Last month, we invited readers to share their responses to a writing prompt inspired by Leeny Sullivan's essay, A Box Labeled "Tinsel and Lights." We asked readers to tell us how writing helps them understand or preserve their identity. Below is A.K. Drees's response.
The Day I Began Keeping a Journal
by A.K. Drees
When my mother married my father, a minister, they lived a nomadic life as he changed congregations. The only home that was fixed throughout my life was Grandma's house. It was the place for weekends, holidays, and later, my home, too, for a few years. Recently, my grandma moved from that house my grandpa built for her, a home she'd lived in for 60 years. When it was time for her to move, we had to confront her lifetime of memories and memorabilia as well as ours.
Five months of daily purging followed. Each day, my mom would take a few boxes or piles of things and hold them up, one by one, for Grandma's judgment. Is it worth moving? Garage-sale fodder? For the dumpster? I could not bear the stories of those carefully stored things. The last blanket my cousin's wife crocheted before she died of breast cancer at 27 was sent to the granddaughter who had never met her. Aunt Belle's wedding glasses, always too precious to use, were placed in a box that would head to my grandma's new condominium. We even found a forgotten box of mine in the attic. I had labeled it in my teenage scrawl, "Stuff My Mom Says I Will Miss If I Throw Away." In it were my awards from high school, a few journals, and my first baby doll in a dress yellowed with age.
Eventually Mom found the box we had hoped to find: the box of Grandma's daily journals. Grandma had kept a daily calendar, ending every day by writing in it and hiding it in a drawer. My mother and I were forbidden to look in that drawer for as long as we could remember. Grandma started writing in 1954 and stopped the day my grandpa died, unexpectedly and far too young, in 1987. When my mother called to say she had read the journals, I asked where she began. She said her wedding day, thinking it would be interesting. Instead Mom found a report of the weather and a notation that Grandma had not gotten much done that day because of "the party." For more than 30 years, Grandma logged the weather and how much housework she had done, but her journals gave no insight into her thoughts or our lives together.
The moment my mother said, "For the day you were born, it says, 'Baby came. It’s a girl,'" I knew I had to record my family's stories. Grandma is the storyteller and historian of our family, telling hundreds of tales of people and events that are recorded only in her memory. But what we have on paper are weather and ironing reports, not her stories of love and tragedy, joy and pain that made us a family. I had hesitated to keep my own journals for fear of embarrassing or hurting the people within them. The day I realized those stories would die with me was the day I began keeping journals. It was the day I started to keep stuff my children will miss if it is thrown away.
A.K. Drees moved to a small farm in Ohio this year with her husband, three children, and far too many animals. She received her first nomination for the Pushcart Prize for Poetry in 2017 from The Slippery Elm Journal.