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.
Sallie was my great-grandmother, for whom I was named. Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1850, she was a girl during the Civil War, when Richmond was the capitol of the Confederacy, besieged and surrounded by some of the most vicious battles of the war; yet this incredible optimist saw it all as hardly less sunny than her safe and secure life on East Franklin Street, surrounded by kin.
Sallie thought of the phases of her life in terms of relationships, and in terms of clothes: the dress made from homespun and decorated with rick-rack during the days of the blockade; the first woolens to reach Richmond when a blockade-runner broke through; her wedding dress, worn so often to parties in her husband’s northern Ireland it lost its glow, due, people thought then, to the fading effect of candle light; and then, after her husband’s early death from tuberculosis, the little white bonnet she made as a signal that her year of deep mourning, all in black, was over.
I’ve inherited the two fans that symbolize her marriage and honeymoon. Her marriage fan, gracefully decorated with hand-painted pink rose, leafy tendrils and larkspur by a Richmond woman known for this work, was handsomely framed by her daughter, my grandmother, as a gift to me, which I only received a few years ago, after my mother’s death. Mother probably explained the omission by thinking that I, as a young woman and ambitious writer, would never have time or place for such an artifact in my New York life.
Of course, she was mistaken.
The other fan, a delicate lace affair on ivory spokes, was bought by my grandfather in Paris where he and his bride spent their honeymoon; my eldest son made a shadow box for the little fan, topped with a somber photograph of Sallie, with a black velvet ribbon around her neck.
These two fans, and the clothes Sallie wore, remind me of the far greater significance we give now to the meaning of those choices, once derided as silly and superficial. The death of Anne Hollander this past week, called “Scholar of Style” in her New York Times obituary, testifies to this change of attitude: “The art of dressing is the art we all practice,” she used to say. And, at the Los Angeles County Museum this past weekend I saw an exhibit of modernist art that included, as a matter of course, dresses and furniture.
Now I consider my fans with increased reverence, especially as I embark on the task of shipping their owner’s letters, on which the first chapter of “The Blue Box” is based, off to an archive, where they will be conserved.
It is a little like letting go of a beloved person’s hand.