Oney — My Escape From Slavery
Mount Vernon, Virginia, Feb’y, 1793
“Eight more days and we will have a new president, Oney.” Lady Washington’s tone wavered with a mixture of hope and dread as she X’d over another number on the calendar. Virginia’s richest lady and the president’s wife, she oughta be happy … but Lawd, how sad. Her dead husband Mr. Custis left her a plantation, a mansion, and property: slaves. Then she married into Mount Vernon’s five farms and the big house. At her fancy receptions in the capital, guests ogled her silk gowns and mahogany furniture, gushin’ all over her: “Being the president’s wife surely agrees with you, Lady Washington!”
Not true. As her ‘personal servant’ I knew she put on an act for all them folk.
One warm morn last spring, I hunched over stitching a collar to a bodice for her granddarter Miz Nelly.
“Oney, come here.”
Lady Washington stood at the doorway, grasping her wire specs, knuckles whiter’n her face. The way she trembled I knew I couldn’t be in trouble.
I dropped the needle mid-stitch and went to obey her summons.
“Come with me,” she murmured kindly so I wasn’t a’scared. I followed her up the secret stairs to her private chamber. “Sit,” she commanded, pointing to the hard stool. She collapsed in her cushioned chair and drew a ragged breath. “I feel like a state prisoner here …” Sigh … “I am not allowed to speak my mind on any subject however trite …” Sigh … “My life has become so painfully dull.” She poured out her wretched heart. “My husband and I never share any intimate moments anymore,” I sat upright, struck dumb with disbelieving. How can this rich well-fed lady, married to the president of the United States, be so miserable? But her tears was my answer. She didn’t want to be where—and who—she was.
If I’d’a had the sass, I’d’a asked, “Care to switch places?” But every night, lying on my corn shuck mattress on the big house’s top floor, I whispered the truth: “She don’t have it so good after all.”
Now this frigid morn as she sat reading in the firelit parlour, I stood polishing the pewter goblets with a flannel oil-dipped rag. Me being her ladies’ maid, polishing wasn’t my regular job, but housemaids Charlotte and Caroline crouched on hands and knees scrubbing floors. I enjoyed making things sparkle. So she let me.
My feet hurt but I couldn’t sit in her presence ’til she invited me to.
The door groaned open and General Washington stomped in. An icy blast of snow and horse smells followed him. “Patsy, we must talk …” He used her pet name to butter her up. Uh–oh, I thought. She ain’t gon’ like this. I followed him with my eyes but not my head.
She sprung to her feet. The knitting slid off her lap and the needles hit the floor with a click-clack. “No, George, you didn’t.”
“I told you I wouldn’t accept a second term unless it was unanimous. It was—again.” Indulgence colored his voice. I saw Lady Washington’s blood start to boil, but my heart filled with pride. A streak of joy shot through me.
“Before I finished writing my farewell address, they begged me.” He sho didn’t sound sorry.
Now buffing the goblets with powdered chalk, I watched her pace as her slippers scuffed on the rug. She picked up her snuff tin, dipped a pinch and sniffed it in.
“George, you gave me your solemn oath you’d retire.” Her voice didn’t rise, but her tone spoke her fury. “Another presidency will kill you. Can’t you see what it’s done to you already?” She gestured up and down, from his unwigged white head to his mud-spattered boots. Her pale cheeks flushed in crimson blotches.
“Beg pardon?” He stooped, knees bent, hand cupped to his good ear, and tilted his head. He’d near gone deaf, blaming “uproarious Congressmen squawking all day.” His lips twitched as his tongue rolled round his last tooth.
She grasped his sleeve. “It … will … kill … you.” If he didn’t hear, he read her lips. “For the love of God, why you?” Her voice quivered. It always did afore the tears came.
“You know why.” He unstooped and fixed his sleeve. “This is my providence.”
Oh, honey, do I know providence, I wisht I could’a said as I buffed the goblets with a soft piece of leather.
She swept her specs off and rubbed her eyes. “The world won’t end if you don’t serve a second term.”
“No, but our nation might.” Then he wheezed a cough. He didn’t smoke no more seegars but coughed a lot.
She held her tea cup to his lips, and he sipped. “George, you did promise you’d quit after two years. It’s been four. This will be the second broken promise.”
I watched through the eyes of an outsider, though I lived in this house. I understood why both of them wanted such different things. They were so very different kinds of people.
He wrapt his arms round her waist, his chin resting on her head. “I’m as distraught and averse as you are, Patsy. After long and painful conflict in my own breast, I allowed my name to be presented for a second term of my servitude. But ’tis not my decision.” His voice cracked. “’Tis the people’s.” He patted her back, as I seen him pat horses’ rumps. “We wanted freedom and this is the price we must pay.”
“George, they’ll give you time to ponder this, surely.” She clasped both hands round his arm and made to drag him to the settee.
He shook his head. “There is no time.” He stood firm, feet planted. “Election day is over. I cannot be an ingrate, take their confidence and throw it back in their faces. Although I relinquish my personal enjoyments …” His voice trailed off as he gazed out the window at his vast holdings.
“You forget one thing.” She cut him off loud enough so he, even half deaf, stepped back. She looked way up at him, fingers balled into fists. “’Tis not unanimous. I don’t want it.”
He narrowed those icy eyes onto her. “Patsy, you’re being selfish.”
Her mouth fell open. I cringed, knowing she’d blow up at that. If her fan was handy she’d’a snapped it open and fluttered it—or bopped it on his head. “I’m being selfish? I am only thinking of you.”
“Huh. So you say,” came his haughty retort. The president, also step-grandfather of four, talked like this to childruns, too.
She let out an anguished growl. Lawd, I done my share of growlin’ in frustration. I wiped away a tear of my own. I knew how bad she wanted to stay at Mount Vernon with the general all to herself, finally—after four years of public life with no privacy and long stretches of time not seeing their family. All the wealth in Virginia didn’t matter to her now. Embarrassed to witness this private scene, I backed up, trying to blend in with the wallpaper.
“Then you do not know me at all.” In a rustle of petticoats and overskirts, she striddled up to me. That being my cue, I put down the silver and held out my arm. “Come, Oney.” She clutched my elbow and led me from the parlour. Not allowed to address the general ’til he addressed me first, I couldn’t wish him good day. But I caught the thin smile that curved his lips. He took no mind what Lady Washington thought of all this. They did what he wanted, not her.
The general put on a modest show, but beneath burnt a desire for fame and glory. How could one man lead armies, win a war against a deadly enemy, and now rule this nation, beloved by every living soul? It stumped me. Us folk even loved him, revered him, more as a papa than a ruler. From the moment I first seen him, astride his stallion in his fitted coat with gleaming gold buttons and shiny boots, I knew he’d be the greatest man in the world someday. All that ‘providence’ and ‘paying the price’ was fibs and Lady Washington knew it.
I nodded understanding, but didn’t make eye contact. It was disrespectful looking straight at white folk, but as her pet, I could look her in the eye most times.
“A second term is more than I can bear, Oney.” This from the woman who lost her first husband and how many childruns?
I stood aside for her, then followed her up the secret stairway. We felt our way up the slippery banister I’d helped Charlotte wax to a sheen with rag in one hand, candle in the other. The Washingtons used those stairs cause they were private, and with swarms of guests always dropping by uninvited and wandering the house, they needed something private.
In her bedroom, she settled in her chair and slid her specs on. I stood ’til she bade me sit on my wooden stool. With no back it forced me to sit up straight. I folded my hands in my lap and bided my time, waiting for her to speak, wond’rin’ when I could sip some water for my dry throat.
“I found the last four years insufferable and dread the next four even more.” She twisted the crumpled serviette, pulling it tween her thick fingers. “The general even said he’d cut his first term short when the government was in place. But I forgive him for staying. I forgive him everything.”
The other house servants warned me never to speak to the whites unless spoken to first, but Lady Washington let me—sometimes. Now I nodded, mouth shut.
She tugged her lace cap over her silvered hairline, gazing round at the wide canopy bed, the lacy cushions, paintings of her four grandchildrens, then out the window at the Potowmac—part of Mount Vernon, too, I reckon.
She asked, “Can no one else take his place?” This was one of them questions didn’t need an answer. But I had one. Since I become her pet I pushed toward my boundary every day. I’d keep pushing ’til she pushed back, cause I wasn’t a’scared like the other folk.
“No, Lady Washington,” I answered boldly. “The general is the only man the people wants. If I could, I’d’a chose him, too. Seems the people are right. Again.”
She blinked in surprise. “I should scold you for that. ’Tis too fine a compliment, but false. He could turn it over to Mr. Adams, but he told me Adams isn’t the fittest man to lead the nation. I asked him who was, but he hemmed and hawed, and couldn’t utter a single name. What a sorry state of affairs.”
She fixed her eyes on her Bible, open on her nightstand. “You don’t understand, Oney. ’Tis nasty at best and evil at worst, politicks is.” She dragged her fingers down the brittle pages. “These men want him to serve because of what they want.” She stabbed a finger out the window at ‘they’. “They care not for Geo— for my husband, that he’s sixty years of age, losing his hearing and his teeth. ’Tis for their own selfish needs.”
She met my eyes looking at her. “You needn’t bother yourself with such trials, Oney. You live this life of comfort and ease with nary a worry …” She fluttered her hand round the clean elegant room—clean as a fiddle cause I cleaned it.
I tensed up to keep my face unmoving. I should’a said, Yea, comfort and ease compared to the field slaves not allowed in here. I didn’t need to. She knew.
Lady Washington accepted her fate, as all Christians. But I wasn’t a Christian yet. I got no moral instruction at the big house, so I was still tryin’a find something to believe in.
I believed about free will, from what Lady Washington read me out the Bible. But how could she read me about free will and still say ‘God’s will’ and ‘thy will be done’? The general could refuse that next term if he wanted. He wasn’t nobody’s property. Some men wanted him to be king, but he flat out refused.
What if he died, tho? He had no sons. If he died, somebody gotta take over. I slapped the side of my head for that wicked thought.
She clasped her hands at her neckline. “Why does my husband put these men before me and scold me for being selfish?”
Another question—permission to talk. “Lady Washington …” I leant forward, our toes almost touching, “… the general, he knows you ain’t being selfish. He just got no other way to make you look wrong. He may rule the country but you still rule Mount Vernon. And that’s more important to you, ain’t it?”
That got a shaky smile out of her as she tossed the serviette on the dresser. “Yes, I know how badly he wants it. I can’t begrudge him his glory. But he’s being used, and he can’t see it. You know the biggest reason he’s going for a second term?” She looked straight at me, and I dropped my eyes.
I shook my head. “Uh-unh.”
“’Tis to reconcile Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Jefferson. They hate each other and have opposite beliefs about how this country should be run. And the general is torn.” She bent her fingers and studied her neatly pared nails. “He loves Mr. Hamilton like a son but can’t abide all the bickering. Absurd.” Her lips pressed into a thin line, and she opened them for a breath. “I loathe Mr. Jefferson, but am fed up with Mr. Hamilton, too, whom I always liked. I’m sicker of their squabbles than my husband. Why cannot they work out their own differences?”
I knew the answer, already hearing all this during our sewing, at their dinners, and when Hercules the cook read me the papers. So I said, “Mayhap the general don’t believe no one else can settle it, since he like them both and wanna keep peace. We don’t want another war.”
I was born before that war and learnt all about it later. So I knew about the political parties—but who knows why they called ’em parties? They’d always be fighting.
Now, here in her private chamber, Lady Washington assured me, patting my knee—the extent of our physical affection: owners and slaves never touched, unless I was bathing her. “We won’t see another war, Oney, not in our lifetime, anyway.” She stood, so I jumped to my own feet. “Of course you’ll come with me to Philadelphia again.”
My breath halted. Not ’til this moment did I think of myself in all this. I been too worried about Lady Washington, wondrin’ if she’d refuse to live in the president’s house this time. But she’d planned it all as we’d clumb them secret stairs. So, besides the dozen house servants, I reckoned they’d bring us same slaves as in the first term—the general’s valet and hunting companion Billy Lee, cook Hercules, my brother Austin as the waiter, Paris as postillion, Christopher, Giles, Molly and me. That meant being torn apart from Mamma and half-sister Delphy again.
Lady Washington swept past me and out. “You can return to your work now, Oney.”
“Please let me stay here, Lawd,” I prayed. Would He answer my prayer?