By Annette Cole Mastron, Communications Director for Southern Writers Magazine
I learned last week, a favorite author, Sue Grafton had died December 28, 2017. I had come to know her as a business friend, in recent years, but was an avid reader of her books since A is for Alibi. She was generous, kind, and encouraging to me and other authors around the globe. Her loyal friends and fans were stunned and saddened.
Sue is known best for her alphabet mystery book series, with her memorable protagonist, Private Investigator, Kinsey Millhone. As her fans know, Kinsey lives and works in 1970’s California. It was an era before cell phones and computers, where leg work meant actually doing physical investigation, not surfing the Internet for answers. On August 22, 2013, I wrote a blog post that highlighted planning your series protagonist titled, Think Ahead as your Character Develops. In this blog I referred to Sue Grafton’s purposeful plans for her series protagonist, Kinsey.
The Sue Grafton I knew was generous in sharing pieces of her life. Her last sharing with her friends and fans appeared on December 19, 2017 she shared this story on Facebook. “I have an amazing story to tell and I’m not sure where to begin. I think I’ll lay out events in the order they occurred, the most recent first. Just before Thanksgiving, I received a note on Facebook Messenger from a woman named Jenny G. No last name here in case she wants to remain the anonymous heroine of this tale. In her message she said she thought she had something that had belonged to my family. Of course, I wrote back as soon as I read her note. She told me that as a hobby she buys items from antique stores that she uses to furnish her own house and various rental properties. She must have an eye for value because she’d recently purchased a sturdy-looking travel trunk. When she opened it, she found five christening dresses, Chinese needlework, and several pieces of artwork from China. The name Letty Taylor Grafton surfaced and that’s why Jenny decided to track me down. I’m not sure how she figured out that Letty Taylor Grafton and I were related, but it speaks to her good sleuthing skills and her determination.
A Little Back Story-
Some of you may be aware that both sets of my grandparents were Presbyterian missionaries in China in the early days of the century. I believe my grandfather Grafton made the trip with his new wife, Letty, sometime in 1904 and my grandfather Harnsberger traveled to China in 1913 or so, accompanied by his wife, Lanie Gillespie and their daughter, Vivian, who was my mother. None of them could read or write Chinese, but learned to speak the language as they immersed themselves in the culture. Letty Taylor and my grandfather Grafton had three sons; Tom, Arthur, and my father Cornelius, whose nickname was Chip. I’m reasonably certain all three boys went through christening ceremonies decked out in these beautiful and delicate gowns. For reasons unknown, Letty developed an allergy to wheat, suffering a condition called sprue, which is also known as celiac disease. This chronic immune disorder results in anemia, gastrointestinal issues, and malabsorption of food. She died in China in February of 1925. Three months later, my grandfather Grafton married a woman named Mary Woods, thus scandalizing the Taylor family. By happenstance, several years earlier, my grandfather Harnsberger married Mary’s cousin, Agnes, after Lanie Gillespie’s death in 1917 of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. I was told that Lanie had been pregnant with twins, and died while my grandfather was making a three month circuit on horseback, preaching in the provinces. This, I’ve never had confirmed so it might just be family lore. He didn’t learn of her passing until he returned. My mother was nine years old. In my phone conversation with Jenny G., she told me she’d spotted an inventory list in the top of the trunk and it included mention of several quilts, which were nowhere in evidence. She whipped right back over to the antique store and asked what had become of them. Since the store doesn’t deal in textiles, the quilts had been tossed aside with the intention of throwing them out. Jenny rescued the lot of them and put them back in the trunk. The five quilts are in amazing condition. Though hand-sewn, they bear no hint as to the date they were made or the person or persons who did the intricate work. All women, I don’t doubt. There is also an appliquéd topper in need of finishing. If there’s anyone out there in Facebook land who knows a quilter, I’d love to hear from you. I have no idea if Letty and her sisters made the quilts and sent them along to China with her or if Letty and other missionary women did the piece work and the quilting while in China. I know there were a number of other families at the same station: Dr. and Mrs. Grier, Dr. and Mrs. McFadyen, the Browns, the Armstrongs and the Sydenstrikers, among them. As for the christening dresses, I have to assume they were worn by Letty’s three boys and other children during the formal church services and then tucked away for safe keeping. The artwork is clearly of Chinese origin; some on fragile paper and some on beautifully embroidered cloth. The trunk was purchased from a company called Taylor Trunk here in Louisville and I’m guessing my grandparents bought it to transport clothing and personal articles from Louisville to Hsuchonfu, which is where my two uncles and my father were born. The Taylor Trunk Company is still a presence in town; owned and managed by the same family for five generations so it’s likely that one of the Taylors made the sale. The trunk is in good condition. One of the leather handles has torn loose, but the locks and other hardware are fully functional. The address of the company is affixed to the front of the trunk on a metal plaque, with a note saying, ‘just across from the post office.’ Amusing to imagine Louisville as so small a town that customers would be given the location in terms of another downtown landmark. Here are the questions that arise: how did this travel trunk from Hsuchonfu, China, end up in Charlotte, North Carolina one hundred years later? More importantly, where has it been all this time? If Letty Taylor Grafton packed the trunk some time before her death in 1925, we have to be talking about a ten decade gap, during which the trunk and its contents were unaccounted for, but remained miraculously intact. There may be a few items missing, but the quilts and christening dresses have been accounted for along with the miscellaneous Chinese art.
There is one clue; a green hanging file folder that contains my grandfather Grafton’s obituary. He died Vicksburg Mississippi in 1963 at the age of 85. There is in that same file a 1943 newspaper article and photograph of my father, my mother, my sister, and me looking on at his first published novel, THE RAT BEGAN TO GNAW THE ROPE and a second clipping that touts his third published novel. Clearly, these were included at a later date when the trunk had already made its way to the United States. I’m currently leaning toward the theory that someone in the family took possession of the trunk at some point after Letty’s death. It’s possible her personal effects were sent back to Louisville and remained in the care of her sisters, who might well have passed the trunk down to the next generation as time went on. The notion doesn’t explain the geographical leap from Louisville Kentucky to the antique store in Charlotte, North Carolina, but circumstances might have dictated its destination. My point here is that I’m grateful to the many people through whose hands this trunk has passed. Granted, for anyone not connected to the Taylor family, the keepsakes would have no sentimental value, but it seems all the more remarkable to me strangers didn’t scavenge the items, taking what appealed and dumping the rest. The trunk and its contents are now in my keeping and I intend to be a good steward, nurturing this small bundle of history that has come so far. If anyone out there holds a piece of the puzzle, I’d love to know the details.
December 18, 2017”
She shared this experience just just 9 days before her death. It's like a little written nugget for her many friends and fans. Like so many readers of her post commented, we had hopes she would weave the story of “The Traveling Trunk,” into a Christmas tale as only Sue Grafton could do. I loved that she signed the post as her protagonist, Kinsey signed her PI written reports to clients when closing a case. You can see her pictures of the trunk and it’s contents on her Facebook page.
Several years ago, Sue wrote the book, Kinsey and Me. A reader who rated Sue’s book on Goodreads said, “Kinsey and Me: Stories is a rare treat for a mystery fan and for students of the writer's craft. The Kinsey short stories show exactly why Grafton has such a loyal following. They are fun and well crafted with surprisingly complexity for their given space. The ...and Me stories - more vignettes, really - are what push this collection into something special. They are raw and heartbreaking and beautiful; I applaud Grafton's courage and willingness to share them. To the fan, though, they are also a trove of unexpected insights into the character and world of Kinsey Millhone. It really is unusual to get to see so clearly how a fiction series is informed by the interior landscape of an author.”
Thank you, Sue Grafton for many enjoyable hours of reading and your friendship. You will be missed and for me, too “the alphabet now ends at Y.”