Chapter One – Legacy
If we’d had money for a taxi, we would have told the driver to take it slow, let us adjust to the change in atmosphere from one end of town to the other. But we were on a city transit bus, barreling toward my father’s funeral faster than we could count the stops. The bus bounced over dips on Erie Boulevard, raising us above our vinyl seats and making our stomachs lurch.
My partner, Miranda, and I sat in the back row and pressed our hands together, fingers intertwined. I needed her. She looked frail from the outside—thin shoulders and long red hair, like a teenager at Woodstock or a diaphanous sprite from a Shakespeare play—but if you looked into her eyes, you saw a steeliness. I wished I could borrow it.
I hadn’t slept the night before, thinking about my dress and shoes, trivial concerns. I’d insisted that Miranda and I buy new outfits. “Everyone will be dressed to the nines,” I told her. “I’m not going to show up looking like a ragamuffin.” In the end, Miranda wore a black turtleneck dress with a crocheted vest, while I wore a wool dress that cinched uncomfortably at the waist. They had cost more than we could afford, but I’d insisted. And then I’d tried to sleep with my hair in curlers. Whoever thought of such a torture? I’d tossed and turned all night and woke up with a crick in my neck.
And of course, the whole time, I was thinking about my father. Memories played like home movies against the inside of my eyelids. He was gone. There would be no reconciliation, and everyone at the church would know what had happened.
“These people do not determine your worth,” Miranda said in a whisper. “You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.”
“The bulletin lists me as one of the speakers,” I said, looking out the window. Dirty snowplowed heaps on the side of the road blurred with the movement of the bus. “I don’t have a choice.”
My sister, Virginia, had left me out of the funeral planning. She’d picked the flower arrangements and hymns, and then, almost as an afterthought, she’d asked if I would speak, briefly and nicely. She emphasized the “nicely,” pausing for me to understand her request. It wasn’t like our mother’s funeral when we were young. Then, we’d been whisked to the front of the church like celebrities, maids fussed over what we wore, the newspapers took pictures of us. Now, there was a risk I’d go off the rails. But Virginia must have trusted me to stay on track. It was for reasons like this that I thought we could be close again.
“In twenty years, no one will remember if you spoke,” Miranda said. “They’ll pull their stupid bulletin out of a drawer and throw it away. They won’t even remember who Herbert Wilson was.” She said this slowly, soothingly, as if to force her vision into existence.
I hadn’t prepared anything. I felt dizzy with the pressure. I tried to take a breath, but it caught in my chest, and I realized I didn’t have enough air. I gasped and squeezed Miranda’s hand, then bent down and put my head between my knees.
“You’re okay,” she said.
“I can’t breathe,” I said in a ragged whisper.
“Take a small breath,” she said, rubbing my back. “You don’t need a big one. Small breaths. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Your body knows what to do.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’ll be over in a minute.”
I fought for my breath and stared at the gum and scuff marks on the bus floor. I was a mess. Everyone else would arrive in a taxi or their fanciest car. We were the only ones arriving by bus, wearing dresses from the Salvation Army.
When I could breathe again, I leaned back on the seat and looked into Miranda’s eyes, through her glasses and mine. I wished everyone could know this woman. She wasn’t famous, but she should have been. She’d been in Life Magazine once. She was only seven years old when they’d snapped her picture, fresh off the boat from Hitler’s Europe—one of the only refugees allowed into the United States during World War II without a visa. She had arrived with nothing and built a life here in upstate New York. It was fate that brought us together.
At the corner of Cedar and Fifth, the bus lurched to our stop. The afternoon sun cut through the January clouds, spotlighting the Montgomery Ward window displays and the store selling Singer sewing machines. We walked toward Old Southeast Church, the same church my family had belonged to when my mother was alive. My father had given monthly donations until the day he died, but we’d never attended. I couldn’t remember the minister’s name.
Walking on the sidewalk, Miranda and I dropped each other’s hands. Our town hadn’t had its Stonewall moment. To Salina, we appeared to be two women headed for spinsterhood: in our early thirties, without the tell-tale look of the marriage-hungry. We encouraged their misunderstanding, but it was exhausting. We lived together and ran Miranda’s deli business together, but none of the customers knew we were a couple. We were like vampires, only able to show our love after dark.
As we crossed the street toward the church, the risk of my attendance became real to me. I had escaped the expectations of high society but had marked myself as a traitor. I dreaded seeing the executives from my father’s bank. They knew what I had done. And the former police chief would be there. He and I shared the shame for not intervening when my father crossed the line all those years ago.
The church bells rang. A uniform collection of designer suits, knee-length dresses, and black wool coats from Bloomingdales moved toward the open doors.
“Is that my Lucretia?” a woman called behind us.
Only one person in town called me by my full name. Everyone else found it too formal, of another century. It reminded them of Lucretia Mott, the suffragette, or else, if they were well-read, it conjured up disturbing images of the Rape of Lucretia.
I turned. Brigitte, my father’s former secretary, caught up to us, hurrying on her pointed heels. She was the most important adult from my childhood, but my rift with my father had put her in an uncomfortable position. I don’t know if my father ever asked her to cut ties with me, but she never did.
“I was hoping to find you,” she said, pulling me into a hug. “You poor girl, this must be so hard.”
She smelled of talcum powder and hairspray—a soft exterior to cover an iron will. She was wiry and intense, even in her early sixties, like a Pekingese dog who barks ferociously at every German Shepherd and Standard Poodle. Brigitte had had to be strong to survive as my father’s secretary for almost three decades. She was unflappable.
“I’m hanging in there,” I said to her.
When my mother died, in 1944, I was five years old and it was Brigitte’s job to get me out of the house. At the time, I called her Miss Hoffman. She would leave the bank, still on the clock as my father’s secretary, and pick me up from our housekeeper. Most of the time, Brigitte would take me to a movie theater. We saw a decade of matinees. She started with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and then moved onto musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis, but we bonded most over dramas well beyond my years. Gangster films. Political thrillers. Intrigues.
“You look good,” she told me now. “You’re all grown up.”
“All grown out.” I spread my hands to show how my hips and belly had grown outward—more like my father’s body than my mother’s or sister’s.
Brigitte shook her head and held my shoulders “You’ll always be my little girl.”
She hugged me again, then turned to Miranda. “Good to see you too—beautiful as always.” Miranda gave her a hug.
So I had two bodyguards. I would need them for the ordeal ahead. Maybe I could hide behind them and no one would know I’d been there.
Brigitte leaned in close and lowered her voice. “I have something for you. I’ll give it to you inside.”
“What could you have brought to a funeral for a father’s less favored daughter?” I asked.
“You weren’t less favored.” She brushed some loose hairs off the shoulders of my coat.
“I was definitely less favored,” I said, nodding to emphasize each elongated syllable. “He cut me out of the will.”
“It was complicated.” Brigitte held my eye. “And you don’t have to impress anyone in there. It’s not your job to fit in with them or apologize for who you are. If you do that, you lose everything.”
I nodded, but in my mind I had already lost everything, when I’d challenged my family fourteen years ago. My father had never forgiven me. I had lost my close relationship with my sister. I had lost my inheritance.
At the front steps I looked for an easy path into the church, a way to avoid the worst of the crowd. The men and women of Salina always had something to prove at events like these. In other cities they might relax on a Tuesday afternoon, but here they had to show the world that they were as good as New York City. When people from other countries said “New York,” they pictured the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, the pulse of Manhattan. Upstate cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Salina didn’t have that lure. We had orchestras and art museums, jazz clubs and delis, but no one ever traveled halfway across the earth for those, if they had a choice.
And all these people parading into the church knew the basic details of my relationship with my family. They knew that my sister and her husband had lived in the family home with my father, circulating with him at the country club, civic events, social hours. They knew that I had been relegated to the other side of the highway: not the side with the downtown sector, the university, or this stately church, but the other side, past the underpasses of snow and trash—in the half-abandoned neighborhood that existed in the shadow of the highway. It used to be called Jewtown and Blacktown, but after the highway had decimated it and the neighborhood no longer posed any threat, everyone called it Old Ward Three.
A Plymouth Satellite drove past, the loud baseline of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” pulsing from the car speakers. Then a police cruiser pulled up. The former police chief, Arnold Manley, climbed out of the back seat as if he were exiting a taxi. I couldn’t look away. He wore his dress uniform, with brass buttons and stars on the shoulders. The crowd parted for him to enter.
The sight of the cruiser was giving me chills. I watched the eyes of the driver to see if he recognized me.
As we went up the stone steps, I shifted my gaze to my shoes, trembling even though I was wearing wool tights and a heavy coat. Inside, the church rumbled with small talk as people stood in the aisles and found their places. A faint thread of organ notes rose into the rafters. I held onto Brigitte and Miranda and moved slowly through the narthex.
Henry Sulliman, the former mayor and a close friend of my father’s, stood in the aisle with his cane. Sycophants fawned over him and led him to an honorific seat in the front pew. His white hair and white skin gave him a ghostlike pallor, and the heavy black frames of his eyeglasses looked as if they were floating at the front of the church. Mrs. Sulliman, a head shorter than her husband even when he hunched over his cane, wore a black hat with a lace overlay—an expensive choice, sure to be mentioned on the society page of The Salina Register.
As my eyes adjusted to the lighting, my mind was consumed by my tights. The farther they sagged down my legs, the smaller my steps became. I wanted nothing more than to hike up my dress and re-arrange my underclothes. Instead, I tried to concentrate on the promise I’d made to my sister. I would give a brief remembrance, as the bulletin foretold, but I’d keep it short and not air my grievances. Our father was dead, and Virginia wanted to get through the funeral without additional grief. She wanted to paint a pretty picture of our family.
I wracked my brain, trying to come up with a positive story to share. Since he’d cut me out of his will, my father and I had struggled to remain civil. He thought I had thrown my life away, and I thought he was a liar and a thief. If I went back to the late ’50s, all I could think about was the day he’d broken my heart, and I wasn’t going to share that again. I’d gone to the newspapers with that story, and the editors had run to my father to tell him. No, if I wanted a positive story, I’d have to go back to a time when I believed in him, a time when I still thought he was a good man.
Blocking our passage, the former president of Salina Savings and Loan, Howard Kramer, stood with his head bent to listen to a bevy of widows. He had a large head with slick black hair, its part cutting a white line along the top of his scalp. He had been president of the bank when my father was vice president, and both had walked away with money far beyond their salaries.
Kramer told the widows that the stock market would reach new heights under the Nixon administration, that 1973 was going to be a year of prosperity. They crinkled their eyes at him. They had reason to be grateful: Kramer and my father had lined bank accounts throughout the city, and as a result these widows would never know a day of want or sacrifice.
Rather than push past him, we chose a pew near the back. Cousins from Pennsylvania, Brooklyn, and Manhattan filled the rows near the front. No one I really knew. In the front pew, with nothing between her feet and the minister, my sister, Virginia Tower, sat with a handkerchief under her nose. Her husband, Joseph, stood next to her, flashing a broad Irish smile and shaking hands with a traffic jam of well-wishers.
I sat between Miranda and Brigitte.
Brigitte arranged her heavy coat on her lap and pulled out a large accordion file, worn at the corners and creased along its folds. “This is for you,” she whispered. “It’s everything you ever wanted to know about your father.”
I glanced at the bulging file. Everything I ever wanted to know? I doubted that.
“I saved every memo,” Brigitte said, facing forward as if we were in a spy movie. “They asked me to destroy these, but I knew that wasn’t right. I couldn’t stand to let it happen a second time in my life.”
I stared at her face in profile—eyes still blue, her skin creased with time. Even with all she’d lived through, leaving Germany during the height of Hitler’s power, she still curled her blonde hair around her ears and made sure that her pocketbook matched her shoes.
I exchanged a look with Miranda, who raised her eyebrows.
“I don’t want this,” I whispered to Brigitte, pushing the file back under her coat. “There was a time when I would have—” I looked at her again. I didn’t want to minimize what she was offering, what she must have gone through to put this file together, but I couldn’t handle it. I was putting the past behind me. “I’ve moved on,” I told her. “I’m not at war with him anymore.”
Then I looked around toward the aisle. My sister had made her way back to our pew and was reaching out to me.
“Lucy,” she said, pulling on my hand. She was in a black dress with a black lace collar, probably purchased at Lord & Taylor. On her blonde head she wore a small hat, like one of Jackie Kennedy’s. And, of course, she wore our mother’s pearls. They were her calling card, even though they should have been mine. I know my eyes were clouded by resentment, but I thought my sister had become the worst sort of monster—a society lady. She went to the country club every day and sat on the Historical Preservation Committee. She threw tea parties and probably snuck gin into her teacup. She’d become everything we had maligned as teenagers.
I stood and hugged her awkwardly over Miranda’s knees. Virginia was thin, thinner than she’d been in years—I could feel her shoulder blades through the fabric of her dress.
“Come sit with us,” Virginia said to me. She glanced at Miranda, as if weighing whether or not to invite her too.
I looked toward the front pew and saw Joseph adjusting his coat and sighing. Their daughter, Sarah, was waving at me as she came down the aisle. She was the brightest light in Virginia’s life, and for some reason she loved me. Sometimes I thought that was the only reason Virginia ever invited me to the house anymore.
When she reached us, Sarah gave me a hug. “We went to the graveyard yesterday, Aunt Lucy, and you can’t believe all the Wilsons there! I hardly knew who any of them were. We have to research them and make a chart.”
Sarah and I were the researchers of the family, and on the rare times when Virginia let me take Sarah out on my own, she and I always headed to the library. I taught her everything I learned in librarian school, and we studied whatever topic she came up with—butterflies, teddy bears, daffodils. More recently we had studied Vietnam and Civil Rights, but Virginia didn’t know about those newer topics.
Virginia hugged her daughter and whispered, “Not now, Sarah. Go back and sit with Daddy.”
Dutifully Sarah walked back up the aisle.
“Brigitte,” Virginia said, “I’m glad you’re here. My father—our father—would have loved that you came.”
“My condolences,” Brigitte said.
Virginia looked at me, waiting for a reply to her command.
“No,” I said. “I’ll stay here. There’s not enough room up there for all of us.”
She gauged my words, trying to spot resentment. Not finding any, she said, “Then at least sit on the aisle.” She patted Miranda on the shoulder and urged her to change places with me. To me she said, “You’ll speak after the first hymn.”
I nodded. Virginia cared about such things. She didn’t want any lag time during the ceremony; she needed to impress. She’d married our father’s colleague in order to take her place in Salina society, and that brought its own little miseries. I didn’t envy all her glittering obligations. To me, she was still the little girl who always brought her dolls down during our father’s cocktail parties. They would appear one by one, dressed in their finest finery, to be arranged at the foot of the hearth as if they were in a pageant. She needed all the guests to acknowledge both them and her. I’d always preferred to observe the crowd rather than garner its praise. This had made us well-matched when we were growing up, each filling a different role, but it hadn’t prepared us for the challenge to our relationship that was brewing now in the church.
I settled my hips against the wooden pew and waited. I felt strangely blank about my father’s death, but my heart was beating riotously at the thought of speaking from the pulpit.
A man directly behind us let out a series of wet coughs that turned my stomach. A woman three pews ahead turned around to look at the coughing man and caught my eye. She smiled, then nudged the woman next to her. The first was Edna; she’d been a teller at my father’s bank until she married one of the bank executives. She was nudging Sue, another former teller. The two of them waved at me as if I were a celebrity. They were probably wondering how much money I was going to inherit. Natural, at the funeral of a rich man, to wonder where all the money would go. But they must have heard the rumor that I wouldn’t get a cent.
Once the organ music started in earnest, the minister gave the benediction, and after that the service moved quickly. We sang “Great Is His Faithfulness,” and then it was my turn.
I gripped the edge of the pew and pulled myself up. My body felt stiff, and my stomach pressed against the tight waistband of my dress. My stockings had inched further down my thighs. My shoes pressed silently on the carpeted aisle while the congregation waited eagerly for me to reach the front of the church. They must have thought I was going to air some dirty laundry, and they wanted to hear every word.
Once in the pulpit, I straightened the microphone and decided to tell the only story I could honestly tell. “It was the morning of New Year’s Eve, when I was fifteen years old,” I began.
All the white faces in the pews looked up at me.
“I had stayed up half the night reading a translation of The Diary of Anne Frank. I was delirious with lack of sleep and a buzzing urge to make a difference. My father and sister were already at the breakfast table. I remember a platter of bacon and sausages, a covered dish with scrambled eggs, and a bowl of freshly cut oranges from Florida. Our housekeeper must have been there early.” I paused for a small chuckle from the audience.
“I sat down with my plate and asked my father, ‘What would we do if something like the Holocaust happened here? Would we save Anne Frank, her family?’ I was always asking my father questions like this.”
“At first, he rustled his newspaper as if to shut me out. I couldn’t see his face. Then Ginny asked who Anne Frank was.” I rolled my eyes, knowing it would get a laugh. Even Virginia found it funny. I could see her face upturned toward me, proud that I was telling a nice story about our father, one she’d heard many times. I smiled at her and cleared my throat.
“I repeated my question to our father, and he said we had saved Anne Frank, in a sense, or many people like her. He said that our American troops had gone to Europe and risked their lives, that Europe couldn’t have won the war without us.”
“But I wasn’t asking him about soldiers and war. I was asking about us. Who we were. I looked around our house, thinking of places where we could hide a family. Ginny said we could hide someone in the closet under the staircase. But I had ears only for what my father said, and I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘You’d have to look at it from all angles. You couldn’t decide based on emotional or wishful thinking. You’d have to consider the risks.’”
“And then he changed my life. He gave me a looking glass onto our world. He handed me his newspaper, his sacred morning paper, folded flat so that I could read the front page above the fold.”
I come from a long line of grudge-keepers. My father stopped talking to his brother when I was a toddler, cutting off half our family. Then my mother stopped talking to her sister for decades, further depleting our ranks. Ever since I was a child, I have read books to try to understand these rifts. My writing centers around the mystery of human relationships, and my novel RAZED reflects that fascination.
In 1970s upstate New York, a closeted woman with undiagnosed anxiety uses her librarian skills to challenge the public honoring of her wealthy, powerful family. Can she put an end to the lies without ruining her tenuous relationship with her sister?
In 1958, before the novel opens, Lucy Wilson witnessed her father physically attack a protestor who was marching against the town’s proposed elevated highway. The problem was that Lucy’s sister wasn’t there to see it, and afterward their visions of the world and their father diverged. Lucy, with the help of her soon-to-be girlfriend, Miranda, confronted her father, but by doing so she lost her inheritance and also her close relationship with her sister.
The novel opens in 1973, the year Nixon was investigated for Watergate and Roe v. Wade was passed by the Supreme Court. At her father’s funeral, 34-year-old Lucy is handed an accordion file with incriminating information about her father’s misdeeds, proving that he was bilking funds from the highway’s toll system and handing out favors with taxpayer money. Lucy does not accept this bulging folder. She says she has moved on. However, when her sister announces a plan to honor their father with a statue, Lucy can’t resist making one more attempt to pull the scales from her sister’s eyes—or, even better, from her niece Sarah’s eyes, since Sarah is now old enough to know the truth about her beloved grandfather.
RAZED follows Lucy as she tries to talk her sister out of the plan for the statue (she fails) and to convince the historical society to vote against the project (she loses). Her investigation of her father’s activities leads to another mystery, one involving corpses buried at her childhood home in 1918, and Lucy is forced to confront her family’s long legacy of abuse and how it affects the relationships she has developed, including those with her Jewish girlfriend and their Black co-worker, both of whom will be forever changed by Lucy’s investigation.
RAZED addresses themes of privilege and power, as well as the heart-breaking rifts that families experience due to political and philosophical differences. My novel doesn’t heal the sisters’ relationship within its pages, but it does end on a hopeful note.
Thatcher Carter is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. With a Ph.D. in American Literature, she has taught literature and composition in Southern California at Riverside City College for over twenty years. In 2018, she was chosen for the Writer-to-Writer Program at AWP and worked with Sharon Millar. She has had her work published in, among other places, the 2017 Writing from Inlandia, The Journal of Popular Culture, Under the Gum Tree, Cargo Literary, and the Riverfeet Press anthology Awake in the World. RAZED is her first novel.
Embark, Issue 17, October 2022