Episode 1. Who Am I?
What a day! We have had at last, what Dr. Franklin called our "interesting conversation." Interesting! How could he call it just that? It was phenomenal! It was earthshaking! I'm still shaking as I write. But I want to set it down while I remember every word.
— "Sit down, Temple," he began. "I have the impression these last few days that you want to ask me something but can't quite bring yourself to do it. Am I right?"
— "Yes, Sir."
— "What is it?"
— "Could you tell me, Sir, why I am on this packetboat with you? You always said how important it is for me to finish my studies, but here we are in the middle of the school year and in the middle of the sea. Why take me to the colonies? I don't understand, Sir ..."
— "Tempy," he said — he sometimes called me that — "you don't have to call me Sir anymore." A long pause. "Just call me Grandfather." Another pause. "I am your grandfather, my boy."
What was I supposed to say now? Or do? Throw myself into his arms? I was petrified. I said nothing. I did nothing. I stared at my shoes.
"You are the son of my son William, the Royal Governor of New Jersey." More stupefied silence from the son of the governor. "You remember me mentioning my son, don't you?"
Of course, I remember. Sometimes he sounded very proud of his son and sometimes he grumbled about his son's spending habits. Extravagant spending, he would tell Mrs. Stevenson, who nodded. He was not always in a good mood after receiving a letter from his son the governor.
— "Have you lost your tongue, Billy?"
Not only my tongue, all of me was lost in a haze. The governor, I knew, had a wife named Elizabeth. She had to be my mother. Would she once, just once, tuck me in bed? So I would know what it feels like and stop thinking about it. Would she bend over and kiss me?
— "And my mother, Sir, does she live in New Jersey?"
— "No, Billy. If she is alive she must be in England. I don't know. It's up to your father to tell you about that. I'll only say that your mother, unfortunately, was not the kind of woman that one marries."
I know he saw my disappointment, but he just continued.
— "Now let me tell you about all the relatives you are going to meet once we land. Lucky boy that you are, not only will you become a Franklin, William Temple Franklin, but you will be the only young man in the entire family to bear the name. Your father and his wife, you see, have not had a child of their own all these years, and they want you as their lawful heir..."
I stopped listening. I know what he means by the kind of woman one does not marry. When Caldwell and I slipped out of school by a back window in the evening and walked the streets of London, we would see those women standing under lampposts. There was so much fog at times that you could not even see them but you could hear their voices, raspy, warm and tempting. We hastened to walk on and looked the other way, but I remember the voices and how these women coughed. My mother may have been one of them, wrapped in fog.
— "You look sad, my boy," said the old gentleman who is my grandfather. "You have no reason to be sad. Your father is most impatient to see you. Your stepmother, Elizabeth, will smother you in endearments and pastries. My daughter, your aunt Sally, will be her warm and joyous self, I'm sure, and her boys Benny and Willy, your little cousins, can you imagine how they will look up to you?"
All I could do in response was sigh. Was she alive or dead, my mother? I would never know. Would anyone care beside myself?
— "You're almost a man, Billy" he said. "It is time to look to the future. You've had an excellent education so far, and your future, if you apply yourself, is brilliant. As brilliant as that of the country we are sailing to, if the colonies have the foresight to pull together and forge their own destiny. You may ask me one more question, Temple, and then we both go to bed.
— "Who else knows about who I am, and who does not?"
— "That's simple. Your father, the headmaster and myself, we know. Nobody else. Not even Mrs. Stevenson and Polly."
— "And my grandmother, your wife Deborah, who just died? She knew, of course?"
— "No, she did not."
— "How is that possible?"
— "Because I never told her."
— "You never told her about me? Why not?"
— "Not to upset her. Family life, Billy, is not always as simple as you might imagine. Some day you'll understand all that. All I want to say now is that ever since I have come to know you, you have been a crucial part of my life. Walking beside the little boy that you were, looking down at your upturned face that reminded me of William's at your age, feeling your tiny hand resting trustfully in my big hand, that's what gave me the courage to keep working at the arduous mission I have been entrusted with."
"How else could I have endured the accusation in America, of being too British and in England, of being too American? How else could I have endured, in my solitude, the charming descriptions my Deborah gave of our other grandson, the Philadelphia one, the one she called Kingbird, the Benny, whom I have never seen? Without you at my side I would have returned home, a defeated man. With you at my side I return home, defeated, to be sure, my hopes for accommodation with England dashed, but still full of hope. You are my flesh and blood, and my strength."
After that, how could I refuse to read the heavy manuscript he thrust into my hands with a request for comments?