October 01, 2017
People talk about Jefferson in Charlottesville, anchored by the university he founded, as if he were alive. “Jefferson would want us to build the road around the park, not through it.” “Jefferson would not let high-rises obscure the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” Instead of “What would Jesus do?” people ask, “What would Jefferson do?”
My mother and I piled into my Odyssey. Though I like to think I’m impervious to marketing, I bought the car for its name. Driving is a necessary evil if you don’t live in New York City, but at least I could imagine each little errand an epic voyage.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at Monticello, the house Jefferson designed and inhabited. Buses filled the parking lot with tourists traveling from president’s house to president’s house, so many packed into a short stretch of Virginia. I pointed out a license plate from Texas, another from California, still trying, like an insecure adolescent, to impress my mother, to show her I live somewhere so desirable people travel hundreds of miles to visit.
A tour group walked behind us speaking Japanese. My mother, as usual, made an inventory of foreign cars versus American. She brightened into a smile whenever she saw a Ford or GM—always and everywhere, a Detroiter.
We boarded a shuttle up the mountain to the main house, neoclassical columns flanking the doorways. Inside, the tour guide, a birdlike woman my mother’s age with a soft Virginia twang that made her seem both authentic and fake, like an actress chosen for the part because she was so good at playing herself, showed off Jefferson’s inventions—a pantograph or “copying machine” (pens attached so two identical versions of a document are written at the same time), dumbwaiters for lifting wine from the cellar to the dining room, and self-opening French doors.
Our guide instructed us to admire Jefferson’s multi-lingual library. “How many languages do you think he knows?” she asked, disconcertingly referring to him in the present tense.
I’d taken this tour before and knew the answer, but I let an elderly woman with a walker guess instead. “Seven?”
“He learns Spanish on the boat when he returns to America from France, where he is Ambassador,” the guide explained. “Teaches himself Spanish by reading Cervantes in the original.”
What a brilliant man, we were supposed to think, and I did. Years ago, I’ve heard, the tour would stop there, keeping Jefferson’s moral contradictions out of public view.
But our guide continued, recounting the story of Sally Hemings, a slave Jefferson owned and bedded, the mother of some of his children, though his paternity was only recently acknowledged and she remained a slave.
“He writes against slavery,” the guide said. “He plans on freeing his slaves, but he never does. Here is a man who championed the notion, ‘All men are created equal.’ But he forces slaves to build his own house. The house you’re standing in right now.”
After the tour we visited the family cemetery where the Hemings have not yet been reinterred to rest as descendants of our third president. My mother stared through the iron grates. I could almost hear her thoughts, maybe read the minds of all the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers gathered around us: Every family has secrets.
We trudged down the hill to the cafeteria at the visitors’ center. Over soup and salad and tea, my mother said, “I guess it’s best not to pretend anymore.”
I almost spilled my Earl Grey.
“Best not to sugarcoat the past,” she said.
“Yeah.” Maybe my mother really did understand why I wanted to know about what happened in my family.
“But can you call someone a bad man, when he was just a man of his time?”
It took me a minute to realize she was talking about Jefferson. She might not have realized it, but I knew she was thinking about my father. We’d spent the morning talking about him in my kitchen, wondering if it were possible to be a great man, brilliant and charismatic, and deeply flawed at the same time.
“There’s no excuse for owning slaves. It’s immoral,” I said. “I don’t care if everybody else was doing it.”
My mother sipped her soup. She hid her eyes in her spoon. We were surrounded by crowds, but they were strangers, so we were alone enough that she might feel free to talk. She confided in me only if no one else was listening.
I quieted. Stilled. Waited. Finally, I asked, “What do you think?”
“What he did was wrong, of course,” she said. “But should we talk about it? Why bring it up, when for so many years nobody did? Why now?”
“Why not?” I stared into my food too.
“People might get hurt. The ones who thought . . . you know . . . he was a hero.”
“People might get hurt by not telling the truth.” I meant, “What about the Hemings family? If we pretend that Jefferson was a hero, we deny those people the right to the truths of their own lives. We twist what happened to them into lies.”
I also wanted to say, but couldn’t yet form the words, “What are the consequences of hiding family truth? If we’re too afraid to say the wrong things, we may avoid each other. Lose each other.”
I couldn’t help thinking of my sister.
I speared my salad, wiped the oily film from my mouth and hands, and my mother and I descended to the parking lot. On the way we passed a life-size bronze statue of Jefferson. “He’s not as big as I expected,” my mother said.
“No. They never are.”
Adapted from Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir, by Sharon Harrigan, Copyright 2017 by Sharon Harrigan. With permission of the publisher, Truman State University Press.