MAXWELL:  Basking in Emma Garnet’s warmth

1/3/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A deadly winter storm threw me into the arms of a married woman _ a wealthy, Southern-born white woman at that.

On Christmas Eve, I fell for Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, a resident of Raleigh, N.C. I had met her a few days earlier, as it were, in a bookstore in Cary, a fast-growing town near Raleigh, and brought her home with me.

As the mercury fell into the lower 20s and as waves of sleet and frozen rain tattooed the shingle roof of my two-room vacation shack hidden on a hill among apple, pear and pecan trees, I curled up in bed with Emma Garnet. Light from the scented candles, which I had purchased minutes after the electricity shutdown in most of Southside Virginia _ at 12:51 p.m. _ flickered against the wood-paneled walls.

Looking outside, I saw power lines sagging under the weight of glistening ice. In my yard and in the distance, tree limbs broke and plunged to the ground, bringing down wires _ cable, telephone and electric _ with them. Transformers exploded, and the town’s emergency siren wailed. Within minutes, every business had closed. The traffic light at the major intersection quit working, and chaos reigned for about an hour there before the police barricaded three square blocks.

Suddenly, reality sank in: I had no electricity, no television, no radio, no refrigeration. I was on my own.

The ambiance was perfect for an affair. I held Emma Garnet against my chest, anxious to explore a new horizon. Easing her from me, I felt the warmth of the heater and heard its metal casing pinging as flames rose and fell. Then I smelled the reliable aroma of burning oak. It reminded me of times past, when life was simpler, when the price of love was the commitment of the couple and the to hell with the rest of the world support of those close to them.

After a few hours, my eyes became acclimated to the semi-darkness, and I could sense Emma Garnet’s full presence. I could hear her inner voice, the one that trusted me with knowledge of Dr. Quincy Lowell, her husband, the selfless physician whom she loved more than life itself.

Emma Garnet shared her deepest secrets with me. Her father, Samuel P. Tate, for example, was a racist, a slave owner, a crook, a braggart, a rotten husband, a child abuser, a murderer. Her mother, a gentle soul, died of broken dreams, abuse and neglect. Her siblings died of the same causes. Samuel P. Tate died as he should have _ in pain and bitter disappointment. He died like his beloved Old Confederacy had died. Even his vast riches could not save the South once the Civil War was under way, after the blood of Rebel soldiers “ran in bucketfuls,” as Emma Garnet described it.

As a nurse working alongside her husband in the Confederate hospital in Raleigh, Emma Garnet, also the mother of three girls, possessed the terrible wisdom of mothers. As the war marched inevitably against the South, she said, “Mothers smell blood before the wound is given. We see the rent place on the child’s arm before the arrow strikes.”

Emma Garnet’s humanity is the value center of her world. She respects the black slaves and adores Clarice, her lifelong domestic. After Clarice died, Emma Garnet said of her friend:

“She was the strongest woman I had ever known, ever would know. . . . She worked for and loved all of us, been our constant guardian. We knew what she believed to be moral, and while at the top of her list was eliminating slavery, she did not interfere in its flourishing.

“Her mission was not to change history but to help both white and black prevail over the circumstances of living in that place, the South, in our time. She worked with the consequences dealt her by others, in the travails of her race. She was not merely dignified, and to label her such would be not an error in judgment but one of degree. No, she was dignity itself.”

Of course, Emma Garnet is a fictional character, the protagonist of Kaye Gibbons’ newest novel, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon. I had never read a Gibbons novel, and I glad to have discovered her and Emma Garnet during one of the worst winter storms to strike Southside Virginia in many years.

I had not read a book by candlelight since I was a child in Florida. The dim light was protective and soothing as I flipped the pages of On the Occasion. I especially loved the hours between midnight and dawn, when I felt most alone, when solitude is salvation.

Reading Gibbons in my cozy shack, I was reminded of another writer, May Sarton, with whom I fell in love many years ago under similar circumstances, who helped me appreciate myself for myself.

“The value of solitude _ one of its values _ is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within. . . . Life requires patient understanding, imagination, the power to endure constant adversity _ the weather, for example! To go with, not against the elements, an inexhaustible vitality summoned back each day. . . .”

While my neighbors and friends spent five days cursing the darkness, the cold and the inconveniences that they brought, I hibernated with Emma Garnet, loving her gentle touch, her sure wisdom and, yes, her easy acceptance of her imminent death. “On the occasion of my last afternoon, I feel no sorrow, feel no regret,” she writes. “This has been such a glorious afternoon _ my heart would not weep if I did not live to see another.”

Emma Garnet is dead. I, too, have no regets. I am a better person for having met her.