When Miranda Gay is eight years old, she becomes aware, quite in passing, of a formal photograph showing her dead Aunt Amy. Miranda yearns to be beautiful when she grows up, as her aunt was in her wedding pictures. Her cousin, Isabel Rhea, is told that she rides horses almost as well as Amy did; her sister, Maria, is almost as fine a dancer. During her early years, the presence of the past enters Miranda’s conscious mind in a number of other ways. The girls are shown Amy’s wedding dress; another cousin, Eva Parrington, a Latin teacher, calls back celebrated events from southern history. Amy’s widower, Uncle Gabriel, sends letters from New Orleans, Kentucky, and other parts of the country as he pursues his calling of training racehorses.
The impressionable young Miranda thus is exposed from several sides to others’ recollections, and family history is assimilated piecemeal along with more remote visions of literary and historical figures from the past. The romantic aura surrounding death is evoked particularly by Uncle Gabriel’s verses, printed in gold on a mourning card, which commemorate Aunt Amy’s passing: “She lives again who suffered life,/ Then suffered death, and now set free/ A singing angel, she forgets/ The griefs of old mortality.”
Packets of letters discovered in a trunk lend credence to other rumors the girls have heard. Once during their courtship Amy returned from a masked ball, her dress disheveled and undone, without Gabriel; there were scandalous hints that she had been seen with another man. Gabriel was on the verge of challenging the interloper to a duel when Harry Gay, Miranda’s father, shot at his brother’s rival and then fled to Mexico for a time. Amy quarreled spiritedly with her great-aunt, Sally Rhea, a fundamentalist Baptist who feared for her soul. During Mardi Gras, Amy danced all night three times in one week and suffered an internal hemorrhage. In...
(The entire section is 786 words.)