Tribute to Ann Petry


mom

My mother died on April 28 nineteen years ago. I still miss her as much as I did that first day. Here’s a brief tribute to her, from material that didn’t make it into At Home Inside.

Public appearances

Mother disliked lecturing and loathed “pressing the flesh.” She showed her displeasure by paraphrasing an anecdote from Arnold Toynbee. In response to an invitation to lecture, he is said to have responded, “If I just talk my fee is $1,000, but if I have to have tea with the ladies it’s $1,500.” She never told the people making the request about the premium for social interaction, but she adjusted her fees accordingly. More often than not she just declined the invitation.

When the mayor of the city of Philadelphia issued a proclamation in her honor, a reception followed in the rotunda of the public library. Mother was terrified. She asked for and received a chair, and got one for me, too. Then she grabbed my left hand and continued to grip it as people filed by to congratulate her. She pressed so hard the back of my hand began to hurt and my fingers went numb. I finally told her I had to go to the bathroom, but she wouldn’t let me leave until I found a substitute protector. So I rounded up my friend Eric, who was tall and athletic, to take my place. They began to chat and by the end of the conversation, he had joined the Ann Petry fan club. They corresponded for years afterward.

Causes

Mother was generous with her time and her money. She remained a member of the NAACP until her death, I think partly because her good friend Judge Constance Baker Motley had been so active in pursuing the cause of integration in Brown vs. Board of Education and other cases.

Her other great cause was Planned Parenthood. She had been an advocate for a woman’s right to choose because she knew that banning abortions would condemn poor women to death while rich women would hop a plane to the nearest friendly state or country. Her support was personal: She had watched her father try to help frightened young women who arrived at his pharmacy nearly dead from botched abortions. Her motto was, “Never again.”

Professor William Dawson

At Home Inside mentions her great admiration for the composer, conductor, and arranger William Dawson, who had retired from the faculty at Tuskegee for some years before they met. Mother wrote extensively in her journal after their conversation.

He said that he knows every part, has sung every part of the music he conducts, has committed it to memory, needs no score in order to conduct, has a blueprint he carries in his mind[.] … [He] always wanted to go to Africa, when he was a boy [of] 14 he worked on a farm (Tuskegee’s farm?) with an African boy – the boy taught him a song, and Dawson all those years later could still sing it – sang it or rather hummed it sitting on the sofa in our living room. [W]hen the boy learned to speak English Dawson asked him what the words meant. he said it was a war song, and the African war song resembled, was related to, one of the American Negro spirituals.

The Art of Tea

Making and consuming and reading about tea occupied a great deal of my mother’s time and thought. I did include some information but feel the need to round out this aspect of her life. I gave her products from Crabtree & Evelyn because she loved the tissue paper that accompanied their gifts, and at one point I gave her some of C&E tea. She thanked me, writing,

I don’t think I’ve told you how very much I’ve enjoyed the Crabtree & Evelyn Darjeeling that you gave me – ah, it’s a pleasure to drink it. Like Samuel Johnson I am ‘a hardened and shameless teadrinker … who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning.’ Well, I don’t go in for all that evening and midnight tea drinking, but I do welcome the morning with it.

And she amused the afternoon with it, too. She approved of a comment in an NYTimes review of The Consolations of Tea, quoting a Japanese master of the tea ceremony that “tea has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”

Family Matters

One of the few anecdotes about the Lanes that Mother omitted from her short stories concerned her father who fought an Irishman and bit off the man’s ear. The circumstances remained vague but punctuated a discussion of how the Lanes despised the Irish, while the James family had an affinity for them because an Irish family had helped Sam James escape slavery in Virginia. The neighborhood where he bought his house in Hartford was mostly Irish, and when I read Mother’s notes I came to understand why we ate hot-cross buns every Lent and Irish soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day.

My mother was so talented in so many respects that I assumed she could do just about anything. I was eleven when I learned otherwise. Or at least I learned that she lacked the confidence in her abilities. We had an old Home brand sewing machine that had most likely been converted from treadle to electric. The motor sat on the outside, and the whole business had a minimum number of moving parts. One day I discovered that the thread on the reverse side of the fabric was no longer tight. I cadged one of Daddy’s screwdrivers and felt around until I found a small bolt that was loose. After I tightened it, the machine worked perfectly. Mother came in to tell me the machine wasn’t working. I showed her the seam I’d just finished. She stood and looked at me for a long minute. The expression on her face said, “Is this my child?” as if she could not believe someone carrying her genes had the capacity to accomplish such a thing. She asked, “Well, how in the world did you ever do that?” I explained and assured her that she could have done the same thing. She walked away, shaking her head, muttering, “Never in a million years, never in a million years.”

‘Collecting’

Mother waged a lifelong and mostly losing battle against clutter, but she maintained a sense of humor about it. She sent me the following (probably from the New Yorker) because we’d had a similar experience. “Father, ‘obviously a knowledgeable scavenger,’ and son pass a Dumpster full of building materials. ‘… the man’s interest fixed on four large red-plastic paint-bucket lids. Just as he was reaching for the found treasures, the boy cried out: ‘Pa! Resist! Resist!’ They left the scene without the lids.” Mother added, “I had to send you this because it reminds me of you saying, ‘Mother! Don’t!’ at Vassar. Very difficult for a ‘knowledgeable scavenger’ to walk past good stuff that’s being thrown away without acquiring some of same.” I don’t remember that episode, but I do remember a similar incident when she came to visit me in Philadelphia and stood longingly in front of a chair that someone had abandoned on the street. I finally dissuaded her from taking it by pointing out that she wouldn’t be able to carry it on the train and that I wasn’t about to ship it to Connecticut.

4 thoughts on “Tribute to Ann Petry”

  1. Ms. Petry –

    I saw the poster on the Russel Library bulletin board of the upcoming event (next Monday, 5/9). When I saw your name and asked the librarian if you were related to Ann Petry. She was kind enough to look it up and confirm my inkling. In looking for whether the book,–Criminal Case–was your work I ran across this site.

    Thank you for sharing these juicy tidbits about your late mother. I had heard–some time before–of her reluctance of her reluctance to speak in public. Fortunately, for me, I was able to attend one occasion of her doing so at Wesleyan University, where she spoke to a group of students or teachers or English teachers. (I don’t remember which.)

    One summer a short time later–around1991or 1992, your mother was kind enough to answer a letter I had sent to her (while I was teaching a composition course at CCSU as part of the EOP (Education Opportunity Program) ) with some student questions about her novel, The Street. The student questions were not great ones, sad to say, but your mother answered them as best she could, the way each deserved to be–some with a simple “yes” or “no.” Which, you know, was just like her.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks, James, for your remembrance of my mother. She was indeed a private person and worked hard to make public appearances. Hope to see you on 5/9.

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