Exploring the process of writing my new book, The Blue Box due out in 2012 – Sallie
Today I have been looking through an enormous bound book of old photographs which my sister Eleanor assembled some years ago, from boxes and boxes she inherited when our mother died.
Most of the people in the photographs are long forgotten, or remembered only as someone’s great-grandmother, for example, as though the role outlives the individual. Birth dates are sometimes inaccurate, fudged by women who wanted to appear younger than they were, or younger than their husbands.
The last page of this enormous volume holds paired photographs of our parents, Mary and Barry. His was taken in 1924, hers is a year earlier, perhaps around the time she graduated from St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia.
My father’s pale, bland good looks do not surprise me; healthy, confident and lucky, he kept that face for most of his life.
But my mother—here is something unexpected.
When I became aware of her as my mother (I was her third child), she was a tiny blond woman, almost doll-like, formed by the conventions of upper class marriage. I almost never saw her without make-up, her hair set in careful blond curls, wearing a powerful girdle, a suit and carrying a purse; she seemed always to be armed for a distant battle.
But here! The photograph of her as a young woman in her twenties, before any of this happened, flashes.
Her hair is dark, and it is not set. Her eyebrows are fiercely dark; what happened to them? Bleached? Plucked? In their natural state, they lend her eyes—also dark, although they were blue—a defiant look. Her prim white collar doesn’t soften the forward thrust of her expression; this is no girl, but a woman who knows what she wants. The intensity of her expression, the flash of her will, make her prettiness far more interesting, and far more challenging.
This is the face she chose to present to whoever was interested—friends, family, perhaps her future husband and his family.
But this would not be the face they expected. Instead, this portrait shows the determination that led her to become the first woman in her family to graduate from college, and then to earn a prestigious scholarship to the American University in Athens.
This is the woman I am finding in her college essays, prickly, opinionated, written on a battered old typewriter she couldn’t afford to replace.
It is not the woman who married my father.