Today, I went to my parents’ house to help Dad organize another batch of Thalhimers items to donate to the Virginia Historical Society. Immediately, I got caught up in the story all over again. I so easily get lost in the drama of it all. The glamour, the creativity, the tension, the tireless work, the commitment, the loyalty. The sheer breadth and weight of the history Thalhimers spanned. That store endured and witnessed so much.
Dad said, “just go through it quickly and see if there’s anything you want to keep for your kids.” But I couldn’t go quickly. I spread things out on the floor and the pool table and gazed at them. I took pictures of pictures. A photo of Grandpa meeting President Gerald Ford. Another of Mary Martin…accompanied by a handwritten letter from her that sounded exactly what you’d think a missive from an actress in the 1950s should sound like. I ran a finger across the etched lettering on a card from Jackie Kennedy. I held a Western Union telegram from President John F. Kennedy asking Grandpa to attend a meeting at the White House. I smelled the musty scent of Amelia Thalhimer’s engagement album from 1877, full of handwritten poems and drawings from her long-forgotten friends. Dad and I turned the pages of Isaac Thalhimer’s prayerbook to find where he had written the birth and death dates of our ancestors in the center pages. Dad said, “can we part with these things?” Yes, we decided. We can part with them if it means we can share the story with others.
The only thing I kept was Grandpa’s Thalhimers charge card. I simply can’t part with it.
Today, six years after releasing my book, here’s the thing that struck me most: all of a sudden, I had complete clarity about the painstaking work that went into that book…and everything that I DIDN’T include. Perhaps I edited it too tightly and left out too much. I deeply regret not including detailed endnotes to show how much research went behind single sentences. I wish I could go back in time and show more of the seams on the underside of the nice, neat hemlines of my book.
A memory came flooding back to me. I was sitting in the hallway of the Richmond Ballet as a girl, putting my hair into a bun for class while watching the professional dancers remove their ballet shoes. And oh, their feet. They were bloodied and bruised. Covered in bandages. These dancers float like chiffon onstage, so effortless and fluid with their sparkling eyes and sculpted bodies and gazelle-like grace. You can’t see any of the blood or the bandages. Because they don’t want us to see that part. They want us to see the beauty of their art…not the pain.
Today, I realized the pain that went into crafting my book. I continue going to a chiropractor twice weekly to treat a degenerated disk in my lower back, largely a result of hunching over a desk for 12 years, reading and re-reading letters and books and articles and editing hundreds of pages of transcripts from interviews. I routinely got overwhelmed by the massive amount of territory I felt I needed to cover, and had panic attacks regularly. There were many days that I sat in a library for six hours without eating more than a granola bar. I’d calm myself down with the mantra “all you can do is your best.”
I’m a perfectionist, yet I’ve come to understand that perfection only dulls our sharpest blades the more we try to achieve it. In my attempt at perfection, I physically hurt myself in ways I’m still trying to heal…but you can’t see that part when you hold the book in your hands. You see a pretty turquoise cover encapsulating nice, neat stories and lovely images.
Writing a book was a painful process, but I hope some beauty came of it. The story still enchants me. And if my family could dedicate their lives to building a store for 150 years, a degenerated disk and some residual anxiety seems like a small price to pay to tell their extraordinary story.