Documenting History, Personally

When I was a little girl in the early 1970s, I picked up a diary one day while at the bookstore with my mom. I chose that particular one because the cover had pink, fluffy fur, and it came with the requisite lock and accompanying key. After all, by the age of ten, I had deep inner thoughts that I needed to safeguard from my teenage brothers and, most importantly, my mother.

Sitting cross-legged on my canopy bed, I ended each day by pouring my profound musings onto those pre-lined pages. Mainly, I liked to gossip. I recorded all of the happenings at school and of the neighborhood kids. I kept running observations of who said what about whom, which boy I thought was cute, who started the fight on the playground and who won. As I got older, each day’s entry got longer as life became more complicated. I needed to comment on Lori’s new shade of eyeshadow or Lynn’s cool hip-hugger jeans or that Tammy played her new 45 “Beach Baby” a gazillion times or that Jackie stayed overnight at my house. These seemingly trite happenings were big to a young girl.

I’ve long since lost that diary, but even over forty years later, I remember what an essential part of my daily life it was. When my children were in elementary school, journaling was woven into the culture of their Quaker education. They learned to be still with their inner thoughts and record what was on their minds, even during extracurricular outings. I grew to understand the importance that the act of journaling provides for the individual. It allows reflection of the day’s happenings and the opportunity to put those thoughts in order. It is meditative — a time to force quiet into a busy world. And, it has the potential someday to be a glimpse into a way of life that expands past the historical name/date/place recorded in textbooks.

When my mother passed away in 2005, I was in charge of cleaning out her house. After I’d weeded through the usual piles of clothes, shoes, jewelry, and collectibles, I began to uncover the real valuables. Seemingly countless photos from every branch, limb, and twig on my family tree. Earnest correspondences from mothers to sons, daughters to fathers. Ardent love letters chronicling the courtship of my maternal great-grandparents. Deeds, documents, and journals. These were what interested me. These were irreplaceable. I had a veritable trove of history – specific to my family, yes, but also a view of society through the generations, dating back to the Civil War.

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John Pell Corsa, my 3rd great-grandfather, was born in 1830 in New York. His daughter, Jeanettie, was seven months old when he enlisted in the army and was sent to Fort Pulaski in Georgia. John would never see her again as he perished of an illness that spread through the encampment. After his death, he might have been reduced to name/date/place (John Pell Corsa/b. 1830, New York/d. 1862, Georgia) by this point in the 21st century, except that John wrote home regularly to his young wife while he was in the war. I have every one of those letters. They were filled with details of daily chores, military exercises, and the new friends he had made in his unit. More importantly, they narrated his state of mind. Early letters were filled with hope — “when I come home” and “give the baby a kiss for me.” As the months passed, his tone became more resigned as he reported on the death of yet another friend.

With those letters, I also have the only surviving portrait of my great-great-great-grandfather. Hand drawn with charcoal and pencil, it captured a serious young man with light eyes and a goatee, slicked-back dark hair, and a formal three-piece suit. The picture and letters from this man born nearly two hundred years ago were stored carefully in a leather folio that protected them through the decades so, by the time they made their way into my possession, they remained in near pristine condition. The heartfelt words and detailed portrait have immortalized John Pell Corsa/b. 1830, New York/d. 1862, Georgia as a three-dimensional, flesh and blood husband, father, and Civil War soldier.

As I sifted through the treasures that had remained buried in my parents’ home for fifty years, I found the most meaningful of all. Written in his recognizable handwriting were stacks of journals that my father had kept from his teenage years through his service in the army. I poured over them, riveted by words that came from his innermost soul. I learned that his lifelong passion for baseball began with the birth of Little League Baseball in his hometown of Williamsport, PA. Every statistic of every game was meticulously recorded, including every major league game he could tune in on his family radio. I learned about his parents and brother as viewed through his boyhood lens. I felt his frustration in wanting to leave behind the industrial town in which he grew up in search of higher education. From a poor, working-class family, his only route would be military service then college on the GI Bill. I read how he joined the army, his excitement of being stationed in Panama, and the camaraderie with his unit. I was scandalized to learn about the 19-year-old boy, who would later become my father, flirting with and dating the local girls.

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Dad passed away in 1989 and, although he will be alive as long as my brothers and I are, he could quickly fade into name/date/place when we’re gone. Those journals, though, will be passed to my children and niece who may have never known the man while he was alive but will cherish the words of the boy who became their grandfather.

Throughout my life, I’ve intuitively turned to writing as a means of expressing myself. In recent years, I’ve learned how valuable that expression is in reflecting and recording the humanity behind basic facts. As I write this piece, the world is in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. No one knows what to expect when we come out on the other side of it. History will record the name/date/place of it all, but what about the human story? The comparison to this being like a world war isn’t lost on me, and I am reminded of how Anne Frank’s detailed and stark writing while in hiding from the Nazis brought a singular personal perspective to the Holocaust. Movies have been made, stories have been written, but it is her diary that remains the centerpiece of the Jewish experience from 1942 to 1944. With this in mind, I started my own journal for the first time since that pink fuzzy diary I had in 1970. It is a place for me to talk about my daily life – from the routine and ordinary to my worries and fears. My children are living in the epicenter of the crisis – New York City. What if they get sick? My husband’s business is mostly shut down – what will this mean to his employees and us financially? My cousin’s husband suspects he has the virus, but no tests are available to know for sure. He’ll likely be okay, but will others I know be affected? A week from now; a month from now. These are the types of questions that keep me up at night. Multiply this by millions of people, and we are all living through this frightening time with similar concerns.

Other friends have joined me in writing down their thoughts. I know poets who are putting their feelings into verse. An artist friend is releasing her anxiety through her paintings. On the internet, creativity is exploding through videos. Worldwide, drones are photographing empty streets in the most popular tourist destinations. Undoubtedly, people across the country and around the world are keeping personal records of their own experiences. My journal is just one tiny piece in this collective effort to record the history we are now living. Our ordeals will live more richly than merely the names/dates/places that will be relegated to the textbooks, because this is how those who came before us did it, too.

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4 thoughts on “Documenting History, Personally

  1. This post was so poignant. I was deeply touched by the depth of your connection to your father’s journals and the journal of Anne Frank, and then to your journal. It is healing to put your thoughts to paper to make sense of this insanity. When this is over we can reflect back through your words.

    • Yes, there is something therapeutic about organizing my thoughts and putting them on paper (or computer). It’s like I’ve examined them, faced my anxiety, and can put them away.

  2. Thank you for this very touching post of the kindered journaling in your family, whether in good times or in bad. Your eloquent writing is so much appreciated and I can’t wait to read more.

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