|The priceless (but not valuable) treasures on this table include
falling-apart Bibles, black-feather handfans, 100-year-old
medical school diplomas, and letters. So many letter.
My kitchen smells funny. It’s that acid-paper, old-glue, pink-mold-covered-photograph smell known to permeate museums and “private collection” sections of libraries worldwide. It’s not a bad smell; it’s just a distinctive smell. It conjures memories of writing graduate theses, opening grandmas’ hope chests, and working at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. When it isn’t in my kitchen I actually like this smell of nostalgia–unless I inhale fumes from pink-mold-covered photographs and must run for my hot-pink Benadryl. (Stupid allergies.) Why does my kitchen smell like the Vatican? As the very-unofficial family historian, I have temporary physical custody of all the old letters, photographs, and memorabilia of my Granny Womack and her ancestors.
Just before my David and I moved to Colorado, we asked my family if we could take “the trunk.” My Papa Womack, who would die only 9 days after we left Tennessee, gave his blessing as did my father and my aunts. This meant the world to me. Stored inside the Victorian-era luggage is everything my Granny and her Aunt Bessie deemed valuable: over 100-years’-worth-of love letters, angry letters, bad kids’ artwork, school report cards, and newspaper clippings; a flapper’s dress, a black-feather handfan, and a baby’s black-leather slipper.
My great grandaunt Bessie died in 1984 when I was three years old, but she ended up with a starring role in my book. She is the last woman I profile. She lived a book-worthy life: she lost her first husband to suicide, spent her career serving the people of Virginia as a tuberculosis nurse, and survived the violent rape by and pardoning of her assailant. The details of these events are only now becoming clear as I read old letters and newspaper articles. Her strength of spirit inspires me. Aunt Bessie never had her own children but raised my Granny Womack, and my family considers Aunt Bessie to be our matriarch (now three generations beyond her). Her example teaches me how a woman can be a mother when she has no children and a saint when she sometimes lacks virtue.