size bed and it's almost wall-to-wall bed,”
she chuckled. It was small compared to the other bedrooms, but not close to
wall-to-wall bed even with the king-size bed.
“The girls went a different
route. They wanted a larger bedroom, but also a large bathroom and huge
walk-in closet. Anyway, you see what’s here.” Auntie became silent and got a
strange look on her face as we walked through the rest of the upstairs.
Suddenly she said, “Derek, this place is a real mess. I’ll see about getting
it in decent shape before you come down if you want to live here.”
“Auntie, it’s okay. I’ll
clean it up when I arrive and I just need a place to sleep, shower and
“Then let’s go downstairs,”
Back downstairs, she said,
“Beth Ann comes to clean every other week and I'll see about her coming
every week, but I expect you to keep the place decent, help around the house
and let me know where you are. You have a cell phone? Every young person
seems to have one.”
"I have one on a very
limited plan. I’ve never felt chatting on the phone was a very worthwhile
“Well, we'll have to get you
a better plan because you will be the first one those emergency people will
call when I push the button,” she said as she pulled a locket-like devise
from under her dress. “I push the button on this and they check on me. I
don't want you thinking you are completely tied down here. So what do you
“I think it's great.”
“We got a deal?”
“We got a deal.”
“Well, it’s almost time for
lunch. I ordered in since I figured we’d be busy. It’ll be here shortly and
after lunch, you have your appointments.”
“There a bike around here or
do I hoof it to the university?” I asked.
“Well, now, we haven’t
talked about transportation have we? We need to make one more inspection
tour.” With that, she got up and headed out the back door and walked toward
the garage with me at her side. When she opened the garage door, there was a
red Chrysler LeBaron convertible inside. “I’ll soon be ninety and when I
reached eighty, I came close to having an accident because my reaction time
was just too slow, so I hung up my keys.
“I knew the time was coming,
but didn't give up easily. I purchased a brand new, loaded, 1995 LeBaron in
1996, a couple years before I gave up driving, a kind of late-blooming
midlife crisis,” she said shrugging her shoulders when I laughed. “Arch from
the dealership sees that it gets driven at least twenty miles a month and
services it each quarter. Simply from age, the tires needed replacing last
month. Must have known you were in my future. Why else would I have kept
it?” She chuckled and handed me the keys. I was stunned. “Take care of it
and treat it like your own. I'll get the insurance and all straightened out
and you can drive it home.”
Back inside, she said, “Now
go back upstairs and do a careful inspection of the place.”
I hadn't looked very
carefully at the layout or content of the upstairs when I came up with
Auntie. So I walked over it, thinking, 'What will I be doing? What space do
I need? How can I best use what's here?’ There were three rooms, two
baths—one very large. The small bath connected Paul's and the twin's rooms.
I first thought I'd make the
largest room my bedroom, then I asked myself where I would be spending my
time and what I needed in each place. First was a bedroom. When I walked
through the rooms again, I took a careful look at the small room which had
been Paul’s. Clearly he wasn't much for decorating or even keeping things in
order. The only way to describe the appearance of the room was depressingly
dreary and disheveled. It was a dirty yellowish beige color and most
definitely would have to be painted. Something had to be done about
draperies and bed covers as what was there had seen better days, but even
when new had been drab and uninteresting. There was an overstuffed chair in
the corner which had loose springs, was stained and, also, had never been
anything but dull. All of it had to go.
The bed was flanked by a
small nightstand—barely large enough to hold the small, squat lamp with a
huge shade sitting on it. When I turned the lamp on, sparks flew from the
plug. In spite of all that, I liked this smaller back room. It was small,
but then what would I be doing in the bedroom? Well, that and sleeping. That
was pretty much it. Even if I found a boyfriend, we'd be sleeping or making
love, both bed activities. I slept in a queen bed at Grace House and saw no
reason for anything larger, but Paul's room had a king size bed. I noted it
was just a frame with no headboard. I wouldn’t need the junky chest, and
wouldn’t have even if the room had been larger since there were drawers in
the closet. The closet was small, but there was the huge one across the hall
where I could store out-of-season clothes. The room had a window overlooking
the back yard and a door which was mostly panes of glass, opening onto the
side porch. An additional fact in its favor was its location at the back of
the house. Auntie lived on a quiet street, but there was still some street
noise. That settled the location of my bedroom.
The large front room
connecting to Paul's had been the twins’. It was light and airy—double
windows in front and French doors on the side opening onto the porch
explained that. It also had a king-size bed with nice night stands on either
side. Unlike the bed in Paul's room, this one had an attractive headboard,
two nightstands and lamps. I decided all of these would go in my bedroom. Of
course the mattress and other bedding would have to be replaced.
The room was furnished with
two nice desks which were placed back-to-back so the twins would be facing
each other when they were studying. I began to wonder about their
relationship! There were two wing chairs in excellent condition and a game
table between them. Flanking the door from the hall and the French doors
were bookcases filled with books. I would need to go through those and
decide what to keep and what to discard. With the bed gone, there would be a
lot of unused space in the room. Brad and Sam had both told me study groups
had saved their lives in graduate school and would have made life a lot
easier in their undergrad years. I'd keep my eye out for a table, chairs and
lamps to create a study group workspace. With draperies and a new coat of
paint, the room would be great.
The boys' bathroom was a
just a bathroom, a very utilitarian one. The fixtures were old, of course.
There was no shower except one of those gadgets that had a hose which
attached to the faucet and had a ring for the curtain attached to the wall.
The other front room
belonged to the girls. It was still awash in their lace and ruffles. The
furnishings were good reproductions of what Auntie had said was French
Provençal. You couldn’t prove it by
me! What did I know about French Provençal?
Nothing. Unlike the twins' room, it was clear the girls had been
territorial. You could easily imagine a line across the room. The two sides
of the room were mirror images of each other. One look and I knew it all had
to go! For the time being, the room would be unused. Maybe later it could be
my place to relax with music, TV, friends. The bathroom had definitely been
shared by two girls. It was huge with an enormous mirror, had cabinets
galore, but still no shower. The closet would hold all I owned—several times
over. As I looked again at the bathroom, I realized it shared a wall with my
bedroom. It would be nice if there was a connecting door so it could be my
bathroom, especially if it had a shower.
Back downstairs, I sat down
with Auntie and told her my observations and started answering tons of
questions about what was upstairs. “What needs to be changed? Fixed?
Repaired? Replaced?” she asked. “Do you need a kitchenette? What about
décor? Given free rein and lots of money what would you do? Can you be
comfortable upstairs?” The questions went on and on. They only stopped when
I had to head to the campus to meet the Dean of Student Life. “Give Scotty
my regards,” Auntie said as I headed for the garage.