“Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.” – May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
I gave my grandmother a book for Christmas, one I had read before. The book was written by May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude and it was the musings diary of an older woman living alone. The woman reminded me of my grandmother, now widowed and living on her own in Hermantown, Minnesota. She lives in the same home my mother grew up in, pushed back into the countryside, at the end of a red dirt driveway full of agates and tire tracks worn down by decades. I wanted her to have the book because I wanted to learn more about her. I wanted to see if she found meaning inside of the pages, too.
When I gave her the book, I asked her,
“Do you underline your books? Your favorite quotes? I did that so much with this one. That’s why I loved it.”
“Underline my books? With a pen? How do you mean?” she asked.
“Yes, with a pen. To remember certain parts of it you love.”
“Oh heavens no. That would ruin the book.”
I smiled. She respects the pages of her novels. She leaves them how they came – brand new. No creasing pages, always held by a bookmark. No underlining phrases she identifies with, as if she unburied them on her own. She treats her books like pieces of art. Because they are. My grandmother is a simple, respectful, and constant woman. This uncovered discovery about her, I loved. Which made me wonder deeply what I didn’t know about her life up to this point. She had lived a big life, one that somehow brought her to this simple way of living, respecting the pages of a new novel.
I wanted to know everything that brought her here. Did she have an imaginary friend when she was little? Who was her first boyfriend? When did she meet my grandfather? What was her mother like? What did she like to do in school? How did she spend her Saturdays? What was her favorite time of year? What did she really want to be when she grew up? Did she ever write anything she was proud of?
Luckily, nearly ten years ago, I remembered my sister and I gave her a “Grandma, Tell Me Your Memories” journal. I asked my own mother about it and of course, she had it in pristine condition. It was thick as a dictionary, 365 pages of words from my grandmother. “Why don’t you borrow it for a while,” she suggested.
I took it home.
I noticed a few things about the book right away. In every entry, one for every day, she wrote “Love, Grandma” as a closing. She wrote “Love, always” once. It was on Valentine’s Day. On the bottom of each page, the book had a drawing of a cat with a ball of yarn. She, every day of the year, wrote “Daisy Mae” next to the drawing, the name of her house cat.
Her simplicity, those tiny details, instantly softened my heart.
Inside, I learned about her mother, father, and family routine. While she grew up, her mother always had fresh, homemade bread ready for the seven children when they arrived home from school. Her mother had been a school teacher until she had the children – and dedicated all her time to them when they came into the world. I imagined her, Ellen, pulling fresh veggies out of the garden – my grandmother’s favorite for evening dinner. She was the youngest of the family, nicknamed Baby.
I learned about her weekends. Saturdays were spent cutting wood, washing her clothes, and reading. Sundays, however, were spent with relatives and getting up early to dress for the company. “Good Sunday clothes,” she called them, in her relaxed penmanship. She remembers her dad paying 5 cents for ice cream cones on some of these nights and swaying on the tire swing he built for the kids in their backyard.
I learned about the life advice she received from her parents. Her mother told her to be honest and never steal, good sound advice she took with her all the way to the pages of the journal. Her father told her to work hard, stay resilient.
I learned about all of her firsts. Her first job was on an assembly line sewing together children’s winter snowsuits; it paid 85 cents an hour. The first time she saw a television was after she met my grandfather. She guesses the date to be around 1955, on the TV, The Ed Sullivan Show. She didn’t discover her first pizza slice until she moved into the “big city of Duluth” well after she was married. Pizza, she wrote, was a “city-fied food” and she didn’t have the chance until then to try it.
I learned about her favorites. Her favorite movie was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, one of the best MGM musicals of its time. Writer’s note: going to watch this one right away. Her favorite subject in grade school was spelling. Her least favorite geography, because she wrote her family was too poor to travel often.
I learned how she enjoyed being alone. In her childhood home, there was a giant pine tree in the backyard. The pine tree had a swing hanging from its branches (the one her father made) and she would sit out there for a long, long time swinging. She wrote in the journal that she would spend her time out there “doing her daydreaming.” When I read this the first time, I almost started to cry.
These are only a few things. The book is full of information about her, rich with the simple moments of her life, people she met, her first time hitch-hiking, her first pizza, her fear of bears, how her family worked, when she met my grandfather, and what she loved about her life as she grew up in the 1950s. I loved the journal’s kitschy comments about the weather, and family birthdays happening on the day of each entry. She would account for each one. Most lovingly, how bashful she sounds that someone asked her to document her life. As if she cannot believe the busy modern world has time to slow down for her.
Talk to your grandmother. Ask her how she grew up. If you’re not longer able to talk to your grandmother, find her journals. Ask your family about her. Talk to your grandfather. Their sisters and brothers. We should be asking the ones who know the wise corners of the world to share their story; tell us the details about how they’ve moved through their life. It makes us stronger. Above all, aging isn’t about getting older. It’s about the stories we take with us. The stories we carry to give.
One of her notes, on March 20, she wrote about her favorite time of year. She said it was summer. Her family had a lot more company in this season because traveling was much easier for everyone with less snow. She writes, “I don’t think I have a favorite one now. I’m just thankful to see another season!”
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her 80-year-old cat, Butch. Read more about her latest book, Borderline, and go hug your mother.