Mother, Mimi, and I are standing on the train platform in Pennsylvania Station. A man called Porter has brought all our suitcases off the train, and a man called Redcap is putting them on a big cart. He will bring them to the street where Leslie is waiting for us.
We follow Redcap up a ramp and into the station which is a big room. Redcap pushes the cart across the floor of the station to where there are six doors. Mother hurries up to get in front of him. She opens the door so Redcap can push the cart through. Then Mimi goes through the door with me, and then Mother.
Mimi looks around for Leslie. A man dressed in an all-black suit and a black hat and very shiny black shoes steps up to Mimi and waits for her to turn around. He looks down at me and smiles, but not a big one, not the kind where you can see teeth.
Mimi turns around and sees the man. “Oh, Carlos. There you are.” Mimi looks at me and says, “Jimmy, this is Leslie. He’s going to drive us all the way to the Big House.”
If his name is Leslie, I wonder why Mimi called him Carlos? Mother, who was thanking Recap and shaking hands with him, steps up and says, “Hello, Leslie. Thank you so much for coming to get us.”
Leslie says, “Yes, ma’am.” I decide his name must be Leslie.
Mother looks at me. “Jimmy? Do you remember Leslie?” I move so I’m to the side of but also behind Mother. I nod.
“Can you say hello?” Mother says. That means I’m supposed to say hello so I do.
Leslie and Redcap put the suitcases into the trunk of the car, which is very long, and also black and shiny. Leslie and the car look like they belong together.
Mother opens the door to the back seat. Then she flips down a little seat that faces backwards. Mother calls it a jump seat. She and Mimi get in and sit in the back seat which is pretty far away from mine. I’ve never seen a backwards seat in a car before. Mimi says, “Now Jimmy, you have the best seat because you’ll be able to see all the skyscrapers.”
Leslie closes the door and gets in the front. Mimi says, “We’re going to stop at the office to pick up Mr. Buckley before we head home.”
Leslie says, “Yes, ma’am.”
Mimi’s right. I am in the best seat. And there’s another one on the other side for the window over there. Mother says I can sit on both. There’s lots and lots of buildings, but also people and trucks and cars. Most of the cars are yellow. Mother says those are taxi cabs and that if you have enough money, they will take you wherever you want to go as long as it’s not too far away. The taxi cabs and trucks blow their horns all the time.
We pick up my grandfather at 103 East 37th Street. That’s where his office is. That’s also where my father and my Uncle Jim and Uncle John have their offices, but only Father is riding to Sharon with us. I call my grandfather Father because I call my father Daddy. He says, “Well, Jimmy. It looks like you’ve grown another foot. Are you almost as tall as I am?” He always thinks I grow a lot when I see him.
Leslie, whose last name was Carlos, was married to Elizabeth who was my grandmother’s maid. Sometimes, though, if my grandparents were having a cocktail party or big dinner party, Elizabeth would help serve.
Leslie and Elizabeth had three children: Alma who was my Aunt Carol’s age, Wayne, whom Elizabeth called Rodney, and Kathy. Wayne was about my brother John’s age, Kathy was my sister Priscilla’s age. In South Carolina they lived in their own house just across a sandy road from my grandparent’s home, Kamchatka.
Their house is gone now, of course, as is most of what I recall about my grandmother’s home there in Camden. Elizabeth’s house was small and cozy and smelled of burning coal because it was heated by a coal stove that sat between the kitchen and another room which I never saw. I would go to visit Elizabeth and her children in the afternoons when my family was in Camden. Alma taught me to play hop-scotch in the sand in front of the front porch of their house. Leslie was never there when I visited.
In Sharon, Elizabeth and her family lived in an apartment that was created in one end of the hayloft above the horse stalls in the stables. Below their apartment was the laundry room where Hester did all the laundry for everyone who lived at Great Elm, except for Bristol and his family. They lived in a house all year-long so they had their own washing machine.
Hester was busy almost every day. An outside staircase was built onto that end of the stables so Elizabeth and her family wouldn’t have to go through the stables when they wanted to go home.
Elizabeth arrived each morning at my grandmother’s room after Mimi had had her breakfast. If any of us were visiting, Elizabeth would say, “I’ll come back later, Miz Buckley.”
And Mimi would say, “Oh, thank you Elizabeth. We’re just finishing up a story.”
As she left, Elizabeth would say, “Take your time.” Then she might add, “Nowhere to be till lunch time.” But if Mimi had an appointment, then Elizabeth would remind her that she had to be at the hairdresser at such and such a time. Or perhaps it was the day Mimi had promised to have lunch with Mrs. Bogardus. Elizabeth would remind her of that. Mimi already knew what she was going to do, but that way she could tell the children who were visiting she was going to have to make this one the last story, but she hoped they would come back tomorrow.
I believe the occasion of meeting Leslie was also the first time I had been to New York City. I was enchanted, and from my perch on first one and then the other of the two jump seats, I peered at the buildings, taxi cabs, trucks, and occasionally another limousine.
From the office, Leslie drove us to the West Side Highway which he followed until it became the Henry Hudson Parkway. Back then, that highway emptied into a large traffic circle which Leslie drove around half-way to the beginning of the Saw Mill River Parkway. By that time there was no more to see. My mother saw I was tired, and told me I could curl up on the floor. She covered me with a blanket, and I fell asleep listening to her and Mimi talking. My grandfather had already put his head back and was asleep.
While Father and I slept, Leslie drove. He left the Saw Mill in Millbrook, New York, and then took Route 44 to Amenia, New York. From there, Sharon is only a few miles on Route 343, then only a minute more to Great Elm.
I didn’t know Leslie did anything other than drive the limousine until one summer when the gardener wasn’t there. He, the gardener, was not one of the group who traveled from South Carolina each year to take care of Great Elm. He lived in Sharon (I presume) and perhaps he worked on the place year round. He was an older white man, gray-haired, who always wore a hat, an old and stained fedora. Sometimes I would be in the patio alone or with my friend William. We would hear the outside door sigh open and then close. It was the gardener slipping in with his watering can. He made very little sound. He didn’t sing to himself or whistle. His did not let his can clatter even though it was made of metal and had a very long spout, nor did he over-water for I cannot recall hearing the sound of water splashing on the tile floor. A half-hour or so later, the door would open again and close, and he was gone without out our ever having really seen him. On days when plants didn’t need watering, he drove one of the ganged riding mowers.
The summer the gardener vanished coincided with my seeing Leslie for the first time dressed in clothing other than his chauffeur’s attire. He took over the watering of the plants and mowing the lawn and wore khaki pants and shirt. That may also have been the summer when Leslie became the person who would drive me and my older siblings and William to the movies once or twice a week, not in the limousine but in the station wagon Jeff drove when we went fishing.
Leslie was short, almost a foot shorter than Jeff, so the Friday morning he and Jeff showed up at my mother’s bedroom door in the Barn, they made an incongruous looking pair. Jeff was in his gray jacket, Leslie was dressed for the outdoors. They did not look well or happy. They had come to receive harsh words and to deliver an apology.
On their days off, the servants would often all squeeze into the station wagon and drive to Poughkeepsie, New York. Poughkeepsie is west of Millbrook where we had left the Saw Mill and headed east. The city is about an hour’s distance from Sharon. I had it in my mind that they all had friends there, but I think now the attraction was of a different sort, one where the clientele was black, the music unrestrained, and the liquor plentiful. On one such occasion, the night preceding their appearance, Jeff and Leslie began an argument that continued during the drive back to Sharon in the wee hours of the morning. Once out of the car, fisticuffs ensued with the result that Leslie scored a technical knockout which is to say Jeff went down. Neither had further appetite for another round.
I do not know the facts pertaining to how or why my mother learned of this incident. With Mimi away for the height of hay fever season, my mother as senior Buckley lady in residence, was the designated arbiter of their breech of conduct.
Mother was still in bed. She, like Mimi, took her breakfast in bed every morning – coffee and a piece of dry toast which she never ate all of.
For us children, sleeping in Mother’s room was a special treat although as we reached adolescence, not one we often sought to enjoy. My guess is that sleeping in her room was something she initiated when we were croupy as she used to say. An aspect of mothering she was truly gifted at was making a sick or otherwise unhappy child feel better, even good. She personally would prepare for the patient strips of white, crust-less bread, buttered and sprinkled with sugar, or cinnamon toast – whichever you preferred – and sweet tea with milk. When she wasn’t running errands or driving other children to or from school, piano lessons, dancing school, dentist, and catechism classes, she spent her time with her invalid child. So sleeping in our father’s bed – generally unoccupied more than two hundred nights a year – was associated with feelings of being cosseted.
I can’t at this remove begin to know why I was in need of pampering the night before. As like as not, the previous night I was feeling lonely, bored, and sorry for myself; or perhaps the night before had been very hot and sticky; Mother’s room was the only one with an air conditioner. My being still asleep when Jeff and Leslie arrived was no more than an unfortunate coincidence.
I am not a child of the South, but my mother was and her parents were and their parents were. I haven’t any idea when the Steiner family (Mimi’s maiden name) grew wealthy enough to have servants, but by Mimi’s childhood, they were and they did. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Switzerland to New Orleans in 1845 with his wife and seven children. He was a shoemaker by trade. His son Louis, Mimi’s father, died in the early days of the Civil War, probably of wounds received in service to the Confederacy. His widow with four children, married one George Kraus of whom I know no more. Louis’ son, Aloysius had four children with his first wife. None of the children survived. The oldest lived only until she was five. It was believed she perished from grief over her mother’s death. Aloysius married a second time to Marie Wassem. The first of their four children was Mimi. By the time of his death, Aloysius had risen to Secretary-Treasurer of A. Baldwin & Co. As far as Mimi knew, her family always had servants.
My grandfather’s family did not. He was one of five children whose father John was the sheriff of San Diego, Texas. John was well-respected by the citizens of San Diego, but not well paid.
My parents had servants although not the way Mimi did. My grandparents employed more than twelve people to take care of them, their homes, and their estates.
I am a fan of formality, ceremony, ritual, and routine. I am comforted by courtesy. All of those qualities I value were inextricably entwined in my experience with my grandmother’s servants in my growing up. I take pride in being an almost perfectly polite man.
I recall the first time Mimi invited me for supper at Great Elm. I suspect it was on that visit which began at Penn Station. My mother told me everything I needed to know about how to behave.
Gentlemen, she told me, stand up when a lady enters or leaves the room. Children stand when anyone older than they enters.
If a male who is older leaves his seat to use the powder room or to take a phone call, children do not need to rise, although they may choose to; however, if a lady leaves, children should rise unless the lady says specifically not to.
Gentlemen allow ladies to precede them out of and into a room. Children give the same courtesy to anyone older than they. If, however, a boy is asked to escort a lady into the dining room, he and she are to be shown the deference due the lady. If the lady is Mimi, then you and she go first.
In the dining room, a gentleman helps the lady he is escorting into her seat by pulling out her chair, and then helping her to slide it back in. Then he remains standing behind his chair until all the ladies are seated and all other gentlemen older than he are also seated.
Always thank Jeff and Ella when they bring you something.
I remembered everything Mother told me. Mimi asked me to escort her, and even though Jeff had already pulled Mimi’s chair out, he stepped aside so I could be the one to push the chair in. But he helped me. All evening long, I received compliments on how good my manners were and what a gentleman I was.
Mimi told everyone where to sit. The seats to her right and left were for honored male guests. Honored lady guests sat on either side of my grandfather at the other end of the table from Mimi. When I was included, I almost always sat on Mimi’s left. That seat was called Starvation Corner because it was the last one to be served. I never minded it though, and here’s why. When you had supper at the Big House, everyone waited until everyone else had been served, even though Mimi always said, “You all may go ahead. Don’t let your supper get cold.” So being the last one served meant I didn’t have to wait as long as everybody else.
Jeff and Ella were in and out many, many times during supper – to take away the first plate that your napkin was on, to bring you your warm plate the food would go on, to serve bread – almost always half pieces of toast cut into triangles – to serve the meat, the vegetables, and the starch. To pour wine, to re-fill water goblets, to re-fill wine glasses, to pass all the food a second time, to take away the plates, to crumb the table around your place, to bring finger bowls, to take away the plate the finger bowl came on after you had twinkled your fingers in the lemony water, wiped them off on your napkin, and moved the bowl with its doily to your left where your butter plate had been before Jeff or Ella took it away. And finally to serve dessert. And every time Jeff or Ella offered me food, took away a plate, brought me a plate or finger bowl, re-filled my water, swept up my crumbs (of which I always had more than anyone else so there really was something to sweep around my place), I said, “Thank you,” and looked them in the eye and smiled, and they would whisper, “You’re welcome,” or “You’re welcome, Jam,” if it was Ella.
What I noticed was that not everyone at the table said something to them. Mimi did, my mother and aunts who were Mimi’s children did, although, except for Mimi, nobody actually looked at the person who had served. And sometimes, when all the food was brought around a second time, many of the diners stared at the platter or bowl Ella or Jeff was holding for about six seconds, looking as though they weren’t sure what it was or why it was there. They would wave a hand, and the platter was withdrawn. Except for Mimi, and except for my mother. She did do the staring part, but she actually said the words.
The dessert dishes were cleared after everyone left the dining table which everyone did after Jeff had carried the coffee tray into the sitting room where cocktails had been served. Once he put the tray down on the coffee table where Mimi would serve it, he would come back into the dining room, pause at the entry, and say, “Mz Buckley, the coffee is ready.”
She would say, “Thank you, Boykin.” And we would all make out way back to the sitting room the same way we had come into supper.
All of the foregoing is to make clear the point that the only way I knew of to treat any of the servants was to be both polite and friendly, and I just could not imagine how either of those was going to be a part of how Mother was going to handle Jeff and Leslie.
As I said, I am polite. My dear wife Edie would say I am overly so, that I go out of my way to be polite even to the extent of inconveniencing myself. She once asked my cousin, Peter, also an oldest of a large family, what he had been brought up to be. At the time Edie was new to my family. She was curious about our upbringing. In answer Peter said, “Polite.”
Impoliteness on the part of anyone else could enrage my mother. She once took hold of a museum guard and physically shook him, saying, “Don’t you ever speak to me that way again!” I promise you, there was no chance he would repeat that to her or anyone else.
Impoliteness on her own part was so disturbingly unthinkable she could become flustered even at the notion that she might inadvertently do or say something possibly indecorous.
Almost in unison, Jeff and Leslie said good morning to Miz Heath. My mother in her bed jacket, her tray of coffee and mostly uneaten toast in front of her bid them a curt good morning in return. Then there was silence. Leslie and Jeff probably thought she was being stern. I was fairly sure she simply had no idea what to say. The only humans she was good at castigating were her children and her husband.
After almost too long, Mother cleared her throat. “Would either of you care to explain to me exactly what happened?”
Both Jeff and Leslie started to speak. Mother held up her hand. “One at a time, if you please. Jeff, you may go first..”
Jeff stumbled through an explanation which, when it wasn’t disjointed was all but incomprehensible. Mother did not interrupt him but let him go on and on until he simply ran out of words to speak. Leslie followed with an abbreviated version. He relied on many, “Like Jeff say” to make his way through to the end. Then, each apologized.
“Very well,” Mother said. “You may go. Let this be an end to this episode. We shall take this no further…” She did not end the sentence as much as leave it hanging.
Jeff more quickly than Leslie saw that more would be forthcoming. He said, “Yes, ma’am?”
She graced him with a nod of the slightest approval. “Provided such a thing never happens again.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they both said. And, “Thank you, Miz Heath.” They backed their way through the open door. Jeff leaned back to close the door. He caught me looking at him. He winked and pulled the door shut.
Mother waited until she knew they were well on their way. “I have no idea in the world what that was all about.”
“How did you find out?” I asked. This had all happened late last night, and here it was no later than nine-thirty the following morning.
“Elizabeth called me first thing this morning to let me know what had happened and to say that Leslie and Jeff wanted to come to apologize.”
“What were they apologizing for?” While the idea of Jeff being drunk bothered me only slightly less than his having lost a fight to Leslie, it didn’t seem to me what they had done had hurt anyone other than they themselves.
Mother looked at me as though she couldn’t understand how she had raised such an ignoramus. “Conduct unbecoming of the family,” she said.
“But they aren’t family, they just…”
She cut me off. “They most certainly are. While there is no question of a consanguineous connection, the servants are just as much a part of the Buckley family as you or I. And they are treated as such. And they are expected to act as such.”
I don’t know when either Leslie or Elizabeth died. In searching for notices of their deaths or obituaries, I found notice of their son Roderick’s death in April of 2011, at the age of 59. The notice included the information that his parents had predeceased him. A few years before her own death, my aunt Priscilla on her annual visit to Camden over Christmas, visited Elizabeth in the cottage Mimi and Father had built for her on the grounds of what used to be part of Kamchatka. She had wanted to express her condolences to Elizabeth on having lost her husband.
Elizabeth looked surprised. “Oh, Miz Priscilla. Don’t you give that one second of thought. That Leslie, he was a bad, bad man. I am just so happy to be rid of that man before my time comes.”
Aunt Priscilla was more tickled than anything else. It turns out that no one had ever much liked Leslie, but he was tolerated because of how much Mimi loved Elizabeth.