Essays on my latest book, The Blue Box, a family history centered around three women from three generations spanning the Civil War through the Jazz Age.
This seems particularly strange since it seems I was named for her—seems because no one ever mentioned that either, but since we are both called Sallie Montague, it seems likely that I was named for her—and I am the only one of five siblings given a name from my mother’s family rather than my father’s.
I’m sure we all know many other examples of the blotting out of women’s history in individual families, as well as in the writing of history and in society at large.
Way further back in the history of my mother’s family, in England, another woman, who stands to me in the relation of so many greats I’ve given up counting, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was blotted out, not in terms of her travels and her letters (still in print) but in terms of her accomplishment: she, and not the many male scientists who claim the distinction, discovered the vaccine for small pox which had ruined her beauty when she was a girl.
This happened because she was married to a man who became England’s first ambassador to Turkey, and insisted on going there with him—it was considered, in the eighteenth century, a barbarous country—along with her infant and toddler.
She was the first “white” woman to gain access, through her husband’s connection, to the harems, and to visit there with women no European had ever encountered before, although the stories about them were rife.
But she also faced a serious small pox epidemic, and while it raged, learned that some local people were immune after being scratched with a needle and rubbed with a mixture derived from cow pox.
She decided to try this on her children, to the horror of her friends, who felt she was exposing them to death.
The vaccinations took; or, at least, her children never contracted small pox.Because it was a momentous discovery, which over time saved millions of lives, a woman with no scientific training could not be credited with it.
That’s the past, and so far past we might think it no longer applies; but in fact, the rubbing out of my great-grandmother is a chapter from the same book.
When writing about that Sallie in my next book, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters—hers is the first of those lives—I had her letters, her notes for introductions to speakers at the Richmond Woman’s Club, and her pastel-tinted memoir, written for her six granddaughters (one of them was my mother), and suitably expurgated, as she would have believed.
All through these papers, her ability to soften reality shines like a candle in a silver sconce, and her brightness and abiding sense of humor also shed their gleams. It’s impossible to dislike or distrust a woman who wrote about her difficult life with such joy.
One of my favorite anecdotes about Sallie, which she recounts in her memoir, is the one about her daughter, Helena (my grandmother), who as a little girl loved insects; I have inherited her love of insects, as well as snakes, although I had no compunction about smashing a large wasp that stung my companion yesterday.
Sallie and Helena were packing steamer trunks for their annual summer trip, by sea, to Ireland, where Helena’s father, now dead, had been born.
Women’s clothes, or at least their voluminous underclothes, are always described by Sallie as “snowy, ” as girls are always “dainty…delicate…with lips like rose petals” etc.
Undeterred by the snowiness of her mother’s garments, Helena secreted a box of insects from the garden between the layers. Her mother, catching sight of it, said nothing.
But Helena’s conscience pinched her (a lively, biting conscience has come down through three generations of her female offspring; the males seem immune), and she told her mother about the box of insects.
Rather than upbraiding her, Sallie reminded her that the insects wouldn’t be happy in Ireland, and that they would miss the families left behind. If Helena put them back in the garden, they might still be able to find their relatives.
And so the little girl returned the bugs to their natural habitat.
So why was Sallie’s name not memorialized in the names of her six granddaughters and her numerous great-granddaughters, of whom I am one?
Well, I do have her name, although until I wrote The Blue Box, which will be published next month by Sarabande Books, I knew almost nothing about this great-grandmother nobody ever mentioned.
She led an exemplary life, a widow from her mid-twenties till her death sixty years later. She did not, as far as I know, break any of the rules. She was a devoted family woman, and she tried to fulfill what she saw as her Christian duty.
Those are old-fashioned virtues, hardly worth mentioning today.
But there is something more afoot here, and in the end, it is encouraging.
My three sons have not named any of their daughters or their sons for the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents they might once have sought to emulate.
There is only one repeat of a family name that reoccurred in many generations, and that seems to have been an attempt to rectify an early death.
So have we laid the past to rest at last, at long last?
But what will take the place of the humor and magnanimity Sallie so amply displayed?
Is it always paired with denial?