My grandmother is sixteen years old. She is an only child, a straight-A student, a passionate lover of blue skies and green trees and white, banky clouds. Her name is Pattie Anne. She shares the name — except for the “Anne” — with her mother. She has a crush on a boy named Junior Easter, whom she has nicknamed Bunny. She is in love with her best friend, Mary, who has a nervous condition that keeps her out of school for weeks at a time. Her other best friend, Helen, lives in a tall Victorian right across the street and they take many walks together around the small, thriving town of Harriman, Tennessee — to school, to church, the park, the movies.
Pattie sees lots of movies — mostly at The Princess, right there on Roane Street — and most of them evoke intense feelings in her. They teach her how to live her life, show her the kind of person she wants to be. She writes about them in her diary, along with everything else she experiences. Pattie is nothing if not a writer. Few things thrill her more than the dance of pen on paper.
Pattie is also a dedicated piano player. She practices every day, with rare exceptions. Some days her fingers fly and others they won’t comply at all.
And Pattie loves to sing. She does so almost constantly around the house, loud enough for her next-door neighbor and long-time playmate, George McClure, to hear. Sometimes he joins in and their voices harmonize through the open windows. Pattie’s father is a singer, too. A soloist in the church choir and probably many fire towers. His job with the Forest Service necessitates his regular absence, leaving Pattie and her mother to fend for themselves. They get along swimmingly. If no rules are ever broken they get along swimmingly. Otherwise, my great-grandmother can hold a wicked grudge.
But she’s not the only one. When Pattie was about five years old she was either caught in the act or later confessed to engaging in sexual play with the little neighbor boy, Jimmy. Her mother shamed her and took the information to Pattie’s father, who proceeded to ignore her for weeks as part of the child’s punishment. No talking at the dinner table. Not even any eye contact. Certainly no affection. As a college sophomore Pattie would reflect on the “Jimmy incident” and contemplate its connections to the ever-present bad taste in her mouth and her paranoia about halitosis, which her psychiatrist said was all in her mind.
But at sixteen those symptoms don’t exist. Her reserves of psychic energy are dwindling from all the effort of keeping things hidden from herself, but there’s still a fair portion to work with yet. At sixteen the self-loathing part of herself is only half as active as it will be at nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.
She wants to change, yes. To be “better” somehow, but it’s all very vague. By twenty it will become clear: the path to her salvation will be through Jesus Christ. She will strive and strive to accept Him into her heart all the remaining days of her life, slowly losing touch with said heart until all of her notebooks are filled with Bible verses and pages-long quotes from books about the Bible, written in perfect cursive by her fifty-year-old hand.
But at sixteen the traumas of her childhood have not lain dormant long enough to warp her perspective through unconscious machinations, their way of begging to be roused and recognized. At sixteen she is, more so than not, happy.
She won’t even meet her husband for another six years. A decade will pass before she gives birth to her first child, a daughter. Two sons and two more daughters will follow steadily after, the “oodles” of girls and boys she’d hoped for at sixteen.
Having such a large brood will mean a lot less time for writing. Either that or she’ll find the time because she is a writer, and she’ll later destroy what she wrote. Her frustrations and resentments, perhaps, as the wife of an alcoholic. Her disdain for sex, which he always seemed to want. Her doubts as a mother. Her fears as a friend.
But at sixteen she writes in her diary almost every day, recording the weather and how it changes from morning to night, and her activities and the people with whom she interacts, and snippets of dialogue, and details like test grades and the titles of magazine articles she reads, and thoughts and longings, dreams and fears, harsh judgments, warm adorations. She is establishing a habit that will last until she’s twenty-two — the year she’ll meet my grandfather.
Or at least these are the diaries that remain. In the same Hollinger box — organized with loving care by Pattie’s third born, Kenny, and his wife, Druscie (both archivists), using all the extant/available material discovered after Pattie’s death at eighty-nine — there is a twenty-two-year gap between one notebook and the next. Save a couple of random entries wherein she remarks with wonder on how she ever kept a daily diary — how the events of the day used to consume her! — surviving documents suggest that in the time it took to give birth to her first daughter and watch her grow into a woman, Pattie never wrote a word for herself.
When her writing resumes with more regularity in 1968, it is rarely to recount the sacred details of her day and the feelings they inspire. Instead she writes about God, in the voice of a preacher. Not her voice. And usually not her words. It’s page after page, journal after journal, of quotes. She is not there.
But at sixteen, Pattie leaps off the page, right into my veins.
I read her words and she lives again.