I slide my hand over a treasure. It has the smell of “old books” mixed with a touch of cedar from the chest it rested in for years. Yellowed newspaper clippings are tucked between the pages. My mom’s life is portrayed in a pile of small diaries with black, red, white, green and brown leather covers. Now they are a testament of a life.
Before the age of 15 she began recording her life, writing daily snippets of information on a small page. She faithfully continued to write an account of her days for over 33 years. There is one book that doesn’t match the others-a spiral bound paper booklet which was given to her. During WWII times were hard and you used what you had.
Unknowingly, she gave me snapshots of her life. She voiced the desire to my older sisters that no one would read them. They sat silently in the cedar chest soaking in that smell. So many years passed before we touched them. Our curiosity begged us to pick them up to get to know the mom who left us so early. Even now there’s a tinge of guilt intertwined with the knowledge that she would want us to know her.
Just as a quilt is made up of pieces of cloth which are sewn together, so are the stories she tells about her life. The bits of information she shares are woven together to enable me to know her. When reading these precious books I feel like there’s a warm quilt being wrapped around me.
Carefully lifting one page at a time, I imagine my mom turning a page and hearing that same swish. Since her cursive scrawl is difficult to read at times, I have gotten into the rhythm of her style of writing and her life flows into mine.
Her own mother died when she was eight. She was the oldest of five children. The relatives banded together to take care of them. My mom and her sisters were tossed about between relatives for several years, while her two younger brothers remained with a different relative. They all lived in the same town and kept in close contact. When she became a little older, she was expected to come back to help her father in his home. Mornings began early with cooking breakfast, then walking to school with her sister. Being a talented musician, she taught lessons for several instruments at the nearby music store. After school she would go there to teach, make supper for the family, practice her own instruments and study. Late at night, she put her pen to the page and days turned into years.
At 16 years old she was asked by mutual family friends to take on a housekeeping job. My dad was the 17 year-old farmer whom she described as “nice”, and she was the young woman who went to care for an ailing widow and her son. The job didn’t last long, but that was the beginning. The diaries tell touching tales of their courting, marriage and honeymoon a few years later.
Stories are told of the city girl who went to be a farmer’s wife. She wrote scores of short accounts of what it was like to be a wife and mother of six on a growing farm. With a cheerful attitude mom cooked, cleaned, gathered eggs, drove tractors, or worked in the fields. I can almost taste the “good supper and cherry dessert” she often made.
To know her was to love her. Unexpected visitors could pull up a chair at the kitchen table at any hour. She was never too busy to listen and share some coffee and cake. People were drawn to her like a magnet as if searching for her secret to serenity, amidst the chaotic large farm and family life. She was the family communicator as relatives all over exchanged letters with her. Looking for the best in people, she was friendly and warm. Although she fought fear, she worked through it and served in her church and community. God was her strength. She wasn’t perfect but I like to imagine she was.
Naturally, I am attracted to the page of my birth date in the diaries. I was my parent’s sixth child, so the event seemed to have a common aura. There are a few facts about my weight, time of birth, and how her body coped after the delivery. She mentions how her father “did not care for the name!” I chuckle as I remember how traditional my grandfather was and I appreciate the way she could incorporate some humor into her writing.
I often say that I “missed my mom”, whereas my older brothers and sisters “miss my mom.” I was only seven years old when she passed away unexpectedly at the age of 47, so my oldest siblings had the privilege of knowing her much longer than I did. I hear bits and pieces about her from them, but hearing her voice in her writing is a special gift she left me. I am so grateful to her that she took the time to write this journal of her life. Holding the same books she held, breathing in the scent of the diaries, and seeing her handwriting is priceless.
I only have a few faint memories of physically being with her. But I am eternally grateful that I have little books full of gems. My sisters are able to fill in some information about the people, events or feelings which were going on simultaneously with some of the stories, and I’ve learned to “read between the lines.” I am thankful that she was around long enough to instill in me her basic moral and spiritual values. Those seven years of influence were crucial and I strive to be the kind of person that resembles my mom.
After mom had her younger children down for the night, she would slip into her nightgown before settling into her chair to scribble out another page. In her later years, she would write by the blue light of the muted TV, waiting for teenagers to come home from their dates and events. I was the tiny girl who would often sneak out of bed to curl up on her warm lap while she wrote with her blue fountain pen. Writing every night despite the time on the clock or her exhaustion, displayed a life of discipline. She faithfully filled in her last page, the night before she died.
Extending mercy, writing, communicating, and the love of music are a few pieces of the quilt that I’ve inherited from her. My mom’s life on earth was short, but I’ve been able to glean wisdom from her writings which I hold close to my heart. Simply sliding my hand over one of her diaries reminds me to be grateful for a life-long letter from my mom.