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19,693 Days

Day 62, September 7, 2022

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I stared at this calendar page long and hard this morning and there are two ways to take this, as I see it--as an admonishment or encouragement, and they both work, depending on my mood. Either way, it moves me.

I had been thinking about this idea of being mediocre all morning while I was cleaning when I came across my grandma's diaries. My grandma started keeping a diary on January 1st, 1932 when she was 24 years old. She wrote in her diary every single day until she died in December of 1986. Do you know what that means?? She wrote nineteen thousand six hundred and ninety three days in a row without fail. Holy you-know-what.

My grandmother was one of the most steady and loving figures in my life. I was the youngest of the grandchildren--she lived close and I saw her almost daily. She was tightly woven into my family life, and tightly woven into my little life apart from my family. Her life had not been easy from the start and she died when I was nineteen, so I didn't get to ask the kinds of questions that come from womanhood, the kinds of questions that come from maturity and experiences of my own that would have allowed me to see her as a woman, and not just my warm and mushy grandma. Most of what I know about the depths of her life came after her death from the stories I heard and from the pieces I've put together--and of course from the diaries.

My grandma lived in an upstairs apartment on Walling Court, a winding little street in our Iowa town that always felt kind of secret somehow--if you didn't have a reason to turn down it you probably wouldn't notice it was there. It seemed like you climbed a thousand stairs to get to her home, and I loved it up there. Everything was always in place, but it wasn't fussy. I felt welcome, like I could touch things and use things and move things-- everything except for the diaries. She kept those in a chest at the end of her bed, and they were off limits. She would read things to me from her diaries if I asked, which I always did when I stayed over on Saturday nights. We would eat supper and she always baked something for dessert. Then she would run my bath and heat a kettle on the stove to add to the bath because the water was never quite warm enough in her old apartment. I sat in the tub filled with bubbles and we talked while she washed my hair. Then I would put on my nightgown and climb into her bed and ask her to read me something from her diary. I was endlessly fascinated with my own birth, so she often read that day to me, February 22, 1967. I was a little less fascinated with the birth days of my sisters, but still curious and asked her to read those entries often, as well. I was especially taken with my sister Mary's birth because of the drama--she had a blood disorder that was nearly fatal in 1963. My grandma always added details, but more importantly she added in the feelings and emotions around the event. She was deeply kind and I believe these times with her and the stories from her life are what profoundly nurtured my own deep feelings about the world.

Eventually I moved past the days we were born and requested things like my first day of school, my fifth birthday, and each Christmas that we spent together. I do remember asking her to read about my parent's wedding day when I got a little older, and some things about my cousins. I don't ever remember asking her to read about my grandpa, who passed away a few months before I was born. Maybe I never ventured in to the darker territory or maybe she masterfully steered me away from the questions, but the memories of the diaries are happy and sacred. What I do clearly remember is falling asleep while my grandma penned her entry for the day at her desk in the living room.

Then when I was 19 years old my grandma died. She was on her way to pick up some other older ladies to take them to church--always doing for others, always serving. I got to be part of that growing up too--going along with her and watching her quietly care for people in and outside of her family. But on this Sunday morning in December she slid off the road and crashed her car. She was in the hospital and later died from complications of the crash. Her last diary entry was Saturday, the night before the accident.  

Individually the diary entries aren't particularly profound and often times each no more then a long sentence or two. She baked a cake. She washed out the cupboards. She went visiting. She washed the floors. She said a sweet thing about one of her four children. Always sweet things about the children. She baked another cake. She took in washing. She waited outside the bar for Jack to give her money. Yep. Jack's antics are sprinkled through the pages, but cumulatively the diaries feel drenched with the hard reality of her life with him. He was mean. He didn't come home. She baked a cake. He brought men home from the bar for me to make dinner. He went to work today. She went to the movies. He has not worked for days. He was so mean today. She walked home three miles in the snow. I haven't seen Jack for days. She helped Mrs. Duffy. She baked a cake. Twelve thousand four hundred and ten days of life with Jack, not counting the days before 1932. In her 50's the entries are notably more explicit compared to her earlier years, then soften again as he nears death. I can relate to this. In our 50's our bodies change and our spirits take back our life, and we are no longer able or have a great desire to keep the peace, even if only in the pages of a secret book.

Gratefully, I can live outloud, an option I'm not sure she had. I haven't been great at that, but I'm getting better by leaps and bounds. Really, I got all the best parts of my grandma while she was living, and I learned about all the suffering and brave parts after she was gone. Part of her deep emotional intelligence was in knowing what not to share, to not burden me with all that had come before--although I always sensed a sadness in my grandma that made me want to shower her with love. Which I did. And she did for me in return.

My grandmother's life in reflection was anything but mediocre, though I wonder what she'd say about that. Research is showing us that we may very well inherit pieces of the emotional lives of our ancestors, and I sense I need this reminder to not be mediocre because of something that dwells deep within me. I can see so many parts of my grandmother in me, and I now wonder if some of the things about myself that are a mystery even to me have invisible connections to her life in the pages of those diaries.

I do know for sure that she gave me these things: a desire to serve and patience in difficulty, creating order when nothing else is in my control, and, for better or worse, things feel better when you bake a cake. She worked hard and ironed her dishtowels, and I do that too. And she was the only person in my life who loved to read and she instilled that same love in me, which I am so, so immensely grateful for.

Most profoundly, though, is that she wrote every day, for nineteen thousand six hundred and ninety three days in a row. I sit down to write every day, but it has only now occured to me that her dedication to writing and to telling her story may very well be the greatest inheritance of all. I don't know what my grandmother wanted from life; she did not write about things like that so I don't know if she felt satisfied or peaceful about the way things turned out. I do remember at nineteen thinking her death was tragically unfair, but I don't really think in those terms anymore. I feel sad that I didn't really know her as an adult, but of course there are no guarantees that she would have allowed that. She loved me with all her heart as a child, and I knew it. And even though it took a lot of years to shake off my own insecurites (and maybe some of her inherited ones), I feel that foundation of love. I look at her diaries and I feel the force of this woman who lived with a steady strength in the face of a difficult life, a woman who wrote her story every day no matter what, and I can feel it resonate in this life I'm creating. I come from good stock. I have opportunities she never could have dreamed of. And I look at her diaries and know:

I did not wake up today to be mediocre.



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