I believe in writing a diary—on paper, not on an electronic medium like a blog. True, with a handwritten journal you cannot include links to cool websites, or pop-ups or have a soundtrack. But nothing can replace the physical presence of the ink trails carefully traced by a human hand. Especially those made by a beloved human hand.
After my mother, Joan Morrison, died in 2010, my brothers and I found hundreds of poems and journal entries written by her, starting from when she was 9 years old in 1932. Not seen in seven decades, this time capsule allowed me to witness the life of a young American girl growing up in Chicago in the wake of the Depression as World War II neared and finally began.
The way I found to work through my grief at my mother’s death was by editing and transcribing her words: reading them, entering her mindset as a young girl and then teenager, laughing at her jokes, reflecting on her naivete, processing her wisdom, aching for her failed romances, tragic love affairs that I knew were, in the long run, hardly tragic.
Even when she was 19, my mother realized the value of the very journal she was writing, though I’m sure she never expected to have her now 52 year old daughter discover in it the consolation I have found. She comments on January 20, 1942:
“I believe I have written my diary with the intention of having it read someday. As a help, not only to the understanding of my time, but to the understanding of the individual, not as me, but as character development. Things we forget when we grow older are written here to remind us. A help not only in history, but in psychology. If I can do that, I believe I shall have done all that I could wish to. I rather like the idea of a social archeologist pawing over my relics.”
Well, I’m no social archeologist, I’m just a daughter, but the materiality of her notebooks are what I have found so profound in my journey back to healing in the wake of her loss. My mother touched the very two-ring binders whose lined sheets I turn carefully so that the paper won’t crumble. She sketched out little drawings of herself in outfits now charmingly dated. Only through the tangibility of her composition, inscribed in blue ink that is sometimes blotched or faded does the fleshly human who composed them come alive. These are precious talismans to me. With them, I am able to revive her in my memory, young, vital, pensive, silly, perceptive, creative —the complex beloved woman I knew, I know, as my mother.