As I dig through the bones of the blue box, the layered letters, articles, genealogies (not of much interest to me), lists of wedding presents, invitations and so on, I come across now and then an old black-and-white photo which for various reasons is not included in the book, to be published by Sarabande Books in less than two weeks.
This morning I found a faded copy of a newspaper photo, certainly from the old Society Page of a Richmond Virginia daily, showing a group of three young people, two men and a woman, marching down Monument Avenue in that city, the broad magisterial artery where the greats of the Confederacy are memorialized in huge marble statues.
The three in the photo are my mother and my father (not yet married, but soon to be) and my father’s life-long friend and former Harvard classmate, Warren Buckler; the antics of these two young men form some of the funniest, and strangest, passages in The Blue Box.
The three display the unmistakable air of strutting that I find myself both despising and envying, as though this air is, or could be, my birthright as well, although I have never felt myself in possession of it.
My mother strides forward between the two men, in her suit, as the caption describes it, of “almond green with imprint of gold, charming fair Southerner with her Easter corsage…” (actually a small bouquet, grasped firmly in her gloved left hand) “…of violets and orchids.”
This combination, the sentimental violets, given in those days only in the spring when they were available, and the expensive orchids says a good deal about my father’s taste, which always seemed to me exquisite but with an edge of parsimony—bespoke London suits and raggedly tennis shoes, for example, not worn at the same time but equally appropriate to his wide-ranging publisher’s life and his adoration of going crabbing in a tidal creek on Cape Cod.
And Mother—“Fair Southerner”—a moniker she would have abhorred, having spent a lot of her youth plotting and planning to escape the South for broader fields of enterprise—did she feel, at last and at least for a moment, confident in the affection of the man next to her, with his top hat, spats, cutaway, high collar, big-knotted tie and buttonhole of white flowers?
She looks up at him with a girlish smile, he, saying something, gazes ahead down the avenue, while his rakish friend, Warren, in a suit and bowler hat (where in the world were they going?), hands in trouser pockets, strides energetically as though unimpressed by the avenue (he was after all from Baltimore) and perhaps not expecting much of whatever festivities were planned.
We daughters are often blocked by our own memories of our parents from imagining, or even believing in, their courtship and marriage, as though the years that came afterwards blotted out the possibility that these two people were ever young and (in the old meaning of the word) gay.
In my case, however, I saw a good deal of that youth and gaiety even when my parents were a good deal older and presumably wiser than they were in this 1928 photo; they preserved these qualities at a cost of sacrificing much of what we today consider the essentials of life—devotion to children, to a daily routine and the rituals attending it—because it fit who they wanted to be to travel, feast, entertain friends, jockey around in Democratic politics, and engage in the freemasonry of wealth that governed so much of what seemed to be important in a small southern town.
I find myself not only despising and envying their strutting self-confidence (which of course was only skin deep, as it is with all of us) but despising and envying their commitment to being the gay things they were in this photo, to never letting down the front, lounging around in track suits (or the equivalent), slopping around in the kitchen, screaming at their children, fighting with their neighbors, lying half the day in bed—and all the other displays of human weakness that unite us.
They kept themselves to the rule established in their youth, always preserving appearances, avoiding displays of emotion, even at weddings and funerals, setting the standard of appearances so high none of us can even dream of reaching it.
But there is also that edge of parsimony, for which I find myself grateful, as though it tied a bit of lead to their wings.