It was early on a Monday morning that spring in 1990 when the phone rang. I had no intention of picking up until I heard a familiar voice on the answering machine:
“Kit, it’s your mother. I hate to have to tell you this, but your daddy is dying.”
I dashed for the phone. Really, how could I not? “Momma, Daddy’s been dying ever since I was twenty. What makes today different?”
“Kit, you can talk as cold as you want, but I know you love your daddy.”
She always did know how to exasperate me. “Momma, please tell me what’s going on.”
“He wants to see you. You’d better come soon. This week.”
“But, Momma, I’m so busy at work right now. And Gabriel has a show opening in two weeks. I can’t leave him now.”
“He wants to see you both.”
“He wants what?”
“He wants to see you and Gabriel both.”
“Momma, I . . . I don’t know what to say. Let me call you back this evening. I’ll talk to Gabriel. Maybe we can figure something out. Don’t count on it! But I’ll try. Anyway, let me go. I’ll call you after seven. Is that okay?”
“Kit, I know you’ll do the right thing,” Momma said.
She should have been a harpist, the way she can pluck each string. Instead of a harpy, I thought. No, that wasn’t fair. Momma was always as fair as she could manage to be. But when it came to a choice between her husband and her son, well, I wasn’t exactly thrown under the bus. And yet?
“Gabriel, you won’t believe who just called.”
“You’re being mysterious,” Gabriel said.
“Sorry. That was Momma. She says Daddy’s dying. I know, what else is new? But she says this time it’s serious. He wants to see us.”
“He wants to see us?” my beautiful mate responded.
“Momma said, ‘Your daddy wants to see you and Gabriel both,’ ”
“Kitten, I can’t deal with this right now. Could we talk about it tonight?”
“Of course,” I said. “I know you want to stay at the studio as long as possible. I’ll bring something with me after work. How about a falafel plate? From Mahmoud’s?”
“With extra hot sauce?”
“Of course. You have some wine there, yes?”
“There’s plenty left from the case you ordered last week. Not to worry,” Gabriel said. “Let me go, Kitten. I feel really pressured to finish.”
“Of course you do, Angel,” I said. “You tackle that Muse and don’t let her up until the new canvas is finished. But save the victory dance for me. I want it all. Always did.”
“You’re the only Muse I’ve ever needed. And I save everything for you.”
“See that you do!” I said. “On your way, young man!” And he was out the door. We were not really all that young anymore. But forty felt perfect to me. Like a gift. Like a chance at adulthood without the wrinkles. I felt really buoyant. Maybe for the first time in my life. Not only did Gabriel still love me after twenty years, but I loved him even more than I had been able to, I think, in the early years.
I pulled myself together and headed off to work. Never once, in the last eighteen years, had I dreaded going to work. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is such a glorious place to be that even if the atmosphere in the backstage curatorial offices had been creepy—which it most certainly was not—I could have been content just to be in that building every day.
I had no illusions about my brilliance in the field of art history. But I had managed to complete a degree in a credible university program, and the fact that my family connections were good did no harm. Even though Daddy had more-or-less disowned me—more about that later. Institutions like the Met were famous for hiring promising youngsters who could be underpaid because, presumably, they had family resources to cushion them.
I always said I didn’t have that cushion, but the Christmas and birthday checks from Momma went a long way toward keeping Gabriel and me in house and home—while Gabe, too, developed his career. Almost in spite of myself, I developed a—slight—expertise in the works of John Singer Sargent and his contemporaries. I don’t envy the social mores of the Late Victorians and Edwardians, but I fell in love with Sargent’s vision.
Delicious brushwork, yes. Perfect pitch with portraiture—grand, and yet heartbreakingly human. Could he flatter? Absolutely. Are the subjects also real? Stunningly so. Given a choice between a Sargent and a photo, perhaps we all might decide to see the photograph first. And then most of us will opt for the Sargent, I think, not just because it’s prettier—often—but because it tells the truth.
The small canvases and the watercolors leave me speechless, and the male nudes are so stunning that perhaps the only regret of my entire life was that I didn’t own one. And don’t get me started on Sargent’s anti-war paintings. That panoramic depiction of gassed soldiers in WWI—one of Sargent’s largest canvases—is like an assault on the heart. That he was able to drop all pretense of prettiness and civility to point out the monstrosity of the damage and loss from that fruitless war is so moving that . . . well, I told you not to get me started.
I got through my workday, stopped for a swim at the Y, and headed downtown.
“Gabriel, this is just glorious,” I said, as I unpacked our supper at the studio. The canvas he was finishing was large, about 6’ X 9’. It was beautifully drafted and yet filled with luscious splashes of color, almost primary color by the look of it, but always mixed with consummate skill. Gabriel’s brushwork looked both random and perfectly controlled, at the same time. I thought it was his best work ever.
“Thank you, Kitten,” Gabriel said. “I love it, too. Now, what’s this about your family?” he asked amid bites of falafel and hummus and salad.
“Momma says Daddy wants to see us. Yes, us. I know the timing couldn’t be worse for you, but I was thinking: I can probably get a week or so off. There’s nothing crucial going on at the Met just now. If we fly down day-after-tomorrow, I bet I can get you home the next day—two days tops. I think I can’t avoid this, and I want you with me if at all possible. But only if you feel you can spare two days or so. It’s your call.”
“I wouldn’t leave New York right now for any other reason,” Gabriel said, “but if you feel it’s important, then let’s do it. I’ll finish this canvas tomorrow and set up the last one. And then, it’ll be fine.”
That’s how it happened, that spring Monday in 1990, that we decided to return to our hometown together for the first time in twenty years. But the whole thing won’t make any sense to anyone unless I start at the beginning.
When I was born, in the winter of 1950, my parents named me Christopher Bullard Prescott. Christopher was Daddy’s favorite uncle, and Momma was proud to be a Bullard. There had been Bullards in the county since before the Revolution. So she passed the name to me. Claysville is in Prescott County, so you know Daddy was proud of that. Like most of the family stuff, it left me rather cold. But like so much else, it made life easier. And so I accepted it without too much thought. Some Southern families were big on Junior, II, III, and IV. The Prescotts considered that arriviste. They preferred to individualize.
Apparently I was a difficult delivery, because Momma’s doctor warned her not to attempt another pregnancy: it might kill her. So that’s how I came to be the only child. I think they had planned on several more kids, but it wasn’t to be. According to family history, I was called Kit by our housekeeper, Esther Graves. Supposedly she looked down on baby me in my bassinet and said, “Why, he’s just as pretty as a little kit fox.” I never trusted family lore too much, but this one is probably true. Esther had a perfect right to call me whatever she liked, considering it would be her job to raise me—with financial support from Daddy, of course, but with not all that much input from him or Momma otherwise. And I’ve always thought it a tribute to Esther’s wisdom that I managed to turn out as well as I did.
By the time I was five I had heard the story a hundred times of how Daddy had come to build our house. It seems he had bought about five acres just west of downtown. From the Clay family (think Claysville). They owned a huge wooded property surrounding a small lake—Clay’s Lake, of course. But the year before I was born, the Clays sold off some residential parcels—to good families, of course. And just when Daddy was deciding which architect he wanted to build his new house, he had a business run-in with Mr. Clay. Something about property Daddy owned that Clay needed for a textile mill.
When the business situation turned ugly, Daddy sold the plot of land on Clay’s Lake to the man who owned the Chevrolet dealership in Claysville. Chevys driving on the little lane that encircled the lake—the same lane that Mrs. Clay drove in her Mercedes--that was what Daddy wanted. And he got it. And he made money on the deal. And so he decided to build on an even bigger piece of land he already owned. It was farther west. Just on the edge of the Country Club. Daddy would have preferred to be a little closer to town, but he settled for a beautiful ten-acre plot where he could plan the biggest house in Claysville. Was it? Maybe. Daddy wanted it to be.
I didn’t share much with my parents. Particularly not anything to do with my feelings. They had never expressed all that much interest in anything to do with me except how I made them look. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me at the time. So I kept my own counsel but played the game. School work seemed easy, so I got good grades without much effort. I drew the line at sports, though. All the ball games seemed exceptionally stupid to me—a colossal waste of time. But I did learn tennis, for the sake of form. And I was reasonably good at it, though it provided no real pleasure. What I did enjoy was swimming. It suited me, so I pursued it enough to get rather good. Nothing Olympic, mind you. Just competence and speed. And it kept my body toned, as well. And that made me happy.
There was another baby boy born the same day as I was, but on the other side of town. Gabriel Elijah Williamson had the good fortune to be born into a family with a whole lot of love. I envied that in later years. But his parents had very little money, and Gabriel would have to face the unenviable task of being a black boy growing up in the South. Through a complex convergence of circumstances and luck, he survived it.
In those days, I always thought, ugly black children were maybe more likely to be ignored by white people, and therefore safer. Whereas pretty black children inspired a complex reaction that surely involved both jealousy and lust. Not a nice combination. And Gabriel was exceptionally pretty. Still is. He could use his beauty to charm all the matriarchal women around him, and they, in turn, taught him how to stay out of Whitey’s way. For the most part. And because Gabriel was also sharp as a whip and talented, it worked.
Gabriel and I never met in Claysville while we were growing up. If he had been Esther’s nephew—which he was not—then he might have come by the house to help with something-or-other. Otherwise, East and West didn’t mingle much. We didn’t meet until we both went off to college. It wasn’t that I came from a solidly collegiate family. Momma went to Sweet Briar for a year or two. Daddy had a diploma from Davidson. I’m sure I saw it. I think it was genuine. But even though education was not a high priority, I always knew—from birth, without being told—that I was destined for college.
Gabriel’s journey was different. The women in his family prized education above everything except faith. The men prized hard work—and family, of course. Family really came first for all of them. From birth Gabriel was groomed for achievement and success. He became a voracious reader. His maternal grandmother was his first teacher. She was followed by a series of dedicated women who got their job done against tough odds. Not everyone—even in Gabriel’s own family—encouraged dreams where decent jobs seemed more important. And the Claysville first families had limited interest in encouraging the dark children on the east side of town.
Even the circumstances of our college admissions were telling: I decided on UNC because it was good enough, and because it did not require any particular effort or originality. Gabriel chose it because he could—because he could get in with a full scholarship and then access all the resources of an important Southern university. I went to enjoy myself and try to learn something at the same time, while Gabriel went to bloom. And we both got what we wanted. Plus a lot more.