The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Roses Of Picardy

By Roger Kenvin © 1992

Issue: June, 1992

Miss Alameda Randall Wright is no ordinary criminal. Don't be fooled by that peach organdy dress, that straw-brimmed gardening hat, that whiff of Mary Chess violet cologne that emanates from her person on hot days, or that faded silk parasol that floats imperiously over her head when she takes her downtown strolls. All Picardy, Virginia, knows that those little constitutionals cover up some of the greatest heists in town.

But, you see, we are Southerners, and so we always look the other way, just as we do when the maid doesn't show up and the dust is a foot thick on the grand piano. Look right on through it, we say, and then it can't possibly exist. Besides, Miss Alameda is both a Randall and a Wright; we all know George Washington's first cousin married a Randall, with Miss Alameda inheriting the original house in which she lives now, and Hansford Wright was a young gentleman who accompanied George Washington on his original surveying expeditions into what is now West Virginia and Ohio. Miss Alameda has connections. Connections matter mightily in our town.

She also occupies the fifth pew on the aisle, a rather exalted position in St. Mark's Church. I wouldn't want to quarrel with anyone that has that much clout in our town, I can tell you. And she does sing very loudly in a strong voice and offers the minister trenchant critiques of his sermons immediately after each performance. She is also nearly six feet tall and unmarried. It's much wiser to say "Good morning, ma'am," or "How you all, today, Miss Alameda?" instead of delving into her criminal activities. The whole equilibrium of the town could be upset by a foolish action like that.

Roses. That's what Miss Alameda is after. She is the most notorious rose thief around; the rose garden behind the Randall-Washington house is one of the town's major tourist attractions. Miss Alameda charges tourists $2.50 a ticket just to tour the gardens, $4.00 if you want to see the inside of the house. And she, herself, gives the rose garden lecture. I have heard her talk on many occasions, because, when I was growing up, she hired me to help her in the garden, especially on big tourist days when she said I added a lot of local color to the whole scene. She made me wear my overalls and bought a little straw hat for me to wear. I thought she was funny when she would make up this elaborate story about how I was the great-grandson of a former slave on the old Randall property. That was news to me. I thought my family came from Port Conway down the river, but she said, no, my great-grandfather General Robert E. Lee Randall had actually been born before the Civil War right on this very spot we were standing on. Of course, this was long before I went to Harvard and everything, thanks to Miss Alameda and her D.A.R. friends who got me the scholarship and convinced the Harvard people that I was the brightest student in all Picardy.

Miss Alameda. When I think of her life in crime! I mean, she was just as cool, as any criminal could be. She had a certain way of gliding down the sidewalk, and then, just at the critical moment, over a white picket fence, there would flash the gleam of her slicing scissors, and, presto, a Helen Traubel, Tiffany, Dainty Bess, Lady X, or even a Queen Elizabeth, would surrender a tender shoot that Miss Alameda, sometimes with my help and others, would graft onto roses from stock in the Randall-Washington garden. Nobody said anything. Nobody dared complain. "The roses bloomed again in Picardy last night" is what we all said when a particularly propitious haul had been made. The garden bloomed obligingly, and the tourists and Picardians admired it and boasted about it, and it gave us a kind of fame in town and among antiquarian horticulturists.

Sometimes Miss Alameda would talk with me while I was weeding. "Galileo," she would say. "What you've got is a good native brain. Now, that means common sense and the ability to tackle a problem head on and solve it. That spells success. Do you realize that?"

"Yes, ma'am," I would reply. "I don't know any way to get anything other than through hard work."

"Well, you're going to amount to something," she would say, "just like your father. He's the best carpenter in Picardy. He's successful because he knows his craft and he represents quality. Everybody respects him and sends him all their work because of that."

Miss Alameda often invited my family, my brother, Leonardo, my sister, Desiree, my mother and father to her house for tea or dinner, and she always had a special Christmas party for us, complete with gifts. "After all," she would say. "We do have the same last name - Randall - and our roots are all entangled in a common past." She was always very pleasant, and we all laughed and had a good time, although my father, who was a Baptist, didn't really like all this business of Miss Alameda's being the town rose thief. He kept telling me that one day he was going to bust loose and tell her what he thought about this pilfering to her face, and he threatened to write a letter to the paper about it. But I would say, "Dad, please think of the terrible repercussions in town. You'd upset everything." Mercifully, he kept his mouth shut, but I noticed him praying in church on Sundays sometimes, and I knew what some of his prayers were suggesting to whoever might be listening.

Harvard was no big deal. I lived for a while in Leverett House, but it was too noisy there right off Mass Avenue, so I moved into an old wooden house on Wendell Street where it was quieter. I used to look forward to vacations when I could hop on that train and get that old metroliner back to Washington and then the good old Greyhound back into Picardy. People at Harvard always said, "Oh, God, that must have been awful, growing up in a southern town," but I said, "No way. Boston seems a lot worse to me." They thought it hilarious my great-grandfather had been named General Robert E. Lee Randall, and they even thought George Washington was something of a clown. All they knew was Paul Revere and Samuel Adams and some boring Lowells and Peabodys, and, of course, the Kennedys. "You mean Mrs. Onassis, don't you?" I would snap at them to shut them up.

I studied history at Harvard - British history - and when I would return to Picardy, Miss Alameda would want to hear everything I learned and thought. She loved England, and felt that she lived in a triangle of geography with a line from Virginia to England to Africa, that included me, and back again to Virginia. She loved the way our pasts were intertwined, although she deplored the whole idea and condition of slavery, but she didn't feel that she should spend her whole life expiating a guilt she had never felt because neither she nor I ever subscribed to it then or now. So we could discuss it openly like disinterested historians, and she would appreciate the rose cuttings I would sometimes transport carefully out of Boston for her. These always ended up in the Randall-Washington rose garden. I always made a point of letting her know I had asked permission first before taking the cuttings. "Well, what the tourists don't know won't hurt them," Miss Alameda would say as she tucked in the renegade Yankee roses and enthralled her tourist groups with her impressive spiel about the antiquity of the roses in the garden.

After I was graduated from Harvard, I went to Oxford to study. I stayed there for two years, once in a while writing Miss Alameda a letter telling her about some extraordinary rose garden I had seen and encouraging her to join some rose society or other. Then I returned to Harvard to enter law school, my father having died, and Leonardo having entered Harvard Medical School in Boston by this time. We lived together on Beacon Street in Back Bay in a large apartment in an old brownstone. One day the telephone rang. It was a lawyer named Mr. Huntington Jamieson from Picardy. He was an old man, and I knew he had been the lawyer for Miss Alameda for many years. He told me the very sad news that Miss Alameda had died of heart failure, but, to my astonishment, he informed me that she had willed the old Randall- Washington house to me, and he wanted to know did I want to keep it or sell it.

There never was any doubt in my mind. Of course, I had to keep it. I couldn't let Miss Alameda down. I held onto it for two years until I finished law school, passed the Virginia bar, and then I went back to Picardy to set up a law practice. I moved into the big house and fussed over the rose garden with the gardener I had already hired. I also added to the garden roses from Africa and England, and sometimes, especially during Garden Week in Virginia, I open the house and gardens to visitors and tell them all about the history of the place and Miss Alameda's contributions. But I never, never mention her criminal activities. The memory of it seems to have blown over at last in Picardy. Although once in a while when I stroll downtown, somebody will smile and say, "Galileo, will the roses be blooming in Picardy tomorrow?" But they know I have my own code of ethics which I adhere to strictly. I carry on Miss Alameda's tradition in the best way I can.