Diaries, notes and letters: leave ‘em laughing

I just finished reading the memoir Educated by Tara Westover. I found it both hard to put down and upsetting: yet, more than anything it fed into my own brain ramblings about family stories, and how differently each of us retain memories during our lifetime.

A third-grader at Chloe Clark Elementary asked me a profound question earlier this month: how did I know that my g-g-g-grandmother Chloe would want her diary to be shared? Would she be equally pleased that it is accessible online: certainly not an easy stretch of the imagination to a woman writing longhand in the middle 1800’s? I told the student and her class that Chloe did leave her diary with family, and I believe she would be pleased that others can read about these early Oregon Territory experiences.  I didn’t mention that Chloe’s writings were, while personal about her beliefs, not very personal in the sense that my new nine-year old friend might be thinking. Yet, she asks a good question. When is it okay to share memories and writings from others? Should we ensure we have their permission or is it our prerogative – as the ones left behind – to decide what we think best?

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Screen shot of Chloe’s diary preserved online by Willamette University.

We each make our own decision on this, and maybe it is less about right or wrong, and more about who we are, what the memories or stories are, and what intentions we have in sharing. Me? Even though my dad was no longer alive, it was important for me to know he would be comfortable about what I published in my memoir. I can imagine him boasting to others about this book his daughter wrote. Although there is pain and sadness in it, he and I made terms with all of it years ago. I thank the universe for this – and, for me, it is unlikely I would have published my memoir if not. But that’s just me. I too trust other characters in my book – from Chloe to J.K. Gill and his brother Sam, to my grandfather “Daddy Dick” – would be pleased to have their words shared with future generations. J.K. Gill was sure to make this clear.

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Since we don’t know what tomorrow may bring, I wasted no time recently to ask my mom about her own memoir. Almost two decades ago, she spent hours and months writing her own memoir, using old diaries, papers and “round robin” letters to her five sisters to augment her memories. Was Mom concerned she might not always remember all 352 pages of the details? Or was it simply her desire to get it all on paper? I consider it a gift to be able to read it to her today and return both of us to moments that no longer easily pop out of her eighty-five year old brain, even if some of the memories are sad or difficult. As we talked about her memoir, Mom reaffirmed to me her intention was to share it with those she loves and those who may come after. I did acknowledge that I didn’t anticipate every seeing it published and she agreed.

My own collection of mismatched journals still sit in my desk drawer. I recall once, when my oldest daughter turned fifteen, sharing a typewritten letter I had crafted back when I was fifteen and jammed in the middle of one volume: “To my 15 year old daughter.” I must have been optimistic to think I might get one (not to imagine getting two) after growing up with four brothers. Eventually I shared the typewritten letter with both daughters, and still remember their forgiving but bored response upon my invitation to read my advice from all those years ago. My daughters were far more mature and worldly than I, who at that time wrote primarily about struggles with Dad + sports + boys. Today I feel no need to burn or destroy my journals. I have no fear about them being read by someone else, and if I someday toss them it won’t be out of worry they may be read by others, but rather a desire to unclutter my life.

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Dede’s journal collection.

One of my grandfather’s bookshelves was lined with small hardback volumes of his journal, one volume for each year. I remember one day as a teen surreptitiously extracting his 1961 volume to glean what he wrote about the day I was born. He mentions my birth in a sentence. I still remember being disappointed he didn’t share more emotion about my birth, but it wasn’t the way he wrote. Not like the letters his son, our dad, wrote to us over the years.

In addition to the often emotional and humorous letters Dad sent to his family and friends, he was also known to repeat certain phrases, again and again. A favorite of his was leave ’em laughing. I didn’t know until recently that Laurel and Hardy starred in a 1928 film reel by that name. What all us kids knew, was that our dad used it as his excuse for sneaking out of social events, once he’d had enough, and by sharing the expression he reminded us he never wanted to overstay his welcome. He was ready to return to the comfort of his living room and the book he left behind.

As much as we miss Dad still, he did leave us laughing by way of a packet of letters my cousin sent me after Dad’s death, conveniently after I had finished my final memoir manuscript. Letters written by Dad to his parents, ending up in the hands of my uncle after my grandmother passed, and then to his son. The packet is stuffed full of letters dating back to Dad’s childhood adventures at summer camp at Spirit Lake, Mt. St. Helens still popping up across the ripples. Letters from Dad during his college days, the service, and a few in his earliest job. And one from my mom written to a woman she did not yet know would be her mother-in-law. Most of the letters I’ve seen have something in them that make me giggle today. Oh Dad – if only I had seen these before you died, how much I could have teased you! Please explain to me – during college you really sent your laundry from Eugene to Portland for your mother to wash, dry and fold? I still haven’t read every letter in the packet, but I know Dad’s writing well enough to expect a few more sniggers before I get to the last one.

As we hold stories from family – whether in the form of a letter, diary or memories held deep within: they offer opportunity. While they give us power to hurt others, at the same time they can help us heal. It comes down to what we do with them.

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