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 my newfound love, Grammy is not yet Grammy at all, but still and always Pattie Anne Watkins, twenty years old in 1944, sitting on a bed in a room 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.” 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.
Renia Spiegel, another young victim of the Holocaust, started a diary for the same reason. In her first entry, dated January 31, 1939, she wrote:
Why did I decide to start a diary today? Has something important happened? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own? No! I just want a friend. Somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys. Somebody who will feel what I feel, believe what I say and never reveal my secrets. No human being could ever be that kind of friend. Today, my dear diary, is the beginning of our deep friendship. Who knows how long it will last? It might even continue until the end of our lives.
Indeed it did. Spiegel wrote her last entry on July 25, 1942. Six days later she was executed by German soldiers. Nineteen years old. “Dear Diary!” she’d written the previous summer. “How precious you are to me! How horrible were the moments when I hugged you to my heart!”
A great passion fueled Spiegel’s relationship with her diary, as well as a deep wisdom. In psychology even the gravest “disorder” is seen as an answer to life’s problems. Exquisitely wise, it unfurls from the urge to protect oneself. In many cases it actually provides a kind of order (think anorexia), helping one feel safe in what Jill Ker Conway calls “the chaotic ebb and flow of experience.” In keeping a diary or journal, one not only creates her own safety by corralling that chaos into language, but also by creating a safe other to whom she can attach, and with whom she can resonate. No matter what she says about what she’s done, she knows that this other will (1) feel what she feels, (2) believe what she says, and (3) never reveal her secrets.
Thank you, Renia Spiegel for distilling such basic, complex aspects of the human condition into a tidy little list! The needs that drove her to start a diary are shared by all; their fulfillment is required in order for human beings — social creatures that we are — to feel truly safe and to therefore live with ease. Unfortunately, most humans are ill-equipped to meet these needs on a consistent basis, so in general we walk around with at least a nagging sense of unease, which sometimes becomes disease. Or a diary habit. Or both.
My grandmother clearly considered her diary a friend and even took a similar tack to Anne Frank, who gave her diary a name. A year and a half before Frank christened her diary Kitty (“to enhance the image of this long-awaited friend in my imagination”), Grammy began an entry dated January 2, 1941, with “Dear Marcy.” In the left-hand margin she wrote, “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.”
Maybe you’re the type who never wants your private writings read after you’ve died. Or maybe you’re fine with the idea and even like the concept of living on, in a way, through your words. But you’d be a rare bird to take in stride the discovery that someone else has read your private writings while you’re still very much alive. To learn that eyes other than your own have traveled your secret and most sacred sentences, without your permission.
When I was twenty, I developed romantic feelings for a boy I’d met in my friend Nathanael’s dorm room a couple years prior. At first I had disliked him. A lot. He was absurdly arrogant, intentionally intimidating (or so he hoped), and he liked Dragon Ball Z. But he fell into my small college circle, and eventually I came to see the nice guy beneath all the armor. We bonded over music and stand-up comedy, marijuana and Pictionary, and what began as disdain became desire. He was tall and broad and had thick, dark hair that he ran his hands through all the time, and long dimples in both cheeks. Thoughts of him consumed my mind. And so of course, I wrote those thoughts in my journal.
Then one night while I was at work, my boyfriend read those thoughts. Jesse and I had started dating in our senior year of high school. Now we were juniors in college, I at Appalachian State University, and he at a private arts school about a hundred miles east. We visited each other every couple of weeks, talked on the phone almost daily. When I got home from waiting tables one snowy January night, Jesse was thoroughly drunk, playing foosball with my roommate and lifelong family friend, Dylan. He was obviously upset about something, and after vomiting in the toilet and brushing his teeth, he went into my bedroom and lay down.
I noticed his baseball cap was on the bottom shelf of my bedside table, on top of my journal, a cheap spiral notebook that I always left open to the last page I’d written. Suddenly I knew he’d read it. All my thoughts about that other guy. The poems. The dreams. The fantasies.
What ensued was a long, torturous night of interrogation. “What have you done? Did you kiss him? Not even on New Year’s? What about anyone else? Are you sure? Really sure? Are you lying?” And the whole time my heart was racing because I didn’t know exactly what Jesse knew. He’d read the journal in question mere hours earlier, whereas I hadn’t read some of the entries for weeks, since I’d written them. And I was thinking of all the other journals before it, filled with recollections that would shatter him. Because I had lied; there had been someone else. Nathanael. This Tyler thing was a tealight compared to that torch.
But: it was in the past.
“What if you had kissed him, and then brought me over to his house? What if you had died in some car accident, and your writings were all I had to remember you by?” I’d actually been thinking about that very thing the previous Saturday and had decided that I should will my journals to my sister Emily, the only person who wouldn’t be hurt or disappointed by any of their contents.
“What am I supposed to do? How can I trust you? Why aren’t I good enough?”
Again and again I tried to soothe him, convince him. I apologized countless times. I sobbed and moaned and begged for him to forgive me. Not once did I express any anger or resentment about his betraying my trust by reading my private writing — because I felt neither anger nor resentment. I’d been a fool to leave it out in plain sight like that. Had the tables been turned and had I been alone for hours in Jesse’s house, with his open journal right there (though he didn’t keep one), I probably would have done the same thing. Maybe.
Jesse said that he saw the notebook on the shelf and thought, “This is Sarah. These are her feelings, what she thinks about at the end of every day, all the things she won’t tell me or anyone. And it was wonderful.” Until, of course, it wasn’t. He wished he’d never started reading, but then he couldn’t stop. His crime contained his punishment. I felt no need to chastise him.
If I could live it again, however, I would have at least defended myself against Jesse’s interrogations. He was holding my own thoughts and feelings against me. There is a reason we cannot read each other’s minds, which Jesse had literally done. A violation of the most grievous order. A kind of psychological rape. My shame was indescribable.
I should have told him to go fuck himself. “I can think what I want and feel what I want, and you’re an asshole to judge me for any of it.” But instead I cursed myself, my stupid habit of writing down every thought in my silly head, and I vowed to never jot another word unless it really, truly mattered. It seemed all wrong, Jesse’s appraisal of my journal being synonymous with me. Those pages weren’t me at all. They were my boredom getting the best of me. Or that’s what I suddenly came to believe when they were thrust into the spotlight of someone else’s scrutiny. There’s nothing quite like another’s judgment to make you question who you really are, who you want to be.
Jesse and I stayed together for another year and a half. Then I broke up with him because I still had feelings for the guy I’d written about it my journal.
His name was Tyler. We dated for three years despite my having doubts about him from the beginning. The night we first kissed — after I’d decided to be the brave one and tell Tyler how I felt about him — I’d been under the impression that he was leaving town soon. A couple months prior, he’d returned from working for a summer as a deep sea fisherman in Alaska. The experience had inspired him to see more of America, and he’d resolved to stay in Boone just long enough to earn some traveling money.
But after we kissed (etc.), Tyler almost instantly abandoned those plans, and suddenly I was in a serious relationship. Within about six months we were living together, and after another year and a half we were headed for Wyoming in my Nissan Sentra. I’d completed a semester of graduate school (English Literature) and hated every second of it; I’d exhausted all my job options in Boone and was ready to leave. When I told Tyler my plans to work out West for the summer, I presented it as a choice, whether or not he joined me. This alone was upsetting for him. So he would have been devastated to know how much a part of me hoped he wouldn’t come.
He came. From June to October we waited tables and lived at Flagg Ranch, a combination campground and collection of rustic cottages, with horseback riding, a gift shop, a gas station, and a restaurant, situated in a snag-ridden, river-cleft forest just eight miles north of Grand Teton National Park and two miles south of Yellowstone. On our days off we hiked or swam or whitewater rafted or drove the hour to Jackson Hole for dinner and a movie, or drank and got high with our fellow seasonal slaves, most of them younger, many of them Russian.
Wyoming was where Tyler first read my journal. He returned to our room after work one night (I had the dayshift) to find me asleep, my notebook open next to me on the bed. He couldn’t help it; his eyes landed on a sentence that kept them glued there. And thus began his habit of reading that notebook, and the one that followed, on a regular basis until his conscience couldn’t take it anymore and he confessed. Confessed to penetrating, again and again for six whole months, the depths of my heart and psyche.
And what did he find there? Nathanael.
Just as I’d been writing about Tyler while dating Jesse, now I was writing about Nathanael while dating Tyler. Had Jesse known he would have laughed. Some sort of vengeance.
I’d known Nathanael since we were fifteen and had only ever thought of him as a friend until we were nineteen, when I found myself in his bed and in his arms. I was dating Jesse at the time and Nathanael was still dating his own high school sweetheart, who just so happened to attend Jesse’s private art school. Our very brief affair ended with a night of awkward sex. We’d both broken up with our respective partners, but for reasons that neither of us ever clearly explained, we never started a relationship of our own. Soon after sleeping with me, Nathanael set his sights on his roommate’s girlfriend. I watched him look at her just like he’d looked at me a couple months prior, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance.
Five months later I went back to Jesse.
But I’d yet to get Nathanael out of my system. We’d remained friends, so we saw each other regularly, and every now and then he’d be in just the right mood to hug me in a certain way or make particular comments that sent me spinning, and I’d think of him for weeks after. And by the time Tyler became my boyfriend I’d long since broken my promise of only writing down the thoughts and experiences that really, truly mattered. Maybe I couldn’t tell what mattered anymore. Maybe it all fucking mattered. Regardless, I had to write about my life, my thoughts.
A month or so before Tyler confessed, I journaled about something Nathanael had said or done that made me “swoon.” Soon after said writing, we were having dinner at my Mom’s house and I used the same word when talking about something literary. (John Updike, probably.) And right after the word came out of my mouth, Tyler echoed it. “Swoon.” His voice was far away, dark and bemused. His eyes contained a challenge. I knew then that something wasn’t right. What had only been a vague hunch up to that point suddenly possessed sharp dimensions.
But I didn’t say anything. Back at our apartment, I moved my journal to a new hiding spot. I’d been hiding it (or so I’d thought) since the Jesse incident.
The Tyler incident proved far more traumatizing. Partly it was the fact that I’d experienced this before — and how could I let it happen again? When would I learn to stop writing things down all the time? But also, it was the nature of Tyler’s transgression. To read a diary once and confess to it mere hours later is one thing. But to read it continuously, repeatedly, over time, is unforgivable.
And yet I forgave. After curling into a ball on the couch and saying “I’m so ashamed” into the cushions over and over again, I found myself insisting that Tyler was wrong: we shouldn’t break up. He’d prefaced his confession by saying we should. He was shaking, pale, dry-mouthed, devastated. I could see that it literally pained him to say what my journal had made clear: I had feelings for Nathanael. And these feelings differed wildly from the ones I possessed for Tyler.
But, as had been the case with Jesse, suddenly everything I’d written in my journal seemed false, foolish, not the real me. I tried explaining this to Tyler. “Just because I write it down doesn’t mean it’s true! I write it down to see if it’s true!” A small consolation.
But why had I so desperately wanted to console him, anyway? Again, my own guilt guided me. Compared to my moral infraction, Tyler’s seemed miniscule. I’d written down in black and blue and purple ink all my worst feelings about him, and all my best about Nathanael. Tyler’s ego had finally taken a hit large enough to leave a dent, and he was kneeling before me, crying. I couldn’t stand the sight of it. I would have done almost anything to get him standing and stoic again.
So I insisted we stay together. Tyler wasn’t hard to convince. We lasted another year and then I finally broke up with him because I never wanted to have sex and never enjoyed it when we did. Nathanael had nothing to do with it. And a few months later I started dating the man who would become my husband. A man whom I can trust to never read my journals, and whose journals I’ve never been tempted to read, because I respect him.
The Jesse incident happened long enough ago that I’ve been able to revisit, recently, the journal in question. But the Tyler incident, though some twelve years in the past, is still too chronologically close for comfort. To read again the words I wrote in those two notebooks, knowing that he would read each entry soon after I wrote it, and that he would then watch me differently, and, to be sure, treat me differently, with his wicked knowledge… I might never be ready for that.
I’m what journal therapist Kay Adams would call a wounded writer. Others in this category include anyone who’s been criticized for how they write, and anyone who’s been made to write in such a way that they’ve grown to hate it, fear it, resent it, etc. There are many wounded writers out there. Brenda Ueland, author of If You Want to Write (a book I only discovered in the past year and can’t believe I even managed to survive so long without it), would agree. Just her chapter titles tell you what Ueland is all about: Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say; “Know that there is often hidden in us a dormant poet, always young and alive” -de Musset; Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write; You do not know what is in you—an inexhaustible fountain of ideas. And my favorite: Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.
Like these titles, every word of Ueland’s book serves to inspire and encourage, to remind us again and again (which is how we must be reminded) that our perspective matters. If we can just convey it honestly, through the details that stand out to us and make us feel and think, then we will write well. She talks a lot about the damage done by writing teachers who care more about grammar than about how a given sentence paints a picture in the reader’s mind, or how quickly the reader feels connected to the writer, like they know her. Luckily my own grasp of grammar has always been effortless, so I’ve never experienced such wounding-by-teacher. But I’ve endured enough creative writing workshops to feel that sting on a craft level and be shocked by the speed with which self-doubt can stun (and stunt) a pen.
And of course I’ve endured two Incidents. Either one could have scared me off the habit of keeping a “slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary,” but neither did. Not for long. I bet my wounds heal quicker because of it.
June 29, 1945. A Friday. Pattie Anne’s twenty-first birthday. She awakes at six o’clock for some last-minute studying and by 6:30 feels prepared, falls back asleep, and dreams in half-Spanish. She awakes again in time for breakfast at eight. Eggs and toast, which she enjoys at the small corner table in the parlor while reading the sweet birthday card and letter from her parents.
Walt passes by just as she’s finishing. He’s headed down the hallway, no doubt leaving for Mrs. Allen’s.
“Goodbye!” she calls. Her voice surprises her a little.
Walt enters the parlor and stands next to Pattie’s table. She folds her napkin over her lap, then folds it again. Her face feels tight as she smiles up at him. They exchange pleasantries. This is her last full day in Rochester. Tomorrow it’s back to Harriman, at least for the summer. Perhaps for her whole life. But she doesn’t say as much.
“Be good and all that,” Walt says before leaving with his hands in his pockets. His usual good-bye.
Just the other night, Mary Jean told Pattie Anne that Walt said he was going to kiss her — Pattie Anne — before she left. Said he’s thought about it a couple of times and even dreamed once that he did. Well! How funny! Seems to Pattie that Walt is afraid of her. Much like all men.
She walks to school in time for her 9:00 Spanish exam. The air is thick, more akin to steam. The bottom of the sky threatens to fall out at any minute. While Pattie and her classmates rack their brains, a thunderstorm rages. She sweats in the sauna-like conditions of the classroom, but the test is easy. She finishes by eleven o’clock.
“Have fun in Tennessee,” Mr. Harvey says.
Back at the boarding house, Pattie opens and reads a birthday card from Betty Laft and a letter from Greta. Then she begins the sorting process. So much packing to do in so little time! Walt is out in the hallway on the phone with the operator. “Betty Purple,” he says again. “No, Betty Purple…” Then he laughs. “Not Myrtle Turtle!” Pattie laughs, too, folding clothes. “Betty Purple!” he says. “Yes… Thank you.”
Walt makes arrangements with Betty and hangs up, chuckling. The phone rings. Pattie hears him answer it, and soon he is singing her name with hilarious gusto. It’s Vi, her friend from Stephens College. Pattie takes the call. Birthday wishes are received, gratitude expressed, apologies given for having to keep it short.
Walt lingers in Pattie’s doorway for a moment and watches the trunk fill with dresses, scarves, hats, shoes. “I see you’re easily entertained,” she says. But then Betty Purple drives up in his car, honking away, and Walt departs. Pattie wishes she’d asked him why he was afraid of her. She’d like a frank answer.
About 2:30 she throws her hands up in the air, calling a halt. She is starving. If she hurries she can still make lunch at the Baptist Temple.
March 19, 2003. A Wednesday. Laura’s twenty-first birthday. But also the day the nation goes to war. She hates the idea of it. And through the blinds on the window above her bed, she can see the weather is still and again terrible — wet, grey, foggy, cold, windy. She has to study, anyway.
Her father calls as she’s eating breakfast at the table, staring at the cows on the other side of the stream between proofreading paragraphs of last night’s journal entry. He tells her she’s getting a new car — the $10,000 Nissan Sentra that she test drove awhile back. She can’t believe it. Weeks ago, when her father was contemplating spending that much money on a car, the look on his face was the most unhappy thing she’d ever seen. But now he’s done it.
“Happy birthday, Laura.”
She thanks him profusely and has to cry because she feels so guilty. It’s all too much, everything he does for her.
She gets dressed for class and drives to the mall, waiting in the warmth of her Chevy Blazer (also purchased by her Dad, but a total lemon) until she sees the bus round the bend of the building. She hurries to the stop and steps into the bus, slumps into a window seat and sighs toward the passing world. Cold. Grey. Wet.
Her mood lifts slightly when Nathanael comes to Playwriting class with a big smile that says he knows it is her day. He leans down and hugs her before sitting at his desk, directly in front of hers. He unzips his yellow book bag and retrieves her gift: three burned CDs (CSNY, Neil Young, Bob Marley) and a card. Class begins and Nathanael faces front. Laura opens the card. Inside, Nathanael has quoted Ernest Hemingway: “An intelligent man (woman) is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.” A little light turns on inside her. But then it’s out. They are just friends. She could never trust him and he doesn’t feel that way about her anymore, anyway.
After Playwriting she spends an hour in Crossroads, a warm and dimly lit coffee shop inside the Student Union. It is her birthday, so she treats herself to a cup of coffee with cream and sugar. She people-watches between bullet points, studying notes for Sustainable Development. A terribly boring class. She thought it would be inspiring.
After Conversational French — taught by a half-deaf septuagenarian who lacks an adequate grasp of circumlocution and fails to understand what Laura means when she says (in French) “house of light” because she doesn’t know the word for “lighthouse” — she walks to Oak Street. Maybe Evan and Tyler will smoke her up.
They’re seated on opposite low-slung love seats, shooting the shit. She mentions her birthday and they cheer, clap, pack the bowl and insist she take greens.
She lingers for over an hour, enjoying their company, how Tyler runs his hands through his hair, and at 2:30 Evan offers to drive her to her car. Tyler comes along for the mile and a half ride. He recently lost his license after two too many DUI’s.
“What are you going to do for the rest of the day?” he asks.
“Study,” she says.
At least it has stopped raining.
Back at the house, revived by her repast, Pattie begins packing in earnest. She dreads calling the baggage department because you have to tell them at least four times what you’re calling about! But this time it isn’t so bad, and a great relief to have it over with.
She’s just beginning on a big box of books — the last of the packing — when a car drives up, streaking light across her bedroom walls. Pattie peers through the window pane and sees Walt in the driver’s seat. He is alone. She figures he forgot something and returns to her bookshelf.
Seconds later, he’s knocking on the door. Pattie gasps at her sweaty, dust-covered reflection in the dresser mirror. She might collapse any second. But Walt knows she’s in here and she’d hate to be so vain as to deny him entry because she looks a fright. So she opens the door, a shy profile, and tries to keep her back to him as she empties the shelf of, and fills a box with, books. “Whatever would we do without books?”
“I think I could last awhile without ever seeing another book again,” Walt says. “You’re really going to keep all of those?”
“Well it’s not as if I’m going to throw them away. If I were coming back, I’d try to sell them in the fall.”
“I’m coming back,” Walt says. “I can sell them for you.”
“Oh, I’d hate to trouble you with all that.”
“Pattie would you like to ride out to the airport with me to pick up something? And maybe we can cruise around the field if a ship is available?”
Talk about out of the blue! He’s asking her to maybe go flying with him! She must refrain from falling upon Walt’s neck with joy! And she hasn’t even told him it’s her birthday.
The doorbell rings and Pattie rushes to answer it, nodding an enthusiastic yes in Walt’s direction, which seems to lift a great weight from his entire body. In her last glimpse of him he seems to be glowing. Through the glass in the front door Pattie sees a delivery man. For one awful moment she fears it is a telegram, from which she always expects the worst.
But it’s a special delivery from Kimmie, back in Harriman. Up to her old tricks, Kimmie has drawn question marks around Pattie’s name on the envelope. “What’s all the mystery about?” the delivery man asks.
“Oh, it’s just her sense of humor.”
Pattie returns to her bedroom and finds Walt closing the now-full box of books. With one arm he lifts to his hip a stack he set aside. “I bet I can sell these next semester.”
“Oh you don’t have—”
“—We should really get going. In case we have to wait for a ship.”
Pattie likes his urgency. So in record time, she washes her face and combs her hair and they are off.
Even though studies prevent her from drinking later, Laura wants to do something to commemorate her birthday. So she stops at the liquor store on her way to New China and buys a bottle of Amaretto. After picking up dinner for herself and her roommate, she catches the worst red light in town, at highways 321 and 105.
A small group of protesters has gathered on the corner up ahead. Laura assumes they are against the war, but as she inches closer before having to stop again for God knows how long, she can read most of their hot pink homemade signs. “We’re for the war.” “Support our troops.” “Bomb Iraq.” There are six of them, all appearing to be college kids.
“What?” she says to herself, to the Chinese food smells filling her car. Is she seeing this right? Other drivers start honking their horns, but why? Do they agree with these protestors? Although actually they aren’t protestors, just supporters? Or are they honking out of hopelessness, anger, bewilderment? Just as she would be honking right now if she believed in honking for any reason that wasn’t life-threatening? And maybe this is life-threatening?
Her light turns green but not for long enough to permit her passage across the vast intersection. Just long enough, of course, for her to idle right beside the group of war-enthusiasts. She rolls down her window and lifts her voice above the hum of engines. “So, what are you guys trying to do?” she asks.
“We’re just sharing our opinion,” one of them says. He could be any college sophomore whose type dominated the social landscape. A business major in an AppState ball cap and a North Face coat. And now even more than usual, far too proud of himself.
“Nuke Iraq, quick and painless,” another one of them says.
In about eight years Laura will read Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire — the chapter where he realizes in a flash that there’s no point in pursuing any kind of dialogue with a particular land surveyor because he’d be “talking to a madman” — and she will remember this moment. She knows it would do no good to actually say, “But if we ‘nuke’ Iraq, won’t hundreds or thousands of innocent lives be taken? And if what goes around comes around, won’t we one day be nuked? Our flesh hanging from our bones?” So with her heart in her lap, she looks away, rolls up her window, and succumbs, for a moment, to despair. The song on the radio is loud and upbeat, fuzz-soaked and string-swollen, titled “All You Need is Hate” (The Delgados). Maybe so.
The light turns green and she makes it through this time, glad to widen the distance between herself and the non-protesters. And instantly she wishes she’d said something! Something more! She should have pulled over and parked in the two-storey Wendy’s lot and had a conversation with those madmen — and madwomen among them, with midriffs showing as they cheered! She should turn around right now!
But no, that’s no way to spend a birthday. She need not be reminded that this is the world into which she grows faster all the time.
Walt takes Genesee Park, going through the River Campus toward the airport. The sun is out full-force now. Pattie wishes her window could lower more than all the way. Her face burns in the heat.
“What time are you leaving on Sunday?” he asks.
“Tomorrow I leave. Saturday. The nine P.M. train.”
“Oh, I thought it was Sunday. Wishful thinking, I guess.”
A slight dip in the road sends her stomach into somersaults. “How fast are you going?”
“About seventy. Just got two new tires.”
At the airport Pattie waits in the car while Walt goes in to see about a ship. She reads Kimmie’s communications. A birthday greeting followed by a letter bearing the latest news of home. Mr. Harris, the lawyer Pattie worked for the previous summer — her first and so far only job — might be on the brink of divorce. His drinking, no doubt. Poor Mrs. Harris. Her husband is a good man, but his bad habits get the best of him.
Pattie prays right there on the spot that she won’t end up marrying a man with an affection for the bottle. But in three years she’ll do just that. She won’t know it, though, for at least another ten.
Walt returns with the news that they can have a plane.
“Uh-oh,” he says.
“Your face. You’re getting cold feet!”
She is. But she’s also easy to persuade, prides herself on being fearless. When she can be.
“It’s a Taylorcraft L-2 Grasshopper,” Walt says as they approach the plane.
“Because it looks like a grasshopper?”
“Because it’s known for bumpy landings.”
Pattie stops short. “Don’t tease me.”
“Luckily my nickname around here is Smooth…”
“It is not!”
He laughs and she joins in to keep from crying. Still, she trusts him. He opens the door and helps her in. Side-by-side seating and nicely upholstered, much like a car. They cruise around awhile and Walt explains the various gadgets. Then with a green light from the tower, they take off. The first rise is sudden and steep, sending her stomach in a loop and her hand to Walt’s knee. Too scared to speak.
“It’ll be bumpy like this for just a bit longer. Then smooth sailing.”
He rewards her attempt at humor with a smile. And at two thousand feet, the sailing is in fact so smooth that they hardly seem to be moving at all. The houses and trees below look like toys.
“It’s true,” she says, shouting over the motor. “Seen from above, man and all his problems seem very small!”
“It’s a vastly different perspective!” he bellows. “And about nine degrees cooler up here!”
And what a wonderful thrill! They fly over the city of Rochester, shouting out landmarks, including 4 Portsmouth Terrace. And across the capillary street, Mrs. Allen’s. Without warning, Walt asks her if she can swim.
“How is that relevant?”
He smiles in a way that turns him very young-looking and softens her. She could’ve been soft all along.
“Yes, I can swim.”
“You’re probably a strong swimmer.”
“Yes, I think so.”
She laughs and must look away, back down at the earth so many hundreds of feet below. Walt puts his arm across the back of her seat and she knows: the time has come. Her first kiss. All she has to do is look at him. But her gaze stays fixed on the tiny model town until they make their bumpy descent. The poor boy never stood a chance.
Back at her house there are birthday cards in the mailbox, and a shoebox full of homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from her grandmother, and a ringing telephone with her sister Emily on the other end. Emily, whose middle name is Patricia because their father assumed that his mother’s name — Pattie — was short for that (but he was wrong), assures Laura that their father would not have bought the car if he couldn’t afford it. Also, “I’m moving to Philadelphia. It’s official.” For the past couple of months Emily has been trying to choose between Philly and D.C. Dave lives in Philly, but Emily swears she’s fallen in love with the city — not with Dave. It’s pure coincidence.
Laura doesn’t want her sister to move out of state and hopes she won’t stay away too long. But in five years Emily will marry for the second time (not Dave), thus establishing an arrangement from which she won’t be able to escape with a clear conscience. She will desperately want to return to North Carolina, but she’ll have two young daughters to consider and their father to appease. Bon voyage.
While sitting at the dining room table, their books and binders everywhere, and half-empty Chinese food containers, Laura and her roommate Dylan look up at the sound of a knock on the door. Neither of them are expecting a visitor. Dylan welcomes the distraction from his Geography homework and goes to see who it is.
“It’s Evan and Tyler.”
“What?” But the creak of the door and the sound of their voices drowns her out. She stares at them as they walk in. She just saw them a couple of hours ago. They smile at the confusion on her face, pleased with themselves.
“We got you a present,” Tyler says. He tosses a corduroy pouch at her, tied with hemp.
She peers inside. “You got me a bowl?”
“It’s a bubbler.”
“Oh my god…” She pulls the water pipe from its pouch. Clear glass swirled with grey-green and blue. For the third time today, she’s too shocked for words. “That is so nice!” she finally says. “Thank you so much!” She hugs Evan for the umpteenth time — she’s known him since middle school — and Tyler for the first time ever. His body is harder than she expected. The contact fills her head with static. Jesse will be so pissed that he gave her a bubbler.
“Well, let’s christen it!”
Dylan provides the weed and they pass it around a couple times.
“So much for studying,” Tyler says, a half-question.
“No, I can study stoned.”
“And after a beer over a friendly game of foosball?” Dylan says.
She has no choice but to oblige. It’s all very friendly, indeed. So warm. And it is early yet.
“I bet you could ace that test without studying at all,” Tyler says when their time is up.
“I’ve never aced anything without working for it.”
But he’s right. This particular test will be a breeze, all her studying in vain. Still, she sends them home at 8:30 and stays up past midnight reading, underlining, admiring between bullet points the grey-green and blue swirls of glass.
Walt drives more slowly back to the house as they talk about various things. He wonders what Pattie’s parents will say about their little jaunt. Neither of them has a watch, so he comes inside the house to check the time: five o’clock.
“Here.” Pattie opens her wallet and offers Walt some money. “For the ride.”
“Absolutely not,” he says. “It was a promise.”
She argues with him, foolishly, and of course he wins. She wants to thank him for making her birthday so exciting.
“Leave your address with Miss Hunt,” he says. “I’ll send you the money for the books. Minus a small fee for services.”
“Oh, I see!”
“Okay, Pattie. Be good and all that.”
“You, too, Walt.”
He leaves her then, alone with her regret. Another year will pass before a man tries to kiss her again, and she will let him, and she will marry him. At times like this, she hates to think of not coming back to Rochester. She will miss everyone dearly, here and at Mrs. Allen’s and at school. Darn it all anyways.
She takes a much needed bath. A good hot one. Then she’s back at the Baptist Temple for supper, where she sits with Miss Van Etten. Talking. Cooling off. Pattie invites her to the show and insists, when Miss Van Etten claims financial embarrassment, on handling the money. They go to the Century and see Claudette Colbert and Warren William in Imitation of Life, and Bing Crosby in East Side of Heaven. Both old pictures and the first extremely interesting. Claudette Colbert is fascinating.
The show lets out about ten and they wait for a Pittsford bus for a half hour. But it’s worth the wait because it drops them right at the corner of Portsmouth. Very warm still. Pattie goes to work on the finishing touches of packing and finally lies down for sleep at midnight. Her twenty-first birthday is over. Her bones are lead-heavy. But a storm comes up, the roof leaks, and then, just as she is drifting off, Ikey the cat jumps through the window and lands on her leg.