A Tale of Benjamin Franklin's Family
In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution
Life is funny. I thought there would be pages to write after finally meeting my father, but no. After all my imagining of the scene, after all my inner rehearsals and Grandfather's warnings, our reunion took place almost in silence, darkness, sleepiness, and embarrassment.
Supper was gloomy the night before because we were waiting for Grandfather to return from a visit to Mr. Galloway's country estate, a place named Trevose. The Baches were tense, the children grew cranky, and we finally had a quick meal and went to bed.
Aunt Sally awakened me before dawn to say that breakfast was ready and to hurry downstairs where there was a surprise for me. But she did not say it in her usual jolly way. By the light of her candle, I could see that her nose was red and her cheeks wet and shiny. Grandfather had arrived only a few hours ago, she told me, and he had gone straight to bed, too tired to talk.
The "surprise" turned out to be a man eating eggs in the semi-darkness. He stood up and shook my hand quite formally. "It's true, you really are a tall boy," he declared.
Did I look at my shoes? Did I manage to blurt out a "Good morning Father, I'm glad to meet you"? I don't remember. I remember being told again to hurry. After I gulped down some breakfast, Aunt Sally handed me the suitcase she had packed and, sniffling, gave me a quick hug, not the kind she is famous for. In my ear she also whispered something, but I was so swept up in the moment that it didn't really sink in.
Just as we settled in the carriage, the sky turned pink and I looked at my traveling companion, a handsome man, well dressed, and exhausted looking. After a few minutes, I ventured to ask: "Where are we going, Father?"
"To my new residence in Perth Amboy, New Jersey," he answered. "It's a journey of about 75 miles," he added and promptly fell asleep. I curled up in my corner and did the same.
"How long have you been there Father?" "Not very long, we moved from Burlington in October of last year, after repairs and improvements had been made." "Mrs. Franklin has exquisite taste and knew exactly what was to be done in the way of painting and wallpapering. It is called the Proprietary House because it was built on the initiative of the Board of Proprietors, back in 1761." Whereupon Father promptly fell back to sleep."
A couple of hours later the coach pulls into a small town of brick houses. The coachman calls out "Bristol. The King George Inn. One hour for breakfast." Father joins me at the river's edge and points to a rather large brick town. "That's Burlington," he says. "Do you see the big house just to the right of the wharf? That's the governor's mansion. Elizabeth and I lived there until last Autumn."
Inside the King George, as we are waiting for our food, Father explains that until 1702 New Jersey was divided into East Jersey and West Jersey. Burlington is the capital in the West, and Perth Amboy, somewhere in the vicinity of New York, the capital in the East. And why, after ten years in Burlington, did Father move to the eastern capital? I wonder, but do not ask.
As if guessing my thought, my father volunteers that his wife often has difficulty in breathing and that he hopes the change of air will do her good. Also, the governor's mansion in Perth Amboy is much nicer than the one in Burlington. Furthermore, he says, politically speaking, it is time for a change, but he does not explain why. He only informs me that Amboy is the Indian name of the place and that Perth has been added by the colonists in honor of the Earl of Perth. One of my schoolmates came from Perth in Scotland, I tell him, just to hold up my end of the conversation. I keep hoping that our talk will take a personal turn at some point, but no. Back in the carriage, Father falls asleep again.
Left to my own thoughts, I wonder if he is disappointed in me. Do I perhaps remind him of my mother? Did I use the wrong fork? Closing my eyes, I try to remember every moment of our meeting at dawn and suddenly, out of nowhere, the words Aunt Sally whispered in my ear just before we left Philadelphia come back to my mind: "There will be a new cousin for you when you return." A new cousin? A baby! So that's why she has been getting so fat! Aunt Sally wants masses of children, she says, to make up for Grandfather having had so few when he would have liked many. How dumb of me not to have understood! I hope it will be a baby girl. I would love to see a little girl growing up; maybe she will have dimples like the girl at the City Tavern. Maybe I'll learn what it is that girls like to talk about.
Hours pass in silence, I don't know how many. Father suddenly sits up and announces that we are about to arrive at Perth Amboy. I stare intently but see nothing that looks remotely like a town. There are rather nice houses scattered here and there, lots of greenery, a river called the Raritan — but no real streets, no bustle, no marketplace. Maybe we are still in the outskirts of the capital? But no, we have arrived, and the house in front of which we stop, the Proprietary House as it is called, is truly impressive.
I should change style at this point, use superlatives, noble words, all the things our headmaster Mr. Elphinston pushed us reluctant boys to do. A slender woman steps out the front door and stands there, dazzling in a rust-colored gown. Father rushes up to her, kisses her hand, and looks anxiously into her face: "How are you, dearest? Are you feeling a little better?"
— "Not too bad," she says, "but you, my dear, how tired you look."
Having glimpsed this exchange of mutual anxiety, I return to the contemplation of my muddy shoes. Father beckons me to join them: "Elizabeth my love, this is my son, Temple." A pause. Her dress is glittering in the late afternoon sun. As though correcting himself, Father says: "This is our son, Elizabeth — William Temple Franklin."
She takes a step towards me, extends both hands, holds mine in hers, and kisses me on the forehead. "Welcome to our family, Temple." I feel as if I am at the Court of St. James, or at the high altar, being anointed or inducted or something.
— "Thank you," is all I can think to say.