The Care Giver


Martha Bayles

“Some of these old people, they do not want a black. It is not their fault. It is the way they were raised.”


   My mother was in bad shape when I visited her in October 1994. She was still living alone in Weston, Massachusetts, though no longer in the imposing brick house where I grew up. Widowed since 1979, she had sold that house and moved to a smaller one on the Boston Post Road, only a ten-minute walk to Weston Center with its quaint shops and banks, stone churches, and picturesque Town Green. Despite its loveliness, Weston is not a friendly place. If you don’t appear to belong, don’t expect a “Howdy, stranger.” More likely you’ll get a chilly “May I help you?” To which the acceptable reply is: “No, thanks. I was just leaving.”    This visit was worrisome, because at eighty-five Rachael Brown Bayles was starting to fail. Her joints were inflamed with arthritis, her mind faltering. The second affliction was worse, because she had always been sharp. Rarely happy, or even contented. But always sharp. Like many Boston Brahmin women of her generation, she did not have a career of her own, but rather kept house and worked as devoted volunteer for worthy causes such as the Red Cross blood drive; the League of Women Voters; the Robert Breck Brigham Hospital (the now defunct hospital where my father, Theodore Bevier Bayles, was a rheumatologist); and when her politics shifted leftward, Democratic congressmen Robert Drinan and Barney Frank.    Most recently, Rachael’s main volunteer service had been as treasurer of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Associates, an up-to-date version of the old Robert Breck Brigham “Ladies Committee.” Over the summer she had been politely ousted from that position, and nothing had come along to replace it. She had spent the first few weeks of this unwelcome retirement doing what she had always done: dress impeccably every morning, count every penny of her budget, organize every inch of her living space, and plan every minute of her day with the obsessiveness of a woman in need of a better outlet for her talents. It was all the more painful, then, to see the unraveling of her ordered universe: damp wrinkled clothes languishing in the dryer, cordless phone stashed in the microwave, unpaid bills slipped between couch pillows. She was having bad days, spells of confusion, panic attacks. Such changes are never welcome, but for me the timing was especially poor. My first book was attracting a fair amount of attention, and I was living in Washington, D.C. The last thing I needed was to be pressed into service as a full-time care giver.

   I have a photograph of my parents taken during World War II. They’re at an outdoor wedding reception and well into their cups, Ted in his army medical corps uniform, six-foot-four and ruddy, a lopsided grin and thick brown crew-cut; Rachael elegant and handsome in a silk dress with striped lapels, holding her eyeglasses in one hand and smiling toothily, sexily into the camera. Their faces gleam in the warm sun, their hands entwined in a careless show of affection that still rivets my attention. They were happy, I remind myself. The unhappiness I remember is not the whole story. Finding the cause of that unhappiness is like finding, among the pebbles deposited by a landslide, the one that first rolled loose and set off all the others. All you can do is guess.

   It was Columbus Day, the last day of my visit. I was looking forward to a guiltless escape, because my older sister Louise had flown in from California to lend a hand with Rachael’s increasingly disorganized affairs. Louise had more patience for that task than I—and more motivation, because while I had always been the object of Rachael’s unsolicited grace, Louise had always needed to win her approval through good works. Fortunately, Louise and I had reached an understanding about our mother’s favoritism, as well as about her other limitations. As I say, Rachael had rarely been happy. And while Louise and I loved her very much, she had rarely made us happy.    To cheer ourselves up, we decided to go out for dinner at the Villa, our longtime favorite Italian restaurant. As I was helping Rachael up the three steps to the entrance, she fell. More precisely, she was standing unsteadily on the tiny landing when the door swung open and knocked her backward. I tried to catch her, but it was too late. With a cry and a dry thump, she landed on her back on the pavement at the bottom of the steps.    It is horrible to hear an old person scream, especially your mother. When I saw the X-ray at the hospital, I knew why Rachael was screaming. The long bone of her left upper arm, her humerus, was splintered, the two pieces rammed together. Over the next few days, as her fragile independence was lost, she succumbed to her own worst tendency, which was to use her suffering to manipulate others. Her deepest fault, I say without bitterness, was an inability to reciprocate. “Give and take” was not in her emotional lexicon. Needy and generous by turns, she was never quite able to balance her own needs with those of other people. Like a child, she would look forward to events such as family visits and holidays, only to be disappointed when they arrived in the un-magical garb of real life. At that point the question was not whether she would dissolve in self-pity, but when.    This fault in Rachael’s character had always been offset by an impressive ability to manage by herself. It was from her that I learned how to be alone, to be the rugged individualist, if you will. Not the healthiest way to be, it is now widely acknowledged, even among the descendants of Puritans. But a useful skill all the same, especially in someone who has trouble coping with the demands of others. Unfortunately, this skill was of little use to Rachael now, because she could neither dress, nor eat, nor go to the bathroom without assistance.    For several weeks Louise and I took turns providing that assistance. But Louise had a family and a law practice in California, I a busy schedule promoting my book. Moreover, we were both exhausted by Rachael’s constant scrutiny, doubts, and demands. So at one point we had sat her down and persuaded her, as gently as we could, that while we would both continue to visit, it was time to hire a full-time care giver.    Rachael’s insurance was already paying for a home health aide to stop by every week, and the one who came, Rosemary, was a kind, hardworking woman with a New Hampshire accent who, Louise and I both realized, reminded Rachael of the servants who had more or less raised her and her two younger sisters, according to the custom among Brahmins like my grandfather, Howard Wicks Brown (a prominent attorney) and his wife, Rachael Newbury (the daughter of a wealthy businessman). In her thirties Rachael Newbury developed breast cancer, but according to custom, the illness was not discussed with the children, even though seventeen-year-old Rachael was expected to help with her mother’s care. When death came, that was not discussed either.    Hence my mother’s lifelong attachment to people she thought of as servants, an attachment that grew stronger in old age. The man who cleaned her house, a gruff, kind-hearted Italian-American named Bruce, was her closest confidant. Another Italian-American, her hairdresser Robert, treated her like a fine lady and was rewarded with the rare sunshine of her affection. Irish-American Rosemary was in the same category. Even when she caused Rachael pain by pulling her out of a cramped sitting position or lowering her into the tub, Rachael never spoke harshly or called Rosemary anything but “dear heart” or “my friend.” It was painful to see how trusting my mother could be when the tricky business of reciprocating another’s kindness could be dealt with by writing a check. But this was also why it was easy to persuade Rachael to hire a full-time care giver. We all assumed it would be Rosemary.    After this conversation, Louise flew back to California, and I stayed on to make the arrangements. Unfortunately, it turned out that Rosemary was not available, because her agency did not provide full-time care givers. They recommended a few other agencies, and when after several calls I found one I liked, I requested their best care giver and arranged for her to arrive the following day.


They sent their best care giver, I have no doubt. But as I opened the front door, I knew they had sent the wrong one for my mother. She was black. Tall and elderly with a short bouffant hairdo, she stood smiling under the portico with a younger woman with neat plaited hair who introduced herself as “Ambrozine’s daughter.” Faking a smile to cover my sinking heart, I turned to the older lady and said, “How do you do … Amber?” The younger woman repeated the name, which makes sense as the feminine of “Ambrose” but at that moment made no sense. Eventually the young woman got it across that her mother, who had come all the way out here from Mattapan to take care of my mother, was named Ambrozine.    I couldn’t say no on the spot. No matter how compelling my reasons, as a white person I could not simply frown at a black person and say, “Sorry, you won’t do.” Ambrozine was Jamaican, with an accent as colorful and rich as her clothes were colorful and shabby. When she entered the living room, Rachael took one look at this person in a plaid skirt and flowered sweater, and shrank back into her armchair. “You must be Amber,” she said with gelid politeness. “How do you do?”    Ambrozine was a pro, I could see that. She pulled up the hassock, leaned forward, and spelled her name into Rachael’s hearing aid. But it was no use. Rachael did not want this person to have a name. Rachael did not want this person to be in her living room.    What was Rachael’s problem? To the extent that she did not want anyone to substitute for Louise and me, Ambrozine’s color was irrelevant to her. But it was relevant, obviously. Anyone could see that—and conclude, without further evidence, that this well-coiffed, well-dressed old white lady was a stone cold racist. The reader is free to conclude the same thing. But I cannot, because I know how hard my mother struggled to overcome her inherited prejudices. She fought her own snobbery based on class and religion, especially in her dealings with the blue-collar Catholics whose kindness meant so much to her. And she rejected race prejudice—at least in the abstract.    When after college I embarked on a teaching career in majority-black public schools in Philadelphia and Boston, my parents were proud. Indeed, on social occasions Rachael would praise me indirectly by recalling a well-to-do couple from Mississippi, a heart surgeon and his wife, whom she had met at one of Ted’s Harvard Medical School reunions. Seated next to Rachael at dinner, this couple had explained that, having spent their whole lives around black people, they knew that some were hard-working and loyal—as long as you handled them right. But because they were not mentally capable of learning anything beyond basic spelling and simple arithmetic, to tax their brains further by integrating the schools was a form of cruelty countenanced by outsiders ill-informed about the facts.    I never asked Rachael how she had responded to that couple, perhaps because after hearing her tell it the first few times, I grew tired of it. But her stock of such stories was small. Unlike those Mississippians, she had not spent her whole life around black people. Except for one cleaning lady, she had never had a black person work for her, much less fill the role of “dear heart.” Nor did she know many black people on a socially equal footing. The idea that they deserved an equal education she would have endorsed if articulated by the right person—a Harvard professor writing in the Boston Globe, perhaps, or her daughter Martha. But it was not an idea for which she possessed any direct verification.    Besides, ideas only get you so far when you are old and incapacitated. One of Rachael’s favorite films was Driving Miss Daisy, about a white southern dowager (Jessica Tandy) and the sage black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman) who becomes her “best friend.” Rachael might have been willing to play Miss Daisy if the care giver in question had been a nice-looking black man holding her car door. But the thought of a black Jamaican woman wiping her behind filled her with dismay—or, more accurately, terror at the indignity.

   Ambrozine’s daughter stood waiting in the hall. With another fake smile I showed her the spare bedroom upstairs, where we deposited her mother’s worn suitcase. The spare bedroom room was across the hall from the bedroom where Louise and I had been staying because Rachael could no longer manage the stairs and was sleeping in the guest room downstairs. For me the upstairs was a refuge, so among other discomfiting reactions, I felt annoyed that Ambrozine would be invading it.    When Ambrozine’s daughter departed, I returned to the living room, my heart sinking further when I saw Ambrozine patting my mother’s good hand. “Your mum and I are getting along fine,” she declared in a strong voice. “She understand I give not only care, but also companionship.” The reason why Ambrozine was addressing me, not Rachael, was obvious. Rachael did not like being touched by this person, but her conscience forbade her to object. Her faded blue eyes, misted with panic, implored me to do something.    I did nothing. My plan for that afternoon was to take a break and go into Cambridge for a book interview while Rachael and Ambrozine got acquainted. Ruthlessly, I executed it. But it did not feel like a break. I botched the interview, and when I returned home three hours later, it was clear that Rachael and Ambrozine were not getting along fine. They were sitting silently in the kitchen, Rachael picking at a sandwich that looked two hours old, and Ambrozine dozing in her chair. I pitied them both, but the time had come to rescue one at the expense of the other. Acknowledging my mother’s miserable glance, I said, “Ambrozine, could you please leave us alone for a few minutes?”    Ambrozine got up, face hardened into a mask, and stalked out of the kitchen. She did not go far. Without touching any of the furniture, she stood in the middle of the living room, not quite eavesdropping but not quite out of earshot, either. I was sure she could hear me say to my mother, “Are you OK with this?”    Rachael shook her head, mouthing “No.” She looked so pitiful, I had no choice but to offer relief. Unfortunately, the only relief I could think of was a classic piece of white-liberal hypocrisy. Hating myself, I said, “Mummy, it’s not your fault. It’s her accent. You can’t understand a word she’s saying.” For the first time all day, Rachael relaxed. Her head bowed over the cast on her broken arm, and a grateful tear dropped onto the plaster. As far as she was concerned, the problem was solved.    Now I gave in to cowardice. After showing Ambrozine to the spare bedroom upstairs, I hid in the kitchen with Rachael. I fixed her a sandwich that she would eat, and put on her favorite television shows: The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour and Are You Being Served? Then I helped her to get ready for bed. It was nearly ten o’clock when I finally ventured upstairs and knocked on the spare bedroom door.    “Yes?” said Ambrozine. She did not say “come in” because, after all, it wasn’t her room. She was sitting, or rather perching, on one of Rachael’s antique Hitchcock chairs. Feet apart, hands on thighs, upper body thrust forward—her posture resisted all comfort. On the table next to her was a leather-bound Bible, its red ribbon place marker protruding like a tongue from the Old Testament.    “Would you like a cup of tea?” I was not being stingy; I just intuited that she would not accept supper. If she accepted tea, then maybe I could slip her an English muffin.    She refused tea. She required nothing. She had made up the bed, so at least I did not have to imagine her perching on that Hitchcock chair all night. What she did want was harder than tea: a straight answer.    I made do with a stern one: “Ambrozine, this is not working out. Between your accent and my mother’s deafness, we have a communication problem.”    “Your mum understands me fine. We communicate fine.”    Too weary to pursue the matter, I bid Ambrozine a hollow good night and withdrew into the fastness of the other upstairs bedroom.    The next day dawned frosty and clear, with a deep blue sky making the leathery unshed leaves of the brown oaks and copper beeches gleam like maples. At first, I thought everything would go smoothly. Rachael was snoring gently, and Ambrozine was sitting with her suitcase at the bottom of the stairs when I came down. We exchanged a stiff greeting, and I asked her if she wanted a quick cup of tea before I drove her back to Mattapan. Put bluntly, my plan was to dispatch her before my mother woke up.    But Ambrozine would not be dispatched. Shaking her head at my offer of tea, she kept on shaking it. “I must speak to the agency. I cannot leave the site without permission.”    My mouth gaped, but nothing came out. The agency would not be open for at least two hours. That was exactly two hours more than I could stand.    Then, right on cue, I heard Rachael: “Martha? Are you there?”    I was there. Like an old wheel slipping into an old rut, I tended to my mother’s needs. Her goose-down vest, to keep her from shivering. Help in the bathroom, because, as she said every morning, “The pain is exquisite.” Coffee, oatmeal, pills. And please, no mention of the black woman sitting on the front hall stairs.


   Both of my parents came from “old families,” meaning the kind that at some point summon the will, and the wherewithal, to trace their lineage back to a chosen point of origin, typically the first ancestor to arrive in the New World. To judge by the success of DNA-testing companies like, people of all backgrounds feel the natural yearning for a past, meaning not an accumulation of dusty historical detail but a compelling story capable of filling the void that opens at the terminus of memory. The oldest Americans, of course, are those whose ancestors migrated across the land bridge from Siberia 14,000 years ago. Compared to them, all other groups are newbies, and for most families, the spidery lines of memory go back only a few generations before being blurred by time and circumstance. Next come the old families whose forbears first set foot on this continent centuries ago. For this group the lines are longer, in some cases 500 years. But the ability to trace them depends heavily on whether that ancestral foot wore a shoe or a shackle.    My ancestors wore shoes. On my mother’s side, the earliest name in my heirloom copy of The Brown Genealogy is Thomas Brown, a Puritan farmer on the North Shore of Boston in the town of Lynn, settled in 1629, twelve years after Jamestown, Virginia, and nine years after Plymouth. The official town history says relations between the settlers and the indigenous Naumkeag were peaceful, but historians note that the Naumkeag had little choice, their numbers having been decimated by tribal war and a mysterious plague that had recently swept eastern Massachusetts. It is an established fact that the Puritans thanked God for having sent that plague, which in their view was divine Providence making straight the way for their errand into the wilderness.    Published in two volumes in 1907 and 1915, The Brown Genealogy is a tedious read, mostly births, marriages, deaths, and inheritances. But on page 269 of Volume II, it is recorded that in January 1811, one Luther Brown married a woman called Hannah Church—and in the margin someone has written, “her mother was a Mather.” This being one of very few annotations in the entire 611-page volume, it would appear that the grafting of the Mather name onto the Brown family tree was taken as momentous. I do not recall my mother and her two sisters ever mentioning Thomas the lowly farmer, but on occasion they did express furtive pride in their great-grandfather being named Mather Church Brown, indicating a direct line of descent from Increase Mather, pastor of the Old North Meeting House and president of Harvard; and from his son Cotton Mather, another Puritan luminary who was also a pioneer in science.    Today, the Mathers stand condemned for having played a role in the Salem Witch trials, and for holding ambivalent views on the question of slavery (Increase accepted an enslaved Carib Indian as a gift, but Cotton wrote a treatise arguing that slaves had immortal souls and should therefore be “Christianized”). They were not the worst offenders in either case, but to mount a thorough defense would likely strain the reader’s patience. Besides, any impulse I might feel to defend my maternal forbears has recently been dampened by certain revelations about my paternal ones.    My father’s first New World ancestor was Louis Bevier, a French Huguenot who fled Catholic persecution in France in the 1660s, found refuge in the Protestant state of Pfaltz-Am-Rheine in Germany, then embarked with his family for the colony of New York. Arriving in 1675, this Huguenot family and eleven others received a patent from the British governor to settle a large parcel of land eighty miles north of Manhattan in what is now Ulster County. According to another family heirloom, The Bevier Family, the land was purchased from the indigenous Esopus Munsee people, and after settling in a spot they called New Paltz, the twelve families began to stake out large farms and erect dwellings of logs. By the 1680s many were prosperous enough to build stone houses, seven of which are still standing on what is said to be “the oldest continuously inhabited street in America.” Along with twenty-three other carefully preserved buildings in the ten-acre Huguenot Street National Historic District in the town of New Paltz, these houses are impressively built, with thick stone walls, sloping roofs extending to porticoes, and capacious cellars.    While visiting New Paltz in the summer of 1994, my husband and I toured the Bevier-Elting House, and as we were shown the cellar, which holds a kitchen, an adjoining sub-cellar used for food storage, and two side rooms, I recall thinking, Ho-hum, no ghosts here. But that was before I read the fine print in The Bevier Genealogy.    Published in 1916 (one year after The Brown Genealogy), The Bevier Family is a livelier read, thanks to the commentary provided by its author, Katherine Bevier. For example, on page eleven she remarks, “[While] many genealogists can be found who, for a few dollars, would be glad to manufacture the missing links, … nothing has been found to warrant the tradition that the Beviers were of noble lineage.”    But then, on page ninety-six, Katherine quotes the 1763 will of a farmer called Abraham Bevier, who bequeathed to his wife Margarietje several pieces of furniture and “one negro woman,” with the proviso that at Margerietje’s passing “said personal estate and movable effects be equally divided” among their children. Here Katherine’s commentary goes from lively to deadly, as she quips: “It is probable that [Abraham] had no cruel or inhuman intentions with regard to the said negro woman when he provided that … she should be equally divided amongst his seven children.”    Raised on the folklore of brave Huguenots seeking religious freedom in the wilderness, I was shocked by this revelation—and by the discovery, from other sources, that New York had the largest enslaved population of any colony north of Maryland: more than 13,000 souls in 1756. Not only that, but this population was concentrated in Ulster County, where from the earliest days the colony’s rulers—first the Dutch, then the British—had promoted the use of enslaved Africans to grow wheat and other vital crops.    Returning to The Bevier Family, I began to count the enslaved in the various households. In most cases the number was between one and four, but one ancestor, named Louis Bevier after the New Paltz founder, is reported to have owned eleven, listed by name and market value:

Sambo (very old)    £00

Robin             £36

Robin (a boy)       £30

Isabel             £60

Dine (5 yrs)          £25

Delilah (2 yrs)       £12

Tone            £20

Harry           £60

Beth & 2 mos. ch.    £60

Luce             £60

Ginger (4 yrs)        £18

Throughout the region, the custom was for the slaves to sleep in the cellars of their owners’ houses. The cellar of the Bevier-Elting House was clean and dry at the time of my visit in summer 1994. According to some historians, this was true in many homesteads. But it was not true in others, as is evident from this grim passage from one of the better known slave narratives published before the Civil War:

[It was] a dismal chamber; its only lights consisting of a few panes of glass, through which she [the narrator] thinks the sun never shone, but with thrice reflected rays; and the space between the loose boards of the floor, and the uneven earth below, was often filled with mud and water, the uncomfortable splashings of which were as annoying as its noxious vapors must have been chilling and fatal to health. She shudders, even now, as she goes back in memory, and revisits this cellar, and sees its inmates, of both sexes and all ages, sleeping on those damp boards, like the horse, with a little straw and a blanket; and she wonders not at the rheumatisms, and fever-sores, and palsies, that distorted the limbs and racked the bodies of those fellow-slaves in after-life.

The woman who dictated this narrative was Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, two years before the New York State legislature passed the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” As it happened, that Act proved sufficiently gradual that most of the state’s slaveholders were able to recoup their losses. The slave trade had been banned in New York since 1788, but from all accounts there were plenty of middlemen eager to use legal or illegal methods to sell the enslaved, including Truth’s son, to buyers in the South. Truth was able to rescue her son, but that was only because after escaping from her fifth and final owner, she found refuge among the Quakers and underwent a religious conversion that led her to the abolitionist cause. Needless to say, that cause came too late for Robin, Dine, Ginger, Delilah, and all the other human chattel who slept in the cellars of my ancestors.

   While my mother was eating her oatmeal, I took the cordless phone from the kitchen and stepped into the living room, avoiding the front hall where Ambrozine was still sitting on the stairs. According to the grandfather clock ticking loudly in the corner, it was not yet eight, so there was no one to call except the agency’s answering service. I called it anyway, getting a sleepy-sounding woman who mispronounced my name despite having heard me pronounce it. I left an urgent message. Next, I called four other agencies and left urgent messages. Then I stared at the grandfather clock. It was still not yet eight.    That clock, which came from the Bevier side of the family, was a Hepplewhite, circa 1800, with a parchment face, black Roman numerals, and delicate inlays of light and dark wood. The smiling sun and winking moon that were supposed to revolve above the “XII” had been stuck at half-smile and half-wink for as long as I could remember. Much as I revered the clock, it sometimes gave me the creeps. Tall and glossy, it had a hollow tick that suggested the bony tapping of somebody trapped inside. On the hour it whirred and chimed in a soft, silvery voice.


   This limbo I was in, punctuated by tick and whir, reminded me of my childhood. In the old house on Summer Street, the clock stood at the bottom of the stairs in the front hall, where I could hear it quite clearly while lying awake in the bedroom I shared with chubby, tow-headed Louise. As the youngest, I did not participate in the many fights that occurred between my parents and my oldest brother, Howard. Instead, I would wait till the shouting was over and all the doors slammed, then tiptoe down the hall to the bedroom where my mother, who slept apart from my father because of his snoring (she said), was crying. I would do my best to console her, but even then I knew she was inconsolable.    High on the list of causes of Rachael’s unhappiness were two changes that occurred shortly after the death of her mother. The first was her father’s remarriage to a socially prominent widow named Gabriella Peirce, who lived with her sons in Topsfield, an old Puritan town in Boston’s fashionable North Shore. The second was Gabriella’s insistence that Rachael and her two younger sisters be uprooted from their Brookline home and moved thirty miles north to the Topsfield estate that Gabriella’s late husband had inherited from his father, the nineteenth-century railroad tycoon Thomas Wentworth Peirce. All three Brown sisters looked back with dismay on that move.    As the eldest of the sisters, Rachael was labeled “the capable one,” which coming from Gabriella meant neither pretty nor gifted. It might seem that by marrying Theodore Bayles, a pedigreed descendant of Huguenots, Rachael might have met her stepmother’s high standards. But that was not the case. When Ted’s parents—a slight, unassuming Dutch Reform minister from Rutgers, New Jersey, and his tall, hefty wife—showed up at King’s Chapel for the wedding, Gabriella told the usher to escort them to the balcony, presumably so their rustic demeanor and unstylish mode of dress would not offend the social elect. Fortunately, one of Rachael’s sisters intervened, and Ted’s parents were escorted to their proper place in the front pew. It was incidents like this that prompted my father to say, on more than one occasion, “Old families are like potatoes. The best part is underground.”    My parents’ unhappiness had another primary cause: the discovery, during World War II, that their second son Teddy was, in the parlance of the day, “feeble-minded.” Born in 1942 with a stillborn fraternal twin, Teddy did not have Down Syndrome, so it was only gradually that Rachael realized he was not developing normally. The doctors she consulted were no help—perhaps because they knew Ted was serving as an army medic in the Pacific and did not want to burden him with bad news, or perhaps because they simply wished to avoid dealing with Rachael. Either way, their evasiveness made things worse, because Rachael was left alone to cope not just with Teddy but with his older brother Howard, who was already showing signs of emotional instability.    Looming in the background was the general consensus, among lawmakers and medical professionals, that “feeble-minded” children should be removed from their families, placed in state institutions, and forcibly sterilized or castrated, so they could not produce “defective” offspring. Neither Rachael nor Ted ever used that sort of language in my hearing, but my Salem uncle, King Upton, did occasionally call Teddy “defective.” A kind-hearted, liberal soul, Uncle King was no raging Social Darwinist. But the fact that he would unthinkingly use that term shows how thoroughly the pseudo-science of eugenics once shaped elite opinion. It was the quintessential Brahmin, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote in a 1927 case upholding a Virginia sterilization law, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”    “Imbecile” was one of several pseudo-scientific terms used in institutions like the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts, a town bordering Weston. Founded in 1848 as the Experimental School for Teaching and Training of Idiotic Children, and re-named in 1925, Fernald was the oldest such institution in America. But by 1942 it had become an overcrowded, underfunded warehouse where children with mental disabilities were classified as “idiots,” “imbeciles,” or “morons.” It also served as a dumping ground for children who rather than being disabled were poor, abandoned, orphaned, or unruly. Horrified at the prospect of Teddy going to Fernald, my parents summoned the resources and social connections to place him in the Dr. Franklin Perkins School, a small private facility in the central Massachusetts town of Lancaster.    When Teddy arrived at Perkins in 1946, he was only four, and must have been terrified. But Perkins was founded on the then-revolutionary idea that children like Teddy should be welcomed into a homelike environment and encouraged to learn as much as possible—and he did. At age four he could neither speak nor use the toilet, but just a few years later, he could read, write, dress and bathe himself, display (more or less) proper table manners, and carry on a conversation (if he trusted you). And unlike some Perkins parents, Rachael and Ted never abandoned their son. Every week Rachael and Teddy would exchange letters; every fourth weekend and holiday Ted would fetch Teddy home for an overnight stay; and every summer we would all visit him in Maine, where Perkins ran a summer camp. Perhaps most important, by living forty-five miles away from Weston, Teddy was spared the worst fighting over Howard.    I recently unearthed a typewritten evaluation of Teddy, performed at Children’s Hospital in Boston as part of his admission to Perkins. Among other observations, the evaluator wrote, “I saw Teddy and his older brother, Howard, whom Teddy resents; who also causes much of Teddy’s negativism by his dominant attitude.” Having spent much of my childhood on the receiving end of Howard’s bullying, I find this a fair summary. It may sound strange, but I never had a normal conversation with Howard. When I was small, he called me “the brat” and brushed me away like a pesky fly. When I got older, he ridiculed my bookishness and artiness, and did his best to avoid me. Yet as a child I had secretly admired Howard, partly because Louise did, and partly because at Weston High School he stood out as athletic, funny, and rebellious in the sense of fraternizing with the tough Italian-American kids from Waltham. He was also good-looking, especially when dressed in the “hoody” uniform of chinos, white T-shirt, leather jacket, and dark Brylcreemed hair.    But Howard was a “juvenile delinquent,” continually getting stopped by the Weston police for infractions that in a different town would have landed him in jail. On Rachael’s indulgence he never lacked for a second-hand car, though he wrecked them on a regular basis. On occasion he did this deliberately, as when he used an old tan Chevy to knock down the front porch of an ex-girlfriend’s house. A few of his pranks were legendary: stealing the street sign for Lovers Lane until the town replaced it with a stone marker, then dynamiting the marker; hot-wiring a police cruiser for a midnight joyride, then burying it in a haystack; rolling a parked eighteen-wheeler onto the Town Green.    This being Weston, the police never charged Howard with a crime, which was probably a mistake, for two reasons. First, he was usually drunk, a condition that, oddly, went unremarked by most of the adults involved. And second, my parents could not agree how—or more accurately, whether—to discipline him. Ted wanted to throw him out of the house, but that was anathema to Rachael, whose circle of acquaintance consisted largely of women boasting about the blossoming accomplishments of their darling sons. She already had one son who failed to measure up. She could not face having another.    Making matters worse was the fact that Rachael and Ted were temperamental opposites: she demonstrative, he stoic. Under happier conditions these two natures might have complemented each other. Instead, they drove each other to extremes, leaving Howard on the sidelines, where over the next fifteen years he gradually succumbed to the alcoholism that stunted his education and career prospects, ruined his marriage, and ended his life at age twenty-nine.


   I could not just stand there, listening to the grandfather clock tick while Rachael whispered to herself in the kitchen and Ambrozine exuded stony silence on the stairs. At the very least, I owed Ambrozine a progress report. I stepped into the hall and told her that I had done what she wanted and called her agency. She nodded and handed me a wrinkled paper. “Can you sign this, please?”    “I’ll have to read it first.” Back in the living room, the paper looked innocuous enough. It was an invoice, stating that the employee in question had provided satisfactory service to the client for one twenty-four-hour period. But I felt suspicious. What if the agency didn’t accept what I was planning to say about Ambrozine’s accent? What if they tried to turn this into a racial incident? What if Ambrozine tried to turn it into a racial incident?    I forced myself to think. Why did Ambrozine want me to sign that paper? My eyes fastened on the amount: one hundred dollars. Here was one of the lessons I had learned since leaving Weston. It wasn’t much, but for someone not raised in affluence, it was something: Ambrozine wanted to get paid.    Ambrozine did not smile when I returned the signed paper. But her mask softened. “I will take some tea now.”    I brought her the tea, and she told me that the head of the agency came in early, around eight-thirty. Sure enough, my next call got through. I said that Ambrozine was an excellent care giver, but my mother was hard of hearing and could not understand her accent. Then I put Ambrozine on. To my relief, she did not contradict me.    That came later, when I was driving Ambrozine back to Mattapan. As we drove southeast on Route 128, the morning sun flooded her face, but she did not want the visor lowered. “I just soak up the warmth,” she said girlishly. She was impressed by the route I was taking. She did not know that you could get from Weston to Mattapan without driving through Boston. I explained that I had discovered this route when teaching school in Roxbury.    “Ah,” she said. “Teaching is hard work.”    “Not as hard as what you do.”    “My work is not always that hard.”    Picking up on the phrase not always, I said, “Yeah, well. I’ve only been taking care of my mother for a few weeks, and I find it hard.”    Ambrozine was silent. A big truck roared alongside. When it fell back, I added, “My mother is scared of most people. So your accent really did bother her.”    “No,” she said in simple denial. “It is because I am black. Some of these old people, they do not want a black. It is not their fault. It is the way they were raised. They do not understand that we are living in a new world, that everyone is equal now. All the people. Not just in the eyes of God, but also right here, on this earth. We are all equal now.”    There it was: the old-time integrationist dream, rarely professed any more. My mother would have nodded vigorously if she had heard Ambrozine say that on public television.    My sole reply was to smile and say, “Perhaps you’re right about my mother. But she would never admit it. Not in a thousand years.”    Ambrozine’s house was modest but tidy, in a part of Mattapan that had not yet given up the ghost. As she prepared to get out of the car, I handed her an envelope containing an extra hundred dollars. “This is for you. I’m sorry you had such a bad night at our house.”    I drove back and was home by nine-thirty. Rachael was in the kitchen, fretting about my trip into darkest Mattapan. “Did you get her back safely?”    “Yes, Mummy. She lives in a nice area, actually. She’s a good woman, religious in a good way. I ended up liking her.”    “I did, too. It’s just that … Oh, I feel terrible.”    I put my arms around my mother. Under the goose-down vest, her thin old body trembled feverishly. About condemning racial prejudice in others—George Wallace, Louise Day Hicks, David Duke, the heart surgeon and his wife—she was completely sincere. And about Ambrozine, she was so ashamed, she wept.