By Peter Alterman
Lily stared into the mirror in her office washroom checking her makeup. Who was she, this woman? The more she lived, the less she knew. By the time she was on her deathbed, would she even know her own name? Probably not.
Of all days for Sister Johnnetta to come to the meeting wearing the same pantsuit as her. And why did that matter so much? It’s not like anybody would mistake one of us for the other. She shook her head. It shouldn’t matter. It didn’t matter.
It also didn’t matter that the woman’s surname had been her family’s surname, Johnnetta’s people having been enslaved on the Branfords’ plantation for close to four hundred years. Sister Johnnetta’s people had more than earned the right to the name. It wasn’t even her family name anymore; the Branfords, through marriage, became Fabers in 1867.
The other thing did matter. Even though it, too, shouldn’t, not these days. Lily pressed a paper towel to the corners of her eyes, blotting the tears collecting there. That damn nephew and his damn DNA test. Why did he have to announce the results today of all days? The meeting of the Foundation board.
Her secretary knocked discreetly on the washroom door. “Your Honor, are you okay?”
“Fine,” she said, her voice a little strangled. “I’ll be right out.”
The amount of Ashkenazi Jewish DNA in her nephew’s report was compelling: great-great-great grandfather Faber wasn’t a German Lutheran as the records had claimed; he was a Jew. Was there even such a thing as Jewish DNA, as opposed to the DNA of Jews? A critical distinction.
She’d known Jews all her life, though none intimately—in university, in law school, in court, on the symphony board, at the Republican Club. Done business with them most of her adult life. People much like herself, but with an asterisk.
How could the family have stayed blind to the obvious for over one hundred and fifty years? Why would that matter more than her mélange of English, Indigenous and African DNA, souvenirs of the settlement of Virginia? And then creating the fiction that the Black people whose DNA they shared were less than human? What must it feel like to see ancestors listed as property? Slave owners’ guilt: that was different.
Lily shook herself mentally. Enough of this.
She shoved the washroom door open and sailed down the corridor to her conference room and the quarterly meeting of the Faber Family Foundation. She swept into the oak-paneled room and took her place at the head of the heavy mahogany table. The seven women and men sitting at the table stopped chatting and turned to face her.
“Sister Johnnetta,” she said, “What a lovely outfit you have on today.”
The directors all laughed, of course, seeing that both Lily and Sister Johnnetta wore the same lilac pantsuit, flattering to both their complexions. The board included the leaders of three of Richmond’s Black churches, two men and Sister Johnnetta; the president of the local historically Black university; the superintendent of public schools; the family’s senior accountant; and Lily’s real sister, Fern, sitting at the far end of the table, facing her. A secondary group of faces sat in chairs circling the walls: directors’ staff waiting with laptops filled with PowerPoints, statistics, charts, and graphs, all justifying Faber generosity and Faber guilt spent on programs for minority students. Lily didn’t recognize any of the usual faces today.
She had a pretty good idea of what every director wanted, the politics within their churches, schools, and bureaucracies, how important Foundation money was to each one’s job security, performance review, raise, and career. Even her sister and the Foundation accountants. The accountants needed the family’s business, and Fern was grooming her elder son for the Foundation Chair when Lily stepped down.
Which wouldn’t happen so long as Lily could draw breath, nor afterward if she’d planned adequately. Neither of Fern’s sons impressed her: Branford, an indolent lawyer in the real estate assessor’s office, and Mike Jr., a former LSU soccer player with no chance at the pro career he so badly wanted. Lily had plans of her own for the Foundation and for the family estate west of the city, the remainder of the family’s once-vast plantation. But all that was years away, she hoped.
As Lily’s attention drifted through time, the board debated how much of her money—her and Fern’s money—should go to which programs. Normally, she enjoyed delving into the minutiae of the numbers, but today her thoughts were centuries away.
Mercifully, the meeting ended early. Directors and staff stood, gathered themselves up and said their good-byes, shaking her hand, murmuring social platitudes as they exited the conference room, sucked back down the hallway to the elevators and released onto the early summer street.
Lily caught Fern by the arm as she was leaving. “I want to talk to you.”
“I think you know.”
Fern shook her head. “Nope. No idea.”
Of course she did. That was just Fern.
“Your son’s test results.”
Fern seemed pleased that her son discomfited Lily. “So the original Faber was really Jewish and not Lutheran. So what? Bran had every right to do what he did.”
“I am not challenging his right. I am saying those tests don’t affect only him.”
“It certainly seems to have affected you.”
As usual, talking to her sister was like fencing with sharpened foils. Lily threw up her hands and turned away. “Goodbye, Fern.”
“Shalom,” Fern said from the doorway.
Sister Johnnetta came up and spoke close to her ear, “Remember the Head Start graduation tomorrow.”
Lily placed a hand on Johnnetta’s shoulder. “Of course,” Lily said. “It’s on my calendar. Seven-thirty.” It was important. Parents would be taking time off from work, those who could, to attend. A junior someone from the school district would surely be there, as well.
“Good, good. I’ll see you there, the Lord willing.” They exchanged smiles and Sister Johnnetta was off.
Lily thought of Sister Johnnetta as more than a colleague but less than a friend. She preferred not knowing what Sister Johnnetta thought of her.
Lily went around the table picking up binders with PowerPoints, budgets, and program reports. She loved the data: it was precise, it was fixed, it was provable. As she left the conference room like a coed with schoolbooks in her arms, she looked at the wall clock. Her schedule was empty for two hours. She had time for a decent lunch for a change.
Perhaps Judge Goldberg was available? She called him from the comfort of her office. She knew him casually as a colleague, though in the twelve years they’d served together on the bench this was the first time she’d thought about lunching with him. Did he keep kosher? She didn’t know. Maybe that’s why it had never occurred to her. No. It was the asterisk. Whatever the reason, she’d see if he was available. She had questions that needed answering. One question in particular.
When he recognized her voice on the phone, he didn’t seem to be surprised, though perhaps a bit guarded. “Pardon me for asking, Lily, but why today? Is this a business lunch?”
“No, Sam,” she said. “Entirely social. My meeting ended early and for some reason today it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time we’d gone to lunch.” Here she hesitated to give him time to correct her, to tell her that she’d never asked him to lunch, and if he did this she’d avoid mentioning the news of her family’s Jewish link and confine the conversation to chitchat.
Sam said, “Let me see.”
He muted his phone, probably to ask his assistant what his schedule looked like, but Lily, feeling uncomfortable, imagined he was saying something he didn’t want her to hear. She pulled back from that line of thinking, recognizing in it the whiff of paranoia, something she’d have to think about later, like the small hard lump in her left breast.
He came back on. “Yes, I’m free. Meet you in the lobby in fifteen minutes.”
He was waiting for her when she stepped out of the elevator. Sam Goldberg was in his late fifties, five foot nine and not too overweight. His hair was thinning and he wore a gray Glen plaid suit, a white shirt, and a cherry red bow tie that hinted at a more colorful person lurking within. He’d been married to Sarah for thirty-three years and had two daughters, one at Penn and the other working as a curator at the Whitney in New York.
On the way to the restaurant in his car they chatted about neutral things: their dockets, the evolving mix of their cases, the political landscape, the weather, and the pandemic, neither of them acknowledging the novelty of the moment. She asked after his family and he offered condolences on the recent death of her elderly aunt.
The banquette near the rear of the lounge gave them some privacy and they began lunch with glasses of wine: white for her, red for him.
“Both of your daughters went North,” she said.
“They have,” he said. “Their choice. Well, the opportunity for Deborah at the Whitney was too good to turn down.”
“I can see that,” Lily said. Richmond had fine art museums, maybe not the equal of New York, but excellent considering the disparity in size and wealth of the two cities.
“Rebecca is studying Mesopotamian prehistory and there’s no place better than Penn for that.”
“I majored in history at the U before law school,” she said.
“Their department is good, too,” he said. “Where did you do law?”
“G.W. in DC. I was young,” she said. “Wanted to be somewhere else, but not any farther south than here. And DC was as far north as I was willing to go. You?”
“Sounds like your family looks to the North.”
He laughed. “Sarah got her MBA from Vanderbilt.”
They were silent as the waiter brought grilled trout for him and salmon on greens for her. As they ate, she worked steadily to keep the conversation flowing. She asked where he’d met his wife, and listened as he told her how they’d bumped into each other at a summer seminar at the Urban Institute. He asked if it was true that her great-grandfather had disrupted the Virginia Assembly with a rant against the Illuminati. She asked when his family came to Richmond and was surprised to learn they’d been there since 1873.
“So your family came down soon after the war ended,” she said. There was only one war in the South. Behind the chitchat, pressure built inside Lily to ask her question, held in check by her reluctance to expose her family’s lie about their Jewish connection.
Halfway through his glass of merlot, Sam said, “You’ve been angling the conversation towards family history, Lily. What’s up?”
She flushed, her neck and face feeling hot and prickly. She didn’t know if she could answer, until she heard the words come out of her mouth. “My nephew received the results of one of those genetic tests yesterday.” She stopped. He waited patiently, his features neutral. “And it turns out we’re part Jewish. My great-great-great-grandfather Faber married in right after the war.”
“We were told he was German Lutheran. And he married Elizabeth Branford in St. Paul’s, our church, in 1867.”
Sam was silent for a beat too long. Then he said, “Well, clearly he lied. I wonder, did they know at the time?”
“How could they not?” she asked. “But times were so desperate they probably needed to believe the lie. Not that I can blame them, I see that now. In either case, subsequent generations have been lied to for over one hundred and fifty years. How could we not know? All these years.”
“So what’s bothering you? Not knowing, or having a Jewish ancestor?”
Lily was ready for that question—a fair question, the important question. “The lies, of course. The blind eye we all have had to turn to avoid the obvious.”
The real question she longed to ask but couldn’t was, Did the Jews of Richmond know all along? The potential for generations of unrecognized humiliation hung on the answer.
All he said was, “I see.”
Lily felt a twinge of discomfort and added, “I don’t think having a Jewish ancestor matters these days,” she said. “We like to think things are different now.”
“We do, don’t we?” Sam consulted his watch. “The test results don’t change anything, Lily. Don’t worry. You and your family aren’t Jewish. And we’d better get back to court.”
Lily noted a hint of brusqueness in his voice. “Have I offended you, Sam? If so, I am sorry.” She rose and collected her things.
“No, no. Of course not. No offense taken.”
But they rode back to the courthouse in silence.
The lunch conversation preyed on her mind through the afternoon while she presided over a fraud hearing that normally she would have found engaging. All those numbers, the defendants’ strategies to break the law. The attorneys for both sides noticed she was more distant and formal than usual.
Reviewing the lunch conversation, she could see how her thrice-great grandfather lying about his religion—denying who he was and the people he came from—could disturb Sam. In return, him saying her family wasn’t Jewish felt chilly, as though she didn’t qualify for membership in his country club.
The Fabers were founding members of their country club and some Jews and a Black lawyer were members. If her country club could be open, why wouldn’t the Jewish one be? She was being ridiculous: the thought was metaphorical.
Nevertheless, Lily felt an urge to take dinner at her club. Her chauffeur delivered her there for a solitary dinner in the Founders’ Room. Like the conference room at the courthouse, it was paneled in dark wood with a wall of windows. These windows, however, overlooked the ninth and eighteenth holes of the golf course, currently lit under powerful lamps as a foursome finished their round in the twilight.
Family history continued to crowd around her in the room. Paintings of her father and mother, the first woman admitted to full membership—in 1956—hung on either side of the main doors. Photographs of the club’s early leaders, several of them Fabers, hung elsewhere around the room. Lily had no interest in golf, a small rebellion against family tradition. Neither did Fern, though her husband was an avid golfer and both her sons were low handicap players. The next generation of the family to preside over the Founders’ Room would be Marshalls—the name of Fern’s husband—not Fabers, not Branfords.
Though it was only another name change, it felt like her family’s presence in Richmond was continuing to fade away.
It was a day for descending into rabbit holes. Lily signed for the tab and went downstairs to wait for the car. Tomorrow was another busy day. The Head Start graduation was early. Jury selection for a civil case started at ten, and instead of lunch she was scheduled to see the oncologist. After that, there were other appointments on her calendar but she hadn’t taken notice of them.
The next morning dawned overcast and humid, dimming the city’s riot of early summer colors. Charles, her chauffeur, delivered Lily to the squat blue rectangle of the preschool, a former business of undetermined history set in a modest asphalt parking lot already filled with older minivans and compacts. Sister Johnnetta met her at the door where they exchanged air kisses and she accompanied Lily inside. Lily stood against the rear wall near the open doorway, wishing she’d worn flats instead of heels.
The gym had been turned into an auditorium for the graduation ceremony, with a dais of risers at one end and a few dozen beige metal folding chairs (she remembered the cost from the center’s budget report) taking up the remainder, mostly filled with mothers in work clothes, grandmothers in scarves and hats, and a smattering of older men attached to their women.
Fifteen four- and five-year olds wearing a mixture of little red, blue and yellow caps and gowns fidgeted in a loose line on one side of the room. Two teachers, young Black women, patrolled the line to maintain order.
Promptly at 7:30, Sister Johnnetta walked up to the lectern on the dais and began the ceremonies. Lily had insisted she not be recognized, but the Foundation’s support was acknowledged to a smattering of applause. The staff was recognized to robust applause. The children’s accomplishments in reading, math, and social skills were enumerated, and each child was called up by name to receive his or her diploma and stand at the front of the dais beside the previously recognized child. When the last one received her diploma, the whole group stood in a line on the dais, faces glowing with delight, waving back at their cheering families.
Then it was over and it was time for coffee or milk and cookies. Most of the children were staying on for daycare as their mothers left for work, but several trickled toward the door with grandmothers or other family members.
A young woman stopped in front of Lily. Her blue hospital uniform was rumpled and hung on her thin frame. Her face was drawn over prominent cheekbones and there were dark hollows under her eyes. She drooped with exhaustion but still towered over Lily.
“What you doing here, White lady?” she asked. The woman radiated malice.
Lily was startled.
From near the coffee urn, Sister Johnnetta began pushing her way towards them.
The woman leaned into Lily’s personal space. “Come on, White lady. What you doing here?”
“I came for the graduation, same as you,” Lily said, holding her ground.
“None of your kin here, I don’t think. Come to watch Black folks act White?”
Lily’s was the only White face in the room. Blood flushed her face and pounded in her neck and chest. Her mouth was dry. “All I see is families proud of their children.”
“Then you ain’t looking hard enough.”
Sister Johnnetta arrived and clapped a hand around the woman’s forearm.
“Come, Ms. Lorena, let me walk you to your car,” she said, drawing the woman away from Lily and out the door.
Lily could hear Sister Johnnetta’s voice muttering softly outside the gym. The woman’s voice was clear in response, “I don’t care if she is paying for it. We don’t need no White woman—”
Lily missed the rest of their exchange as families passed by her and out to their cars and their jobs or homes or summer activities, but she could imagine what was being said. She found a chair and folded herself into it, letting her body relax, keeping her mind blank.
Sister Johnnetta sat down next to her. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
Looking straight ahead, Lily waved the apology away. “No need. It happens.” Then she stood, pressed her hands down the front of her dress to straighten it, retrieved her phone, and called Charles.
Sister Johnnetta accompanied her out front. They waited together without speaking until her car arrived. They exchanged pleasantries. Charles held the door for her, and Lily folded herself inside.
Cocooned in the rear seat of the sedan, she was carried away from Ms. Lorena’s anger and Sister Johnnetta’s embarrassment. She wondered if her nephew’s report could tell how much African DNA they carried.
Her phone chimed with an arriving text message. She pulled the phone out of her bag and tapped the icon. A link from her nephew. She sat in the smoothness, quiet, and comfort of the big sedan’s rear seat and considered the link on the little screen in her hand, unwilling to face another dose of anger, but curious to see if he had more information about their ancestors. Curiosity got the better of her.
The text contained a photo: a tarnished brass plaque on a corner of an old brick building, presumably the building at the address that accompanied the photo. Lily used her fingers to expand the image. Two lines of raised Hebrew letters ran across the top. Below them were two dates separated by a dash: 5627–1867. Below that, in English, she read, Gift of Israel Faber of Boston to the Children of Israel in Richmond.
It had to be the cornerstone of a building that once was a synagogue. It was a testament to how the Boston Fabers felt about their son marrying as a Christian. Lily felt a pang in her chest. Of course the Jewish community knew what her great-great-great grandfather had done. And what the Fabers of Boston thought of it. All the generations of her family, unknowingly shamed in the face of their arrogance and privilege. She felt personally humiliated, as though a ghost had spat in her face on the street.
Now she had to know what the Boston Fabers thought of the Anglican Branfords who had swallowed their son whole and turned him into someone else. She had to know if generations of Boston Fabers were taught about the apostate son who had disappeared into the backward, Christ-besotted South.
Lily was helpless against the tide of her need.
She proceeded through the rest of her day present but absent. Even the biopsy report failed to jar her into attention; she simply thanked the doctor and phoned her assistant to suspend her schedule for the following week. A single train of thought looped through her mind: What, if anything, did the Fabers of Boston know about her family, and how could she find out without resorting to her nephew?
The Virginia Genealogical Society recommended a freelancer. It took less than a day for the woman to track down the last living direct descendant of the Israel Faber who had pledged money to a Richmond synagogue in 1867. Sitting in bed with her laptop on her thighs and CNN muted on the television, Lily read the genealogist’s report of a fifty-nine-year-old woman who lived in Waltham, Massachusetts and taught economics at Brandeis, Dr. Judith Faber-Spar.
Her telephone number beckoned Lily like Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. Three times she reached for her phone to call, and three times she pulled her hand back, each time placing it unconsciously on her biopsied breast. The fourth time she reached for the phone, she tapped out a number.
The call went directly to voicemail. Lily waited for the beep and then introduced herself. “I’d like to talk to you about an ancestor I think we have in common. I would appreciate a return call at”— she hesitated, debating adding “earliest” and deciding against it—“your convenience,” and gave both her private and office numbers.
She ended the call and dropped her phone onto the blanket beside her, ashamed of herself for giving in to the impulse to call, breaching a gap that had widened for a century and a half. Was she so weak that she had to impose her needs on a stranger—and not only a stranger but one who perhaps thought of her family as contemptible?
Lily hoped the woman would ignore her call. She hoped the woman would return her call. The woman called back within the hour.
Without introductions, the woman said, “You’re one of the Virginia Fabers, aren’t you? I could tell from the area code. Are you related to Bud Faber, the writer?”
Lily’s acknowledged that he was her brother, dead almost four years now—almost forever ago, yet just yesterday.
“I thought so,” the woman said. “I read some of his books when I was an undergrad and wondered at the time if he was connected to the family story.”
Lily felt as though her chest was paralyzed. She couldn’t breathe.
“Hello? Are you there?”
Lily willed herself to breathe, and gasped out, “Yes. What stories?”
“Come now, Ms. Faber. We know the story, don’t we?”
Schooled in the law and the rules of evidence, Lily asked, almost against her will, “What story is that, Doctor?”
“Morris Faber went down to Richmond and became a Christian. Not that it matters these days.”
Lily, huskily, said, “No, it doesn’t matter these days.” This Faber woman had known about them for thirty years or more and had never reached out.
“But really, there’s no connection between us, is there?” said the woman. “And after all this time, what would be the point of creating one?”
“Of course. Of course. But we... We didn’t know about the connection until yesterday. This is all new to us. We were taught that Maurice”—she stressed the French pronunciation—“Faber was a German Lutheran. That’s what it says on the documents.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. That little shit. We didn’t know that. But surely your people would have guessed.”
“Desperation can make people blind to truth,” Lily said.
“Well, that’s true.”
“Would you like to come down here and meet us? We’d enjoy hosting you.”
“That’s kind of you,” the woman said. “But I’ll be in London doing research this summer and then there’s the school year and—”
“I understand,” Lily said. There wasn’t much else to say. “Thanks for calling back. If you’re ever in town, do look me up.”
“Thanks, Ms. Faber. Goodbye.” And she was gone.
Lily looked at her laptop. She deleted the genealogist’s report. What was the point? Sitting up in her bed in the big house where she’d been born and in which she’d lived her whole life, for the first time it felt too small to contain the ghosts of all who’d come before her.
She picked up the phone, called her sister, and got voicemail. “Fern, this is Lily. I’m going in tomorrow for surgery. Breast cancer. They can’t tell how far it’s progressed. I wanted you to know.”