In the early fall of 1793, on a sunny, tobacco plantation in Southern Virginia, a lonely twelve-year-old girl, who had been born and raised without her patriot father, began to ask personal questions about his life. Growing up, she had so often witnessed the loving interactions between father and child among the slave population there and felt such a painful longing for a personal relationship with the now long-dead colonial colonel.
All she knew of him was a few basic facts and a large oil painting, enshrined in the foyer; a serious looking gentleman wearing a highly decorated uniform, a majestic posture and a deeply concentrated face, as if contemplating gravely important matters beyond her comprehension. Many times, she had observed others pause to admire that image, and proclaim him to be the truly noblest among military heroes; the greatest defender of the now new state of Virginia, as if it had somehow become a state in 1788 as the result his past actions alone.
Whenever she would ask her mother about him, the ritual reply was always exactly the same. Without looking up from her work, no emotion in her voice, she would simply say “just look around you daughter. My husband created this beautiful plantation. It is a truly wonderful testament to his name.”
That spring, she finally did as her mother commanded. She examined her world carefully, trying to deeply connect to her father though the only proof she was given of his existence; by the so-called evidence which he had left behind during a time before she was even born.
Yet, when she walked the fields, she could not tell if it was he alone who had cleared them or if he had even been there at all. As she touched the buildings, she wondered if it was really him who had cut and prepared the timbers. However, she had seen slaves do this work many times. And, what of the whips used on them? Had he fashioned those himself as well?
She found that her examinations only left her with even more questions. Did he build this entire plantation himself? Or, did he simply sit in his study all day, wearing that uniform, deeply concentrating on his intricate plans and command the taskmasters to motivate his many slaves into doing his bidding? All the local plantations look similar. So, how much of the design of this plantation actually came from him?
When she asked her older brother about the plantation, he replied “Our father was the smartest and strongest man in all the colonies. Of course he built this entire plantation with his bare hands!” When she asked him how he could know this, he fixed upon her an angry scowl which he held until she retreated in fear.
Aside from her mother, the only other person on the plantation which she knew had worked with her father was the oldest taskmaster who was an angry and scary looking man. Still, she went to him anyway and inquired about her father. With a hard voice he replied “Your father was a fearless man. That is all I will say about him. Now, leave me to my work.”
From all her searching, she was no closer to feeling the colonel’s presence; to intimately knowing the man who was her father. What brought him joy? What made him worry? How did he feel about the pain of the whip? While he was alive, did he even know she existed? If he did know, did he ever long to see her and hold her? If he were present today, would he spend all his time doing great things or would he willingly spend time with her?
She secretly hoped that he would be like the loving fathers among the slaves whom she had observed. This led her to spend more and more time in the slave quarters, watching them interact with their children. She knew her family viewed this behavior as entirely inappropriate, but she felt very drawn to the warmth they exhibited. It often brought a smile to her heart.
It was during her time there that she started to pick up small clues about her father through bits of conversation. She learned that her grandfather along with the oldest taskmaster had actually built the entire plantation with slave labor. Both men were hard and unyielding and their uncaring treatment of the slaves deeply troubled her father. So, he took over the construction of their quarters and worked hard to help ease their suffering. They still attribute their few comforts to him. This waste of resources deeply angered her grandfather and so he insisted that his son serve in the Colonial Militia instead.
Her father had no love for his new military career but out of respect for his father’s authority, he dutifully obeyed. Yet when he was home, he often visited with the slaves and even taught some of them to read.
After many years, her grandfather died just as more British troops arrived to maintain order. Her father felt he could not abandon his men during this time of building tensions, so for the time being he left the plantation to run as it was and focused on His duties with the promise to one day change things. Then, the war for independence came. There was much sorrow among the slaves when he was killed during its last days.
She openly asked if her father had known about her. A washer woman came forward and said “Yes child. He came home soon after you were born. He held you in his arms, and he grinned from ear to ear. He was the proudest daddy I’d ever seen. He could not stay long, but while he was here, he almost could not let you go. He loved you so very much indeed. And I know he still does, even from heaven.”
This young girl of twelve finally felt that she had a little piece of her father which she could hold warmly in her heart. A tiny sample of his true character and the essence of his love for her had been brought to her by humble slaves. She didn’t understand why no one else in her proud family wanted to know the real truth about him. Why did they prefer their idealistically slanted views instead of wanting to feel close to who he really was?
Later that day, she approached her mother and asked “Is God taking good care of father in heaven? What is God really like?” Without looking up from her work, her mother simply said “just look around you daughter. God created this beautiful planet. It is a truly wonderful testament to his name.”
And so, the whole process began again…