Thursday, September 29, 2005

Whom are we writing for?

My cousin age ninety was too tired to go outside and hoe weeds, her usual and preferred activity. So, instead she was reading old papers. These happened to be the personal journals of her father, written some eighty years ago.

It is a miracle that these papers survive, since most families move regularly, and fires and floods take their toll on our possessions, and especially our memoirs. But here they were. Written by him, to himself, long ago.

Just whom was he writing for? Certainly for himself, for they contained lots of inspirational slogans meant to help him better himself. “Think tall, walk tall, talk tall, stand tall.” And dietary advice, “Cold peanuts daily at 4 pm.”

And they contained very personal observations about his sexual needs and desires. They were not meant for other family members, especially not his daughter.

Yet, here they were eighty years later, telling his daughter about himself, helping her understand him. But she felt they were still personal matters, even now, so she discarded them, meaning for them to be destroyed.

When I heard what she was doing I pleaded with her to stop. Save them. They are irreplaceable documents. They tell about him, and people like him, in that era. How he felt, secretly. She retrieved them.

Now what? He has unknowingly confided in us. What would he want done with the papers? Does it matter what he would want done, he is not around to be embarrassed, nor can he object? If he really did NOT want to communicate, why did he write them? Was he subconsciously writing for future generations? Was this a secret autobiography? If the answer is no, then back into the trash with them, but if the answer is yes, then what should she do with them?

Should she seek a historian or historical society to accept and preserve them? Should she archive them herself? Should she simply replace them with other family history and let her heirs make the decision? She feels that most family papers will simply be destroyed when she dies.

There seems to be no clear-cut answer, and that makes me wonder about my journals and, in fact, all our blogs. For whom are we writing ? Are they addressed to future generations? How long will they last? They are merely magnetized infinitesimal bits of iron residing were only AOL knows. Will they last when our membership runs out? When AOL merges with the next giant corporation will our blogs live on? How long? For whom are they being saved? Who will read them? Will they be around in eighty years? Perhaps some cataclysmic power surge will erase them all at once. Or will some future relative have to decide whether to trash our communications.



mavarin said...

You post a lot of good and important questions here.

I'm hoping that eventually there will be an easy way to archive our journals.  If I ever develop a following as a novelist, I may be able to reuse some of the material!

Regardless of the sentimental or historic value of old papers, people seem to fall into two camps about what to do with them.  The purgers / "simplfiers" want to throw away as much of it as possible, to reduce clutter.  The collectors / preservers tend to want to keep as much of it as possible.  I think the only way to resolve the conflict between the preservers and the purgers is to consider the intrinsic value of the item.

So: these papers.

Have they historical value?  Do they present a written record of life circa 1925?  I'm guessing that they do.

Have they sentimental value?  That depends on whether your cousin is right in thinking that they will be tossed when she dies.  I hope and suspect that she's mistaken.

Are they replaceable? Clearly not.  There's something fundamentally wrong about something surviving 80 years and then being thrown away.  Okay, a napkin can go.  Maybe.

Have they monetary value?  Probably not, but that's not the most important criterion, in my view.

Can the author's intention be discerned?  Not unless the papers say something about this, or are mentioned in his will or a letter.  But I don't think his intentions are as important as the opinions of the living heirs.

Sounds to me as though it needs to be kept around.  If no relative will take responsibility for them, then yes, it's probably best to donate them.  But the way people track family trees and compile family histories and such, it seems likely that someone from your daughter's generation will be interested in hanging on to this stuff.


plieck30 said...

You raise some very good questions here. I have started to write about my life several times and always quit, thinking do I really want people to know my inner most thoughts. Paula

judypearllove said...

I have a letter my mother wrote to my 2 brothers, me and a seperate one to my dad just before she died when I was 8 yrs. old. I have letters my husband wrote me before he was killed. pics my grandson drew for me before he was killed. I wouldn't take any amount of money for them. Their handwriting and the words they spoke to me mean the most to me of all the material things I own. no way would I depart with them. I want the things I write about in my journal and pics I take and the things I say to be saved for people who love me or want to know about me after I'm no longer here to show them. I've read my husband's and mother's letters so many times and each time it's as if I am visiting them in person each time. By all means keep them and leave them to someone she trust and loves.

ryanagi said...

This is why I am printing my journal out and putting my entries into binders. I want my son to have access to this information when he gets older. If something were to happen to me while he is still of a tender young age, my journal will be the only direct record of my thoughts and feelings...the only way he will get to know ME. Sure, my family and husband will share stories and memories, but is that the same as reading one of my proud-parent entries about him? So I guess I am writing mine for my son and I do hope he keeps it.

ryanagi said...

Oh...and just an after thought. My husband has possession of his grandfather's scrap books. About 30 volumes worth dating back to 1920 until he died in 1986. They contain an amazing assortment of postcards, photos, newspaper clippings, handwritten stories, matchbook covers...basically anything that could be glued to a page and told a story of his many travels as a toy salesman in the heyday of the true traveling salesman and his vacations with his wife and daughter (my mother in law). I took on the task of scanning these volumes. I had plans of creating a website for them one of these days.

jckfrstross said...

Interesting i would save them


elleme2 said...

What a treasure she has found!  Having dabbled in genealogy in recent years, I know how difficult --and fascinating -- it can be to unearth such detailed information about the ancestors.  Save the papers!  Save them!  There will eventually be a family member like me who will be delighted to find them.

Was it a secret autobiography?  I rather think it was.  I think we all have one in us, we just don't always get it down on paper or into the computer.  I wish we did.  I used to beg  my mother to just write down her memories for me -- what her life was like, what she thought and felt and did as a young girl, an adolescent, a newlywed, a young mother, etc.  Even bought her a blank journal to write in.  But she never did -- and I am poorer for it.  Life gets busy and we never know even those closest to us as well as we might.  A diary or a journal is a good remedy for that.  

magogos said...

What a treasure to have. She might indeed speak to a local historical society, or leave them to a young family member she trusts. As for journaks in general, I sort of think of them as ephemera,some of which will survive because people work to make it do so, some of which will survive by mere chance. Margo

kateh2ocolorart said...

"Can the author's intention be discerned?  Not unless the papers say something about this, or are mentioned in his will or a letter.  But I don't think his intentions are as important as the opinions of the living heirs."
Again (as I often do) I agree with Karen...sort of like funerals, we try to respect "what he/she WOULD HAVE WANTED", yet the service is really for those left behind!  (For example, do you give an atheist a religious funeral?  If the relatives ARE, then I say, YES, because that is what THEY need/want at the time.)

So, since the author didn't leave instructions, and some of the material is too painful for the DAUGHTER, perhaps she should OFFER them to a grandson or great grandson of the man who might BENEFIT by knowing his thoughts and desires "run in the family."??? I'd say though, she ought warn them of the explicit nature and maybe tell them how it makes her feel too.  OR, write an addendum of her own?  She could include the dilemma she felt after reading her father's papers.

I also like the idea of writing for my children, though I am pretty sure they wouldn't bother or care to read the stuff.  Had I died when they were very young, it might be another matter.

It's all good food for thought!  Kate

sylviam4000 said...

She should either, pass them on now to a family member or, a local history society. If, God forbid, anything happened to her, they may get destroyed by mistake.

herheadsnacloud said...

Hi Chuck,
Those old letters are a treasure indeed!!!!I wish they were mine about my Grandfather!!! I will tell you who you write for Chuck..........ME! I have your journal sent directly to my e-mail addy.....I look forward to hearing about you every single day!!!!..........(.Of course not JUST for me............) I know I have to share you!!!!Bambi

memes121 said...

I keep a written journal. Inside the first page I wrote, in the event of my death, please honor my wishes by destroying this without reading. In one I didn't write that. I left that one for the future. I feel that if he truly wanted them destroyed, he would have made that clear.

hunybea4him said...

I have had trouble in the past keeping a paper journal because once in my teen years my diary was read and not respected by many ppl (it got passed around and made fun of) and I was just crushed.  I keep an open journal now (my blog) as a form of control and also because it does fill a need I have to out let my thoughts and work things out with the added bonus of feed back from this wonderful community called J~Land.  I think I would be more crushed if my journal was deleted then when I was with my teen years diary was passed around.  The difference is on I WANT people to read my open one and the other I wanted kept private.  I keep saying one of these days I'll print out my journal so I can have a hard copy to pass down, you know that long list we keep in our head.

That being said I would so love to have an old journal from my grandmother or other family members that have passed on just so I could know them better and know what their life was like and how they dealt with things.  Stories from their point of view.  I think things like that should be passed on but taken great care of that only mature family members who can keep in mind some things were meant to be private and treasure it.

Much Love,