Ninety inches tall from the top of its cornice to the bottom of its restored cabriole legs, the Louisiana Federal Creole armoire is a rare beauty. She gleams like a big mahogany drum in my Yankee parlor on Long Island and has been here since the millennium, the year after my mother died in New Orleans, and the year my husband and I bought and moved into this house paid for, in part, with money from the sale of my childhood home in the Garden District. The work of a master ébéniste or cabinetmaker known as the Butterfly Man, the armoire, made circa 1810, is constructed primarily of mahogany. There are a total of seventeen known Butterfly Man armoires, only six of which are made of mahogany, which makes this one so rare. Inlaid intertwined vines with swagged bellflowers climb the door's false stile, a divider between two book-matched door panels. The scalloped skirt bears a jabot with rope-and-tassel bows. Near the cornice is a frieze of marquetry-inlay; a compote with Dali-like wildflowers hovering over a pond with waterlilies.

The word juju (joujou French origin, 'plaything') is a spiritual belief system incorporating objects, like amulets, and spells, used superstitiously in West African religious witchcraft. Juju also means a talisman imbued with power, magical or otherwise. There is good juju and bad. Once purchased to house clothes for wealthy people, the armoire held juju from my past and the past of my southern family. It was many things. The armoire represented what my family no longer was when I came into their lives—prominent New Orleans society members, direct descendants on two sides from Jefferson Davis, with money (my great grandfather, Edgar Howard Farrar, was a lawyer and one of the founders of Tulane University); a mausoleum for sundries and clothes of the living and the dead; and the place I hid my adolescent diaries when I redeployed to New York.

Those diaries were confessional and held secrets. I lost my virginity at age fifteen with a friend of my mother Maud Ellen's—a man she'd welcomed into our house since I was a girl—a month before my father's suicide. I evolved into a young adult with a myriad of addictions whose lifeline was her diary. Depressed and hyper-graphic, I recorded every obsessional thought I had as well as an ever-increasing tally of lovers totaling some hundred-and-thirty men and a few women, from 1974 until I left New Orleans fifteen years later. I had an insatiable need for attention. The only thing paying attention to me at my family's home on Chestnut Street was my diary.

Originally, the armoire sat in a dark corner of my childhood bedroom, like a bad juvenile, next to a cypress doorway, the heat from the hall floor furnace blasting up its side on winter days, splitting the side panel nearest the threshold.

"Oh, it has nothing to do with the furnace. That happened eons ago," said Maud Ellen, when I questioned its then precarious position.

The split was a metaphor for our lives. The armoire was a metaphor for us, too.

The bedroom had belonged to my maternal grandmother Mamoo, relinquished to me when my mother fled my paranoid schizophrenic father and moved us in when I was a baby. It was a smart idea. Godfrey had regular psychotic breaks before his eventual suicide at age thirty-nine. I saw him perhaps four or five times in my life. He always appeared impromptu and disappeared as quickly as he'd arrived.

I was an asthmatic child and used to bang my forehead on the crib mattress to get to sleep. The rhythmic movement of my head making impact inched the crib across the floorboards at night. By morning, it pressed into the armoire's right panel. Despite my mother repositioning the crib every day, it inched back, pressing against the hinge and eventually breaking it.

The furniture and furnishings and letters in Chestnut Street had always been for sale. Like characters in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, my mother and grandmother sold the past to pay for their present. Neither woman worked; Mamoo never held a paying job and my mother's long lunches regularly got her fired. We lived rent-free in the downstairs apartment of a family-owned rental house in the Garden District of New Orleans. We subsisted off my dead grandfather Stamp Farrar's pension, Social Security, and family dole outs. And from the money gotten by selling off family-owned furniture and historical letters my mother peddled sub rosa. My grandfather Stamps had the foresight to donate fifty original Jefferson Davis letters to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before his death, thus saving those documents from the auction block. There was so much selling, I grew up believing if Maud Ellen could have gotten the right price, she would have sold me.

The armoire, however, was never up for grabs. Neither my mother nor Mamoo knew its true worth. If they did, they would have sold it. Louisiana collectors discovered a small group of armoires (ca. 1800-25) during the early twentieth century and named their anonymous maker the Butterfly Man. His work didn't become more widely known until the 1970's. Even then this was the knowledge of a few private collectors. The significance of these cabinets, and hence their monetary value, flourished after being included in the book Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835, published by the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2009.( Pictures and documentation of my armoire appear on pages 208-215 in Chasing the Butterfly Man [The Search for a Lost, New Orleans Cabinetmaker, 1810-1825] by Cybele Gontar, Louisiana Museum Foundation, 2019.)

After my mother's death, I discovered a note in Mamoo's looping vertical handwriting, a short informal will.

"To my daughter, Maud Ellen Farrar, I leave the bulk of my possessions, but to my granddaughter, Lucinda Kempe Farrar, I leave my Sheraton armoire and my wedding ring."

Mamoo's note misidentifying the armoire proved she didn't know what it was. Ironically or humorously or both, the note also misidentified me. Farrar wasn't my name legally. The name on my birth certificate was Kirkpatrick, my father's surname, which as a Southern Gothic footnote was the name of his mother's third husband, a man who’d adopted my father. Family lore said he put his head in the oven to kill himself, thought better of it, and divorced her instead.

My mother had always told me everything at Chestnut Street was hers.

When I left home, I hoped to put my history behind me. In 1999, ten years after leaving New Orleans, my mother died intestate. I was living in Astoria, Queens with my Greek husband—a man I'd met in the Decatur Street Greek bars a year before I fled—and our two reproductions. Moments before the Formosan termites discovered during the house inspection got to the armoire, I trekked back to Chestnut Street to get the "goods"—forty-some-odd pieces of antique furniture and furnishings in various states of disrepair, and thousands of family letters beginning before the Civil War, hundreds of books, and sierras of high- and low-end junk that would fill two-hundred-and-fifty thirty-three-gallon garbage bags. Enough emotional baggage to re-sink the Titanic. I was blissfully unaware of the ramifications of assuming possession of things from a past I had never dealt with emotionally.

I went home only four times after I left. Returning to Chestnut Street was excruciating. I had put my diaries in the armoire for safekeeping. On one of those earlier visits, I found the notebooks had vanished

"Mama," I'd said, using a term of affection I employed when desperate, "My journals were in the bottom right-hand corner. Where are they?"

"I have no idea, dear."

"You threw them away!"

"I don't throw away things. You're imagining it and overreacting as usual," she said, beginning her retreat.

My mother was always retreating and deflecting my advances. We had our own private Uncivil War. I don't remember if I pursued her or if I caused a scene. Likely I did and blocked the memory.

Unlike the other furniture rotating from room to room to replace furniture which had been sold, the armoire remained in its corner, enduring the fluctuating New Orleans temperatures, humidity and blistering heat slipping through the non-hermitically sealed windows and doorways of the house, and the periodic cold snaps that burst water pipes and made my childhood bedroom icy despite the floor furnace in the hall. Secured with an iron hook and eye latch from the inside, the left-hand armoire door was never opened. Stored inside were clothes belonging to Mamoo and her two sisters: Moosie, the svelte Garbo lookalike, who committed suicide a year after the death of her beloved husband (Walter Stauffer was a Cuban sugar plantation owner and impromptu furniture maker), and Tita, the spinster sister, who suffered from what the family referred to as "catatonia" (now considered a dissociative disorder) and ended up dying in the state asylum at Jackson, a notorious Louisiana mental asylum, one my father had been in many times.

Insanity ran in the family. My mother called herself the head geriatric, psychiatric nurse of the "Crisis Center," her term for our house. Geriatric referred to Mamoo; psychiatric referred to me. I had a breakdown a few years after my father's death and spent ten days in the East Louisiana State Hospital in Mandeville, another infamous institution my father had revolved in and out of until his death.

The armoire was a mausoleum, its contents rarely disturbed. On an aluminum cross beam nailed into wooden sections glued on either side at the top of the cabinet hung relics of Great Aunt Moosie's: her purple velvet dressing gown lined in satin muslin with a back panel ending in a great tassel, a bugle-beaded, high-collar opera cape, and assorted 1940s dresses with shoulder pads, some of which Maud Ellen wore as carnival or Halloween or lets-go-surprise-the-neighbors-in-a-mad-moment costumes. (The crossbeam was a crazy later addition to the cabinet's interior. Almost as crazy as the original cabriole legs begin cut off. Yet, it strengthened the armoire and prevented its being destroyed by the long move from New Orleans to Long Island.) Tita's 1907 Edwardian tea dress with its "pouter pigeon" bust and half-dozen lace tiers, which I wore as my wedding dress, hung alongside Moosie's clothing. My grandmother's wool suits she'd worn to the Quarante Club or Les Causerie du Lundi—her ladies' writing groups—and a black suit, its jacket trimmed with a satin bow, hung next to her uniform. Corduroy Lands' End wrap skirts dimpled with cigarette burns and dirty, tailored blouses. She died wearing those clothes on her daybed in her makeshift bedroom in the parlor, a greasy streak running along the footboard made by one of our unwashed dogs.

Alongside the clothes, the armoire held Great-Grandmother Mummy's initialed sterling creamer and sugar bowl. Mummy's portrait hung in my bedroom. Painted by Theodore Sidney Moïse, a painter of the southern aristocracy in the 1870s, the large portrait dominated the room the way Mummy dominated her five children. Mummy's wedding gifts ended up relegated to a corner underneath Mamoo's tattered clothes. It was fitting. According to a cousin, Mummy had been unspeakably cruel to my grandmother Mamoo, her eldest child and plainest daughter.

The lower drawers contained old bed linens and napkins with the hand-embroidered initials of family names: W for White, F for Farrar, and T for Tobin, Mummy's maiden name.

And, of course, the armoire once held those confessional adolescent diaries filled with lurid reportage. I'd placed them at the back, right-hand corner above the armoire's one set of interior drawers next to Mummy's hidden silver. I didn't think of the irony—my dirty little confidences nestled against the elegant sterling.

One March afternoon, 1999, after I'd arrived from New York to get my mother's ashes and dismantle Chestnut Street, a man materialized at the front door, holding a Tupperware of red beans and rice, and introduced himself as Maud Ellen's "friend." Peter had a certain renown. He spent a year in Orleans Parish Prison for allegedly stealing funerary statues and urns from graveyards, something he denied. My mother didn't have friends, per se. She had people she used, but I needed someone to use, too, so I hired him to make an insurance appraisal of the furniture and furnishing.

Peter was so familiar, a homosexual like my mother's men friends I knew growing up. Everyone was homosexual, it seemed. Even the realtor, a Confederate genealogist, and one of my mother's Confederate enthusiast friends, was gay. He'd warned me about Peter, but I didn't care. This was drama and I was dramatic like my mother and grandmother before me.

We began in the parlor, and then moved down the hall to my former bedroom where he skulked up to the armoire.

"Oh, um…wait!" he said, stuttering in his Patoutville patois. "I have to get my, uh, light."

He returned with an excavator's lamp and pointed to the dove-tailed joints inside.

"The marks," he said, swooning, "of the Butterfly Man."

In addition to the inlay pattern, the Butterfly Man's armoires have his signature use of double-dovetail joints on the inside panels. Used to strengthen the panels from the shrinkage and expansion due to the semi-tropical New Orleans climate, the joints look more like moths than butterflies.

Later, we sat in the dining room at a makeshift table made by Great Uncle Walter Stuffer. It served as the replacement of a Regency mahogany table my mother had sold years earlier. We were drinking wine; the dust-impregnated paper Mardi Gras ball hung suspended over our heads. Mardi Gras was Maud Ellen's favorite holiday, hence the perpetual decoration. The alcohol loosened my tongue, and I began telling Peter my life story, especially about the escapades with my mother and the Greek sailors in the merchant marine bars on Decatur Street. I had a habit of telling everyone, including strangers, everything about my life. When I later asked my therapist why I did this, she said,

"Probably because you're a writer and assume that everyone is as interested in you as you are in yourself."

And I confessed I'd called up Anne Rice, who'd lived in a big Italianate mansion catty-corner from my house, one night when I was drunk and told her I was a writer, too. I was a diarist not a published writer in 1999. I lied to Anne and Peter to make myself sound like more than just a housewife. I was half out of my mind the month I dismantled my childhood home alone. My husband wisely stayed in New York to take care of the children.

"You're going to die when I tell you what the ahhmm-oire is worth," Peter said, consuming the word when he pronounced it. "Twenty thousand dollars, more if restored. You'll have to get rid of those block feet."

The squared block feet were aberrant. The original cabriole legs had been cut off for some unknown reason. A question of its height fitting in a southern house with twelve-foot-high ceilings couldn't have been the cause for the dismemberment. I had the ébéniste from the Renaissance Shop restore the legs using Cuban mahogany, reattach the right-hand door panel with a restored brass hinge, reconstruct its lock, and brighten the wood by hand-waxing.

During its restoration, I got a phone call from an antique collector who'd seen it at the shop offering me thirty-five thousand dollars cash. A madman, I'd thought as I turned him down. I couldn't sell the armoire just as it finally became mine. My mother didn't offer a wedding present. She'd "loaned" me a Great Aunt's 1907 Edwardian pouter pigeon dress, which she took back after the ceremony. As she was dying, I prayed to a God I didn't believe in for her to go so I could have the furniture and furnishings, as if this could possibly make me happy or make up for the neglectful past. The truth is, we all have unhealthy attachments; things like the armoire identify who we'd been socially, and, in my case, if my past didn't have love, then the objects themselves become the beloved.

As the movers carried the armoire into the sunlight after decades of its sitting in the dark corner of my childhood bedroom, it felt as if it was me emerging into the light. Unfortunately, my inheritance enshrouded me into a new chrysalis.

I spent eight thousand dollars from the sale of Chestnut Street restoring furniture and I used the rest of the money from the sale to buy a new house with my husband. A hundred-year-old Arts & Crafts style house on Long Island, number 24, the number an eerie halving of 2419, the address of my New Orleans home.

"Darling, don't buy a house for your mama's furniture," my Farrar cousin warned me when we were house hunting in 2000.

Long Island offered more acreage and was cheaper than Astoria. We'd lived on 9th and Avenue B in the Christadora across from Tompkins Square Park before the move. I came to New York because thirteen hundred miles seemed a long way from the Confederacy. I never felt connected to the South. The one time I attended a Davis family reunion, my mother introduced herself as a "Double Davis" and said I had been "watered down" by her marriage to my father, whose family wasn't anything socially.

So, of course I bought a house for my beloveds. A year after we moved in, the restored furniture were transported north. I placed the big pieces, including the armoire, in the parlor I call 'The Federal Museum." Most of the furniture from Chestnut Street was from the Federal Period.

When my former middle school French teacher—another self-imposed southern émigré who had moved to New York years before me—stepped into the parlor, she gasped.

"Kempe, it's just like Chestnut Street. How can you bear it?"

I couldn't bear it. For nine months after my mother died, I drank until I had the shakes, the shits, and a non-stop headache. Then pregnant with words, I stopped drinking, and for ten, uninterrupted sober months, I wrote about my former life in New Orleans, a first draft memoir, tentatively titled "The Dirty Debutantes' Daughter" (or "Mummy, Mamoo, Maud Ellen & Me"). My adolescent diaries formed the basis for the work. At five hundred pages I stalled; not another word came. I returned to the diary writing, the only kind of writing I knew how to do, and resumed drinking, mothering, and being a wife, on and off, until I collapsed.

It came in the form of a betrayal. I had a seven-year, online auto-erotic affair with a sexy Cuban academician I'd met at Loyola University, a man I reconnected with virtually after my mother died. How can I describe him? He was a doctor of metaphysics not unlike my Newcomb philosophy major mother. Both were brilliant and emotionally elusive. I have fun imagining him as a combination of Gilbert Osmond from Portrait of a Lady and Dorian Gray, but who would I be? He turned out to have a bevy of adoring women like me from his past.

Instead of dealing with my feelings after my mother's death, I became the teenage girl who'd do anything for attention, as I did after my father's demise. And inadvertently, I became my mother, the very thing I never wanted to be, an emotionally remote woman, nursing past wounds, encircled by objects from that past, and ensorcelled in a fantasy world to assuage her own unhappiness. I couldn't articulate how I felt about what had happened to me in the years following my father's death, or about facing my addictions.

At times, I hated the furniture and what it represented—love's absence. I never felt loved by my mother or Mamoo or my father. He, at least, had a diagnosis as an excuse for not parenting. Here I'd found my mother's cold replacement who only offered a physical love, disembodied at best. All I had were my mother's things most manifest by the armoire. I also had a young family, but I was more interested in the past than I was interested in them. Sobriety and therapy gave me the courage to examine myself and reexamine the early draft memoir—a prolix explosion of words. I didn't know how to structure a story. I also made another discovery. Sexual acting out is a means of staving off grief, something I read in a Donald Hall essay where he confessed to a period of sexual excess following the death of his beloved wife Jane.

My therapist never linked grief with sex. In essence, I saved myself.

My mother and grandmother were intelligent women. They read voluminously—my mother quoted from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, even dressed as T.E. Lawrence every Marti Gras with her own agal and keffiyeh; my grandmother wrote short stories and essays, including one on the British naval officer Sir Francis Drake. They had ongoing conversations about Verdi, for example, whose operas they listened to and life history they read about. I remember my grandmother humming a Brahms piano concerto motif to a friend of mine.

"She's in the wrong key, but the melody is note perfect," said Marianne, a pianist.

They made great characters on the page. In real life, my mother and grandmother were engulfed by their own disconnections, and more interested in phenobarbital and booze and books than parenting a wild teenage me. In their defense, I became a mini Caligulette, terrorizing them with tantrums, and acting out to get attention. So maybe they were just sad. I was sad, too.

In hindsight, both women and my father, who was an unpublished poet and short story writer, gave me the gift of language.

Despite what I didn't get, I wouldn't be writing this if not for them.

Standing in my parlor today, I turn the key in the armoire's reconstructed lock and open the door. Sunlight streams into the interior exposing the Butterfly Man's signature joints. Cracks in between the shrunken back panels reveal the parlor's green wallpaper behind it. The clothes are gone. Inside are keepsakes: rotten linen napkins with the hand-embroidered F for Farrar, my connection to the grandfather I never knew, someone's Playboy Bunny handkerchief from God knows who or what adventure, and four linen curtains depicting seventeenth century ladies in corseted waists and men in frockcoats and leggings that had once hung in the downstairs front parlor. And, within, a box of eighty Civil War letters from my multiple-great grandfather Isaac Davis Stamps to his wife, Mary Humphreys. In one prescient letter penned before he was shot through the bowels at Peach Orchard, just before the Battle of Gettysburg, he writes:

I have a handsome sword, a present from Uncle Jeff., one made at Macon, Geo inscribed, "To Gen'l Jeff. Davis, 1st Presdt C.S." - If I get safely home it will be an heirloom in our little family that my little ones will prize & if I should fall I bequeath it to you & my daughters for them to hand it down as a legacy the only one their father had to give."

I sold Davis's sword to finance my graduate degree in writing. Given to Jefferson Davis by the Continental Congress, the standard-issue sword itself wasn't worth more than a few thousand dollars, but its connection to Davis gave it historical cachet and made it much more valuable. I included Isaac's poignant letter in the sale. The inscription on the blade was almost obliterated. The letter verified the inscription's existence. I also sold two other letters establishing provenance.

It was a private sale; the buyer remained anonymous. We spent a month negotiating. At one point, when the offer was close, but not close enough to the six-figure reserve, I told Christie's to forget it. The buyer caved. I knew they would. When you have money and want something badly what's another twenty thousand dollars? Plus, I didn't care. I could have kept the sword and sold it down south. I'd grown up in the Garden District surrounded by rich people who'd bought big Greek Revival houses as if by buying them they assumed the history of the house. I suspected my buyer of the same thinking. But you can't own history. History is earned by being born into it. Isaac's sword was part and parcel of a dirty bloody chronicle of the Old South, a history that's mine too, despite my trying to drink, screw and write it away.

In hindsight, I'd finessed a big sale, which gave me conflicted feelings considering my mother's sub-rosa sale's prowess. But I'd had a goal to get my M.F.A. Spending the tuition money forced me to finish my memoir, chapters of which have been published.

I imagine myself in my childhood bedroom then—maybe nine or ten-years-old—facing the right-hand panel of the armoire, a fat kid pencil in my hand, steeling myself to commit vandalism. The nub pushes into the soft old wood. One downward stroke followed by a sideways loop bisecting the line makes K. K is for Kempe, the name my mother called me. Emboldened, I make a lowercase k to keep the uppercase letter company. By branding the armoire with my initials back then, I secretly assumed possession of this object.

In a certain slant of light, the two letter Ks are still visible. I made them in the center of the right-hand panel near the lock, the same side as the once broken hinge. I marvel at the audacity of the act. Perhaps branding the armoire was a way of making my imprint on something I believed might vanish like my father and the many peddled pieces of furniture. The bed I'd slept in as a teenager, a large four-poster with carved posts of acanthus leaves and pineapples, was sold to a woman from Texas. Maud Ellen informed the buyer, "Jefferson Davis spent nights here," a blatant lie to make the sale.

I never fit into either my mother or grandmother's world, a world which never seemed to have had enough room for a bright, only child who needed a different kind of parenting than the one I received. Perhaps the explanation for my vandalism was simpler. Initialing the wood might make the armoire unsalable.

The adolescent diaries, source material for my memoir, I did indeed find. They were in the little yellow room upstairs at Chestnut Street, still intact. My packrat mother, whom I accused of having thrown them out, hadn't after all.

Sometimes I still debate selling this potent juju, but Peter suggested something else,

"Honey, if you write that story, you'll never have to sell anything again in your life."

As with the initialed armoire, no one may ever notice my sleight of hand.

Images provided courtesy of Lucinda Kempe.