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 Farmer, who has a nervous condition that keeps her out of school for weeks at a time. Her other best friend, Helen McCarter, 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 and almost always has strong feelings about them. 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.
My grandmother was a saint. That’s what I grew up believing. She was selfless, generous, gentle, and thoughtful. She gave new meaning to the word “soft-spoken.” Her voice was not just quiet; it had a quaver to it, as if she were always on the verge of tears. Her laugh had a little song inside it. She’d cling to your forearm as if this laughter, however restrained with each melodic inhale, would bowl her over. She was easily moved by the gentler emotions. Love. Pride. Sadness. Joy. Compassion. I never saw her angry.
Anger, or anything like it, was my grandfather’s purview. I remember how he used to yell her name from the bedroom as we all visited in the kitchen: “Pattie!” — a startling mix between a bellow and a growl. He’d had a stroke years earlier and rarely left his recliner, watching sports all day, muting the commercials (perhaps his most charming trait), smoking a sweet-smelling pipe and drinking sweet iced tea. Before the stroke he’d been an alcoholic. After the stroke, he could neither drive nor walk to the store for beer, and Pattie refused to buy him any, so he dried out.
I think I knew that much about it at the time of those weekend visits. Or maybe I didn’t learn about my grandfather’s alcoholism until I was in high school and those visits became a little more rare, and my dad thought I was old enough to know that sort of thing.
I also can’t place exactly when in the chronology I learned that Grammy — that’s what we grandkids called her — had actually left Grampy, renting an apartment for three entire years prior to his stroke. She moved back in to take care of him, knowing that booze would no longer be an issue. Much later, my dad described this period by saying, “When all else failed, she summoned the courage to start a new life on her own, and then summoned even more to go back and save the life of the one who needed her most.”
She’d gotten to the point where she could no longer live with herself as the wife of an alcoholic. But the wife of a man who’d suffered a stroke? She could work with that.
So when Grampy needed anything he’d yell her name with gravel urgency and she’d sweetly call “Yes, dear?” and hurry (with grace) to see what the matter was. Eventually they switched to a bell system. So he wouldn’t have to yell like that. There may have also been a Walkie-Talkie/intercom period.
Along with being at her husband’s beck and call, Grammy was active in her church and the community at large. When I was thirteen I attended a dinner and ceremony in Grammy’s honor. September 23rd, 1995, was Pattie Simpson Appreciation Day. The Town of Tarboro, N.C., wanted to acknowledge all she’d done over the decades to help those less fortunate. She may have been what my dad called a Jesus freak — always trying to win people over to the Lord in every card, every letter, every God-themed gift — but she certainly walked the walk when it came to altruism.
Also contributing to Grammy’s saintliness was her tendency to feel guilty, which I thought at the time was an honest Christian way to be. For as far back as I can recall, my grandmother’s guilt complex was a known quantity in the Simpson family. The example that always comes to mind is my baptism, which took place when I was eight years old. (I suspect my step-dad at the time had something to do with it.) Our church didn’t have its own building yet, so we’d gathered in the faded, aging courtyard of an elementary school, flanked by classroom trailers. Grammy and other family members stood close as the minister touched my forehead with two wet fingers and said words that meant very little to me.
Five years later, I received a letter from Grammy (she wrote all of her grandchildren regularly), saying how sorry she was about her behavior at my baptism. She said at one point in the ceremony I had looked up at her, and she could sense I wanted her to look down, but she hadn’t looked down, and why hadn’t she looked down, and she should have been there for me in that moment, that very special moment, and she was so, so sorry! I had no recollection of looking up at her, let alone being hurt by her lack of response.
But those sorts of worries ate her alive. There was always something she’d done wrong.
While my grandmother is still the closest thing to a saint I’ve ever known, I now see that an actual saint probably wouldn’t have so much ego invested in every little interaction. And in reading her diaries and talking to her children — all of them now rockstars in my mind for having been raised by her — I’ve learned that she had not always been the most considerate person. Even as a grandmother, she used to shame my cousin Katie for being overweight. “The body is a temple…” And Katie’s mother before her had been made to run laps around the back yard to shed pounds that her father found excessive. Grampy would get especially sadistic right after the Miss America competition aired on TV. This mandated exercise may not have been Grammy’s idea, but she did nothing to stop it.
As for my dad, her second-born, I know Grammy’s religious beliefs had tested his patience and then some. As so often happens with the children of believers, Dad grew into a skeptic. Not lacking in faith altogether, but in what he called “depth of faith.” He’d seen how religion had affected his mother’s ability to love herself when there was so much there to love, and he wanted no part of it. He was going to be happy. His soul did not need saving. Neither did his brother’s.
But Grammy believed that hers did. Not even her third baptism, when I was twenty-five and she must have been about eighty-three, could convince her otherwise. The ceremony took place in the evening, in an old church in my hometown of Cary, N.C. Grammy had moved there from Tarboro a few years prior, a few years after Grampy died and she started to display symptoms of what my dad called “the dwindles.” She now needed someone to take care of her, and three of her children lived in Cary, so it made sense for her to join them. Dad, my uncle Kenny, his wife Druscie, and my aunt Wendy all took turns spending nights with her until Wendy, the youngest, eventually moved in permanently. Her husband and two adolescent children moved in, too, all of them putting their own lives on indefinite hold to ensure Grammy’s comfort and safety.
Slowly, then more quickly, she changed. Her medication and lack of exercise caused her to gain weight. All my life she’d been remarkably thin. So thin I felt the ribs in her back when we embraced, and I never squeezed too hard for fear of breaking her. She seemed the type for whom weight gain was impossible. And while it’s not as if she became obese, I never quite got used to her comparatively plump face, arms and belly. Definitely not to the vaguely searching look in her eye when I spoke to her.
A woman who’d forever been beside herself in joy to see me and hear me talk about my life now had to search the dusty catalogues of memory to find my face there, to attach it to a name. “Oh, Sarah, dear!” as the recognition flashed, and she’d chuckle sweetly to herself. After awhile she didn’t seem to recognize me at all, and if she did she’d lost the verbal ability to convey it. Every day drew her farther away until the day she disappeared, leaving only her body behind. The vehicle through which her soul had rejoiced. Soon enough I would learn just how much rejoicing she had done.
Grammy died on September 14th, 2013. Her memorial service took place the following week, when I was supposed to be in Vermont for my graduate school residency at Goddard College, where I was earning a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I could have gotten to campus a couple days late — I had a valid reason — but I didn’t want to miss a second of it. I only had two residencies a year and spent the rest of that time looking forward to them. So even though it killed me a little, I didn’t attend the memorial. My cousin Tom was touring with his band at the time and didn’t go, either, so at least I wasn’t the only one.
Small consolation now. Given a do-over, I would miss half a residency in order to stand in a church surrounded by people who knew and loved my grandmother. I would sit on a pew with my sisters and watch as our father approached the podium, as his brother established himself standing tall and bearded behind him. I would hear my dad clear his throat and say, “As I stand up here and look out at you all, the term ‘preaching to the choir’ comes to mind. Everyone here knows what a kind, sweet, caring, loving, self-doubting, humble, shy, and beautiful person my mother was. But please indulge me while we celebrate her remarkable life, even as we mourn her leaving us…”
And after listening to my dad praise Grammy for being a nurturing mother, devoted wife, friend to the elderly, the homeless, and the incarcerated, a comforting angel to the sick, a Girl Scout leader, a talented pianist, a prodigious and tireless correspondent, I would wait for him to tell the other truth about his mother, the one that really broke his heart.
“The greatest tragedy of my mother’s life,” he’d say, “is that, of all the love she bestowed on so many people, she loved herself the least. She was ever down on herself, guilt-ridden, not feeling the self-worth she so obviously possessed…” And he’d tell my baptism story as an example. Then he would go on to share a “fictional vignette, set in the now not too distant future, which was written to commemorate Pattie Simpson Appreciation Day.” This charming tale takes place on February 15th, 2043 — my father’s 90th birthday, which he is spending with his 6-year-old great-granddaughter, Pattie Anne. She loves to sit in Great-Grampy Mark’s lap and hear stories about her namesake. And my ancient future-father is happy to oblige. He tells little Pattie Anne that her great-great-grandmother was the most wonderful person he ever knew. “I love myself,” he says, “and think of myself as a good person because of her love for me…”
After reading his vignette, Dad would finally succeed in reducing me to sobs with his closing remarks, wherein he’d share the last words Grammy said to him: “Mom’s speech became nearly incomprehensible towards the end,” he’d say. “She tried to talk, but it was mostly gibberish. But nine days before she died she produced five intelligible words which absolutely and truly summarize who she was, to the core. Those words were ‘I love you’ and ‘thank you.’”
And then I would have imagined the sound of my grandmother’s voice and the look in her eye as she gazed up at her beautiful son and said those words, and no force known to man could have stopped my tears.
But I did not go to the memorial service.
Instead I read my father’s words a few days later, after residency. My sister Emily gave me a printed copy of his speech, set up the whole visual scene — “It was like Kenny literally had his back!” — and left me alone to read it in her living room. I did so and wept. I wept for obvious reasons, but also because I wanted something I could never have. A daughter. I wanted to name her Pattie Anne, for myself and for my father. But the doctors had all said I couldn’t. Nor was I interested in IVF or adoption. So I wept.
Three years passed.
In November of 2016, I was sitting in my uncle’s living room amongst my fellow Simpsons, having just eaten my third Thanksgiving dinner of the week. (Divorced parents means multiple holidays.) My aunt Druscie occupied the couch cushion to my left. She and my uncle Kenny, since retired, both worked for decades in the North Carolina State Archives. Druscie’s natural fascination with history and the artifacts that comprise it, and her love for Kenny, and her love for my grandmother (whom she’d come to know very well over the years) is, I assume, what drives her interest in the Simpson-Watkins family history. The extent to which Grammy and her mother before her had preserved family documents and photos is an archivist’s dream. There are letters and journals dating back to the era of my great-great-grandparents, with pictures to accompany them. All upstairs in Tom’s old room.
Somehow we’d gotten on the topic of Grammy, and Druscie asked me if I’d like to go up there and see a box of her diaries.
I uttered an ironic “um…”, a totally earnest “yeah,” and Druscie led me to the treasure trove. Metal shelves bearing gray Hollinger boxes lined the back wall of my cousin’s former bedroom. Notebooks, folders, and loose papers filled each flip-top container, each one organized by date and numbered accordingly.
Druscie showed me a love letter written from my great-great-grandfather to my great-great-grandmother, pointing out at that it was in fact two letters. To save paper during the war, they’d written directly over their old script. Ghostly stuff to decipher.
There were binders filled with old photographs. Here was Grammy as a four-year-old, standing next to little George McClure in the front yard. Even then she had those Grammy eyes. So much life and fire.
But I was most interested in the diaries. Druscie said I could take my pick, whichever box appealed to me most. Just to borrow, of course. The one labeled “1944-1977” caught my eye.
“How old was she in ’44?”
Druscie did the math. “Twenty?”
“I’ll take this one.”
Even now, two years later, I open the box with reverence. I lift the first journal free. Hard grey cover. Soft canvas spine. Across the front, “RECORD” cuts a diagonal in hollow block letters. Even now I open it and nothing is quite the same thereafter.
Diarists comprise a special breed. One must have a unique fascination with herself, with life, memory, the passage of time and her own handwriting to be a disciplined diarist. On some level, the diary habit gets established like any other, through consistent repetition until not doing it feels wrong. Like flossing. But one must have the desire to achieve such repetition in the first place. Most people don’t. Especially these days.
A few years ago I saw a William Haefeli cartoon in the The New Yorker, in which a mother and her adolescent daughter were sitting next to each other in an attic. The mother held an open diary in her hand and covered a smile with the other as she read its pages. The daughter’s mouth was slightly open, speaking the cartoon’s caption: “What was the point of writing a blog that nobody else could read?”
The answer’s in the question, of course. If someone else could read it, we wouldn’t have written it. At least not in the same way, unfettered by our efforts to please (entertain, disturb) others. The internet has burdened many of us with the compulsion to constantly share ourselves with a remarkably large audience. Social media in particular has totally changed how we relate to our own experience. The people, activities, images, information, and thoughts that fill out a given day are all subject to exploitation, to mass dissemination. Has the internet turned us all into narcissists with an incessant, shameless need for attention and validation, or were we always like this and just lacked the platform?
Facebook, Instagram, etc. appeal to what is perhaps our deepest, most persistent urge as a species: the urge to connect with other humans, to feel seen by them, even loved by them. But social media sites only meet this need on a superficial level and sometimes even increase our disconnection because so much of what people share there isn’t authentic. The self-imposed distance between ourselves and others (and our Selves) widens more and more because, to quote Eric Hoffer, “you can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”
What we really want is to be accepted wholly for who we are. To feel like there’s nothing wrong with us, nothing we have to hide. We want to be honest and unafraid and recognized as exceptional, because we are exceptional. We want to say how we feel, while we’re feeling it — and not to prove a point or brandish some bluster because we’re bored at a deep down soul level, but because we thrive most when our outsides resonate with our insides.
Revolutionary family therapist Virginia Satir said in her book Peoplemaking that whatever is happening in a family can — and should — be talked about in a family. But so rarely is that the case. Most of us grow up learning on an implicit, nervous system level that secrets are essential for survival.
A diary can call bullshit. Its blank pages embody the urge for authenticity at the core of all of us. We might be resigned to a life of hiding from other people, but we refuse to hide from ourselves, to squander what we know deep down is our most sacred relationship. Even if it’s only happening on an unconscious level, this is the conviction that drives a dedicated diarist to write. She is in love with her own experience and knows that no one else ever has or ever will see how she sees or feel exactly how she feels.
The sacredness of my grandmother’s diaries in particular is doubly profound. Not only are they the documents of a person’s real life and how she saw things and felt things. Not only are they proof that she deeply cared about life and all its details. But they were also the epiphenomenon of her passion for writing — perhaps her greatest passion, second only to authentic human interaction. Even when she stopped writing about herself, Grammy still filled many spiral notebooks with her handwriting, copying passages from books. I can only deduce that she felt most comfortable with a pen in her hand. Whether the words it formed were her own or someone else’s, that hand was going to write.
My father seems to have inherited some version of this compulsion. When I think of him, I tend to picture him with pen in hand doing one of three things: underlining and bracketing important sentences in a medical journal; keeping score (meticulous columns) in a game of cards or Scrabble; or writing in his diary. He hasn’t missed a day in the latter since 1986, making him even more prolific than his mother. She’d only written daily about her life for less than a decade, and even then she’d missed some days.
When Dad picked up the diary habit, he was unaware that his mother had ever kept one herself. He wouldn’t learn about that until after her death. When I recently asked him why he’d started keeping a diary, he shrugged. No particular reason. But when I pointed out that 1986 was the year he and Mom separated, he tilted his head. I could almost hear the distant bells of recognition ringing inside it.
That year had been, I think, the worst of his life. But also perhaps the best because, though leaving me and my sister killed him, he was also leaving a toxic marriage, and entering into a relationship with the woman who would become my step-mom. The woman he loved. I imagine all the opposites happening at once had a frazzling effect on my father’s nervous system and he needed some way to slow it all down, make sense of it, remind himself of what was really happening. And maybe that’s why he bought that first notebook and wrote that first entry.
Whatever his original reasons were, he’s never looked back.
My father’s diary is a well-known entity to anyone who knows him well. Phrases like “that’s going in the diary” and “it’s in the diary” (should he need to prove the validity of a given memory) sound comfortingly familiar to his nearest and dearest. On vacations with family and close friends, Dad writes in small bursts throughout the day, leaving his diary out on end tables and countertops without a care for prying eyes. I’ve never been tempted to pick it up myself. And if I were, I’d see little more than The Facts: names, places, activities. He calls it “reporting the news.” I would not see descriptions of light through trees, the overheard singing of a neighbor, nor the smell of sweet summer blossoms. Few emotions would be conveyed, few thoughts recorded. And yet my dad’s diaries are nonetheless tangible proof that he loves his life and wants to remember it.
He wants others to remember it, too.A few months ago, over pizza and wine, Dad said that he’d like for me to inherit his diaries when he dies, because he knows that I will do something with them. He likes the idea of other people reading about his life — especially his adventures. I myself have kept a diary or journal for twenty-three years (with a hiatus here and there) and would also like my words to persist long after my body does.
But many life writers cringe at the thought of their words being read one day. For all I know, Grammy was one of them. But my hunch is that she’s in the same camp as I am, as Dad is. I doubt she would have kept all those notebooks all those years if she didn’t think they’d outlive her — if she didn’t want someone, somewhere and sometime, to know who she really was. Or at least to know how she really felt on a given day, in a given moment. We mustn’t confuse the two.
So I borrowed that box of diaries from my aunt and uncle, tucked it behind my driver’s seat and took it home to Asheville (Leicester), opened it, and read the first entry in the first notebook, dated Sunday, November 5, 1944.
Well, Diary, I’ve been neglecting you again — after keeping up faithfully from January 1 till the first of September, I should have been able to hold out a few more months, but there just didn’t seem to be time after I left home and began getting established in Rochester.
So many new developments have been and are taking place, though, that I shall want to have some account of that I decided to try to get into the habit again. It will be a big job now to analyze and to put into fairly small space all that has been happening to me mentally, socially and spiritually these last two months — in fact, I hardly see now how it can be done. But I guess I’ll just jump right in —
It’s a cold, windy, snowy (the wet kind) day and is quite a shock after the glorious, almost summery days of the last week. I dreamed last night that George McClure died and I’ve felt very queer all day. Marion and I slept till the last minute this morn and then just walked across the avenue to St. Paul’s. I took Communion for the first time since I left home and it affected me emotionally for the first time ever. I feel that I can come to Christ now as I should have years ago but somehow couldn’t. I went off the “intellectual” deep end last year, just as I had gone off the emotional end before. All I want just now is to feel as I felt that night in the spring of the 8th grade when I really gave myself to Christ — and I think that must be the beginning of my “new life.”
I read it again.
Her handwriting was the same as it would be some forty and fifty years later, before a tremble set in that would cause it to falter. The same cursive I’d read in so many letters and cards. And right out of the gate she was the self-deprecating woman I’d known, in this case chastising herself for falling out of the diary habit.
But there were also some surprises. I had not known that Grammy ever analyzed herself, let alone in writing. I thought her love of God had precluded such indulgences. And I’d foolishly assumed that her love of God had always been there, even bathing her in the womb. But here she’d made it to twenty without having “come to Christ,” without even being emotionally affected by Communion. For as long as I’d known her, Grammy was emotionally affected by everything. She’d always seemed poised to laugh or cry.
Here was a woman I didn’t quite know. A twenty-year-old college student who dreamed of death and felt queer, who went off emotional and intellectual deep ends and longed for a “new life.” I had to know more about her. And in my hands, and in the box filled taut with other notebooks she’d exhausted, was the source of that knowledge. The primary source. After reading that first entry, all I wanted to do was read the others, and indeed I spent countless hours poring over them. Within a couple of weeks I realized I should start typing them up so other family members could more easily enjoy them, and so I might immerse myself even deeper into this new, old world, so separate from my own life and yet so irreversibly a part of it.
I returned to the Raleigh area for the usual Christmas fellowship and requested another box of diaries. Druscie was happy to give it me, even though I was nowhere close to returning the other one, knowing how much I cherished their contents. Now in my possession were the diaries that spanned 1941-1944. In 1941, Grammy kept two diaries — big and little — and her cursive in the small one was so incredibly tiny, I chose to first record myself reading the entries out loud, and from that recording I would then type them up, pausing the device when needed. (To type this diary straight from the page without losing my place or turning into a hunchback would have required a little podium of some sort to keep the book at eye level and no more than six inches from my face.) I loved showing people this particular diary, as they always gasped and said, “How can you read that?” and I would always give them a closer look, so they could see that the words were quite legible, despite their tininess.
For the months that followed, my grandmother’s diaries were all I wanted to talk about with anyone. Each time I broached the topic in conversation, I attempted anew to convey the diaries’ impact on me — how lucky I felt, first of all, to have these documents, and to have had this grandmother who cared enough about life to write it all down with an honest hand. I tried to convey how wonderfully eerie an experience it was to read her words and know in such detail how she spent her precious days. I wanted to share my discovery with others in a way that they could feel — the embodied realization, beyond intellect and abstract thought, that old people were once young, that dead people were once very much alive, that I would one day very much be old (hopefully), then dead, and that every life, past and present, echoes and undulates without end beyond the stars and through the cells in all of us.
And yet, though death is real, I see now that no moment ever really ends. I understand (I think) what Joanna Newsom means when she sings that “love is not a symptom of time; time is just a symptom of love.” Through the power of my love, Grammy is not yet Grammy at all, but still and always Pattie Anne Watkins, twenty years old in 1944, sitting on the bed of a boarding house bedroom in Rochester with her friends, eating chocolates and laughing and hoping for a new life.
November 12, 1944. A Sunday. The alarm goes off at 9:00 and Pattie silences it. Outside the world is cold and gray but in the bed it’s warm, the black and tingly color of oblivion. Breakfast and church don’t matter. Nothing matters, so she drifts off again. She lives in a boarding house with a few other college girls. One of them is named Peggy, who pokes her head in at 9:45 and informs Pattie and her roommate, Marion, of the time. They nearly miss breakfast.
For church, Pattie wears her black dress and accessories. Peggy and Marion comment on her figure, as accentuated by the dress. Together they walk, with Kay and Mary Jean, to St. Paul’s Episcopal. Marion splits off halfway for the Catholic Church. The sky is so overcast it’s white. Pattie sits between Mary Jean and Kay, whom she finds wonderfully sweet and interesting. Kay is especially funny when she talks about her “boy friend” in the Navy, who’s currently at Pearl Harbor. While singing “For Those In Peril on the Sea,” Pattie watches the woman in front of her get quite broken up, and she sheds a few tears herself.
The sermon, however, confuses her. And what few points she does understand are disturbing. Some of the big problems of our hearts will only be answered after decades of patient waiting? It makes her feel rebellious. She doesn’t want to spend half her life waiting for questions to be answered when they cry for solutions right now! Again she feels that she has no right to be happy or at peace — that she must always be torn up and confused simply because she always has been.
Back at the boarding house, Pattie joins Peggy and Mary Jean in their room on the first floor. Marion returns soon after, exuding a blissful energy. “That did me so much good,” she says. “I wanted to stay for the twelve o’clock mass, too.” Her spiritual life is a closed book. Pattie can hardly understand her. She longs to have a satisfying religious experience, but she cannot hope for it in the Catholic faith.
At around 1:30 everyone scatters to their respective rooms to change clothes for lunch at Lorenzo’s, a restaurant where neither Pattie nor Marion have eaten. True to form, Pattie is ready before everyone else. Upon descending to the main hall, she encounters her friend Walter standing in the doorway to Peggy and Mary Jean’s room.
“Oh, Pattie, come here,” he sings. The music in his voice strikes her as suspicious, but she steps closer to find Mary Jean curled up in her bed. She, Walter, and Peggy try to coax her out from under the covers, to no avail.
Outside, the clouds have cleared and the air is cold. Peggy wears white gloves while Pattie wears black and fingers entwined they walk, verging on hysterics. They take a bus from University to Main. The wait at Lorenzo’s is not long, and soon they’re shown to a table by the wall. Pattie is perfectly content with the candles, soft light, fellowship, and reasonable prices. She spends $1.15 on a six-course dinner.
Annie Dillard once said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Therefore in writing about her days, a diarist tells her life story. But for many, the mere idea of writing about their days is stultifying. They are so familiar with their own lives, they can’t imagine that words describing them would ever be worth their ink. Anne Frank is a case in point. Her diary is perhaps the most widely read in the world, and yet she doubted that “later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.”
Perhaps some people’s lives really are quite dull, and being confronted with the diary prospect can alert them to this reality. Perhaps they should start living in such a way that feels more worthy of the written word. Or maybe they just need a shift in perspective: to see the miraculous in the mundane. They might also consider how what’s boring to them now could be enthralling to them later, or to their ancestors: the case for posterity.
Even my grandmother couldn’t have known how fascinating certain details of her diary would become with the passage of time. The way she’d write “’phone,” for instance — with an apostrophe at the beginning to denote that it was short for “telephone” — showed how new and not-yet-ubiquitous the phone still was. She and her mother regularly “went calling” around the neighborhood, which meant they actually walked to people’s houses, knocked on their doors, and started conversations. No doubt we’re all doing things today, all the time, that will seem quaint some fifty years hence.
But not everyone is interested in writing for posterity’s sake. Arnold Bennett, in his 1920s essay called “The Diary Habit,” said that the thought of posterity left him “stone cold,” and he himself was a dedicated diarist. Bennett said that the only good reason to keep a diary is because you want to, because you enjoy it. He also said that it’s a great deal of work, requiring discipline. One must put her back into it if she’s going to write the truth. “And to attain truth is the hardest thing on earth,” Bennett said. “To attain partial truth is not a bit easy, and even to avoid falsehood is decidedly a feat.”
Even Sylvia Plath, whose Unabridged Journals rival Grammy’s diaries for my favorite collection of life writings, recognized the difficulty of translating the truth of our experience into language. In the summer of 1950, when she was seventeen, Plath sat down to describe being sexually assaulted (though that’s not what she called it) mere hours earlier. But first she acknowledged the difficulty therein: “Some things are hard to write about. After something happens to you, you go to write it down, and either you over dramatize it or underplay it, exaggerate the wrong parts or ignore the important ones. At any rate, you never write it quite the way you want to.” Nonetheless, the urge to try (the word “essay” means try) remains indomitable. A writer is simply someone who has no choice but to keep trying.
To describe a thing exactly how it happened is the challenge implicit to any diary or journal entry. But if this challenge fails to entice, another siren song is cued to seduce those who can hear it: the promise of slowing time. Writing about our recent experiences is a way of savoring them. We get to linger in them while they’re still a part of the present moment, before they enter the halls of memory and start bumping around with the other ghosts there, getting mixed up, smudged, trampled on. It is a kind of sacred clinging, what James Joyce meant when he wrote, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past…”
Plath quotes this line from Ulysses on the first page of her 1950 journal, along with a line from Yeats and a poem by Louis Macneice. I myself copied the words into my own journal when reading Ulysses in 2017, not recalling having ever seen them before. But I’d seen them some fifteen years prior when reading Plath’s Journals for the first time. No doubt those journals were her way of holding to “the now, the here.” They kept the future from plunging through. In filling their pages Plath was staking her claim on the present moment.
But why would she — or any of us — want to stay in the present moment if that moment is unpleasant, even traumatic? Regarding her experience of sexual assault, Plath wrote, “I’ve just got to put down what happened to me this afternoon… No matter how it comes out, I have to write it.” Why? The obvious answer: because she was a writer. But I also suspect that Plath was operating from a more unconscious knowledge. She seemed to know that writing about the assault would help her process it. Staying with things — resisting the urge to turn away, make light, deny, suppress — is how we make sense of them. Giving language to the unspeakable helps us integrate primal, fear-drenched experiences into higher levels of consciousness. We write about what happened, still feeling how we felt, and we take control of what would otherwise be a limbic, reptilian process.
Given that Plath killed herself at thirty, she’s admittedly not the best example of someone using the diary habit to improve mental health via psychological integration (a concept she addressed directly and repeatedly in her journals). But I’m inclined to believe that she wouldn’t even have made it that far without said habit. And while Grammy did not suffer from the clinical depression and resultant obsession with death that plagued Plath for much of her life, I think her diaries and journals also played a large role in keeping her relatively sane. Like Plath, she used writing as a kind of intellectual and emotional mastication, in order to better digest her experiences and avoid the painful bloat of repression.
Also like Plath, Grammy wrote about the beauty of life, which appeared in varied, sometimes surprising forms. She wrote what Journal Therapy pioneer Kay Adams would call “captured moments,” describing the kind of life affirming, often fleeting experiences that we tend to forget in favor of remembering something painful. Our instinct to remember the painful things is also known as the negativity bias, and it has allowed our species to thrive. Without it, we might not take the precautions necessary to prevent dangerous repetitions. But the negativity bias often runs away with itself, causing us to lose sight of all the good things and the nourishment they have to offer. Writing about the good things on a regular basis can help us cultivate a positivity bias.
Plath may have experienced the shadows of life more often and with more anguish than the average human being, but she could also see — and feel — the beauty in a “sudden slant of bluish light across the floor of a vacant room. And I knew it was not the streetlight, but the moon.” And Grammy savored the experience of waking in the wee hours of a winter morning to shut her bedroom window: “On the return trip I banged smack into the floor lamp by my bed with my nose and knocked said lamp over till the shade lay on my pillow — so you can imagine with what force I ran into it!! Oh, dear, I nearly died laughing and was sure I’d wake Marion up — but she didn’t hear a thing till morning. I woke up laughing so told her the tale of woe!” Much of what covers the pages of Grammy’s diaries are descriptions of moments like this, moments that were funny or sweet or beautiful or otherwise suggestive of the joy she wished would suffuse every second of every day.
Anne Frank reminds us of an additional inspiration for the diarist: the need for a friend. She wrote her first diary entry on her thirteenth birthday, June 12, 1942. This entry consisted of one sentence: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” Lord knows she would soon need all of the comfort and support she could get. On June 20, 1942, a little more than two weeks before she and her family would go into hiding, Frank good-naturedly bemoaned her lack of a “true friend.” She admitted to having “about thirty people I can call friends,” and “a throng of admirers who can’t keep their adoring eyes off me and who sometimes have to resort to using a broken pocket mirror to try and catch a glimpse of me in the classroom,” but
All I can think about when I’m with friends is having a good time. I can’t bring myself to talk about anything but ordinary everyday things. We don’t seem to be able to get any closer, and that’s the problem. Maybe it’s my fault that we don’t confide in each other. In any case, that’s just how things are, and unfortunately they’re not liable to change. This is why I’ve started the diary.
To enhance the image of this long-awaited friend in my imagination, I don’t want to jot down the facts in this diary the way most people would do, but I want the diary to be my friend, and I’m going to call this friend Kitty.
My grandmother tried taking a similar tack a year and a half earlier, on January 2, 1941, by beginning an entry with “Dear Marcy.” In the left-hand margin she wrote, “Explanation: I’m going to pretend I’m writing to a real person. It will probably be easier to write to someone by the name of Marcy than by the name of Diary — but you’re still my diary, darlin’.” In her next entry, however, written just four days later, she abandoned the Marcy technique and returned to addressing her confidante as, simply, Diary. On that day (January 6, 1942) she had “come very close to something” and wrote, “Perhaps in telling you about it, I shall come even closer.” The instinct to share our experience with someone — even if that someone is a product of our imagination, manifested as paper — runs deep.
Grammy would eventually drop the “Dear Diary” salutation altogether and just begin each entry with a description of that day’s weather. Then, in the 1970’s, Grammy started addressing her entries God. Sometimes she’d begin with an expression of gratitude, other times with despair or a plea for guidance, thereafter sprinkling her paragraphs with His name, as if she were having a conversation with Him, just as she’d once done with her friend Diary. In much the same way that they’d been when she was in her teens and twenties, each entry was essentially a prayer. On October 10, 1974, for instance, at the age of fifty, she wrote:
Praise You and thank You, Lord, for Rosies’ calling to thank me for my prayers and for our trip to Rocky Mount to the Al-Anon meeting. For all we were able to share even though self-consciousness prevented me from expressing much that was in my heart in response to things she said. Thank You, dear Lord, for giving me another chance in Your good time — on several occasions since Boots and her friends prayed for me last Thursday. I have been released from self-consciousness. The secret, I know, is constant awareness of Your presence within me — help me today to believe You are living in me, each moment.
And on February 1st, 1945, at the age of 20, she wrote:
Well, Diary, this is one of those “depth” days that I wasn’t going to have this year. I’m not feeling futile or what’s the use? exactly but just rather rebellious — with a certain amount of repression making it worse. I don’t like myself at all — I’m just as thoroughly dissatisfied as ever.
I know what is the matter — I know what I must do about it — but it always seems just beyond my reach. I catch glimmers every so often but they are gone before I can make them mine.
I know in my heart that life is a thing of deep and infinite meaning — that everything is a part of it; and therefore that nothing is commonplace or meaningless or futile.
I must live with warmth and deep joy.
Habit and the past and what you have been for so long — these are always the obstacles — these are the strong arms that hold you back when you would break away and live anew. God can’t change you if you don’t trust Him, and love Him enough to let go of the old — just as a child can never walk alone if he is afraid to let go of the chair.
If we could only keep the wonder and the happiness that a child has in the world about him — we can, I think, and we must if we are to have the joy of living.
Nature especially and all other things that we experience through our senses — these we must cherish and keep the wonder of — but most of all, people. They are a part of it, too — the part that approaches God the nearest. We are not bodies with spirits — but spirits with bodies. There are unplumbed depths in everything — I must look beneath the surface — I must try to bring out the best in my friends and all whom I meet. But if I don’t believe in myself, I can’t, because I’m not recognizing and living up to the best that is in me.
Anne Frank also wrote from a deep desire to be someone other than herself. Here she is on November 28, 1942:
In bed at night, as I ponder my many sins and exaggerated shortcomings, I get so confused by the sheer amount of things I have to consider that I either laugh or cry, depending on my mood. Then I fall asleep with the strange feeling of wanting to be different than I am or being different than I want to be, or perhaps behaving differently than I am or want to be.
Oh dear, now I’m confusing you too [Kitty]. Forgive me, but I don’t like crossing things out, and in these times of scarcity, tossing away a piece of paper is clearly taboo. So I can only advise you not to reread the above passage and to make no attempt to get to the bottom of it, because you’ll never find your way out again!
Frank not only craved freedom from the confines of the Secret Annex, but also from her family’s expectations and judgments. Like Grammy, she longed more than anything else to be herself and not have to apologize for it. On a conscious level, however, both diarists thought that their problems would be solved if they could change themselves. Even God, in Grammy’s mind, wanted her to be different. (“God can’t change you if you don’t trust Him..”) But why would He have made her exactly who she was if not to actually be exactly who she was?
On a subconscious level, I think this very question is what brought my grandmother back to the diary again and again. I think she knew what British philosopher Alan Watts knew, that “the reason why you want to be better is the reason why you are not — it is because you want to be, and do not realize that you already are.” And she knew the “curious paradox” that American psychologist Carl Rogers knew: “When I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
She just didn’t know she knew.