Downsizing: Journal’s End

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A post by writer Frances Wood: 

My grandmother kept journals for decades, written in code – a shorthand she had learned back in 1917 or so, long obsolete. I always wondered what was in those journals, and even if I might someday be able to decipher them and finally learn all the family secrets.

Until she burned them.

I don’t know why. She was probably downsizing. In her seventies, perhaps.

I felt bereft. All those secrets, lost.

I felt that way until this summer, when I calculated I had perhaps a hundred pounds of highly flammable paper in my attic – my journal, dating back to high school. And not just my journal, but greeting cards and letters – some from that same grandmother.

And I realized: I don’t need all that paper up there. The contents are also stored in my head. So I began going through plastic bin after plastic bin, and I purged my attic of paper. But at the same time, I refreshed some of those memories in my mind.

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I am finally old enough to share in Grandmother’s wisdom. Some secrets are best left behind. Allow ancient gossip to fade. Let the future be unburdened.

Frances Wood is the author of When Molly Was a Harvey Girl, Daughter of Madrugada, and Becoming Rosemary.

Frances and I have been tracking each other’s writing careers for several decades now. When I told her how brave I thought she was to discard the journals, Frances said, “I didn’t feel brave. I felt lighter. I already am my experience-I didn’t need all that extra weight to prove it.”

To learn more about Frances Wood and her writing, visit her website, Frances M. Wood.com.

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23 responses »

  1. My daughter is someone who keeps things to remember everything. She always brings home souvenirs, ticket stubs, photos, programs etc. She tells me I don’t have a sentimental bone in my body as I rarely keep anything. And when I do, I usually don’t keep it very long and often don’t remember where it came from anyway. Of course, because she keeps everything, she ends up with lots of stuff cluttering where she lives. I have told her that memories are in the mind and she can remember events etc. just by “remembering” them. So far she hasn’t bought that idea. Someday she will be cleaning out and getting rid of all those mementos in her attic too.

    • I wish that were so but my MIL managed to keep all her mementos until she went into assisted living! Then her children had to clean them out – and I’m afraid that we’re doing the same thing to my own children! There has to be a happy medium but I haven’t found it! : )

    • I have niece like that. And I have to admit that when I come across a family ‘treasure’ that I can’t quite discard, I ask her if she would like to have it – whether an old lace tablecloth from a hundred years ago that my teenage grandmother made for her hope chest, or a collection of silver spoons. She always says ‘yes.’

  2. We all have to downside, yet old memorabilia may unite us with the past. I just received a few letters that my Aunt exchanged with old beaus, one who became my uncle, and with my mother. My cousin was downsizing. I thought if he was downsizing, shouldn ‘I? but the letters
    are interesting and revealing.

    • I like your phrase ‘unite us with the past.’ I guess my thoughts were: what of my life do I want to carry on to the future? Perhaps it’s because I’m leaving a legacy of my books, I think that is enough?

  3. It is a difficult decision what to keep and what to chuck. I had a friend who was dying and she had lots of old love letters and various memorabilia that would mean nothing to her son but maybe an embarrassment. We propped her with some cushions, wine and morphine and went through them and laughed for hours. It was a perfect way for her to get rid of her stuff and for us to have a lasting fun memory.

    • Importance does shift. I guess I’m thinking that at 60+ I don’t have that many shifts left (when I was 25 I thought I could shift forever). I’m making more careful choices now.

  4. My husband’s parents wrote letters to each other every week when my father-in-law was in South Korea ,serving in the army during the Korean War. When he was seriously ill he mentioned the letters and said he’d lost track of them. He asked us not to read them if we ever found them. After he had passed we were clearing out his attic and came across a basket full of their letters, lovingly preserved.

    We’ve held on to them for 10 years-never opening them or reading any part of them. They are the only remaining bit of my husband’s family history as all close family members are sadly gone. He and his sister want to honor their father’s wishes but at the same time feel they don’t want to destroy any bit of their family’s past.

    We discuss this quite often and can never come to a decision.
    What would you do…open and read the letters or like Francis’ grandmother burn them?

    Would love to know what you and your readers think 🙂

    • Your father in law saved them for a reason. Perhaps he just didn’t want your husband to read them while he & his wife were still alive? I’d go ahead and read them; they are treasures and you’d always wonder and quite possibly regret it if they were destroyed without being read.

    • I’m not certain about this. My instinct is to obey his wishes. But I am an historian at heart, and my family has held onto letters from a great-grandmother who was a pioneer into the Arizona territory, and an aunt who left her (heartfelt) 15-year-old self vivid in a diary from the last year of WWII. Neither left instructions, and so the family can enjoy them. And we do. Not only for how they ‘unite us with our past’, but also because they are a picture into a period of history that is important for us all. I think (sorry to say this) that it is your duty to destroy the letters. But I don’t know if I would be able to resist peeking into them.

  5. Everybody, Frances is out of WiFi range at the moment, but she thanks you for your comments and will chime in when she can.

    Cyn, Wow. I would read them. These promises are made in literary circles and then broken, because the idea of losing a writer’s work is just too sad. I feel the same about the love letters. This is the story of your husband’s mom and dad. They’re gone now, so really no harm can come to them if you break the promise. It’s being broken out of love. I say bake your father-in-law’s favorite cake or pie, raise a glass to him, and with great love and respect, read!

    If you end up opening the letters, this would make a great guest post. You wouldn’t need to reveal the contents to us,of course, just bring us through your decision and the excitement of opening the letters.

  6. Hello Cyn,

    I have to say that I really understand your concern and worry over what to do. And, I so do appreciate Barbara’s and Susan’s perspectives on this, and totally understand their perspectives. But, I also know that some of us may not feel comfortable doing this; that is, opening something we were told not to do.

    So, if that is what this is feeling like to you, then, I would suggest keeping something special and “concrete” like the envelope that contained the letters – label it “My Father-in-Law’s Secret” and then, if you feel you need to – then, preserve the secret. I’m not sure I would destroy anything; but, simply perhaps not open it. But, of course, you could destroy the contents and keep the “symbolic” envelope.

    This tremendously goes “against the grain,” to NOT open it. We, as family members want to know the intricate details that made the people we love who they are. But, alive or not, some of us may feel, hey, they may be “watching over us” and hoping that we keep their secrets! So ultimately, you must do what feels right and comfortable to you!

    All families have secrets, and perhaps it is best to know these cherished family members in the way we have known them and continue to remember them. Bringing in this additional information that you might find in these “forbidden” letters would not necessarily make our love and memories of our ancestor or the family “past’ better.

  7. Sorry to have been out of contact for so long! I’ve just reread what I wrote a few minutes ago, and realize that Cyn’s father-in-law asked her to not ‘read’ the letters. He didn’t specifically ask that the letters be destroyed. So I have a new solution: hold onto the letters (don’t read them) until the next generation shows an interest. That generation may be sufficiently distant from the people and the times to read the letters as historical – not personal – documents. That generation’s feelings will not be hurt. Cyn’s father-in-law’s wishes will be satisfied, and history will be preserved!

    • I think that works, Frances, to wait for the next generation. Cliff had the idea of an impartial person reading the letters. He/she could give the family a heads up on their contents. Are there indeed secrets inside or was the dad just worried about sharing a bit of mushiness? Then the family could decide where to go from there. (Of course that’s not really the dad’s wish.)

  8. Barbara,
    Thanks for your thoughts on our dilemma. It was fun to hear from your readers too!
    It’s helpful to hear others points of view-thanks for the forum.
    If we do decide to open and read the letters, I’ll be back with an update 🙂

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