Rumpus Exclusive: “Dear Miss Lily”


Dear Miss Lily,

We arrived at the farmhouse at night, Lewis and me, without shadows in starlight, the night before the new moon. It was my first time in South Carolina and it started as a blur, a hatchback laden with provisions, frog bellows and rustling boughs. We came in haste, escaping family drama, you know how it is. White people. You knew them, not these exact white people but their kin. Rich great granddaddy Graydon who hired you to cook. Lily Cook, you were called. Without knowing, I heard that and wondered, was that really your name? What do I know?

In the wide wooden hall between the front door and the back screened-in porch stands a massive wall of framed photos, generations of family glory. Smiling antique babies, pale and gleaming. In a crib. In a high chair sitting at the table. In a captain’s hat with a life vest. Brothers and sisters and maybe cousins on a sofa in a row lined up by height. In ruffles and short pants. School pictures in four square collage frames. Cheesing it up at the camera. Grownups too. In formal dresses with long gloves. Enlarged, shaking hands. In black and white and in color. White power. And before I looked closely at the corridor, the specific white people in frames, I see you. Zero in like a laser beam, or better put, your picture eclipsed everything else.

Near the far-left corner, you sit on a white metal bench, made of ornamented white flowers, clad in clean uniform, white collar, white cuffs, pinned white hat, hands almost folded in your lap, Next to you, of course, right at your shoulder, is a fluffy black dog. Wow, these people and their fucking dogs.

“Who is this?”

“That’s Lily Cook. She worked for the family for years. Really, she was like one of the family.” Oh, sweet Jesus. Oh Audre Lorde. Like one of the family. Really? I was polite, Miss Lily, I didn’t roll my eyes. Because it’s true I don’t know you or this family of theirs. I kept looking, looked deeper, heart-looking more for you.

                         What were you like, Miss Lily?
                         Lily of the valley?
                         Lily perfume?
                         Lily of the Bible?
                         Not lily white.
                         Were you lily like?
                         Did you like that dog, Miss Lily?
                         Was she in fact your dog?
                         Did you pull her close
                         and confide your secret thoughts?
                         Was she the kitchen dog that ate your scraps?
                         Was your cooking even better than I imagine?
                         Was she Paw Paw’s dog, old man Graydon’s dog?
                         Was she begging to enter the frame to share your light?
                         Did she eclipse you in the family affections?
                         Was were you seen as the same?
                         Was the picture a gathering of favorite pets?
                         Is that question impertinent?
                         Am I speaking out of turn?
                         I’m sorry, Miss Lily. I really want to know:
                         What did you think of this family?
                         Were you aggrieved or cheerful at your service?
                         Did you think of the kitchen as your home?
                         Did you like this family?
                         Were you like this family?
                         Were they like your family in any way?
                         Did you have daughters or sons or children
                         who were neither daughters nor sons or both?
                         Who were you siblings and cousins?
                         How often did you see them?
                         Are there many pictures of you?
                         Were you alone?
                         Did you get to sit alone?
                         Were you proud of your uniform,
                         how hard and well you worked?
                         Would you be proud to have your picture
                         here on the family wall?
                         Did you belong?
                         Do you cook up their own sense of belonging,
                         the story they want to tell about who they are?
                         Did you hate it that they called you Lily Cook,
                         when your name was Lily Alexander?
                         Or did you take it Lily Cook as a fact,
                         a title of pride, an armor or disguise?

A punctum. Your picture pricked and bruised me. Loved and claimed, remembered and misnamed. Lily Cook, an imperative as much as a nickname. An articulation of power and a shame, at least for them. But this isn’t about them. It’s about you and me, my cheeky desire to claim you, to be claimed by you too. I see your picture and cherish you among my ancestors.

Some ancestors are given and some others are chosen, but sometimes ancestors choose you. I feel chosen by your Miss Lily Alexander, your reminder, your welcome. How you showed me that I am always and never a stranger in this house, and that I can be so, like you, with diligence and grace. How you hold the space, remind me of mysteries and radiate a gorgeous blackness, a new moon, an eclipse to block out the omnipotence of the sun.


Rumpus original art by Tomekah George.


Excerpted from Experiments in Joy by Gabrielle Civil. Copyright © 2019 by Gabrielle Civil. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of The Accomplices.

Gabrielle Civil is a black feminist performance artist, poet, and writer, originally from Detroit MI. She has premiered fifty original performance art works around the world and is the author of the performance memoirs Swallow the Fish (2017) and Experiments in Joy (2019). Her writing has appeared in Dancing While Black, Small Axe, Art21, Obsidian, Kitchen Table Translation, and New Daughters of Africa. She teaches critical studies and creative writing at the California Institute of the Arts and was named a 2019 Rema Hort Mann LA Emerging Artist. The aim of her work is to open up space. More from this author →