Editor’s Pick: Drowning in Margaret Culkin Banning’s Pool

I knew when a car was rounding the bend to my Granddaddy’s house. Swirling clouds of red clay and the echo of tires straining to navigate the rocky road always preceded a car’s presence. I’d run in my bare feet to the peach tree that resided midway up Granddaddy’s driveway to spot who was coming. Cause hardly anybody ever came that way. Nothing and nobody was there on that lone stretch of road, except us, and who were we, after all.

Slowly the dust parted for me to see a station wagon. It was Aunt Elsie. I waved and jumped up and down as she steered the wagon all the way up the driveway.

Aunt Elsie had Leon with her. I knew him too. Leon was the nephew of her husband, Uncle Pete, but Leon was a grown man. He was as tall and solid as Paul Bunyan, who I’d read about in a book. Leon had red hair and freckles. The first time I saw him and Aunt Elsie together I thought they were married. They looked like a couple and seemed made for one another. But Mama said, “No. Aunt Elsie is married to Uncle Pete.”

Uncle Pete looked to me to be much older than Aunt Elsie. He was thin but sturdy and just as tall as Leon. Like Granddaddy, he looked and smelled like a farmer, and I could tell he was earnest, which is a spelling word I’d learned that year in my third-grade class.

By the time Aunt Elsie had opened the car door I was there, standing, and I wasn’t alone. My brothers and cousins had gathered round too. It was lots of us grandchildren there that summer of 1968, more of us than usual, because our California cousins had come to North Carolina for the first time. Aunt Elsie in fact was not actually my aunt. She was the aunt of my California cousins. Her brother had married Ruth, one of my mother’s four older sisters. And Ruth was a twin to my Aunt Rachel. Ruth and Rachel were nothing alike. They didn’t even look alike, and at that time, I thought all twins looked alike because all the twins I knew did. And the only twins I knew were my cousins, Timmy and Tony, who were one year older than me.

Aunt Elsie was a meaty, big-boned woman with lots of curves, big breasts, fat legs, especially her calves, and she had a gap in her two front teeth, just like me. None of Mama’s sisters, or Mama, was shaped like Aunt Elsie. No one would ever have mistaken her for a Hannon, which is what we were, regardless of our last names. Any child or grandchild of Claude Samuel Hannon was a Hannon, and everybody in Lynn knew it. Don’t look for Lynn on a map. You won’t find it. The closest big city is Tryon, which sits on the southern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and truth told, Tryon is not much of a city so much as it’s a winter hideaway for rich and famous people who want to escape the cold of the north. You can’t hardly turnaround without seeing a mountain here, and from the top of the hill where Granddaddy goes each morning before daybreak to slop the hogs, the view of Tryon Mountain is more beautiful than I can find words for—and I’m always looking for new words.

Leon stood outside, surrounded by us kids, while Aunt Elsie walked through the rickety screen door to greet my grandmother, Wearrie. Because I was determined to win the title of best speller in my class, I knew weary was not spelled with two Rs or “ie.” Furthermore, I knew that weary was not even a proper name. I asked Mama about it. “I think her mama must have meant to name her ‘Wary,’ not ‘Wearrie’.” That’s the explanation Mama gave me, but that made no sense whatsoever to me. I had looked up “wary” in the dictionary, and that word wasn’t no name either.

When Aunt Elsie came back outside, she told the whole lot of us to pile into the station wagon. She was going to clean a house and the house had a pool. We could swim and play while she cleaned. The owner was not there and wouldn’t be there, she told Granddaddy, so it was OK for us to go. It was so hot there in the country the thought of cooling off in a pool was something you only imagined. There were no public pools for colored children, as we were known then. And God knows the only time we saw water at that farm was when rain fell from the sky and when Granddaddy or an aunt or uncle pumped water from the well. There was no indoor plumbing at Granddaddy’s, no indoor toilet, no swimming pool. But when it rained heavy, water pooled under the house, so much so that me and my cousin Kenny from Philadelphia used to climb aboard a side-less, makeshift wagon and set sail under the house. You’d have thought we were adventurers navigating the seven seas, the hours we spent sailing in that muddy, mosquitoinfested rainwater under the house that my Granddaddy had built with his very own hands.

I was so glad to go with Aunt Elsie, especially because I was often left behind, being one of the younger cousins. But Mama let me tag along because she trusted my big brother, Baxter, to look after me. My younger brother had to stay behind, because he didn’t know how to act right and nobody had time to go chasing after him.

At the white lady’s house, Aunt Elsie led us straight to the pool. I knew the house belonged to a white lady because I had never seen nor heard of any colored people living in a house that big. That was unimaginable. Plus, I had never seen nor heard of a colored woman cleaning anything but a white woman’s house. Cleaning women were always colored, like Aunt Elsie and my Mama and Mama’s sisters. And they always cleaned for white people. That’s just how it was, as far as my nine-year-old worldview could see.

The pool was as big and blue as I imagined the ocean to be. And there were chairs around the pool and even a table, where people could sit and eat.

I couldn’t swim. Baxter could. That’s because Mama and Daddy had let him go to Camp Robert Vaughn. They didn’t let me go nowhere. Baxter had complained that he’d just been thrown in the water at Camp Robert Vaughn and had to fight for his life to get out. It wasn’t like a real swimming lesson or anything, he’d told me. More like swim or die.

Nobody had swimsuits. Baxter and my cousins just tossed aside their shirts and jumped in wearing shorts. I don’t remember what Linda, the only girl cousin there, wore. Because I couldn’t swim I just walked around the edge of the pool, dipping a foot in and out, in and out, that is until I lost my balance and fell in. The water closed in around me and seemed to connive to draw me down to the very bottom. All I remember is fear and a feeling of being tightly and permanently held against my will.

My next memory is of Baxter looking down at me. He was kneeling at my side, while I lay flat on my back on the side of the pool. Water rolled down his face and from his green eyes. I figured it was water from the pool, or maybe he was crying. I don’t remember exactly. All I know is he was there.

Next thing I know there was Aunt Elsie, wrapping a big white towel around me. She then led me from the side of the pool through French doors into a gigantic room filled with all kinds of beautiful, not-to-be-touched things. I wouldn’t have known how to describe all the pretty things in the room, because I had never seen such things in my own house, or my Granddaddy’s house, or the house of anybody in my small isolated world.

Aunt Elsie sat me in a chair, the towel still wrapped around me, and told me to stay there till time to go. Sitting there, I do remember wondering how long it might have taken for my mother and aunts to notice I hadn’t come back, if I had died. At dinnertime, for sure, someone might have noticed that there was one less mouth to feed, however small, because all food was perfectly rationed. Even though I was a girl, being a girl didn’t really count for much. On a farm it’s all about work and whether one is strong. Even the smallest hands can pick and shuck and shell, or chop wood, and it don’t matter whether those hands belong to a boy or girl.

The chair I sat in faced a wall with a giant fireplace and on either side of the fireplace were built-in bookshelves that reached to the heavens. I had never seen so many books, not even in the East Winston, or Negro, library in the city where I lived. I never moved from my seat, because Aunt Elsie told me not to, so I don’t know what books were on those shelves. And it didn’t matter anyway. What mattered is I got the idea on that very day that some people lived in big houses, with bookcases that reached to the ceiling, and those bookcases were filled.

At home in Winston-Salem I thought it was a big deal that Mama and Daddy had bought us our very own twenty-volume set of the World Book, which came with two thick dictionaries—one covering words from A to K and the other from L to Z—that I used to stay on top of the spelling competition at school. But here in front of me was something incredible, as incredible as the faraway place called Timbuktu, the moon and the stars, and the invisible God that I recited prayers to every day at my grade school, which was named after the Catholic saint Benedict the Moor, another person I never expected to see in real life.

We didn’t even have a library at my school. Occasionally, the nuns passed out order forms for us to buy Scholastic books. If my parents had been wealthy, I would have checked off every book, every time. But I never did. Somehow I knew, without my parents ever saying so, we couldn’t afford all those books and where would we have put them anyway. But now I did know something: Because I had almost drowned and ended up in that room with the high bookcases, I began to imagine a life that, moments before, had seemed entirely impossible and improbable for a gap-toothed girl like me.

 

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More than 30 years after the summer of 1968 I learned from my California cousin Linda that the pool into which I had fallen belonged to an author named Margaret Culkin Banning, who in her day had written 36 novels and several hundred essays and short stories. A native of Minnesota, she had bought the 17.5-acre Friendly Hills estate near Tryon in 1933, and its 18-by-24 foot pool behind the northwest corner of the Tudor Revival house was the first private pool built in Tryon, according to local say-so. For nearly half a century, Banning had split her time between the two places, but Friendly Hills is where she died in 1982 at age 90. According to her New York Times obituary, she was “an early and longtime advocate of women’s rights.” In 1947 she declared in an interview, “I believe in personal independence for all women.’’ Catholic by faith, Banning wrote about mixed religious marriages, birth control, abortion, among other taboos of the time, and daringly, she had challenged the often wrongly interpreted biblical notion that the poor will always be with us. “I don’t believe that…” she had written in 1963. “I think that kind of pious fatalism is just an excuse for keeping things the way they are.”

Linda had dropped by my mother’s house on her way to Tryon to visit her ailing dad and to clear out the family home where Aunt Elsie had lived out her days. While cleaning and packing and discarding the contents of the house, she had found a copy of Banning’s book, The Dowry. The book was dusty, covered in age spots and its pages dry and brittle. But on the back of the dust jacket was a black-and-white photo of Banning. She was standing in front of a built-in bookcase—taller than herself and packed with rows of books the titles of which you cannot see. “This was written by the woman whose pool Sharon almost drowned in,” Linda told my mother. “I thought she might like to have it…I think it’s interesting that she became a writer.” I didn’t see Linda the day she dropped off The Dowry. But I’ve read it, and it is tucked among rows of books that are reaching toward heaven on built-in shelves that straddle both sides of a beautiful stone fireplace in the living room of my home.

 

 

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