Matilda Housewright hails from a long line of venerable and well-respected African American retainers—her family has been in “service” for generations, serving Washington, D.C., politicos and other upper-crust families. The daughter of the indispensable majordomo Jacob Housewright, Matilda grew up in the house of a powerful D.C. senator and learned how to be a hostess extraordinaire—and has perfected the art of service. But after her father dies and she starts a catering business with her brother, Matilda begins to question who she is and what, exactly, she’s serving. Told in the voices of the men in her life, with connecting interludes from Matilda, the reader indeed gets The Full Matilda, a glorious glimpse inside the intriguing life of a captivating woman in the midst of change as she maneuvers through a web of secrets, expectations, and worn-out social mores.
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)|
About the Author
DAVID HAYNES is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Southern Methodist University in Texas. Named one of America's best young novelists by Granta, Haynes has had his short stories recorded for National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts. He is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including All American Dream Dolls, Live at Five, and Somebody Else’s Mama.
Read an Excerpt
The Full Matilda
We Housewrights have never been famous. We have never been the sort of people whose names you find mentioned in the society pages, nor anywhere else in the newspaper, for that matter. If you must know, my father thought it tasteless the way a certain sort of person paraded his life before the public, as if that person’s entire raison d’être were to be ever part of some seamy side show, part of some ongoing masked ball. In Father’s mind, the higher the person’s station in life, the greater the shame at said person’s lack of good judgment about such matters.
It is also the case that the nature of our family business has always been about being, at the optimum, mostly invisible. If my father did his job well (and my father always did his job well), you would not notice that he had been there at all.
That being said, those who traveled certain corridors in our nation’s capital did know the Housewright name. If you travel such corridors yourself, I’m sure you already understand how these things work.
Let’s say you are a seasoned politician and you have only recently been elected as the junior senator from your state. Big things are expected of you as a member of our nation’s most prestigious legislative body, and big things are expected as well on the social horizon. Back in your home state, you have achieved for yourself and your family a certain prominence, and, of course, you are used to the finer things that life has to offer, to a gracious standard of living. It would therefore be of critical interest to you in your newest role that your affairs at every level, both in the halls of Congress as well as in your home, be arranged in a way that stand to secure you the prominent status you fully expect to be yours.
You would soon come to discover that the rules are different in the District of Columbia. This city is unlike any other you’ve known. To be specific, while Washington has always been and always will be a community in love with money, having money in this town buys you almost nothing in terms of social acceptance or prestige. The things that matter on your new turf are subtler and yet more telling than the bottom line of your portfolio. It makes a difference, for example, the address of your residence. It makes a difference how and when you entertain. One would not, for instance, even consider hosting a dinner party on those evenings when certain figures of prominence are known to be doing the same. In the same vein, you would be expected to know to whom invitations must always be extended, and which others are better excluded from your lists. When seating your guests for dinner, certain individuals are never seated next to others. This ambassador prefers a particular cigar with his brandy, while that one delights in a bowl of soft mints at his fingertips; and all of this information is critical. Unfortunately, you, being new to town, would have no way of knowing such things. It would be in your best interest, therefore, to retain the services of someone who does know, someone to run your household in a way that establishes you in Washington as a man of stature and of good character. You inquire around. And were the name Housewright not the first you heard, it would come awfully high on the list of persons who might be of assistance in these matters.
We Housewrights have a long and distinguished history in service. In his later years, Grandfather Josiah ran the estate of a wealthy industrialist up along the Hudson River, in New York. He’d begun his career with the livery of a branch of that same family here in Washington, and with his employer had occasion to return to the capital a number of times over his working life. (As you know, the sort of people who require our services tend to reside in our capital city at least once in any given generation.)
And when in Maryland, travelers, there is a plantation along the Severn River I recommend that you visit. There, near the fireplace in the central hall, you will find a daguerreotype of those who, around 1845, lived and worked in the main house. The suited gentleman behind the owner, the one with the crisp white tea towel over his arm, that would be Ezekiel, Josiah Housewright’s father.
My own father began his career working in the kitchen of the house his father ran. Jacob, Cyrus, JulieAnne, and Bess. Those were the Housewright siblings. My father’s employers insisted the children be schooled right alongside their own, that is, up until the time theirs were sent away to preparatory academies (finishing schools for the daughters). In the evenings and on weekends, my father, my uncle, and my aunts were expected to work with their parents, taking care of all that needed taking care of in households of that magnitude. Grandfather Josiah viewed this as something like an apprenticeship for his children, assuming, as one would, that his progeny would succeed him in the family profession. From what I was told, the man was something of a martinet when it came to standards and results. I can imagine him ripping the sheets from an improperly prepared bed and insisting that whichever child were responsible for the clumsy attempt return the bedding to the ironing board before trying it again on the mattress.
JulieAnne and Bess worked with their mother up on the second floor, supplementing the domestic staff. Mending, dusting, that sort of thing. I was told that my uncle Cyrus fell in love with horses and couldn’t be kept from the stables. He trained to be a groom and a driver. Father made what might seem an odd choice. He opted to work in the kitchen.
Now as you can imagine, there is nothing glamorous about kitchen work. Peeling vegetables, scrubbing burnt casseroles and roasting pans. But old Jacob was no fool. You see, at an early age, my father figured out that the best place to keep tabs on everything that went on in the household would be right there in the kitchen. The family who owned the house would drop through to visit and sample whatever delicacy the cook was preparing and to inform her as to who might be expected for supper that evening. The household staff took their meals in the kitchen, as did those who maintained the grounds. In the winter anyone who had been outside would at some point in the day steal a few moments of warmth near the stove. Almost anyone on the staff could be counted on to share the latest gossip: the fact that “Sir” had ordered that Winthrop boy not be admitted to the house again unless accompanied by that no-good father of his, and how “Herself” (the disrespectful appellation some used for the wife of the household) had pitched a royal fit over being served a tough slice of lamb.
My father would linger stealthily over his scrubbing or chopping, and he would gather all of this talk into his memory. I don’t believe he ever wrote down a word. He possessed one of those minds, one of those memories, where once he had heard a man’s name, he never forgot it, nor would he forget the man’s preferred brand of whisky or favorite dessert. And so it was that when he was ready to secure his own position, Jacob Housewright had already trained himself to be the most diligent and attentive accessory an important man could ever hope to employ.
The gentleman of the house expects a vehicle at the ready at all times, a fresh valise in the boot for those last-minute trips. He has his business callers presented with their libation of choice as soon as they are seated in his study, whereas the lady of the house prefers to call for tea service. The lady also wishes the packages from her excursions delivered with inconspicuous haste to her quarters. You are aware that her purchases are none of your concern, although her husband appreciates a discreet heads-up as to the extent of the day’s expenditures.
Knowing such things made my father, even as a young man, a much sought after commodity.
Jacob Housewright obtained his first position through something of a ruse. This was during Josiah’s employer’s tenure in the capital, and a business associate of the industrialist reported that his manservant had fallen ill and had been sent home to his family. Frantic, quite literally helpless, the business associate had asked the industrialist if he couldn’t make loan of one of his boys as a stopgap measure. You are familiar with, of course, the old maxim about good help, and this is particularly the case with exclusive and high-quality staff. My grandfather ran a tight operation, and had not been keen on giving up a valued hand for even an hour. Father, then only seventeen, and talented eavesdropper that he was, overheard his parents discussing the request. He volunteered himself for the position.
To put it mildly, Grandfather was less than sanguine about his son’s ambitions. Here, this young pup who couldn’t possibly know a goblet from a tumbler thought he would march into an important man’s home and assume responsibility for its efficient operation. And you should know that it has long been a Housewright doctrine that each generation’s work reflects on the generation preceding it. My grandfather wasn’t willing to risk the family reputation by sending someone whom he believed to be less than fully prepared into such a high-profile position. He told his son “no,” and that the business associate would just need to search for help elsewhere.
Father viewed this rebuff as only a temporary setback. While always professionally reticent—and appropriately so—my father could also take bold and direct action as was needed. Scouring the neighborhood where the business associate lived, Father visited each of the service establishments where persons of this standing might trade. Laundries, haberdashers, that sort of thing. By happenstance he stumbled across a tailor who had made for this gentleman some new dress shirts, and Father bluffed at having been sent to retrieve them. Costuming himself, then, in a manservant’s proper afternoon attire (white collared shirt, bow tie, dark short coat), he presented himself at the needy gentleman’s home.
“I’ve seen to your order of shirts, sir. Shall I place them in your wardrobe?”
I can picture my father standing at that man’s door, fair and handsome, back straight and tall. I see his new employer, momentarily startled, but quickly assuming that this fellow must be the replacement boy he’d been asking after. Things would have become quite frayed around the house since old Pompey had been sent back home, and while this sapling looked a little on the green side, he certainly made a nice appearance and spoke well for himself.
“Very well, then,” the older man would have said. He’d needed those new shirts desperately, had forgotten where old Pompey said they were being prepared. “Have one ready for the evening, by the way, with my summer jacket. We’ll be attending that garden party uptown. And bring me a brandy, if you would.”
I picture my father delivering that brandy (along with a neatly folded afternoon paper, of course).
“Thank you, uh . . . what’s your name?”
“Jacob, sir,” he would have replied, and, expecting no further conversation from a gentleman settling in for his afternoon’s consideration of the news, my father would have set about getting his new place of responsibility in an order that made sense to him.
As it happened, Father’s new employer’s requirements were much less taxing than those at the house my grandfather ran. The old gentleman operated from a smaller townhouse just northwest of Dupont Circle, in an area that had begun to be populated by the embassies of minor and obscure nations. He was in Washington to help guide the meanderings of a hapless and dull-witted son who had somehow gotten himself elected to the House of Representatives. Days for my father would be generally idle, tending to the usual trivia that one sees to in a small home, and in the evenings my father would dress his employer and deliver him to his son the congressman’s house, or to a party they would both be attending. This gentleman knew Washington from his own tenure in Congress, during which he had spearheaded expansion of the railroads and the acquisition of western lands. A longtime widower, he now lived comfortably on the investments that had benefited from his legislative largesse.
Too young to be comfortable visiting with the other more seasoned servants, my father would often spend these evenings positioned where he could listen unobtrusively to the conversations of the congressman and his father. He remembered to me that one almost never heard the son speaking at these affairs, that the father held forth at all times and on all matters, now and again throwing in his son’s direction openings that allowed the younger man to demonstrate his sagacity either by adding to the discourse some dutifully memorized fact or by, at the very least, agreeing enthusiastically with his father’s brilliance. I may or may not surprise you by revealing that this rather dunderheaded young man would go on to become one of our nation’s most distinguished and beloved political figures.
You have also noted by this point the care I have taken not to reveal the names of these individuals. You may think me unnecessarily coy or mysterious, but please understand that that is not my intention. Understand that the Housewrights have always been discreet; part of that long tradition of retainers who could be counted on not to repeat their employer’s business in the street, a commitment that I believe extends to the grave (and perhaps beyond, depending, of course, on what the circumstances on the other side might be). And, yes, I am aware that if you happen to be among those who have traveled in these same circles, you more than likely will recognize in these stories certain individuals by their attributes, by the thinly disguised details of their personal lives, and so be it. There are some things about which I feel compelled to have my say, and so I have had to relax my own discretion by a degree or two. Father would understand and forgive, I am sure, just as I have always tried myself to do the same.
Toward the end of his son’s third term, my father’s first employer told him that he had no desire to spend his final days in this “fetid swamp,” and that he had therefore decided to return home, allowing his son to sink or swim as he would. The old man did everything short of kidnapping “his Jake” in order to keep him in his employ, and Father, I know, gave staying with this household serious consideration. If you’ve never been in service, you perhaps wouldn’t understand the attachment we make to those who employ us. At the risk of indelicacy I will say that a gentleman’s home assistant has the most intimate contact with the man he works for, personally handling every garment, both clean and soiled, preparing baths, administering medicine and comfort as would be required. My father knew that this failing creature both needed and depended on him. Over time, a gentleman and his retinue become something like a hand and a much-used glove, each molded to the other’s peculiar geography. Across five years Jacob had learned this man’s habits and predilections, and his employer had learned how best to make use of Father’s many strengths. A relationship of this quality would not be easily replaced, on either man’s part.
So it was with a good deal of personal regret that Father made the choice to stay in Washington, though I’d be remiss in not reporting two other factors that weighed heavily in his decision making.
Even as the household that Grandfather Josiah ran continued to operate in the efficiently sharp manner one would expect, considering who was at the helm, it seems that the lives of my uncle and my aunts were taking turns toward the unfortunate. While my father had settled effortlessly into his life of service, the rest of Josiah’s children did everything in their power to cross fate.
My father’s brother, Cyrus—who had been seen curling his lip contemptuously at ordinary requests, such as that he bring up the shine on the fittings alongside the new “horseless carriage” that Father’s employer had purchased—had dared speak back to the man, if you can imagine. And when our father rebuffed him for this, as he’d been requested to do and as he well should have done, my uncle threatened to run off to a horse farm in Virginia.
Rumors floated through the kitchens of the better homes in Washington that Bess and JulieAnne had been keeping time with a lowly sort of person—dark-skinned colored men of the kind employed lading granite and marble to the new buildings along the National Mall. Even had these rumors not been substantiated, you can imagine my grandfather’s mortification. Here were young women who had been groomed toward a loftier ambition. Grandfather envisioned his girls sinecured as personal attendants to the wives in prominent political households. From these positions my aunts would ally with men like himself and my father and form appropriate unions with these men, thus further securing their position in fine homes. Suddenly that dream threatened to come crashing down around my grandparents’ heads. Josiah knew what could happen. He had seen it happen to the offspring in too many other families. The parents would begin to notice the coarsening of a child’s language, sudden and inappropriate laughter, a formerly open face now hooded and cynical and cold. And by this point it would be too late. Who would want girls with reputations like these? What respectable household would even consider the risk?
Josiah was not the sort of man to stand by idly while all his hard work came to naught. He and my grandmother hadn’t invested their lives training their girls in the finer nuances of domestic affairs to see them wrestled away by the common ilk. To see a daughter tricked up in rags and living in a back-alley lean-to, taking in mending and doing lord knew what else to feed a yard full of pickininnies: Not as long as Josiah Housewright lived would such a fate befall even one of his children.
Josiah called his family together. With my grandmother, Sarah, he and the two girls shared a small suite of rooms just off the kitchen of the Tenley Park mansion of his employer. Cyrus, in charge of driving (or at least for as long as he maintained his equanimity), had for years lived above the stable-turned-garage. We might think these rooms spartan by our standards, but I can assure you that at the turn of the century, my forebears lived quite comfortably. Their proximity to the ovens assured coziness in the winter, and while such tight quarters could be uncomfortable in the sweltering Potomac summers, remember that the entire household decamped to the Adirondacks in late May (often thick with pesky black flies, but altogether more pleasant than the oppressive heat of the nation’s capital).
Jacob, evidently, had entirely misunderstood the reason for the family gathering. Instead of an airing of Grandfather’s grievances, Father arrived expecting a routine family meal, and along with him arrived also a young lady by the name of Alma Dickerson. (She, by the way, would be the second reason my father declined to leave Washington.) The others had already seated themselves around the small parlor in my parents’ quarters. I’ve never seen a picture of this meeting, but I did hear the tale from my father and have often re-created the scene in my head.
Uncle Cyrus, with his short trimmed beard, would have straddled his chair backward, legs splayed wide as if seated in a saddle. His brown eyes were the bright color of new pennies.
JulieAnne was slight and delicate with my grandmother’s fine chiseled features. There would have been something about her that reminded you of the heroines in the popular novels of the day. You would expect her to be demure and sickly, but she was not. She would live thirty years longer than her older brother Jacob.
Bess had the quality of the pioneer women. Big boned, big breasted, and with an imposing voice, one pictured her somewhere on a prairie, widowed and with a dozen scrappy offspring whom she would rule with an iron fist. She would be able to handle her liquor, her weapons, and anything, human or otherwise, that messed with her brood. She, in her characteristic way, would have been the one to set things in motion.
“Now that his highness has arrived with his woman, can we get this thing under way?” She would have addressed this to her father, who then, having larger game to subdue, would swallow back his rage at his daughter’s impertinence. Jacob, inhaling to protest his sister’s rudeness in front of a guest, would be signaled by his father to let it rest. That their father allowed the meeting to continue in the presence of a stranger is an indication of how desperate the situation had become, at least in Josiah’s mind. Despite her presence, this relatively rare opportunity to have the entire clan together—unmolested by ringing bells or the ongoing tasks of running the big house—would not go to waste.
“Your mother and I have become concerned for the future of this family.” Josiah sat next to his wife, and, as he spoke, he gathered Sarah’s hand into his. “We thought it time we sit together and discuss the directions in which we are headed.”
Cyrus laughed. “I thought I’d head on over to Foggy Bottom for some entertainments this evening.” His sisters smiled at his wit, but Josiah slammed a hand onto the arm of his chair in frustration. Josiah knew of his younger son’s “entertainments.” They did not include the kinds of activities that persons of quality pursued (or if they did pursue them, a young man of good breeding knew not to discuss such matters in front of his sisters and his mother).
“This is the sort of thing I mean,” Josiah roared, rising from his chair and pointing a finger into Cyrus’s face. “All this . . . ill-disciplined wildness. What is to become of you? Of all of you?”
“Leave him be, Papa.” This would be Bess again. “So the boy blows off a little steam now and then. So what. He spends all day licking the boots of these white people. He deserves some time away.”
Josiah flapped his hands to indicate she should keep her voice down. Did the loudmouthed creature want them all thrown out on the street? He turned his attention to her.
“As for you, miss, well, I can hardly repeat the things people are saying about your doings. For shame, I say.”
JulieAnne looked dispassionately at a small square of nothing in the corner. A childhood of unending criticism and rebuke had taught her to hold her opinions from these people. But Bess, egged on by her brother Cyrus’s sneer, seemed to relish the fray.
“I’ll tell you myself what I been doing. I been stepping out. I’ll tell you who with. His name is JamesLee. My JimmyLee. He’s a big, good-looking, brownskin Negro man. I’m gonna bring him here to meet you all.”
Grandmother spoke up. “Is that how you were taught to speak? And you’ll under no circumstances bring those people anywhere near this home.”
“Why can’t my JimmyLee come here? He brought that one in.” Bess popped her chin in Alma’s direction. Alma squirmed quietly in her chair. During this unpleasantness she had been giving her consideration to the pair of lovely new high-button shoes that swaddled her feet and to her own future. Could these really be Jacob’s people? He had seemed so refined, but then one never knew. That’s why they said it was a good idea to get a good look at the family before resigning oneself to joining it.
“That young man won’t come here because your mother says so and I say so.”
“Why? Because he a hod carrier? Because he comes from a family that barely keeps food on the table? Because he’s not as yellow as this little gal he brung in?”
Alma recoiled at the insult.
“Yes, you. I’m talking about you.”
“Bess, come on,” Jacob pleaded. When he’d discovered the intent of the evening, he’d decided to stay out of the mess, but he figured he’d best speak up about this. “Alma’s done nothing. Leave her out, will you? And Mama and Papa—”
Bess faced him with the fierce look of a street fighter. “What do you know? You’ve been gone from here. You don’t know how they do us. You don’t know what Julie and Rus and me have to put up with.”
“But I do so know. You do the same work that we’ve always done.”
“Listen to your brother. He’s the only one of you who has made this family proud.”
Cyrus popped his hands together, offering a flat round of applause.
“Enough of this!” their father ordered. “This is getting us nowhere. Decisions have been made, and the reason you all are here is to listen. Cyrus, I will see to you in my own time and in my own way.” Josiah gave him a stern look. Cyrus shook his head and mumbled something under his breath that no one understood.
“As for you girls, your mother and I have been talking. We decided that we’ve kept you here under our direction for too long. It’s time that each of you had your own independent set of responsibilities. Something to discourage you from these little . . . explorations.”
Bess rolled her eyes.
“Your mother and I have been asking around the community and we’ve come up with a list of promising situations that we think will suit the both of you well.”
JulieAnne sniffed, still keeping her eyes in the corner, the blank view now blurred by the steady flow of tears.
“Situations!” screamed Bess. “And don’t tell me to keep my voice down. Julie and I don’t want any . . . situations.” She breathed deep with rage. “Apparently some of you didn’t follow the news that day, but slavery’s been over—”
Josiah stood up and slapped her to the ground.
Their mother lowered herself to her daughter and extended a chapped and dry hand, rubbing soft circles around her shoulders and up and down her spine. Through the thin calico she could feel the strong muscles that lined Bess’s powerful and broad back.
“Oh, my honey,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry. I know it’s hard. It’s hard for everyone. But this is what we do.”
“Not me. Not me. I don’t do this,” Bess cried meekly, almost subdued.
“Honey. That’s what there is for us.”
Jacob stood over his sister and his mother, his fists clenched in rage.
“What, then? What?” he asked. “What are you going to do, Bess?”
“Jacob, don’t.” JulieAnne broke her silence, extended a hand to her oldest brother. He pushed it away.
“You’re going to take your fortune and open a bank, I imagine? What are you going to do? Head off to one of those Negro colleges? Do you know what they teach our girls at those places? I’ll give you a hint: You’re already doing it.”
Alma gently guided Jacob back to his seat. She had never seen this man’s temper. Mild, yet ferocious. Frightening, but also in some way appealing to her.
For a moment or two the audible sobbing of JulieAnne was the only sound in the room. Josiah broke the silence.
“I’ll tell you what she’s going to do. Tomorrow morning, Bess and her sister will visit some of the households where we’ve heard they are looking for a good girl or two. You’ll look things over. Talk with some of the women on staff. People who know about these things assure me that these are fine homes you’ll have to choose from. The work will be hard. As you already know. But you’ll be taken care of.
“That’s it, then. You’ll head out tomorrow and I’m sure that we’ll find for both girls an amiable match. I will get you girls situated if it’s the last thing I do.”
Bess made a scoffing sound.
“What was that, miss?”
Bess was still sitting in her mother’s arms, but her tears had stopped. She smiled a bitter smile and shook her head.
“I’m not going,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
Bess stood, faced her father, and pulled her shoulders back. She turned her palms out in a way that indicated her resolve. Something—her calm, her countenance, her flat fierce eyes—said clearly to her papa that his balled fist would do him no good. The already-fading handprint rouging her left cheek would be the last thing that he would leave anywhere on her person. Which left for Josiah only a quavering finger and a shopworn speech.
“I’m in charge of this house, young lady. You are only eighteen years old, and if I spend some of the great goodwill I’ve earned in this city to arrange for you an acceptable situation, then you will take it and appreciate it.
“Nineteen. It’s 1905. I’m nineteen, Papa. JulieAnne is twenty-one. And I’m not going into service.”
Josiah sat down hard in his favorite rocker. My father told me this was the first time that his father had seemed old to him.
“Very well,” my grandfather said. He pinched his lips together in resolution. “If you don’t want to work, then I don’t know what’s to become of you.”
“Josiah, no,” my grandmother gasped.
But Bess, she was unfazed. “I don’t know either.”
I imagine that no one moved for a moment or two. Father would have looked back between his own father and his sister, would have seen them staring each other down, would have been mesmerized by the determination set on each face. He may, in fact, have told me that this is what he did, but this is one of those instances in which his stories and my imagination become too intertwined. He told me that he always wondered if at that moment there might have been something that he could have said or done to make things come out differently, but that was him talking very late in his life.
“Julie,” Bess said, and beckoned her sister to rise and follow.
“Mama,” JulieAnne sobbed.
“Josiah, please,” my grandmother begged.
Bess supported her sister out the door. JulieAnne kept her eye on her mother, but her younger sister did not look back.
Cyrus backed off the chair he’d been straddling. He feigned removing a nonexistent top hat from his head, bowed deeply from the waist, a bow for royalty, one my grandfather had drilled into him at a young age. He nodded at my brother, his brown eyes rimmed with sadness, and he followed his sisters out the door.
Thus, my aunts and my uncle disappeared forever from the Housewright family.
But this is Father’s story, after all, and you can see now why, despite his loyalty to his first employer, he chose to remain close to my parents. Yes, and to Alma. She would become my mother.
When I found a record of Mother’s birth, I realized that on the sad night that my father brought her around to meet his family, she would have been only sixteen. Which may explain why they waited another six years to be married.
I’m sure it was also the case that my father wanted to establish himself fully in his new position before bringing a wife into the household. When the first employer left the capital, Jacob Housewright had an array of homes clamoring after his services. A justice of the Supreme Court called personally on his employer to ask after him. He sat down with Josiah and considered the range of offers. They talked about the advantages of serving with a longtime Washington family as opposed to the politicians, who came and went from the city at the whim of the voters (and in any case often brought with them from the home state their own retinue). There was always new money looking for help, though the nouveau riche have never known how to deal with quality staff. (And they tend to fill their homes with items that, while flashy, hardly merit serious care; things that quickly turn threadbare or shabby even with the most delicate attention. We’ll say nothing here of the company such people may keep.) The established families were always a good choice, although within such homes, openings of the kind my father had his eye on were rare. One could spend decades in a lesser position waiting for the senior male on the staff to retire (or expire).
Think back, if you will, to our hypothetical junior senator, new in Washington, looking to make a name for himself. As it happened, right around this time, such a person did arrive in town. A younger man from the Midwest. The Senator arrived from a brief stint in the home-state governor’s mansion (official residences, as you well know, retain their own staffs), and before that time had lived on his family’s estates. He, therefore, for the first time in his career, had need to establish his own home. The talk in the better parlors in the District, fueled as it always was by imported cigars and fine port, was that this was a young man with legs. The smart money anticipated a long tenure for this particular legislator.
“That’s your man,” my grandfather told my father. “That’s where you build a career and a home.”
I’ll spare you the details of the campaign those two mounted for the job. Let’s just say that in no time at all, my father was positioned to become the most powerful majordomo in the District of Columbia.
Reading Group Guide
1. Matilda's father Jacob makes a virtue of being good at his job. Is it always a virtue?
2. Matilda often speaks wistfully of her life in the Georgetown mansion. How do you explain her hopeless romanticism?
3. Why can't Martin allow Matilda to continue as his business partner? Why can't they be close?
4. David and Matilda seem to connect in ways that she and his father are unable to. What does David see in his aunt that his father is unable to?
5. Matilda can't or won't forgive Roderick. Why not? What (if anything) are each of them unable to understand about the other?
6. In what ways is Jacob (the younger) every bit a Housewright?
7. Explain Matilda's preference to withhold herself from society.
8. Important milestones in the history of black America pass even as Matilda's life seems mostly static. Why would this be so? Is it so?
9. Matilda rejects your pity and surely your judgment of her life and her choices? Do you pity her? How do you judge the choices she made in her life?
10. Matilda passes forward a number of powerful legacies through generations of Housewrights. What legacies are worth preserving? Which are better consigned to the past?