Old Books

Yesterday while weeding out books for the thrift store, I came across two old books.

The first was The Every Day Cook Book and Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes, written in 1892 by Miss E. Neil. It’s a quirky little book because the printer, Regan Printing House, in Chicago, put the cover on upside down. And inside the cover is a sticker for Wrigley’s Mineral Scouring Soap, sold by grocers everywhere at five cents a bar.

Why do I keep it? Some day when the mega-earthquake hits, I might need a recipe for cooking cow brains. Yes, there is one for that. Seriously though, Miss E. Neil fancied herself a scientist of ‘cookery’. I love the tone of her voice as she talks about the cooking water for potatoes being poisonous. She gives very thoughtful advice on how the mistress of the house should keep a passbook where she writes down her shopping list and the grocer writes in the prices so she can make sure the maid isn’t cheating her.

And then there’s this from her introduction where she is giving tips on maintaining the wood stove fire: ‘Food of every description is wholesome and digestible in proportion as it approaches nearer to the state of complete digestion, or, in other words, to that state termed chyme, whence the chile or milky juice that afterwards forms blood is absorbed, and conveyed to the heart. Now nothing is further from this state than raw meat and raw vegetables. Fire is therefore necessary to soften them, and thereby begin that elaboration which is consummated in the stomach.’

Think about all the women who used this cookbook, worrying about chyme.

The book is a snapshot through the window of time.

Miss E. Neil's tome.

Miss E. Neil’s tome.

The second book is a diary of an old friend of my mother’s, Claire. I’ve posted before about her as she was a very unique woman who made a huge impression on me as a child. I planned to be just like her – a writer and hermit in the woods.

I admit to thinking diaries have to be these esoteric tomes where high lofty thoughts are left for those who follow. Probably why I struggle to write in one. But in reading Claire’s yesterday I realize that, like the cook book, diaries are also snapshots in time.

Claire's handwriting

Claire’s handwriting

Claire wrote about how many eggs she collected that day. What the weather was. What her weight was, her bowling score. How many days late or early her ‘shoes’ came. I used to wonder why she ordered so many shoes when I only saw her in men’s logging boots. I eventually realized ‘shoes’ were her euphemism for her monthly period.

She wrote about her daily thoughts, but in a five-year diary, which meant she had space for only a couple of sentences per day. Some days she simply said ‘A lonely day’.

And then I came across this, on Monday, September 9th, 1963. ‘Hot..89..Whew…all awash! Frank Nay died Saturday. Funeral Wed. 11th … a very sad thing…my arthritic bones all swollen & stiff.’

Why does that stand out to me with such gentle sorrow? I didn’t know until I read this that the day my father died was a Saturday of unseasonably hot weather. I think now of my mother sitting at the hospital with three children under age four, on a hot September day, waiting.

The details of daily life, jotted in a few sentences, can have such impact years down the road, beyond what the diary writer can probably ever imagine.

Diaries and Dramas

A few weeks after my mother died, my sister and I went through her things.  This involved scaling a gigantic mountain as my mother was a hoarder.  At one point I heard my sister sobbing and found her holding my mother’s diary.  It was an odd journal, full of stories of things that hadn’t happened, cruel comments about her children that made no sense, and serious signs of instability.  But all my sister saw were the horrible words written about her.  At the time we had a bonfire outside and so I took the diary, plus more of my mother’s that I found, and threw them onto the fire with broken-hearted fury.  And then I went home, gathered the diaries that I had kept since I was nine years old, and burned them, too.  There was a rage inside that words could so hurt.  I didn’t ever, ever, want something I had written to hurt another person so deeply. 

It probably wasn’t smart to make such an important decision that impacted not just me but siblings as well, when none of us were emotionally stable.  And over the past few years I have had brief moments of regret. 

And over the past few years I have never again kept a diary. 

Here’s the thing though.  Most writers keep some sort of notebook.  Something that holds bits of over-heard dialog, descriptions of someone passed in a street, ideas for stories, and random thoughts on writing.  I keep having this little nagging voice whispering to me that I should be writing life down.  Added to that, I know there are many types of diaries.  I know people who keep weather journals, nature journals, bird journals, and even one who keeps a running tab on river levels.  So if I really wanted to keep a diary, there are a lot of forms I could choose. 

Yet I keep going back to that moment when my mother’s words devastated my sister.  And I believe that if I started a diary again, the words would be false because I would mentally be editing them out of fear of hurting someone.  And that kind of writing is dangerous because there’s the possibility of the writing becoming a lie.  I find myself in this quandary of wanting to keep a journal and yet not knowing how to make it both honest and painless.  This is a common tightrope for writers to walk.  The work needs to be honest.  A friend described this beautifully when she said she was using a pen name to remove the inner critic that sat on her shoulder whispering, ‘what would your mother think?’.  But a pen name and the anonymity that brings isn’t an option when it comes to a journal.

Fiction is easier.  I have written stories where family members have been represented in characters, and not always favorably.  Do I worry about offending a family member?  Heck no.  I can always say, ‘it’s fiction’.  That excuse doesn’t exist for journals. 

I went into an office supply store this weekend and stood before the variety of notebooks thinking how much I would like to take on those blank pages.  I haven’t felt that desire to journal in a long time.  But as I reached for one, the fear came back.  I believe journals are important, especially for writers, but I haven’t found a solution to writing honestly without possibly breaking my son’s heart some day.  Even though I’m not my mother, and even though I want to record my writing life, not his life, is it worth the risk?  Some day I’ll find the balanced answer, but obviously it’s not today.