The remains of forty-three sailors and officers were each
and slid into the sea, commended to the depths and to God.
Franklin stood on the icy deck
for each brief ceremony, caught pneumonia and that
the end of World War I—shipboard from Great Britain
to New York. Once he was
ours again, to spare others infection, I unpacked his valise.
Thus came to me a packet of letters, each in a threaded,
ivory envelope inscribed
in a delicate hand I recognized—a family friend, my social
The iron scaffolding of dread held against my chest
for months, fell away, and with it,
a momentary, queasy elation: I would have the facts.
We were in Mama’s house, Hyde Park, so I walked calmly
to the small paneled study off
the first floor west wing, locked the door. Trying to untie
the string binding the packet
my hands shook like cold chicks shake. Their passion
raveled the cursive line,
and like a communion wafer dipped in arsenic,
I took their unholy love
into my body, then sat there unmoving. The opened
letters on the desktop, caught
in the lamp’s amber light, shone like the tips of bright
sails. Finally I struggled upstairs,
my knees folding under me twice, then, lest anyone
hear me, I wept into
my pillow, a long weeping that wracked me so, my back
burned for days,
my breastbone seemed a sledge about to split me.
He had taken her out driving through long afternoons
in the Virginia countryside—
forays that ended in teasing seductions. Lucy unwound
the details playfully:
Franklin’s praising her face, her thighs, back and breasts,
her graceful motions, his awe
at how sweetly she welcomed his advances. Again and
again, Lucy said what had been
mine alone to say—my darling, my truest heart. I could
see him in that straw hat
he wears cocked to the side, his radiant smile, hear his
hearty laughter and that murmur
he makes when he’s kissed. And she? She’s in navy
polka dots on white chenille,
a large lace collar, her black curls tied back in red ribbons.
He had a mistress. I was betrayed as Father had betrayed
mother. I who had borne
six of his children, one of them dead, motherhood
confounding me, stripping me
of any sense of the self-possession I had so tenuously
acquired at Allenswood. Now this—
for which no mannered grace or lessons in protocol
had prepared me. A quick,
deep rending, a buckshot shattering of all my hopes.
That night, in the dark,
after declining a call to dinner and another to kiss
the kiddles goodnight, I felt
an unbearable sorrow waiting before me, then watched
as that sorrow settled down on
my bones, an icy lover asleep on me who never rises.
I offered Franklin his freedom, of course. Franklin,
sick as he was, Mama and I,
spoke in the parlor that next afternoon. A solemn
conference. She said she would
cut him off without a cent. He would not inherit
Springhill and she reminded him
Miss Mercer was a Catholic and could never marry
a divorced man.
Later, Louie Howe confirmed for him the certain demise
of a political future …
I held all the cards, the cards for a world demolished.
What I required was his pledge
he would never again see her. He agreed, our gaze locking
for an instant. Did I ever again
in my entire life look deeply into his eyes? I think not.
I could not have borne
the shards of love shattered I would have found there.
We returned to the house on N Street, five children
and four servants in tow.
Appearances returned to normal, although I could neither
command my body to enter
the room he slept in, nor permit him to enter mine.
Both of us were disconsolate.
I lived in a world where infidelity was committed by
inferior human beings only,
not by a person living as Franklin had lived, in a sanctified
state. So who was he now?
This was a tangle of irreconcilable truths. One lives with them
because one lives, because
God tries us and finds us wanting. Revulsion and rage
drained me, but what sickened
me most was that I had yearned desperately for such an easy
intimacy as was theirs,
only I believed Franklin was incapable of giving what he so
joyfully gave her. Why had he never
given me as much? Something tainted and shrunken in me
failed to call forth such
a response in him—and so I cursed myself and worried who
I was or ever might be.