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A Grandmother’s Secret

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When Jackson Taylor was growing up, his grandmother played a pivotal role in his life. He sought her advice, and she welcomed his questions with an uncommon ability to answer them clearly and directly. He looked forward to her weekly visits to his Virginia home, where she brought an oddly colorful and glamorous presence to a comparatively black and white backdrop. Then, he knew her only as a private nurse who lived on a farm, even though she didn’t act or look like one. She remained an enigmatic figure during most of that time.

Now, in his debut novel, “The Blue Orchard,” Jackson Taylor, 44, tells a revealing story of his grandmother, Verna Krone, a practical nurse of Irish descent who, under the guidance of Dr. Crampton, a leader in the local African-American community, ran an abortion hospital out of private homes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, from the Depression to the 1950s. When the political machine that protected them suddenly lost its power, the two were arrested in 1955 and a trial ensued. Taylor, who first learned about this part of his grandmother’s life in his mid 20s, lays out a tale that raises important issues of race, class, and gender.

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Over a decade of research, Taylor interviewed nearly 300 people involved or descended from those participating in the events he fictionalizes; he studied the Harrisburg newspapers from 1890 to 1960 to absorb more fully the politics of the period; and, experimenting while writing about the incomparable Dr. Crampton, he realized Verna herself should tell the story.

“I’m white,” he said. ”I didn’t want to appropriate someone else’s history as if I understood it fully, because I don’t. A white person will never know what a black person experiences, despite the empathy they may have.”

Verna, too, might have limitations in understanding Crampton, but she had worked with him side by side in their enterprise; her voice, rather than the author’s, carried the authenticity Taylor sought.

As the novel moved into production, Walmart indicated it might have an interest in carrying the book, something that excited Taylor. “I wrote this book for average, middle-class Americans, for the people I grew up with,” he explained. However, after making key decisions in order to make the title more attractive to the megastore — including a shift from hardcover to trade-paperback — the book was declined. Taylor hopes the chain might some day reconsider; it is, he said, a book about America, one that people from all walks of life can access and comprehend.

Taylor, the associate director of the New School’s Graduate Writing program, director of the Prison Writing Program at PEN American Center, and participant in the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen Writing Workshop, recently sat down with Gay City News to discuss “The Blue Orchard.”

DEAN WRZESZCZ: What was the genesis of writing the book?

JACKSON TAYLOR: Well, ironically, I waited four years before telling my grandmother I knew the story. That decision was made because to tell her too soon might have altered our relationship. When we finally discussed it, she asked me where or how did you find out, and it was possible to say, oh, I’ve known for quite awhile. It was a desire to protect my father — who had told me — and my hope was that she would realize nothing about my affection for her had changed as a result of my knowing the true events of her life.

Her reaction was, “Oh, I often wondered if you knew.” That was it. She was able to finesse any display of shock or surprise at my knowing. Looking back, it was quite a gamble, because if she had died during that time, I wouldn’t have been able to talk to her about this part of her life. I hadn’t yet discovered I was a writer, so a book never entered my mind.

I think we have to remember the times that we’re talking about here, particularly in this agriculturally surrounded community. People didn’t talk about certain things. They just went unspoken. When she went on trial, and it was in the Harrisburg paper every day, her mother never once spoke to her about it.

DW: Except the one time when someone verbally attacked Verna inside a restaurant and her mother defended her by warning the person not to talk about “our” business.

JT: That’s a particularly poignant moment and one of my favorites in the book. I think that anybody who’s ever felt disenfranchised for whatever reason — be it class, race, gender, sexual orientation, bank account, whatever the thing that someone else can try to make us feel less than for — that moment when a family member says “our” and includes themselves in a struggle not their own is a powerful moment.

Another thing that was different about her is that she was much more progressive than anybody else who I had encountered. When she was close to 80 and living on the farm, a couple years after Roe v. Wade, she was selling a house she owned, and these two guys approached her wanting to buy it. The realtor did a lot of winking and nodding, like these two are a couple and all of that. She didn’t care. She thought they would take good care of the property, and they noticed things that she herself cared about, the garden and the structure of the house.

Anyway, the bank denied their loan, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of evidence as to why. So she said, I’m going to hold a mortgage for those guys because I like them and they deserve a break. She didn’t worry about what other people thought, and she held the mortgage for them for a number of years.

DW: And so she knew they were gay?

JT: Oh, absolutely. There used to be a big flea market held at a drive-in theater in Harrisburg, and I went there one time with her. We were walking around looking at stuff, and these same two guys came over and they hugged and kissed her, and they were so warm and decent because she had helped them. But she never made a deal of it; it wasn’t her style.

DW: Do you remember the first time when you first heard that your grandmother had a secret?

JT: Yes, I was with my father and mother, in Virginia where I grew up, and my sister and I began to ask my father about his relationship with her, which we could sense was complicated. Children often sense secrets, and often it’s not until we become adults that some truth gets confirmed, then we recognize our intuition, that all along something had been strange. Growing up, where she and my father were concerned, I always had a sense.

My grandmother was a very vibrant, colorful person. When she walked into a room, you would not not notice her power. It was evident right away that she was tough and used to being the boss.

During the summer, we’d spend time on her farm, but she didn’t look like any of the other farm women in the area. She wore expensive clothes, had boxes and boxes of shoes, fur coats, and hats, and her dresses sometimes had unusual beadwork or sequins — nobody on a farm dressed like that. So there was always a strange theatricality about her. And the discovery of one’s own power and money can do that sometimes, especially when it’s visible in a setting where you don’t expect it.

DW: How well did you know her as a child?

JT: Oh, I knew her very well. We were very close. If I had questions about things, I would often take them to her because she answered them in a very precise, intelligent, and life-experienced way.

For example, when I first moved to New York at 17, I found an apartment but wasn’t old enough to sign the lease. I phoned her and told her about the situation, and she said, “Have them send it to me –– I’ll sign it.” A friend of hers said, but aren’t you worried that something could go wrong in New York and you’ll be liable for the rent? And she told them “a lease is only as good as the paper it’s written on. A landlord from New York isn’t going to come all the way out here. It’ll cost him too much money.” She knew the deal, and all this stuff about law, and business, and human behavior. That impressed me. That kind of earned wisdom and knowledge was always evident.

DW: When Verna weighed working for Dr. Crampton against principles laid out in her nurse’s manual, she realized that God might have a different way of determining right from wrong. Was she just rationalizing?

JT: No, she was sincere. She never presumed to know the mind of God. She really despised it when somebody would do that. Her theological position was really sophisticated, and that only comes from someone who has morally wrestled with their own life in a way that she had.

DW: A poor white woman and an African-American man in the 1930s — both having few opportunities for advancement in any conventional way — find each other through their resourcefulness and ultimately become powerful and rich through illicit means. What is the likelihood of that happening?

JT: That was one of the things that made me want to write the book.

At first it seemed I had a very small story about a family secret. Then arriving at the point where the doctor came in –– I knew I didn’t know enough about him to write with any authority about him. It’s interesting the word author is contained in the word authority. That’s when I began to do research, asked more questions, and realized, oh, this isn’t just a little story about my family, this is about a whole city and a whole support network built on political corruption.

Later, the story seemed to be about Dauphin County, and it became about county politics. But as I researched more, I began to realize it’s really about state politics. This could be Louisiana or any number of states with big political machines. When I finally made the connection that this group of Pennsylvania Republicans got Nixon on Eisenhower’s ticket, I was like, oh my God, abortion paid for Nixon to get into the White House! And you know, if you go back, that’s traceable.

DW: Other than the scope of the piece, what single thing was the most shocking in doing your research?

JT: Finding out about the family who raised Dr. Crampton. That was a big mystery for a long time. I kept asking how is he able to move in the way he moves? Where was that confidence or cockiness coming from? Then came an interview with an elderly man in his 80s; after having spent three hours with him I was wrapping up, when he said, out of the blue, “Oh. Did you know he was raised by a white family?” That was like an earthquake. But the man couldn’t remember who the family was. None of my sources could.

Finally, at Howard University they had a little scrap of paper with Crampton’s name on it with an address. From that I traced the deeds of that address. At that time, the neighborhood was white, one of the best addresses in town. Black people didn’t live there. I couldn’t figure out why he had that address. I’d speculate. Maybe he had a sister who was a housemaid there, or maybe his mother was their laundress.

Then I discovered a family name — Copeland, but I still wasn’t sure that this was the family. Finally, I thought, “See if the head of the household — Colonel Copeland — left a will.” I went into the courthouse, got the records, the dates, and the microfilm, and there it was — Dr. Crampton was explicitly mentioned in the will. It was an exciting discovery.

I soon learned Copeland was a celebrated Chautauqua orator, that his most famous lecture was called “The Plight of the Negro.” So Dr. Crampton had been raised in the limelight, and that gave him a certain carte blanche to maneuver.

DW: Was there anything in particular that Verna imparted to you that either then or in retrospect showed the philosophy or her attitude from the work she had done?

JT: She often spoke in aphorisms that lent her wisdom, phrasing philosophy in a nugget or kernel of truth. My favorite phrase of hers was, “If there isn’t a way, we’ll make one.” I still utilize it often.

DW: How would you connect women’s rights with the struggle of the LGBT community?

JT: I can only say with any accuracy that I believe –– propagation aside –– that more and more people are coming to recognize that gender is absolutely meaningless... It’s something I think humans realize more and more as they grow older... and poets understand this especially well because so much of what we write is excavated from a subterranean place that is neither male or female — but simply human. Labels limit possibility. If not mine, yours or someone else’s.

Complete Information:

THE BLUE ORCHARD

By Jackson Taylor

Simon & Schuster

$16; 393 pages, paperback

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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