A Diary Leaps Three Generations

ONE hundred years ago today, on Dec. 26, 1889, my great-grandfather went to his desk, opened a long, narrow ledger called a ``Day-Book,'' and wrote this summary of the day's activities: ``Commenced taking inventory at store. Boys finished shingling shed on north of bldg. Wife helped wait on customers in P.M. - very busy. Weather: clear & cold. Wind: NW, blew very hard last night. Temp.: 20 [at 6 a.m.], 30 [at noon], 24 [at 6 p.m.].''

This brief account, written in a small, spidery script, is one of more than 20,000 daily entries he made during 60 years of diary-keeping. Taken individually, the accounts are often dry and uninteresting. Taken collectively, they offer a touching self-portrait of a diligent man whose long life included a 55-year marriage, four children, and workdays spent shuttling among three jobs - general-store owner, mortician, and farmer.

Some of the entries in these faded volumes record significant events, such as the birth of my maternal grandmother: ``July 26, 1891 - Wife gave birth to a 9 lb. girl at 5:10 in the morning. Nobody present but Grandma Courtney and me.''

Other comments are mundane (``Pond frozen over'') or unintentionally funny: ``Sept. 25, 1906 - Rev. A.W. Cook gave me my 1st ride in an auto. It broke down and we had to walk.''

Still other entries bear a trace of sadness: ``April 27, 1932: Buried `Fluffy,' our 3-legged Angora cat, 6 ft. west and 3 ft. north of the NE corner of the woodshed. She lost 1 foot in a trap 3 or 4 yrs. ago.''

But whatever the occasion, whatever the emotion, the hidden message flowing in invisible ink from my great-grandfather's pen, as from every diary-writer's hand, is the same: ``These events have significance, even if only to me.''

This week, on the eve of a new year and a new decade, that unwritten message shines with particular promise and appeal to diary-keepers everywhere. Confirmed diarists - among them my father, who can always count on a blue leather pocket diary in his Christmas stocking - are waiting eagerly to begin filling the blank pages of their 1990 volumes. At the same time, would-be diarists are busy making solemn resolutions: ``This year, for sure, I'm going to keep a journal!''

Alas, many of those good intentions will falter within a few weeks, sabotaged by shyness, self-consciousness, or confusion about who - and what - a diary is for. What, after all, keeps an indefatigable diarist going? What is this compulsion to record the minutiae of daily life? And why risk exposing oneself to family, friends, and future generations?

It is a question Fanny Burney, a British novelist whose extensive diaries give an overview of English culture and society in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, answered this way: ``To have some account of my thoughts, manners, acquaintances, and actions when the hour arrives at which time is more nimble than memory, is the reason which induces me to keep a journal.''

Yet even Burney found it necessary to ease her inhibitions by beginning her early diaries with the salutation, ``Dear Nobody.''

What a loss it would be if all the diaries in the world ended up being read by Nobody! For diaries, with all their specific details about specific lives, can speak eloquently to readers in other times and other places. My great-grandfather, writing from the tiny village in central Wisconsin where he spent all but five of his 88 years, could never have imagined that a century later his oversized volumes would end up in an attic in suburban Boston, treasured by a great-granddaughter born many years after his death. Yet his present tense still lives for me.

Diaries, even when written by ordinary people about ordinary lives, become more than the sum of their parts. As the mosaic bits of day-by-day monologue fit into a pattern, they form a kind of autobiography that expresses more and reveals more than even the diarist may realize. This is what Thomas Babington Macaulay must have meant when he wrote, ``No kind of reading is so delightful and so fascinating as this minute history of a man's self.''

The world of the diary is literature's form of democracy, where famous historians and Wisconsin farmers exist as equals. And so, as I read these century-old entries I have inherited, I take pleasure in thinking Macaulay would apply his words to my great-grandfather as readily as I do.

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