diaries & connections to the past


I have been thinking a lot about diaries – especially the old, hand-written ones.  In our local news, there have been several recent articles about a Civil War diary that is being examined by local historians.  It chronicles the daily life and struggles of a young Union soldier as he passed through this area.  The story is fascinating, but for me it is even more remarkable to look at the images of those pages … his handwriting on the old paper, the scribbles in the margins, the entire personal image that is captured not only by his words transcribed, but by the physical pages themselves.

It made me contemplate my own journaling and diary-keeping.  The mark of my pen, the paper and the books I choose to write in, the ink, my penmanship.  While I know there are many distinct advantages to maintaining a digital record – and there are a variety of digital diary applications available (Day One being my favorite, and one that I sometimes use), not to mention blogging, etc. –  none of it compares to an individual’s handwriting on paper.  Call me sentimental, I guess.

Yes, the ink may fade, the paper may deteriorate, the diary itself may be destroyed or go missing; it is not a match for the “safety” of the digital record. But somehow it may be this fragility that makes it so very special.


Over the past year I have enjoyed reading the book “New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009” as compiled by Teresa Carpenter.  It is a fascinating read, day by day throughout the course of a calendar year, but not chronologically by year.  In other words, the entry or entries for September 23 may be from the year 1701 or 1992.   It gathers entries for each day, but jumps from era to era – which lends to an insightful contrast between times and cultural changes.

Yet as much as I enjoy reading the book, and think it is a most worthy endeavor to preserve those words in a format that can be universally shared, I can’t help but want to see the physical pages themselves.  The ink, the smudges, the penmanship, the notebooks themselves.


Which brings me to the diary of my great-grandmother.  She wrote in this small, partially-filled volume while making a trans-atlantic voyage from her new home in the U.S. to her birthplace and childhood home in Wales in the spring and summer of 1938.  It was an ocean voyage, and she was particularly interested in keeping notes about the meals on the ship, who they dined with, etc.  Her stay in Wales records the towns and places visited, the friends and family she stayed with, often trivial-seeming details which are so rich to me today.  I am also fascinated by the language and phrases she would use in her descriptions; slightly formal and very proper at times, informal at other times.

One of my sons has also read through many of the pages, looking on maps for the towns she mentioned.  Googling for images of chapels and places she visited.

But to see her handwriting and to be able to touch the pages she touched … it is a treasured connection that I get to make with her, a woman I never knew but wish I could have – my great-grandmother.  No digital or otherwise transcribed version could ever be the same to me.

And so I keep my own handwritten journals, diaries, notebooks … in hope that someday one of my own descendants will find the same fascination with touching the same pages I put my hand to.  To make the connection.