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.