From the Diary of Sally Hemings

Browse By

Sandra Seaton’s libretto, “From the Diary of Sally Hemings,” appeared in MQR’s Fall 2001 issue.


Note: Jefferson’s words are in italics.

I

They say I was born old, so so old before my time. I stood by Mother, under the canopy bed, saw Mistress Jefferson raise four fingers. I was nine years old. Heard Mother’s voice: Sally, keep this bell, pray for your dear sister. The master, tall, straight-backed, bent in grief, swore he’d never wed again.

Martha and Maria, hands clasped together, in the shade of his poplar tree, we skipped and stopped, spied his words on her grave: If in the House of Hades, men forget their dead, yet will I remember my dear companion.

Most days I sit with Maria and Martha, her quill resting in my palm, a spy in another country. Inside, the big house. Outside, Mother’s cabin. Sally the sweet child or the little terror. The smart ones are the most trouble.

Here, Martha, let me hold the book. We’ll pretend. Stuff your gown with these old rags, take best dolly in your arms. Put sweet girl to the breast. Like so. If I break another dish, I won’t have to wash the Sèvres again!

II

White waves—a bitter dream—my mother’s mother in the lower deck—wet and cold in the blue-black night.

Dahomey child, betrothed when she was young, before she knew of white men or the sea.

A thin veil of fog. Her family brings a farmer, a boy not yet a man, to marry with the business of the home. Each dawn she climbs the palm tree and touches wine with her hands. A feast prepared. The gods must have a hand in this! A young goat sacrificed, okra, oranges, a basket of yams laid at her feet. She stands with old friends in new finery, her buba and iro an odd-colored blue, hair in beads, piled to the sky, tapping the palm wine from the palm tree. 

Kidnapped before the roast meat was cold, snatched away to America; she was a stranger to the sea. White waves in the blue-black sea. Now a voyage of a different sort. Maria won’t go unless I come along. White waves in the blue-black sea till we land in port.

1788

Paris. C’est la ville vivante. Men refer to my considerable beauty, une vigne sauvage. “Skin whiter than white.” “Near white.”

I remember the evening by her bed. If in the House of Hades, men forget their dead, yet will I remember my dear companion.

III

Hôtel de Langeac.

From the first moment of the day, Master Jefferson wants things just so. A young woman must dress properly. Not a wrinkle, nor a speck of dirt. He brings music to the sitting room, a fine harpsichord to soothe his head. His pain is my own.

Master Jefferson, our French is poor. Those words we learned back home, a girl’s French, they don’t work here.

The French tutor arrives at our villa. I hurry around, dusting the room. Then I stop, pick up the book, copy the words carefully.

Excusez-moi, est-ce que j’ai trouvée la bonne place?

Est-ce que vous pouvez me montrer oú est la porte?

Le Professeur: Mademoiselle, your French? Where did you learn that?

Was this something I was not expected to know?

He asks again: Where did you learn that? 

At the big house, where else?

Stirring the sauce, adding the cream. Fort bien, reduce by half. Champagne Poisson, a marvelous sauce. C’est formidable. Rage de Paris.

The grand dukes and duchesses, they say “elle est charmante et fine.” On our morning walk, when the men bow, his possessiveness keeps me safe. Comme d’habitude, first one servant boy, then another, they follow me when Master Tom leaves. On his return, he finds me hiding in the little closet. A rich man, the Marquis de Brailles, offers him gold. Il est trop entreprenant. Master Jefferson flies into a horrible rage. “Elle est charmante et fine.”

I was carrying a tray when he called me. Sally turn this way. Now hold your face to the light. A little over. Master Jefferson, he was whiter than a sheet. Whiter than I ever was. He cupped my face in his hands and whispered her name.

IV

They say I was born old, so so old before my time.

The rage, the anger, épouvantable. The sound of thunder. Tear down the gate. Throw off the chains. Another traitor sent to hell. Effrayant. The light of lightning. Storm the Bastille.

Girl, you’ve been here before.

Safe in his arms, but still my voice frightens him.

La vie nocturne à Paris.

Come back to America. No work to stain your tender hands, the run of the house. My own gloves, gowns, robe à la fran çaise, skirts draped à la polonaise? Extraordinary Privileges. A servant of your own, a cup of broth, a plate of Marseilles figs at dawn

At first I said no, then he took to his sickbed, six long days, he moaned, cried out: Come back with me. Brioche en couronne. Your own pen and quill. Copy lines from Tristram Shandy. Such courtliness, a true gentleman even in retirement. 

Marry within the family. You’ll gain my fidelity

The earth belongs to the living!

I said no again.

When I said yes, we packed our bags for America, set sail with two cork oaks, no apricots, one white fig, five large pears, three Italian poplars, une robe à la française.

V

December 23, 1789

Back home, at Monticello, I step out of the carriage. Oh, they’re so surprised to see me in pretty clothes, skirt draped à la polonaise? A promise kept. 

It’s my first, so I don’t show. Elle n’a pas l’air. Till Mother places her hand on my dress, through many layers of clothes. Enceinte.

Purple Hyacinth begins to bloom.

Alone, in his sanctum sanctorum, I call him Mister. No woman goes there but me.

I am in charge of his chamber, a position of power, three little rooms with a wall of seeds, his kingdom in a small closet, a garden labeled and hung in perfect order. Yesterday, I found five plums. How does my garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells. Quite contrary. In the evening, I copy a line or two from Tristram Shandy.

A room of my own. In that room I am a seamstress who picks silk thread from hems—dame d’atours, a servant, one above the others, a mother—babe, come nestle in my arms—a wife who cannot go to quilt, a mistress who shares her household, who holds a daughtertrust. The next best thing.

VI

Purple Hyacinth and Narcissus Bloom

Mister! Where are the kings and queens? And the Madame d’ Étoiles? Her grand ballon, a pouf that reached the sky. He noticed too. The Madame d’ Étoiles who could hold her own in a salon, who walked alongside the Duc de Brissac, carrying her jeweled fan, dressed in pearls and silks, advising the Duc on matters of State, a position of power.

King’s lady or chambermaid—carrying the children, dusting the books. Stand guard in my brother’s kitchen. Give Sèvres tender care. 

On nights when dinner guests are served, I stand behind thick velvet drapes. Surprised when country squire can name the dish before him. 

My darling ghost, rather me than a stranger who rules her own kingdom. Rather me than a stranger, a mistress who sets her own standard. Bloodlines!

VII

A lady is dressed properly from the earliest moment of the day. His impeccable manners—a little lecture on how to dust a book. His possessiveness. Hold the feather duster to the books.

Place your hand on mine here. First the cover, firm but not too firm. Dust the pages, now the rim. Smooth the sheets, spread the bed. Then he arranged my hair on our pillow. 

Peonies, a perfume box. Wild honeysuckle still in bloom. Quadroon, Octoroon. Mixing colors in a vase. The orderly and the insignificant.

One day I called him Tom. He turned, startled. Turn this way. Now hold your face toward the light. He held me close. The earth belongs to the living. 

Her ghost appears once more, stands nearby. Even without a mirror, she knows she never had my looks. Sister dear, I hold your daughter’s trust. Rather me than a mistress who sets her own standard. Rather me than a stranger who rules her own kingdom. Bloodlines! Bloodlines!

VIII

Honeysuckle still in bloom. Mixing petals in a vase.

Mister, our child is frail. This time pray with me. Pray she has strength. Glory be to God. Hosanna in the highest.

Did I tell you, Lord? Martha’s child had a fine funeral, gloves passed out by the hundreds, buried in the family plot. Not like my Baby Harriet. 

Dark, winter, blue-black evening; la vie nocturne. Do you remember a Madame so-and-so who did not wear her jewelry well or arrange her hair? He held me close.

Mister, should I wear these bird plumes in my hair? Plumes…he blushed, said yes—a little music please.

IX

Severe weather kills most fruit.

A wild man home from the woods. When he’s like this, he has to do something. He’s tearing the house up again. The dust, his headaches. Old shoes under my bed.

A thin veil of fog. Odd-colored blue, a woman draped in black welcomes me. Dahomey child, wet and cold in the blue black night.

Papers—I’ve never seen so many. When I come in, he hides away the news. Thinks he’s being clever. 

Calendar’s warning: “Marry a woman of your own complexion.

Une vigne sauvage. “Skin whiter than white.” “Near white.” White? Near-white?

Another bawdy line. “Take to bed your Sally.”Little mountain! Here, take this part, the part that was my sister’s—I offered him my soul.

Old Shoe! Be rid of me. You’ll save your name. Old Shoe! His pain is mine.

A wild man home again. Cancel all the papers. Do you hear me? Let no man break this bond. If you leave, the mob will hunt you.

Sworn to secrecy.

X

They say let a man have his ways. Make a little home. Don’t question him when he goes away.

Open the drawer. Mister, earbobs all the way from Philadelphia! I wear them well. There’s been no other woman in his bed. A promise kept.

He fiddles for the children, for me. Taught the boys to read and write, though we can’t admit it. Did the boys learn their lessons? 

Madison, stand still. Bow for Mister Jefferson.

XI

Grand skirt à la polonaise—too small now, still in my own room, I have a drawer for this, a drawer for that—Mister and Mistress. He leaves small change, sometimes large, in a pouch for the children.

These strands of hair kept in a locket. No sooner had I finished nursing her than she left my arms. God rest her soul.

Reminder: talk to cook. Prepare a filet de boeuf en croute. Take the small coins from the drawer, dress my hair, see after Beverly’s balloon. Eston’s fiddle needs a string.

Do I covet, Lord? Rather me. Rather me than a stranger. 

Another case of mistaken identity. You said I had her voice, her hands, her laugh. At dusk, young Tom could have been you. But you were never good at that sort of thing, were you?

An embroidery, the Paris night, edged in lace, no two nights the same. 

Guest after guest. The drawing room’s full. At the top of the stairs, I whisper with cook: Add a good wine. Mode de chez nous. Brioche en couronne. Heavens, Mister, we aren’t babies any more!

XII

A letter from Washington: cotton stockings wrapped in tissue. A little note: his headaches are bothering him. Lord keep him safe.

Oh, I’m not the sort of woman who takes a public stand. Politics? Definitely not, but Dolley Madison named my boy and promised me a fine gift, a hat with plumes. I never received one.

XIII

A promise kept.

Beverly ran off; Harriet ran off.

The earth belongs to the living.

Harriet sent away in a carriage, clutching my old gold cross. 

Hyacinth and Narcissus gone.

XIV

Heavenly father, he’s wearing his old brown coat and socks that don’t match. Is he servant or master? Spread the sheets, coax the weather from his bones. If in the House of Hades men forget their dead…To hold once more an ivory fan!

XV

Smooth the sheets. Spread the bed. Night watch till early morn. I left our pillow by your side. No need to send for me. 

Mister, you’re free to go. Lay out the trousers. Press the coat. Starched linen shirt and collar bear his fine embroidered vest. No powder for his hair. A touch of ribbon near his slippered feet. No need to hide the news.

At dawn her ghost appears. Do I covet, Lord? She never had my looks. He lies with her in his sanctum sanctorum, a hedge of willows marks their sitting room.

Little mountain, I dare not sleep lest the ground grow wild.

At dusk her ghost returns. Plumes in her hair. La vie nocturne. If I take my freedom, come and go, old shoe, will you pursue me still? No room for me in your graveyard, a servant in my place…no sound to break the stillness but a brookthe feeble ray of a half-extinguished lamp. Blue-black evening, la vie nocturne. I’ll come to tend your grave, but you’ll sleep with sister dear. Crave me.

Morning glory! A little house with my darling sons. Madison says I’m pining away. Round back, I hear Tom keeping time for Eston, fiddler, fiddle, fiddle, string. Do I dare disturb their bond? Dear children, his letters, my diary, this picture with his name, strike every word. 

I was born old, so old before my time. Once I went off to see the world, sailed across the sea, longed for une pouf à la circonstance, a crown to touch the sky. Mister, we’re free to go. Leave your old clothes behind. This time walk with me to the Lord. We’ll dress in our new finery, silk robes to meet our Lord.