What it’s Like Reading My Grandmother’s 80 Year Old Journals

Transcribing Memory

I hold a relic in my hands.  80 year old paper cracks, flakes, and pages spill.  I groan but keep going, as careful as I can.  I am driven to learn, to reveal, and to share, while there’s still time.  Babu is our name for our grandmother and these are her diaries.

So far, I have gotten through two years, a painstaking process.  There is much to come: war, a family of her own, traveling to see the world, but right now, 1934 and 1935, she is just a girl full of teen angst and a daring to always do something well, to always try to win.  She wonders why she’s not popular and pines for a boy so distant from her, who she barely knows and is taken, and she ignores the boy that lives just upstairs from her.  For the most part.  When she is paying attention to the boy upstairs; “Caveman,” they are full of “Will we?  Wont we?” for at least two whole years.  She graduates, goes to college, goes to dances, and sends and receives letters.

At first, I was starry- eyed at learning more about her, her fears and hopes, the personality she had in her youth and her outlook on life.  But I was disappointed, almost, that it seemed so normal.  This is 80 years ago, why wasn’t there a ton of 1930’s slang?  And wasn’t this The Great Depression?  She didn’t talk about soup lines or The Dust Bowl, (although that was happening clear across the country.)  It was as I read further, and looked deeper, that I would see signs of the times.  Her high school closes for the month of November, 1934, because, simply, they didn’t have enough money to keep the doors open.  She listens to the radio and talks about radio shows like Hollywood Hotel.  She goes to the movies nearly every night.  This is life without TV, I guess!  In high school she is taught how to make a call out on a telephone (!!!) but never talks about making any calls.  It seemed no one she knew, including herself, had a phone yet.  Her friends always have to find a car to use because they weren’t as prevalent, her family never had one.  When they do manage to get a car, Babu will write about sitting in the rumble seat and “taking corners on two wheels!”  So some passages do, in fact, reveal iconic images of the past.

One of the neatest things, a thing I’ve geeked out over a couple of times, is reading stories in the pages of her journal that she has sat with me and told me many times.  She told me the story a million times about getting a hair cut and how J. Stefanik, who sat behind her in class, told her it looked awful.  And then I read that exact story, written down in diary pages 80 years ago!  There’s this exciting type of vertigo, almost like a folding of time, when it almost doesn’t seem real, what I’m reading.

Sharing these passages with Babu is a beautiful experience.  I type up the passages, enlarge the font and sit with her as she reads out loud and we talk about what she remembers.  Mostly she will tell me the same four or five stories no matter what we are reading about so I value getting to know more about her in her handwritten pages.  I also value hearing the old stories again and again.  She’ll also pass down gems of advice and perspective.  I talked to her once about my passion for writing and I told her that I don’t know if what I write is any good.  She told me: “Don’t think about it.  Just do it.”  The other day she asked how old she was in these journals and I told her, 18.  She replied:  “That’s a bad age.”  When I asked her why, she takes some time to think and then says “You don’t know anything yet and you worry about things you shouldn’t.”  This woman is right on and I benefit a great deal from this experience.  Nothing has made me feel more a part of my husband’s family than this.  This experience is healing for me because I have lost my grandmothers and grandfathers.  In my family, no one is left.  We don’t last until 98 like in this family.

babu.jpeg

I sometimes wonder what this process is like for her.  She tells me “thank you” after every time we read passages together yet she says she doesn’t know why I bother.  I think she feels like her life isn’t important or interesting.  She’s just being humble because I’m not bored reading these and certainly neither is she.  She’ll snort with laughter over some goofy thing she wrote 80 years ago or look up from the page and say someone’s name, get a far off look, and say something like:  “My best friend Zosh.  I loved her.”  She’ll say it full of emphasis.  She’ll ask a lot of questions and we’ll talk for a while getting a much needed distraction from the things she’ll worry over in the newspaper, mostly the drought, Trump, and pot legalization.   I think when she wonders why I bother it is also because her passages, at first glance, are simply a record of her day.  They seem detached and clinical.  She will write the titles and starring actors in the movies she sees that day and matter-of-factly begin a passage about a murder in the neighborhood and end it with informing her diary that she got a perm that day.  The diaries of the day were already printed with the date of every day with small prescribed passages with only about five lines each.   Babu felt it very important to follow the rules, stay in the prescribed lines and write every single day.  It didn’t leave a lot of space for emoting, just recording.  This is the greatest exercise in close reading, close enough sometimes to read between the lines.  It’s the most exciting clue hunt I have ever been on.  And every once in a while she writes an emotive passage spilling a little amount of her guts.  Usually it was insecurity over not being popular or pining over her true romantic feelings for Drobey although on most days she didn’t want to admit it.  For the most part, however, the simplicity of the daily record format makes this process a lot less awkward.  I’m not reading these to find out some dirt, I’m reading them to learn more about her.  So it’s perfect.   I think she benefits from reading and sharing her journals with me greatly, emotionally and socially, and I wonder if it helps her brain function, if it is helping to stave off the dementia or the Alzheimer’s I can sometimes see peaking around the corner.

And sometimes I’m chilled to the bone when I realize that these pages are haunted, full of ghosts.  Not one of her classmates, neighbors, or dear, dear friends is alive.  The family she grew up with are all gone, too.  When I bring back memories for her, I am bringing back memories of ghosts, of loss.

When I think of her at Zosh’s funeral, kissing her lips to her finger tips, placing her hand on her best friend’s cheek and saying: “See ya later toots,” I wonder if the pain is overwhelming and is barely kept at bay, or does her age, or something else about her, give her a peaceful perspective.  Do these diaries remind her that she is the very last one left? But that’s not true, she has her children, her grandchildren, who take very good care of her, now two beautiful great grandchildren, she is still in her house and she will be staying in her home until the end.  Maybe she knows she’ll be seeing Zosh again, and her husband, and her parents.  And maybe even those rowdy neighborhood boys, Drobey and Teddy again.  Maybe that is comforting.

Caretaking for someone elderly is a dizzying experience.  To see someone older, wiser, someone who has seen and done things you can’t compare to, but some one frail, weak, sometimes confused.  It’s looking both into the future and staring mortality down learning every day that soon she will loose and one day you will loose, too.  Reading these journals helps me escape that really.  There’s an feeling of immortality to writing down a whole life.  Her life and the lives of everyone included in these pages is being honored, at least, that is what I’m aiming to do.

And, it is helping me do the one thing and the only thing you can do to prepare for someone you love to leave you.  Live with no regrets.  Spend time with them and don’t do or not do or say things you’ll regret.  If you know you are going to wish it was different when that person is gone, make it so now.  Spend time and share stories.  Listen.

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4 thoughts on “What it’s Like Reading My Grandmother’s 80 Year Old Journals

  1. So moving…thats all I can say…and why I have many journals from the last 20 or so years … beautiful. Say hi to the star of her journals from me- I felt truly connected to your Husbands Grandmother reading that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredibly rich an experience you are having with Babu and her diaries and what fascinating tidbits you’re gleaning from the diaries like the closing of the school for November because of lack of funds. And the whole business of the introduction of the telephone – what a hoot! When I read these things I think we are a spoiled rotten society with all our “stuff” that really isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. Babu’s of the world and their loving family – that’s what matters.

    Liked by 1 person

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