Writing My Life

Now and Then

Day 29 ~ Burn It the Day Before You Die

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There is a story in my husband’s family about G.E.’s grandmother and stepgrandmother. It seems that Grandmother Kay was an avid journal-keeper, and poured her most intimate thoughts onto the pages of her personal diary. Unfortunately, this beautiful and talented woman died young at age 58. Not long after her death, her second husband, Colonel John, married her best friend Moselle.

I’m not sure how Kay felt about that, but if there was anyone who idolized Kay – besides the Colonel – it was Moselle. At any rate, wife #2 stumbled onto the first wife’s journal and did what any curious woman would do: she read it. As a result, Kay’s posterity will NEVER know what experiences, ideas, joys, sorrows, passions, etc. their mother/grandmother recorded because Moselle decided the pages might cause pain or problems for those interested in the journal’s contents, and so she destroyed it.

Kay’s children were furious. Regardless of the outcome, they felt they had a right to read what their mother had faithfully written over the years.When pressed, Step-Mother refused to summarize or even hint at what she read. She repeated that the children were better off NOT knowing their mother’s innermost feelings.

I can’t help but ask if you decide to burn a journal, why would you tell concerned people there WAS a diary? It seems to me that the destruction of a journal by a NON-relative would cause as many or more problems than the book’s revelations. Don’t you think? Perhaps Kay’s children would have accepted destructive decision if Colonel John had read it and burned it. (Personally, I still think they would have been upset, but maybe a little less so. My husband says NO.)

Isn’t KNOWING often better than NOT knowing? Think about the grown children’s speculations about the secret passages. They knew their mother had plenty of problems to pour out of her heart. Kay was married to a Montana rancher, and her life was not only hard, it was disappointing. G.E.’s mom told me that her mother had a beautiful voice, and even though she sang as she worked the ranch, she longed for a place and time far from Great Falls.

After Kay’s youngest daughter Jenny graduated from high school, Kay divorced her rancher husband and headed for Salt Lake City. This rebellious choice was contrary to 1940’s society and to her Mormon faith. The mother and daughter worked in a defense plant until Jenny met and married her soldier. Kay then decided to head further west to Southern California, and that’s where she met the colonel.

My mother-in-law and her oldest sister spoke empathetically of her mother,  but another sister did not. I don’t know what Kay’s only son thought of his mom, but he did make Montana his home for many years. I don’t know if he kept in contact with his father, but his sisters did not see him very often.

So, what did Kay write of? The many unhappy years she spent on the ranch? Her disappointments in not living the life she dreamed of? Her frustrations with children, neighbors, and other relatives who did not approve of her choices? Her love for the colonel? Her dating experiences before meeting her colonel? Her concerns about the spouses her children chose to marry? Her worries that they might end up as miserable as she had been? Who knows? Maybe it was worse; but maybe it was not!

This brings me to the topic of this entry. What is the purpose of keeping a journal? Of course, there are many reasons, but I once heard that people should keep two journals: one they want to leave for their posterity and one they burn the day before they die.

There is no doubt that writing is therapeutic. One of my former students wrote to me a few years ago to tell me that writing had literally saved her life. She suffered from depression, eating disorders, and self-mutilation. As she spent time in a clinic, she filled the pages of dozens of diaries. The writing helped her work her way free from these many challenges. And now she writes professionally.

Do we need two different diaries? Does it hurt to read that our parents, sisters, grandparents lived lives of pain and disappointment? That they didn’t always appreciate their circumstances? That they disliked their siblings and never loved their spouses? There’s no doubt that such revelations can be hurtful, but if they are, the reader has the option of closing the book and placing it back on the shelf.

Hopefully, lines of triumph and paragraphs of happiness shine through recorded trials and insights build understanding. I believe that had Kay’s loved ones been able to read her words, they would have found delight among the dreariness, reclamation among regrets, and love among the heart-breaks.

Author: rbs

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