The room is provincial with eclectic styling. There were artifacts from all locations ancient and endangered. It would have been better situated in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History with the African Masks coupled with photographs of Aboriginal Australians, the floor covering a delicate oriental rug complete with hand stitched lotus blooms in fading shades of pink and ivory. In one corner is a globe more than 3′ in diameter dating back to the 1800’s beside it a Tiffany lamp, I am sure is worth more than my house. There are tapestries covering the windows, she told me she ‘found’ in a home near Gettysburg and the sofa tufted and overstuffed is a nod to the Victorian age. One would imagine that such a room would feel stuffy, but the scent of jasmine fills it. Dust, if present, goes unnoticeable.
She agreed to complete the interview after sixteen years of personal requests under one condition, I not use a recorder. So I am here early for our 2:30 appointment on a Thursday, her favorite day, without my trusty Sony cassette or it’s digital sister. I feel naked.
Although I’ve visited Dr. Meagher’s flat one thousand times over the years since I completed her Archeology (for dummies I dubbed it) course at UMASS, today I am nervous. She has been my mentor and friend for more than 2 decades. It was to her that I brought my first fiancee Tabatha for approval. Dr. Meagher disapproved and Tabatha has long since been a memory. She was more than a mother to me during a time when mothering was exactly what I needed and today for the first time in her life she is willing to speak to me, not about her work that has brought her awards and accolades from statesmen, universities, and aboriginal groups the world over. Today she has agreed to speak of her life. I am honored she choose me as confidant.
“Phillip,” she greets me kindly. Immediately I walk over to join her at the parlor’s doors. Taking her hand in mine, I am alarmed at how much weight she places on me for support. I have never known Dr. Meagher to lean on anyone.
“I no longer pretend to be younger than I am,” she leans in and whispers to me. “I’ve decided that 93 is a good age and I will not hide one millisecond of the time I have spent on this planet.”
Helping her situate herself in her favorite armchair, I am amazed. She’s danced around telling people how exactly old she is for as long as I have know her. I had always guessed her to be no more than 20 years my senior. Looking at her with her waist length black hair stylish braided and resting on her left shoulder, I notice it is only slightly salted with white but has faded from the jet black raven coif I once knew. There is no hunch in her posture, at 5’8″ she stands and sits as though a book were being balanced on her head, even now. Her skin is worn from too much sunlight but the wrinkles, if you would call them that, come from a lifetime of laughter and so much problem solving.
“Are you ready for me?” her eyes are piercing and amused. I get the feeling that she is merely humoring me by granting this interview. When last I asked she told me, ‘No one will read it, Phillip. I am obsolete. Why even waste your time questioning the lifestory of an old woman.’ But I was insistent even though I had no idea who would publish the story I still wanted it to be told. She was an important woman in my life and I could not believe for one second that I stood alone in my admiration.
I pull my notecards out from my breast pocket along with my newly acquired reading glasses. Seating across from her on the tufted sofa I scan my questions and choose selectively.
“When were you born?”
“December 18, 1919.”
Feeling my questions would continue to receive abbreviate answers, I decided to change my tactics. “Please tell me about your family of origin.”
Dr. Meagher smiles at the question. She answers, “The name Meagher is from my grandfather. His name was John Meagher. He and his family were from Ireland. He was nineteen when his father also John Meagher died and left him my grandmother as part of his estate. Along with my grandmother, who they called Hattie, John Meagher also inherited 100 acres of land in Floyd County, Georgia and 12 other slaves which included Hattie’s 2 eldest children. Whose names no one in my family spoke. That was in 1847. John Meagher sold Hattie’s 2 children who were parented by his father when Hattie became pregnant with their first child. He never told her where or to whom he sold her children. By all accounts Hattie was from West Africa. She came here by ship by way of the West Indies in the 1830’s. She told me when I was only 9 years old that she was my age when they stole her from her family. That was all she said. All she ever told me directly about her life, really. ” Dr. Meagher gets lost in her own memories then. It takes her a moment to begin again.
“Hattie and John Meagher had 17 children. John Meagher, it is said, loved Hattie more than he loved anything or anyone. My uncle told me that after his jealousy wore off he tried to find her children and buy them back. But who knows if there is any truth in that.” Dr. Meagher reaches for her decanter then to pour a drink of mint water. After taking a sip, she continues, “My mother was Hattie and John Meagher’s 12th child. She was born outside of slavery in 1889. Her name was Esther. John Meagher never married a white woman. He never even courted one by all accounts. He and Hattie lived in the same house during slavery. It was only after freedom that he moved her into her own home just 3 acres away from the big house. But my mother says that once he moved Hattie, he also moved and never really returned to the big house except to entertain and then he took Hattie with him.
“I never met my grandfather. He died the summer before I was born. My mother spoke of him lovingly. She called him ‘father dear.’ My grandmother never spoke of him at all. We assumed she loved him back but now that I think on it myself, I guess not. He was her owner, you know,” Dr. Meagher looks at me then waiting for my confirmation.
“How really can you love someone after they sell your children away from you? I don’t think that would be possible. I don’t think that would be possible at all,” Dr. Meagher takes another sip of water and waves away an illusionary fly. “My mother, however, was a romantic. To the core of her heart she was a romantic. An absolutely beautiful woman,” at that point Dr. Meagher points to a photograph of a woman no older than 25 in a stylish low waisted summer dress. Although the photography is yellowed, the blackness of her hair cannot be denied anymore than the milktones of her skin.
“Men would stop themselves in their tracks to get a look at her. But she only had eyes for my father, who was a fool. He was Choctaw. He was passing through Floyd County when she met him by the side of the road. I don’t know where he was headed or really where he had come from to find himself in Floyd County, Georgia in 1905 but there he landed. And there he stayed. She was 16 when they married only 2 months after meeting. His first name was Kanichi, my mother called him Kan. My mother remained a Meagher after the marriage and all my brothers and sisters were Meaghers as well. My father never used a surname and outside the property my mother inherited from her parents, he never really owned anything more than the clothes on his back. He was not interested in acquiring things. Nor was he very interested in working. He kept a garden and that for the most part kept us all fed. My mother was a school teacher for colored children which brought in money. My brothers, I have seven all worked either in town or with local farmers or craftworkers. They each had trades and helped support the family. But aside from the vegetables and watermelons and pecans my father tended to all he really did was get my mother pregnant and stay drunk. There were 12 of us in all. My seven brothers, four sisters and me. I was number 10 having only Suzette and Cleo behind me.
“Originally, I was named Hattie after my grandmother. But my eldest brother, Isaiah, read about Moses and Hatshepsut in the Bible and elongated my name. I was only a baby at the time so my mother, being the amicable romantic she was, agreed. They continued to try and call me Hattie but my father was not very good with the ‘t’ sound so when he said my name it sounded like “happy” so eventually everyone just called me ‘Happy’ instead. I still have a few nieces and nephews who refer to me as ‘Happy.'” Dr. Meagher smiles at the memory. “It’s a catchy name I suppose.”
“I never knew that,” slips out before I can monitor my reaction to her stories. She smiles at me and waves me along, “What is your next question Phillip?”
“I know that Dr. Warner has been your husband for nearly 20 years but I’ve never heard you speak of children or previous marriages. Were you married before Dr. Warner? Do you have biological children?”
Dr. Meagher takes a deep breath, pondering these questions. “Where shall I begin, Phillip? Which questions would you like me to answer first? Or which question is most important?”
I sigh. This is an interview about the life of a living anthropological legend. I decide, “Were you married before?”
“Yes,” Dr. Meagher begins. “I have been married 7 times.”
My jaw drops. This was not the answer I was expecting. Dr. Meagher laughs at my decomposition. I collect myself and ask, “Can you tell me more?”
“Of course I can, Phillip. The question is ‘will’ I.”
I clear my throat, “Will you?”
“Certainly,” Taking another sip of water, Dr. Meagher clears her throat. “I was married 7 times. I have been abandoned once and widowed 5 times. Warner has lasted the longest. He promised me when he asked that I marry him that I would not have to bury him. So far he has kept his promise. We were married when I was 72 years old. We have been married now for 19 years. I believe you attended the ceremony,” she looks at me. I nod remembering the ceremony held in a small courtyard near Cambridge. I was honored at 25 to be asked to attend such a prestigious affair. I was asked to sit on the bride’s side though at the time I was much closer to Dr. Warner. Now that I consider the fact that she comes from such a large family, why the bride’s side was so bereft of guests. I was one of only 15.
She waves away a memory, “By the time I married Warner, my family had grown tired of the ceremonies. No one wanted to come to another of ‘Happy’s wedding.’ They did send their congratulations, however.
“Warner is my seventh and final spouse. We married in 1991. The others include Frank Johnson, he was a farmer, also from Floyd County. He died of syphilis only 9 months after we wed. I was 18 years old and knew nothing about syphilis. My mother and father agreed to the marriage because he had acres and said he was in love with me. Only my brother protested. He was happy to say in the least when the man died. My brother Isaiah then forced me to go to college, and ‘not no teacher college either’ he told me. While at Spelman I met my 2nd husband, Walter Griffins. He was handsome but foolish, like my father. My brother allowed him to marry me under the condition that I not leave school. He was hit by a train, walking home while drunk. I was 20 and quite devastated but I completed my bachelor’s degree and was pushed into graduate school this time by my brother and professors alike. While studying at Oberlin College I met Jackson Smith. He was dynamic and believed in many of the same things I did. I married him without asking anyone’s permission when I was 24 years old. I continued my studies and we lived so happily in family housing. It didn’t seem to matter that I was a colored woman and he a white man. But he was drafted to serve in the war. He left me after only a year of marriage. In 1945, the US army sent back only his dog tags.” A tear escapes from Dr. Meagher’s right eye. She allows it to linger in memory of her 3rd husband.
“I did not think I would love anyone as deeply as I had Jackson. So I threw myself into my studies. After completing my degrees at Oberlin in Biology and Chemistry. I decided to try my hand at Anthropology and located a fellowship at Oxford. I applied but I used the name H. Meagher Smith, completely disguising my gender and racial identify. They accepted me and across the pond I leapt. I was mistaken for the maid daily but I earned my stripes and went out to field as much as I could. I met Lloyd Williamson, who was regal and English and completely confounded by me, a southern Black woman with such mixed racial heritage. I don’t know if he loved me or just saw me as a culture to be studied and cataloged. At any rate we were married in 1949 in England. We were completing a field study in Papau New Guinea when he contracted malaria. I returned to England widowed again but had acquired an English residence and title. I was known as Lady Williamson and for a brief moment I allowed myself to be called Lady Williamson. We were married 2 years and 7 months prior to Lloyd’s demise. Eventually, I left the title behind and completed my work at Oxford. The income from Lloyd’s estate was a godsend and I am eternally grateful to him for providing me with such a lavish lifestyle.” She waves her hand.
“I met Henry St. James in 1955. I was in Korea at the time along with attaché’s from America, England and France. It was an interesting time in my life. I was allowed unlimited access to Korean aboriginal culture. Fascinating insight it offered me and provided me with much of the groundwork for later studies,” she stops speaking and looks at me laughing, “But we aren’t here to talk about my work, we’re here to talk about my life. So onward and upward.
“St. James was South African, a colored South African. He was intensely intelligent and quiet. We met out of a mutual interest in the study of aboriginal cultures and their connections to Africa. He believed then that all cultures were birthed in African because all men were of African descent. It was quite a radical view for the 50’s. Remember this was 20 years before the discovery of Lucy…but anyway there we were in Korea trying to link the basis of their cultural heritage to what was then known of ‘primitive African subculture’ when cupid struck again. We were married on a US Army military base outside of Seoul. Only 5 people attended the ceremony. That was in 1956. We left Korea together but went in separate directions in 1958. I went back to England to close house and he went to Johannesburg to secure housing for us both. I thought I would have an opportunity to study Zulu culture but before I could even pack my bags I received a letter from his sister informing me that Henry had been murdered by police who stopped him for ‘routine’ questioning. I received that letter on January 8, 1959. I never went to South Africa. Not once. I stayed in England visiting Georgia only on holiday to meet new nieces and nephews or to bury a family member.
“In 1968, UMASS asked that I come teach. I thought it would be nice to be closer to my family, so I agreed under the condition that they provide resources for my research. It was unprecedented at the time for a woman to be able to name her price and condition for a position at University but I did and they adhered to my conditions. We were a match made in heaven. It was on field study in the Amazon that I met the mysterious ruffian Wesley Carter. He was crazy and loud and completely out of place in the rainforest. But he wooed me. My heart was still so torn about Henry and I believe I spent a lot of time talking about Henry while being wooed by Carter. But after 6 months of courting and antics that included him riding a zip line to get to me, I conceded and married him in catholic church just outside of Caracas. That was May 18, 1970. I do believed I loved him. I also believed he loved me which is why it made no sense to me when he suddenly disappeared. I was onsite meeting with elders from this village whose tribal members were rumored to live to be 120. I left a message with him that I would not return to our apartment in the city for 2 weeks because of how deep in the brush I would be located. He sent word back that if I did not return in 2 weeks time he would come into the brush to get me. Carter was a business man from Boston. He knew nothing about brush least of all how to find me. In 2 weeks I returned to Caracas but Carter was not there. I sent word for him at all the right locations. I even contacted his office in New York. No one had heard from him. I wanted for him in Caracas for 9 months going on hiatus from UMASS. He was never found. I returned to the states confused and loss. My brother put his foot down and informed me I was not to marry again. For 20 years I obeyed.
“Then I met Warner,” she smiles shyly, “and all bets were off.”
I have been writing profusely and it took more than 5 minutes for me to catch up to her silence.
“There were no children. I don’t know if the syphilis I contracted from my first husband was the cause of my infertility. But I have never birthed a baby. I have raised a supported more than a dozen children from infancy through adulthood and a few I have even financially supported so that they might procreate, but I have never had a child.”
“Do you regret not being a mother?” I ask even though it was not a planned question.
“No,” Dr. Meagher looks toward her tapestried windows. “I do not regret one moment of my life. Surely I have made mistakes and surely my mistakes have cost me dearly but I will not regret one decision, not one choice because I believe that were I to do it all over again I would still want to be where I am.”
Dr. Meagher stands. “Phillip, I have been talking for more than an hour. I am certain you did not intend to keep an old woman from her mid afternoon nap. But you have.” She is again humoring me. Dr. Meagher hates sleeping, she believes it is a waste of time.
“You nap?” I ask.
“No, but I do enjoy pretending,” she turns to leave the room. I begin to protest. I have a dozen more questions.
“That’s enough about me. I get tired of myself, really.”
I jump up then, realizing I’ve been dismissed. I take her arm and walk her to the parlor’s doorway. She is leaning even more heavily on me and I get the feeling she is much more tired than she lets on. “I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me.”
“I appreciate you asking,” she looks at me and her grey eyes seem sad. “These memories wear on me, Phillip. Next time go easier on me. Ask more mundane questions.”
She pats my cheek and leaves the room. I stand in her wake wondering if next time will ever come.