Whatever happened to Rosa?

For readers who are curious about Rosa Johnstone’s life after she left Halifax, here is a scene that didn’t make it into the final version of Reparations.

At this point — the summer of 2002 — Rosa is working as a domestic in Boston for the O’Sullivans, whose Halifax cousin, then-Premier Seamus O’Sullivan, had helped her get the job when she left Halifax in such a hurry in 1976.

“Rosie, you see my glasses this morning?”

“No, sir, I haven’t.” Rosa Johnston had long since become immune to the fingernails-scraping-the-blackboard sensation she’d experienced the first time Mr. O’Sullivan called her Rosie. That would have been twenty five years ago — twenty six next month — probably on the very day Rosa began work as the family nanny-maid.

Petrov, the O’Sullivan’s Soviet emigré driver-handyman, met her at the train station in Mr. O’Sullivan’s silver-grey Lincoln Town Car and immediately whisked her away from the smelly, sweltering heat of a Boston August — “You get used to vether,” Petrov told her in his heavily accented English  — and out to the Cape, where Mrs. O’Sullivan and the children, just the four of them then, were spending the summer at the cottage. Even after all these years, Rosa still couldn’t understand why they would refer to it as a cottage. It was a mansion, with even a separate wing for the servants: Petrov, Rosa, Olivia the chef and one or two of the ever-changing cast of local girls the O’Sullivans hired to clean or serve at their frequent weekend parties.

“So you must be Rosie,” Mr. O’Sullivan’s basso voice had boomed out a greeting that first day in the foyer. “Petrov, why don’t you take Rosie’s stuff upstairs to Libby’s old room.” Libby, Rosa knew, was her predecessor. She’d died recently of cancer. That was about all she knew.

“Seamus tells me you’re an excellent worker, Rosie.” Rosa had never met Seamus O’Sullivan, though she knew his name, of course. What else had Seamus told his cousin? “We’ve had some good girls from Canada working here, you know, Rosie. Libby, she was from Montreal. An Irish girl but grew up French with an accent. Lak dis.” Rosa wondered if Mr. O’Sullivan had any idea how strange his own Boston accent sounded to her. “You know you’re the first Negro girl we’ve ever had working for us. Not that I have any problem with that. I don’t. Long as you do your work, we’ll do just fine.”

For twenty six years, Rosa had done her work, and done it well. And the O’Sullivans, in turn, had been good to her, treating her — as much as it was possible for employers to treat servants — like family. Especially the children. Which is why Rosa was worried this morning. Young Tom still hadn’t arrived home from last night’s party. Young Tom wasn’t quite so young anymore — he was twenty three now — but he was still the baby to Rosa, who’d taken care of him since he was an infant and still doted on him like a mother, especially after his own mother died. Rosa knew this was Tom’s summer to party and celebrate his graduation from college. He would begin law school in the fall. But that didn’t make it any easier for Rosa not to fret whenever he stayed out all night. Which was happening, so far as she was concerned anyway, way too often.

“Damn me all to hell anyway,” Mr. O’Sullivan complained. “Where would I have put those glasses? I was sure I was working in here last night.” His eyes scoured the dining room, to no avail.

“Do you want me to check your office?” Rosa asked.

“Would you? That would be wonderful, Rosie. But could you top up my coffee first?”

When she’d first started working for the family, Mr. O’Sullivan spent most of each summer in the city, coming to the cottage only for weekends and occasional visits, usually to coincide with a party Mrs. O’Sullivan had organized. Now that Mrs. O’Sullivan was dead and he was more or less retired, Mr. O’Sullivan rarely ever left the cottage from Memorial Day through Thanksgiving. Truth be told, Rosa still didn’t know what Mr. O’Sullivan had done to earn a living. She only knew he made enough to maintain two opulent homes: the “cottage,” a rambling estate with two guest cabins, lighted tennis courts and a heated pool on a rocky bluff overlooking the Atlantic; and a sprawling, three-storey city house in Beacon Hill whose seven bedrooms, plus Rosa’s bed-sitting room in the attic,  five bathrooms, three fireplaces, an office for Mister, a sewing room for Missus and a huge family room for the O’Sullivan’s five children when they were still children — threatened to spill past the borders of their too-small lot. The house was much too big now that it was just Tom, his father, and Rosa — with Tom soon heading off to Yale —  but Mr. O’Sullivan couldn’t bear the thought of selling it. Of course, Rosa thought, he didn’t have to do the dusting and vacuuming.

Rosa saw the glasses as soon as she walked into Mr. O’Sullivan’s office. His reading glasses sat on the polished mahogany desktop, the only item, in fact marring its surface. Except, of course, for the telephone. Whatever it was that Mr. O’Sullivan did, he did it on the telephone. Even now, he’d spend two or three hours a day talking on the phone to God only knew who. Using terms like “put options” and “futures” Rosa figured had something to do with the stock market, or investments, or something.

When he wasn’t talking on the telephone, Mr. O’Sullivan usually sat in his leather-covered rocker facing the fireplace. The small table beside the chair groaned under the weight of a dozen or so books Mr. O’Sullivan seemed to be reading at any one time. Mostly Irish and American histories, though there were plenty of books about politics too. Rosa knew Mr. O’Sullivan was a Democrat and she suspected he must be an important power in the party though he didn’t have any official position she knew about. Ted Kennedy had been a guest at many of the O’Sullivan’s parties. Once, at a dinner party in the city, he’d even engaged Rosa in a conversation as she was serving hors d’oeuvres.

“Mmmm, that looks good,” he said, spearing a bacon-wrapped scallop with his toothpick. “No calories?”

“Of course not, sir.” Rosa smiled. She handed him a napkin.
Kennedy laughed. “Rosie, right?”

“Yes sir.” She didn’t bother to correct him.

“I keep seeing you at Jack’s parties but we’ve never officially been introduced. My name’s Ted Kennedy.”

“I know that, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Kennedy.”

“And you too, Rosie. You from Boston?”

“No sir. Canada.”

“Canada, eh?” he joked but he seemed surprised. Rosa wondered if Kennedy knew black people lived in Canada. Part of her wanted to talk to the famous politician but she still had a full plate of appetizers and a job to do. She began to edge away. “Great country, great people,” Kennedy mused. “We could use a health care system more like Canada.”

“I guess,” she said, trying to be polite but trying too to exit gracefully. She looked at her tray. “I’d better get back to work,” she said, looking up at him. “We’ll be serving dinner in a few minutes.”

“Well then, I’d better take one more until then,” he said, picking another scallop off the tray with his toothpick. “It was  nice meeting you, Rosie.”

“You too, sir.”

After that, Kennedy made a point of addressing her as Rosie whenever she served him at one of the O’Sullivan’s parties and, of course, inevitably asking her: “So how’s Canada, eh?” Remembering names and making small talk were politicians’ skills, Rosa knew well enough, but it impressed her nonetheless. Despite what she’d read and heard about the Kennedys and their womanizing ways, Ted Kennedy was unfailingly polite and proper around her. Would he have been that way if she still had her looks? She wondered now what it might have been like if they’d met in a different time under different circumstances with Rosie as the wife of—

She snatched the glasses off the desk angrily as if they were somehow responsible for such thoughts. She rarely had them anymore.

“Thank you, Rosie, you’re a life saver,” Mr. O’Sullivan said when she returned to the dining room and placed the reading glasses beside his Times. Mr. O’Sullivan had the New York Times delivered every morning, mostly, Rosie was sure, for the crossword puzzle. He was obsessed by it. And by the ups and downs of the Red Sox, which is why he also had the Globe delivered too. So far as Rosa could tell, the Sports section was the only part of the paper he even looked at. She was just as passionate as he was about the Red Sox, and would try to rescue the Sports pages from the recycling bin and take them up to her room to read at night. She wasn’t sure what it was she liked about those teams — perhaps it was simply the masochistic pleasure of watching them snatch defeat from the jaws of victory so often. After Bill Buckner booted that ground ball in Game six of the 1986 World Series against the Yankees and the Bosox went on to lose the championship they’d almost won, Mr. O’Sullivan held an Irish wake to mark the occasion. Knowing Rosa’s passion for the team, Mr. O’Sullivan invited her to attend the wake “as my guest” rather than to serve drinks. It was the only time Rosa was a guest at an O’Sullivan party and the only time she could remember when one of the guests at an O’Sullivan party was black.

She heard the screen door open, then slam shut. Tom was home. Mr. O’Sullivan looked up from his Times. “Well, if it isn’t the star boarder?” But he was more amused than angry. Mr. O’Sullivan had mellowed over the years. Rosa guessed it was partly because Tom was the youngest, most favoured, most indulged child in the family and partly because Mr. O’Donnell now knew — after failing in the raising of four other children — that getting angry rarely achieved any useful purpose.

“Hey, Rosa,” Tom swept into the dining room and bent down to kiss her on the forehead. Tom was the only one in the family who called her Rosa; he was her most favoured child too.

“Beautiful morning out there. You should get outside more often, Dad.”

“And you should get home at a decent hour once in a while,” he replied in a mock-gruff tone of voice.

“I was out drinking with Todd and Jamie and I figured you’d rather I slept over than drove home drunk.”

“You still should have called.” It was Rosa. Ever since Mrs. O’Sullivan had been killed in a car accident when Tom was just twelve years old, Rosa had lived in fear that the same fate would someday befall Tom too. She knew it wasn’t rational but fear rarely is. And Rosa was not without her own experience to make the awful unexpected seem inevitable.

“Sorry, Rosa. I’ll do better next time. Promise.”

He meant it. Rosa did too. She couldn’t help but worry. And she couldn’t help but think of that night so long ago now when the policeman knocked on her door. Gone. Just like that. He would have been twenty-eight in three weeks. She didn’t think about him everyday anymore but, whenever she did, she still cried. She felt the hot wetness on her cheeks now as she turned away from Tom and his father and hurried toward the kitchen.

“You’d better,” she called over her shoulder to Tom. “You’d better.”