He beckoned to us from the back of the yard, and ever the obedient hiking group, we snaked out way back to him, past the pit that once sat below the ice house, past the smoke house and dairy, behind the boxwoods into the woods. I have been most places at Bremo but never here, at the back of the oldest big house.
Then, I saw why Dad had brought us back here – there, more than two stories tall, was a chimney with two fireplaces. The last remaining portion of a cabin that once housed two enslaved families. I felt my breath snag on the edge of my fourth rib.
I pictured a cast iron pot hung low over fire, a family gathered close on this early spring day, the stew boiling quiet on the heat.
Then, we wandered through more low underbrush past a pile of rubble – the collapsed memory of a chimney – to another standing one. Regal, rustic. Profound. 4 fireplaces; 4 families.
Here, the people I wrote about in The Slaves Have Names slept, talked, wept, shouted, and shared their familiar love with each other. Here, on this very ground where I stood, a child lost his first tooth, a young woman her first love. Here, people tended each other’s wounds and bolstered each other’s souls. Here was home.
The day had begun with Dad telling the assembled hikers about the history of these places and stressing that today we would not take the usual kind of tour to focus on the buildings and the rich people who owned this place. Instead, our time would be skew to the largely unspoken memories of Bremo – to the people who prepared this land, to the people who built these buildings – firing every brick, felling every tree, quarrying every stone.
I don’t know each person there appreciated that lens with which we walked the land, but I did. Because these enslaved people are as much – more? – of this place than any of the rich white men who forced them to it, and the fact that my father – the man who has known me longest – understands that fact and wants to share it with the people who visit – that is gift to me. Bold and wide.
So when he took us all back there to those chimneys, he was honoring my work, but most importantly, he was honoring the memory of these people – the Edwards, the Skipwiths, the Nicholases, the Creasys, the Johnsons, the Randalls. He was asking us all to remember them and to remember them well.
The memory of them is a gift for us all.