Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

A couple of weeks ago we paid another visit to the in-laws on Cape Cod.  My sainted mother-in -law, who will be 92 on August 26th and survived a near-fatal infection this winter, kept diaries during many of the periods when she traveled.  She wrote in journals while in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Fiji, in Georgia and Michigan while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, during the years she spent participating in Shaker Seminars, and she kept records of different vacations she went on.  She wrote a couple of entries in a book when she took a trip to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to visit the civil rights sites Martin Luther King, Jr. had traveled to; she kept more notes during many other journeys to craft shows when she and my father-in-law were selling their Shaker boxes or exploring some new location on a vacation.

Phoebe is curious about everything and loves to read.  She’s also — at nearly 92 — experiencing short-term memory loss, which means that she forgets what she’s read or discussed recently and sometimes, she forgets where she is.  My father-in-law wants to reduce clutter in their small apartment, and he’s keen on throwing out books and papers that he deems unnecessary.  And so Ben and I found three bags of diaries behind the couch, waiting for us to take them away (because we had asked my father-in-law that they not be thrown out).

When we asked Phoebe if she was content to have her diaries taken away, she said, meekly, that she would like to go through them and re-read them.  So although my father-in-law was not happy about it, I said that we would not be taking the diaries away until Phoebe had had the chance to re-read her reflections from those earlier parts of her life.

We hold on to memories and lived experience in different ways:  through photographs, sketches and paintings, journal entries, the stories we pass on from one generation to another.  My father’s story of buying a gallon jar of mustard for his older sister’s engagement party, when a small jar had been desired, became legend:  his father, a poor man, declared, as the little boy came home with the mustard, that if the boy had paid for the mustard, the family would be keeping it.  The parable was:  if you make a deal, you stick with it, no matter what.  I’ve remembered, and told my children, and I hope they’ll hold on to it – as well as the reason why the Weiners tend to keep lots of mustard in their houses.

The Soules are known for what they don’t say — that is, if you don’t ask the right question, you might not find out something pretty important.  But if you ask, you find out about Phoebe and Dick’s Sunday School classes taught by Jimmy Carter, about their travels to Tibet and other exotic locations, about rebuilding Star Island after the war had ravaged the old hotel and cottages.

If we are lucky, our lives are built from our own lived experience and from that of our elders and beloved family members.  We pass on the stories, both true and mythical, to our children, and they to theirs.  This is the way I got my grandmother’s Chili Sauce receipt (from the 1880’s) and my Aunt Estelle’s Chopped Liver recipe; this is how Ben learned about his great-grandparents’ experience when the Confederate Army burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania,  where the Gillan family lived.

The text of the old Quaker hymn says, “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation, I hear the real, though far-off hymn, that hails a new creation.Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing, it sounds an echo in my soul — how can I keep from singing?”

Phoebe’s diaries sound such an echo.  By holding on to them — even if she never does get to reading them all — she maintains a connection to her past, and to all the journeys that have shaped her life.  They are like gold, and like other pieces of a life well-lived, are worth our protection.

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