I just bought my mom’s ninety-fourth-birthday gift. And she told me exactly what she wanted.
She has been looking forward to this gift for the last five years, ever since she came to me with a problem. The four-by-five-inch diaries she had been using for 84 years, the ones with room enough for only a snapshot of the day, were too small for her failing eyes and too cramped for her arthritic hands.
And, besides, she had explained, her life had become too full to be captured in the one inch of space allowed.
“But I don’t want a one-year diary,” she said. “I want to be able to look back and remember.”
So I found a five-year diary almost twice the size, one that lay flat when opened. And now, five years later, she has filled that diary—all but the last months remaining in this year.
“You said you’d buy me another one if I filled this one,” she said yesterday. “And my birthday is coming.”
So I ordered a diary that could take her to her 99th year.
“Are you keeping a diary?”—this is a question she likes to asks me. And my sisters and brothers. She asks her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.
Mostly we hang our heads and say no.
But some of us try. A great-grandson posts on Instagram. A granddaughter keeps a bullet journal. I’m making a record of this year with a Second-a-Day video.
“Good,” my mom says.
But there’s a hesitation there. These modern diaries don’t quite seem to count.
And when I see all her diaries in one place, when I pick them up and leaf through the pages written in the early years with pencil and fountain ink and later with a ball-point pen, and when I know that in the next drawer down are decades of her mother’s diaries, I get her point.
Mostly my mom’s diaries address the everyday, the quotidian. They’re about canning peaches and milking cows and ironing and doing field work. And they’re about who has a fever and pneumonia and the stomach flu and scarlet fever and polio. They’re about who dies.
The diaries tell about ordinary days on a farm in the mountains of Pennsylvania during the Depression and World War II. My mother writes of becoming a mother and our family’s big move in the sixties to the gritty auto city of Flint, Michigan. She keeps writing as her children grow and their children are born and their children. And she records the deaths of her brothers and of sister after sister.
I hold her diaries in my hands and watch her writing turn from a girlish scrawl to fine penmanship and finally to a shakier script. And I’m almost convinced to keep a diary.
But not quite.