For the past three years (I think—time has a way of lengthening, then shortening dramatically), I’ve had the deep pleasure and privilege of working on a collection of papers found in the top of my mother’s closet after she died, letters from long forgotten relatives, mainly women, in Virginia, West Virginia and Georgia, covering more than 150 years.
I’m calling the book that resulted, The Blue Box, to commemorate the large, sky-blue box in which my sister Eleanor found this treasure trove, all carefully bundled and annotated by a relative I never knew who did the collecting and annotating fifty years ago before sending it on to my mother.
Perhaps he hoped she’d read them; apparently, she didn’t—there is only one sentence in her handwriting, deploring a great-grandmother’s “religious fanaticism”.
Perhaps he hoped they would go to an archive.
They didn’t. These women were not rich, or famous, or beautiful, or well-known for scandals or achievements.
But they are united by an iron thread: they were indomitable.
Sewing pelisses to sell to survive the devastation of their plantation on the Etowah River in Georgia after Sherman’s march to the sea; turning their pretty daughters into stocks to be marketed to the most affluent available men; chasing down a scholarship to become the first college graduate in her family, and then laying a four year siege to a reluctant lover: They did more than survive. They triumphed over poverty, ignorance, and the strictures that governed women’s lives.
Now, as I begin the final revision of their story, carefully and sensitively edited by Sarabande Books, I’m already feeling a pang: this long project is about to be completed.
Although The Blue Box must fit into Sarabande’s publishing schedule and so may not appear for a while, my work is nearly done. And this means the letters, the photographs, the obituaries, the family trees, the neatly penciled notes—all must be laid up in an archive, where they will become in time the meat of other scholars, to be used for other purposes.
My purpose is almost achieved—to recreate these women in their own words; but I will miss them sorely when the papers they touched are no longer mine.
[For more on The Blue Box, please visit my bibliography page].