Authors: Dorothy West
The Living Is Easy
The Richer, The Poorer
To the memory of my editor,
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Though
there was never such a mismatched
pair in appearance, we were
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things
n a morning in late August, the morning before the wedding, the sun rising out of the quiet sea stirred the Oval from its shapeless sleep and gave dimension and design to the ring of summer cottages.
The islanders were already astir. There was milk to deliver to the summer visitors, stores to open for their spending sprees, grass to cut for them, cars to wash for them, an endless chain of petty jobs demanding preference, particularly in the Oval, whose occupants were colored, and inclined to expect special treatment.
The Oval was a rustic stretch of flowering shrubs and tall trees, designated on the old town maps as Highland Park. The narrow dirt road that circled it was Highland Avenue. But since in no islander’s memory had there ever
been signposts to bring these ambitious titles to life, the area had long ago been assigned the descriptive name that better suited it.
A baker’s dozen of cottages made a ring around the park. Some were small and plain of facade, others were bigger and handsomer (one, the Coles place, was called a mansion), and all of them were spruced up for summer, set back precisely on immaculate squares of green lawn.
They formed a fortress, a bulwark of colored society. Their occupants could boast that they, or even better their ancestors, had owned a home away from home since the days when a summer hegira was taken by few colored people above the rank of servant.
Though newer comers owned cottages in other sections of the seaside town, some very splendid houses in neighborhoods customarily called white, the Ovalites still outranked them. They had been the vanguard. They were now the old guard. It would sound like sour grapes to say, “So what?”
Even the label “Ovalite” had acquired a connotation completely the contrary of its original intent. For those who had bestowed it as a bitter epithet were now long gone from the scene of their failure to crash Ovalite society, and the name that was once profane had been sanctified by time and proper inflection.
The Coles house dominated the Oval. With its great glassed-in porches, against which many birds had dashed themselves to death, its ballroom, with the little gilt chairs that had hugged the walls for years now set in place for the wedding, and the undertaker’s chairs in sober alignment, its
sweep of lawns that kept the lesser cottages at a feudal distance, it was the prize piece of the Oval.
Behind it were acres of picturesque growth that had been part of the property in the baronial era of the first owner. Now they served as an effective backdrop for the Coles place, closing that end of the Oval to cars, making it a dead end.
The only means of exit from or entrance to the Oval was via a winding, rutted road. The underbrush on either side of this road forced one of two approaching cars to back to its starting place, a slow and tortuous procedure that often left scars on the polished hide of an oversize car that did not quite stay in the ruts.
The Ovalites could have followed established procedure and petitioned the town for a wider outlet to the highway. But this uninviting approach gave them a feeling of being as exclusive as the really exclusive—the really rich, the really powerful—who also lived at the end of impressively bad roads to discourage the curious.
The Clark Coleses came closest to being as real as their counterparts. They had money, enough not only to spend but to save. They were college-bred, of good background. They lived graciously. Two respectful maids had served them for years, living proof that they were used to servants. If Clark and Corinne had not slept with each other for years, even their daughters could not have demanded more discretion in their outward behavior.
Their daughters were Liz, the married one, and Shelby, the bride-to-be, both lovely, but Shelby lovelier, the image of
Gram in that tinted picture of Gram as a girl, with rose-pink skin, golden hair, and dusk-blue eyes.
That Liz had married a dark man and given birth to a daughter who was tinged with her father’s darkness had raised the eyebrows of the Oval. But at least she had married a man in medicine, in keeping with the family tradition that all men were created to be doctors, whose titles made introductions so easy and self-explanatory.
But how Shelby, who could have had her pick of the best of breed in her own race, could marry outside her race, outside her father’s profession, and throw her life away on a nameless, faceless white man who wrote jazz, a frivolous occupation without office, title, or foreseeable future, was beyond the Oval’s understanding.
Between the dark man Liz had married and the music maker Shelby was marrying, there was a whole area of eligible men of the right colors and the right professions. For Liz and Shelby to marry so contrary to expectations affronted all the subtle tenets of their training.
Though Shelby might have been headstrong in her choice of a husband, at least she had let her mother dissuade her from following Liz’s lead and eloping. Her wedding would have the Oval setting that Corinne had promised Miss Adelaide Bannister on a golden afternoon in her daughters’ teens. Addie, breathing hard behind the bulging stays that tormented and squeezed the unsuitable flesh of her thin existence, had sat stuck to her chair on the glassed-in porch that drew the sun and made the heat hotter, fanning herself with the limp hand that waved in her face whenever there was nothing else to stir a breeze.
She accepted a brandy because it was medicinal, and the sun, and the too tight stays, and the brandy, gave her palpitations that made her bosom heave back and forth in a rapid way that always unnerved the spineless, who did not want to see her drop dead before them. Clutching her heart to hold it in place, she confided to Corinne that her greatest hope was to live long enough to see Liz married, not that she favored the older sister over the younger, but that it was beyond all hope that she would live to see them both as brides.
Moved by this sad and simple confidence and a very dry martini, Corinne made her sentimental promise that Liz would be married in the Oval, sparing Addie any tormenting trip to New York, where the unfamiliar place and people and pace might really cause Addie’s untimely demise in the middle of Grand Central Station.
Since the day of her birth in Boston, Addie had traveled no farther from home than an island off the Massachusetts coast, a short and uneventful train ride, an even shorter and calmer crossing. In winter she rarely socialized, almost never stepping outside the old family house in Cambridge, where she swaddled herself in sweaters and bathrobes to rout the penetrating cold that battled the insufficient heat from the old-fashioned, dust-filled floor registers. Surrounded by antiques and antiquation, she hibernated until summer, never visiting her friends in their warmer houses; the hazards of getting about in winter were more than she could cope with, her purse not permitting a taxi or the proper clothes.
She saved her strength and her pennies for her summers in the Oval, where her social life centered on seeing old friends and the changes a year had made in their children.
The Oval contained the whole of her world. She had never accepted an invitation from any house outside it.
Her remaining days were too few to waste on the Johnny-come-latelies, whose antecedents were suspect, whose flaunted possessions were not always acquired by honorable means. Every year Addie wondered if she would live out the calendar the coal man gave her for Christmas. Her parents having left this life before they were fifty, Addie knew she had been born with their disposition to die. The whole Oval knew that Addie’s inherited bad heart had always ticked on borrowed time. She was their invalid. They treated her tenderly, as if each summer were her last. And every summer that Addie was spared was a sign that God had some purpose in mind. In time it became an Oval legend that God was sparing her to attend Liz’s wedding.
When Liz eloped to Greenwich weeks ahead of her scheduled wedding, with Addie’s new dress already in her suitcase for its journey to the island, and a note in her strongbox advising her mourners that this was the dress for her laying out, her conscience thus eased and her pocket appeased, the Oval considered it a major miracle that Addie’s bad heart survived the shock.
Corinne could do no less than offer Shelby as substitute whenever Shelby stopped dragging her feet and made her choice from the many acceptable men who would marry her in a minute.
The Oval was divided in sentiment, the solvent regretting their lost chance to glitter at a wedding in New York, the rest relieved that simplicity was the charm of a country celebration.
Though money was as important in the Oval as in any other upper-class community, it was not the determining factor in distinguishing between majors and minors. The distinction was so subtle, the gradations so fine drawn, that only an Ovalite knew on which level he belonged, and an outsider sometimes wasted an entire summer licking the wrong boot.
Occasionally, over recent years, an Ovalite flush enough to vacation abroad, or not flush enough to vacation anywhere, had rented his cottage to a family with the right credentials, who valiantly lived up to all expectations. This standard the Oval had set for itself was strictly adhered to until, of all ill-timed defaults, the summer of the wedding, when every cottage but Addie Bannister’s was part of the preparations.
That Addie, a major Ovalite, should be the transgressor, Addie, whose impoverished heart had laid the groundwork for the wedding, that she had let down the class bars and unlocked her door to someone nobody knew but everybody knew about, was so plainly a symptom of her sickness that she had to be forgiven because, after years of false alarms, she was finally dying.
This time there was no doubt even in those doubting minds that had never entirely believed in Addie’s bad heart. The few Bostonians who had seen her through the winter said that Addie looked awful, thin as paper and weak as water. They were not surprised that she had rented her cottage. Indeed it was a blessed relief not to have Addie sick on their hands when all hands were needed to help with the wedding.
All the same, Addie had betrayed her own code, which
counted money as the least of social accomplishments. With all the lovely people, friends of her closest friends, who would have been glad to rent her cottage the summer of the wedding, she had sold out to the highest bidder, someone to whom no one else would have rented a cottage for a million dollars.