My mother had a hard time expressing her emotions. That may have been due at least partially to the harsh environment she grew up in during the depression, in a family that stressed hard work and commitment more than affection. But she kept diaries for more than 40 years, and when I read through them I could feel the love for her family, her friends, and her community come through. I think that was how she told people she loved them.
I didn’t know my Mom kept diaries until I ran across them in her desk while we were cleaning out her house. There they were, eight five-year diaries that covered four decades, neatly ordered by date, with daily entries in her tidy cursive handwriting. They start October 19, 1967 (her 42nd birthday) with this entry:
Rec’d this diary this birthday, also hankies from Ed and gloves & nail polish from other kids. Ate out at Bowling Alley.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that she kept diaries, since she came from a family of diary-keepers. Her grandmother, Anna Lacy, kept a journal for years, which consisted primarily of brief handwritten notes; and, her mother, Josephine, kept diaries and accumulated poems, recipes, and newspaper articles for more than 40 years. So Mom came by it honestly. Mom’s diaries are small, five-year books, and each page is for one date (e.g., October 19), so when you look through the pages you see what was written for that date for five years. At first, I found that a little confusing, but the more time I spent with the diaries the more interesting it became. On a single page, it is possible to compare what she wrote for that date for five years -- on her birthday, for example, or Valentine’s Day or Christmas -- and to see how her life changed over those five years.
Most of her daily entries are brief and factual, with little personal feelings or reflection. And the vast majority of her daily notes deal with her routine, her children, and the weather. The entry for October 4, 1970 is typical:
Made pumpkin pies for Altar Society lunch. Paid bills. Went for a ride in the country.
Occasionally, she commented on the news or on her health. In her notes, her husband was “J.” and her children were identified by their first names.
Most of the entries described her very busy days of running a household, taking care of a husband and eight kids, and volunteering at her church and community events. They give the image of a dedicated and hard-working woman who was proud of her life, her family, her community, and her country. They also tell a story of a lady who worked very hard at doing her duty every day of every year. This entry from November 5, 1968 is typical:
Washed & ironed. Made two apple pies. Went to Lion’s Club pancake feed. Voted for Nixon.
Over the years, her focus changed: from her daily chores and her church, to working and volunteering, to travelling and seeing her children and grandchildren, and to taking care of her husband. The last few diaries were mostly about seeing family and friends, and noting which of them called or visited her.
She recorded significant events in her life as they occurred: birthdays, weddings, illnesses, and deaths, and it’s possible by reading through those events to track the major milestones in her life. There’s little emotion, just facts. For example, this entry from May 14, 1991 noted the birth of her first grandchild:
Dan called to say they had a baby boy, William David, at 1:00 AM. Weighed 8 lbs., 7 oz., and is 21 inches long.
Likewise for deaths, this entry for July 4, 1973:
Gramp F. died. We went to see Gramp M. and to Peetz in P.M. Took boys to fireworks display at Big Springs. Ray came home.
There were surprises, too. I knew, for example, that she played the piano and organ – but I didn’t know that she also took lessons to play the guitar, recorder, and violin. And I didn’t realize her level of involvement playing the organ for her church until I saw it in her diary entries. There were entries for many years in which she met with someone to go over music for an upcoming wedding or funeral, then practiced the music before the event, then played for the event. She was truly dedicated to it!
Mom was a busy lady, and the older she got the busier she became. Many of her activities were recorded in her diaries as simple notes, such as this from March 2, 1987:
I gave the lesson, “Home Filing System” at Extension Club. Red Schroeder died. I went to Altar Society meeting.
I tend to forget that Mom worked, and she took each of her jobs seriously and noted her hours, responsibilities, bosses, and even her salary. She kept the books for Dad at his business, was a bookkeeper at a local car dealer, worked as a computer operator and office clerk at the local Farmer’s Elevator Company, and was a bookkeeper at the local nursing home. A typical entry from October 28, 1980 indicates the variety of her days:
Worked at Rest Home. Had two for piano lessons. Hail adjuster came and looked at Ford and left a check for $350.00.
Family birthdays were important to Mom, and she noted them in her diaries. Often, she recorded how old we were, what type of birthday cake she made for us, and what gifts we received. Those entries were probably practical solutions for her, since she could later remind us to send thank you notes for the gifts, and she could look in her diary to remember what our favorite birthday cake was.
Think her family didn’t keep her occupied? Meals were a huge part of her everyday life, preparing meals for and feeding up to ten people. Surprisingly, she seldom mentioned meals in her diaries, unless there was a special occasion, such as a child’s birthday, or Easter, or Father’s Day. She was aware, however, that she had a crowd for most meals, and on June 18, 1973, she wrote the following:
Wind blew hard all day. Anne had 2nd wisdom tooth pulled. Took Ed out to Don Johnson’s to go to the circus with them. J. and I ate alone for first time in 22 years.
After her children were grown and gone, Mom re-shaped her priorities. For a while, her diary entries were less frequent and briefer, but then she gradually added activities and interests and the tone of the diaries grew more fulfilled. She began noting her bowling scores, ladies’ club meetings, the dates when she delivered Meals on Wheels, art classes, and piano lessons she gave to local children. She and Dad took classes in square dance, and she took up quilting and made a quilt for each of her children. She went to concerts, visited with neighbors, and saw her sisters and her “aunties.” She took aerobics and went with a friend to water exercise. She planted flowers and helped Dad harvest and can vegetables. She picked cherries from the neighbor’s tree and pitted and canned them. When the neighbor’s wife died, Mom invited her husband over for meals. And she travelled – to the east coast, New Orleans, Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Florida, and she had a major adventure when she travelled with her siblings to Ireland. That trip, and all of her travels, were carefully documented, with details about what she saw, who she was with, and what she ate.
Wedding anniversaries were important to Mom, and she noted each in her diary. The most lengthy entry in any diary was about their 50th anniversary celebration, on September 6, 1998:
Had special ceremony at Mass for 50th anniversary. Renewed wedding vows. Children and grandchildren held votive candles. Grandchildren took up offertory gifts. Open House was 2:00 – 4:30. Had nice noon meal for family and relatives. (Also, played organ for Mass.)
Mom had a “fun” side, which also wound up in her diaries. She corresponded with the group of friends from college she called the “Fab 5”, and she and Dad got together with them regularly, including New Year’s Eve. She square danced, and she saw her sisters and brother regularly. She was a member of several local clubs; including the Extension Club, Altar Society, Booster Club, Heritage House, and later the Red Hats. She taught piano lessons and catechism, went to concerts and “shows” (movies), and took lessons in art, ceramics, and calligraphy.
Going through the last couple of diaries was hard. That was when Dad was sick, and Mom’s life revolved around taking care of him. I had to take frequent breaks while reading these diaries to keep from getting too sad. The tone of her entries changed from excitement -- as she travelled, went to art classes, and did volunteer work – to sorrow as she took care of Dad when his Parkinson’s got worse. She noted each doctor visit and each fall, and she seemed to take it in stride, although the pain is obvious between the lines, as in this entry for November 1, 2004:
J. fell in bathroom. Keith Mitchell came to get him up.
When Dad couldn’t get out of bed two mornings in a row, Mom put him in a nursing home and then visited him nearly every day. This, too, was recorded in the same straight-forward, factual style. This entry from January 11, 2005 is typical:
I ate with J. at nursing home at noon. Anne called to say she will come Saturday. Cut J.’s fingernails.
I realized again while reading her diaries that Mom was one tough woman! She had a difficult childhood -- growing up poor, with too much discipline and not enough love. She responded by excelling at everything she did (school, work, marriage, parenthood), and by keeping an even keel. That came out in her diaries -- she didn’t get too high when things went well, and she didn’t get too low when they were bad. She noted that her childrens’ weddings were “pretty” or “nice” for example, and she reported that some funerals were “sad.”
I also realized as I read through her diaries that she appreciated her children. Next to her husband, we were the most important thing in her life, and each card we sent, each phone call we made, and each visit we paid to her was noted in her diaries. She was immensely proud of us, and those last few years, when Dad was in the nursing home and later after he died, were the hardest for her. Our calls and visits made it possible for her to carry on. She didn’t brag about us in her diary, which I guess was just her way, but it came through loud and clear that she depended on us and she was proud of us. That will stay with me forever, and that made it all worthwhile.
Thanks for keeping diaries, Mom. And thanks for loving me.