The scary thing is that it almost got thrown out with boxes of trash and discarded files while we were recently cleaning out my parents’ home.
But there at the bottom of a soiled brown cardboard box was a small yellow-edged envelope enclosing a lock of hair, along with two faded snapshots, a report card from Interlochen national music camp, and a soft tan suede-covered book.
Turning the book over in my hands, I noticed the brass clasp on one side, and a tiny tarnished key hanging from it on a crumpled blue satin ribbon. It was a diary, old and dusty and worn.
Opening its pages released its musty-scented memories on time-stiffened paper. But the ink was still bright.
The handwriting was small and cramped and unmistakably my mother’s.
The first entry in the diary was dated Feb. 16, 1934, the day after her 19th birthday.
It had been a gift to mark that occasion from the special young man in her life. He would be mentioned and featured on many of the following pages throughout most of the five years the diary represented – until the day they broke each other’s hearts and went their separate ways.
I have yet to read that part – although I know it is coming, from family stories I’ve been told. Yet she never shared with us the reason for the separation. I think she would not mind my knowing now. And so I keep reading.
Right from the start, I began reading the diary in the order in which it was written. Some sort of sense of honor prevents me from reading ahead or skipping places. Some sort of empathy wants me to relive her days as she did – the mundane mixed in with the exciting, the joy along with the sorrow.
This is not a journal like those in which we indulge ourselves today; it is not filled with long philosophical thinking and self-examinations of soul.
Neither is it like today’s records of daily life, minute-by-minute, put out into the universe at large on an electronic billboard with inherent arrogance and naiveté, perhaps to be belittled or skewed into unintended meaning by strangers and other voyeurs.
She wrote to no one, for no one, except herself. And she wrote of small, everyday things she did and felt and saw and experienced, in small, unassuming sentences.
I thought perhaps I might feel like an intruder myself to be reading it – and I do tend to open it only in privacy and quiet places.
I also bring to it my own present-day maturity; it surprises me to realize that I could, by age, be grandmother to this girl of 19, in the spring of her freshman year at the University of Illinois.
But the most delightful perspective, I’ve found, is that she was my mother at an age and time long before I ever knew her.
And yet, I do recognize her in so many ways – her spirit of fun, her humor, her kindness, her enthusiasm for life, her courage.
Still, I never felt that I knew that part of her that experienced deep disappointment, and hope-filled anticipation for all the possibilities yet to be, and who was passionate with the unrest of youth – all those things that I am finding still bright in blue ink, often squeezed into margins.
I long for my mother to be here again so that I might tell her in person how much I am learning from and about her through those words she tucked away at the bottom of a box almost 80 years ago.
I wish I could tell her how much I am learning to love her all over again, and how I know we would have been the very best of friends back then – just as we grew to be in the end.
And I would like to believe that, somehow, she had a foreknowledge of that truth – some premonition of it.
So perhaps that’s why she saved the diary all those years, placing it gently, safely, at the bottom of a brown cardboard box, next to a lock of her hair, two small photographs, and a memento from Interlochen national music camp.
Perhaps she knew, one day, it would be there to touch my hand and my heart.
Marti Healy is a local writer, author of the books “The God-Dog Connection,” “The Rhythm of Selby,” “The Secret Child,” and a collection of her columns: “Yes, Barbara, There is an Aiken.”
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