Diaries and journals are wonderful sources for a personal historian. Although the bulk of their content usually focus on the mundane activities of life, even those events reveal a glimpse of the rhythms that develop as we cope with life, one day at a time.
Diaries also document the highs and lows of a life journey, sometimes in painfully intimate detail. Diaries can take you to uncomfortable places. As hard as it may be for you to read the words summoned from a person’s soul during difficult times, think about how difficult they must have been to write, knowing that someone someday was going to judge them through the prism of their own experiences.
Even though I’ve spent my entire working career as a journalist and a writer, I’ve never had the discipline to maintain a diary or journal. My dad’s mother, however, was a fastidious journal keeper, at least for the years 1952 through 1980. These years covered her life from around age 50 until shortly before her death at age 79.
While transcribing portions of four years of her diaries – 1952, 1953, 1970 and 1971 – I’ve come to know my grandmother in ways I never knew her while she was alive. Like many journal keepers, she was obsessed with the weather, duly noting each day’s high and low temperature and neatly tucking relevant weather-related newspaper stories between her diary’s pages.
She was an industrious person, always cleaning and cooking. Even as a widow in her late 60s she often cooked a full meal just for herself, including pie or cake for dessert. She was also insecure outside her home life, as entries about entering the workforce in her 50s show.
She went through a lot in the early 1950s, losing a couple of young grandchildren and being forced from her home for weeks because of a flood, but she also enjoyed trips to California, Florida and Cuba. Much of her journal concentrates on her and Grandpa’s varied and chronic aches and pains as they entered their later years and Grandma occasionally mentions her struggles with her faith. It’s riveting reading for me.
I’ve got 25 more years of her diaries to read. I’m looking forward to it.
Writing prompt of the day: Identify relatives who may have kept a diary. Do you know where their diaries are? Ask around. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Photo: Excerpt of Jessie M. Lehmer's 1953 diary. (Walter B. Lehmer collection).