This is a tale with a moral. I will try not to tax your attention too long. But I have to go way back to begin because it begins with my childhood. It is about houses and children, and which came first.
We had a cottage in the Highlands of unimpressive size and appearance. My mother loved it for its easy care. It couldn’t even stand in the shade of our city house, and there certainly were no special rules for children. No one had ever looked aghast at a child on its premises.
Except me, the summer I painted the sun parlor. I am not a painter, but I am a perfectionist. I threw my whole soul into the project, and worked with such diligence and painstaking care that when the uncounted hours ended, I felt that I had painted the Sistine Chapel.
School vacation began, and Sis arrived for the long holiday, the car pulling up at the edge of the brick walk, and Sis streaking into the house for a round of hugs, then turning to tear upstairs to take off her travel clothes and put on her play clothes, and suddenly her flying feet braking to a stop in front of the sun parlor, its open door inviting inspection.
She who was always in motion, she who never took time for a second look at anything, or cared whether her bed was smooth or crumpled, or noticed what was on her plate as long as it was something to eat — she, in the awakening that came when she was eight, in her first awareness of something outside herself, she stood in the doorway of the sun parlor, her face filled with the joy of her discovery, and said in a voice on the edge of tears, “It’s the most beautiful room I ever saw in my whole life.”
I did not hear her. I did not really hear her. I did not recognize the magnitude of that moment. I let it sink to some low level of my subconscious. All I saw was that her foot was poised to cross the threshold of my chapel.
I let out a little cry of pain. “Sis,” I said, “please don’t go in the sun parlor. There’s nothing in there to interest a child. It’s not a place for children to play in. It’s a place for grownups to sit in. Go and change. Summer is outside waiting for you to come and play wherever you please.”
In a little while the sounds of Sis’s soaring laughter were mingling with the happy sounds of other vacationing children. They kept any doubt I might have had from surfacing. Sis was surely more herself running free than squirming on a chair in the sun parlor.
All the same I monitored that room, looking for smudges and streaks, scanning the floor for signs of scuffing. The room bore no scars, and Sis showed no trace of frustration.
The summer flowed. My friends admired the room, though they did it without superlatives. To them it was a room I had talked about redoing for a long time. Now I had done it. So much for that.
The summer waned, and Sis went home for school’s reopening, as did the other summer children, taking so much life and laughter with them that the ensuing days recovered slowly.
Then my mother’s sister, my favorite aunt, arrived from New York for her usual stay at summer’s end. She looked 10 years younger than her actual years. She seemed to bounce with energy, as if she had gone through some process of rejuvenation. We asked her for the secret.
There was no way for us to know in the brimful days that followed that there really was a secret she was keeping from us. She had had a heart attack some months before, and she had been ordered to follow a strict set of rules: plenty of rest during the day, early to bed at night, take her medicine faithfully, carefully watch her diet.
She was my mother’s younger sister. My mother had been her babysitter. She didn’t want my mother to know that she was back to being a baby again, needing to be watched over, having to be put down for a nap, having to be spoon-fed pap. She kept herself busy around the clock, walking, lifting, sitting up late, eating her favorite foods and forgetting her medicine.
And then one day standing over the stove involved in the making of a meal that a master chef might envy, she collapsed, and the doctor was called, and the doctor called the ambulance.
She was in the hospital 10 days. When she was ready to come home to convalesce, we turned the sun parlor into a sickroom, for the stairs to the upper story were forbidden to her. At night we who, when she slept upstairs, would talk family talk back and forth from our beds far into the night, without her we were now quiet, not wanting our voices to wake her if she was asleep, knowing her recovery depended on rest and quiet.
But at night she slept fitfully. The sleeping house and separation from the flock were unbearable. She was afraid of the sun parlor, seeing it as an abnormal offshoot from the main part of the house, its seven long windows giving access to so many imagined terrors. She did not know if we would hear her if she called. She did not know if she would ever get well.
She did not get well. She went back to the hospital, and for our sakes was brave in her last days, comforting us more than we comforted her.
When it was over, we took the sickbed away and restored the sun parlor to its natural look. But it did not look natural. The sadness resisted the sun’s cajoling. It had settled into every corner. The seven long windows streaming light did not help. I closed the door and I locked it.
My mother saw the closed door and the key in my hand. She said as a simple statement of fact, “A little girl wanted to love that room, and you wouldn’t let her. We learn so many lessons as we go through life.”
“I know that now,” I said. “I wish I had known it then.”
Another summer came, and with it Sis. The sun parlor door was open again, the room full of light with the sadness trying to hide itself whenever she passed. I did not know how to say to her, “You can go in the sun parlor if you want to.” I did not know whether she knew it had been a sickroom, and might say, “Take your sun parlor and your you-know-what,” though in less succinct phrasing. I did not know if she yet knew that nothing can be the same once it has been different.
Other summers passed, older family members died, and mine became the oldest generation. I was living on the Island year-round in the winterized cottage. The sun parlor was just another everyday room, its seven long windows reduced to three of standard size, most of the furniture replaced for sturdier sitting.
Sis was married, a mother, coming to visit when she could — coming, I think, to look for bits and pieces of my mother in me, wanting to see her ways, hear her words through me.
It was a year ago that I asked her the question that had been on my mind it seems forever. A dozen times I had bitten it off my tongue because I did not know what she might answer.
“Sis,” I said, “do you remember the summer I painted the sun parlor and acted as if I thought more of it than I thought of you? I’m not asking you to forgive me. All I want to know is if sometimes my mother said to you when I went out, ‘She’s gone.’ ” My mother always referred to me as “she” when she was annoyed with me. “ ‘She said she’d be gone awhile. You go play in that sun parlor if you want to. There’s nothing in there you can hurt. Nothing in that room is worth as much as a child.’ ”
I saw her lips beginning to part. And I felt my heart trembling.
“I don’t want to know the answer. Please don’t tell me the answer. I had to ask the question. It’s enough for me that you listened.”
The last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, the late Dorothy West was a longtime columnist for the Gazette. Her house in the Highlands will be dedicated tomorrow as a site on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. A ceremony begins at 2 p.m. The above piece, which has been edited slightly, was published in the Gazette in 1984.