Journals chronicle all types of moments
How long will anyone remember that the summer of 2013 went out as it came in – chilly and rainy? What was the beginning of autumn like last year? Beyond the weather, what do we remember about the important moments that vex, perplex, and delight our lives?
I can vouch for last autumn’s weather; it was fickle. A parade of rain, thunderstorms, sun and clouds marched through early fall, sometimes all in a single day. I know this because I keep a detailed journal.
I’m a big fan of journals. I think everyone should keep one – if not in detail, then to the extent of one’s time and ability. Weather is only a small topic in my notebooks. There are family trips, pets who have lived with us and passed on, Thanksgiving meals fully accounted for, friends gained and lost, birthdays, concerts, shows, and best of all – entire conversations. As moved as we are by the times we endure or celebrate, as convinced as we are that we’ll “never forget what happened that day” or with whom, we do forget an awful lot unless somebody writes it down.
I’ve kept a journal since I was in junior high school. That was a long time ago – long enough for those two years to be called “junior high.” I’ve lived through winter storms I thought I’d never forget, but we do forget as new storms cover those memories. In the pages that act as my memory, the ink is still clear – my 13-year-old self recording the night my father’s car broke down in a blizzard, forcing him to walk the remaining two miles home while we worried and longed for spring.
Journals of historic people populate library archives, offering posterity a look at the intentions and activities of men and women who achieved great feats. But it’s the records left by ordinary people that connect our everyday lives to the past lived by people like us, full of multitudes of stories, as every life is. Likewise, it will be the records we create of life in this place and time that will connect us to the future. The continuity of our essential humanity is evident in the journals and diaries that bridge past, present, and future. Though mores and manners and styles keep changing, our desires and hopes and emotions do not; they are as they always have been and will be still when our descendants seek to know us.
It’s fun to lapse into a nostalgic look at some old-timer’s diary, such as that of 12-year-old Frank Grover of Shumla. In 1866, he spent lots of time at school, unless he had to pick up stones or spread manure or plant potatoes. He wrote about the weather, enjoyed company and felt worried when a friend grew sick. His list of chores might give the impression his days were all work: cooking, hauling firewood, gathering bark, churning butter, haying, planting, sugaring, cleaning the buggy, making a fence, picking apples, and doing the “warsh.” However, there was balance in going to the fair and to an apple paring bee, not to mention a hefty dose of community spirit.
Caroline Cowles Richards also wrote about mid-19th century village life in 20 years’ worth of journals. Her excitement over Tom Thumb’s visit to Canandaigua, at a cost of ten cents for children and a quarter for adults, leaves no doubt as to the transcending allure of celebrity stardom. P.T. Barnum brought his circus to town too, including a retinue of creatures that excited Caroline and a troupe of half-dressed women that shocked her grandmother.
I will leave my descendants the details of what shocks or strengthens, delights, angers, thrills, or amuses me. There’s not a story-filled person in this place and time whose descendants would not want to know these details. So would future historians, just as historians today relish every tidbit of a Civil War soldier’s diary, regardless of how good or poor a speller he was. Our accumulated stories will delineate what we held as common and what made us unique.
If you don’t know what to write about today, reflect on something passed. Recently when I re-visited 2003, I came across an inconsequential July day when I wrote a little memoir backward every fifteen years to my birth. I had much to say about being fifteen, but not much about being born. So I wrote this: “Tread back 15 years and I am born. Nobody knows who I am, but I possess a wicked cowlick that presages many bad hair days.”
The mundane is filled with a richness that should be preserved. Every one of us has stories to tell. If you haven’t told them yet, it’s time to get going.
Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org