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.
As I constructed this, my newest book, to be published this month by Sarabande Books, I wove my way through the handwritten letters of my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my grandmother, whose lives span the last half of the nineteenth century through the last years of the twentieth.
I soon realized that my narrative would not only quote these letters and supply the historical context. It would also depend on my ability to read between the lines.
Decorum and denial united to suppress some vital elements of personal and historical truth for these three women. My great-grandmother Sallie (for whom I am named) and my grandmother Helena could never mention or even refer obliquely to the facts of their femaleness, the crises of puberty, childbirth and weaning, the eternal questions about the meaning of sex.
This blanking out is, in my mind, related to the blanking out of inconvenient historical facts: slavery, for Sallie, the African-Americans slaves who waited on the family in their Richmond house and on their two plantations were devoted servants, members of the white family; for Helena, the descendants of these slaves were grotesques, nearly useless as helpers because of their ignorance and what she would have called their shiftlessness; for my mother, in the era of integration, these essential figures were not mentioned at all.
So the heart and soul of my book lies in the vibrant silences I heard between the lines, silences that translated themselves into words as I wrote. The Blue Box does not share the soft glow that softens the details of so many family histories; its light approaches a glare. For, when I chose to write about upper-white women in Virginia, I knew I was making a choice in many ways alien for me; I have always been more interested in the lives of the people, largely women, who according to our culture do not count.
Sallie, Helena and especially my mother Mary believed devoutly that they did count, in their families, and in their communities. Perhaps they could only maintain the stance of privilege by ignoring much of what was happening around them during decades of violence and injustice; perhaps denial seemed worth it or even essential to their social survival.
Now I invite my readers to read what I found between the lines, where I believe the truth exists.