Reading Grandma’s Diary with Adult Eyes

Last night I read my grandma’s diary.

When I was a kid in Flint, Michigan, Grandma Bender, who lived on the home farm back in the mountains, represented all that was simple and safe and bountiful. At her many tables, my fifty-some cousins and I ate endless mounds of mashed potatoes and falling-off-the bone turkey and rich slices of rhubarb pie. Once fed, we played riotous games of no-bears-are-out-tonight and sat on the hillside to watch the older cousins race down the slope on their hands.

And at first twilight, we’d be called from our play. Sitting on chairs and benches and blankets under the trees, we’d sing I Love My Mountain Home and Twilight is Stealing—trying to match the bass and alto and tenor and soprano voices of the grownups.

It was this grandma who surprised us with a visit to Flint on what happened to be the day John F. Kennedy was shot. The city was still new to us then. The water tasted bad, my class had a bully, our neighbor beat his wife, and racial tensions were rising. And on the way home from school that day, I learned about the assassination from a carful of raucous, horn-honking high schoolers.

And that was the afternoon I found Grandma Bender at our kitchen table. She sat there, short and round, snapping green beans for dinner. Her hair pinned under her head covering, her cape dress covered with an apron, and her instant smile—all this was such a contrast to my day that I felt two worlds had collided.

When my grandma went back to her mountain farm, I went with her—in my mind, that is. When life got tough in Flint, I’d imagine sitting in her kitchen, watching her roll out pie crusts, or in the living room darning socks with her new radio playing music. A place of peace, where no trouble came.

But last night I read my grandma’s diary—and with adult eyes.

All the years I planned lessons and graded mounds of school papers and managed classes of middle school kids and checked through security at the prison school, I’d contrast my life with Grandma, thinking of her as having a leisurely day quilting with her sisters. But her diary showed me otherwise. She “dressed” a thousand chickens and sewed six pairs of bloomers in a day and hilled in 500 strawberry plants and took the wash off the line because the snow would come before it was dry.

I had thought my stress was high. But in the diary I read about her fear of babies dying. And the sickness that seemed to be all around her for weeks and months and years: polio and pneumonia and rheumatism and grippe. And fevers—page after page—hers, grandpa’s, her children and grandchildren and friends. She worried about people falling through hay holes and onto the tines of pitchforks and drowning in farm ponds. She had known these things to happen.

She also wrote about her “nerves” not being good and her heartbeats “messing up”, and I could see why as I read coded messages I didn’t fully understand, but that showed me that she, too, worried about children and grandchildren—and not just their bodies.

Reading Grandma Bender’s diary made her not only a comfort for the journey, but also a companion.

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