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Bettijane Burger: Diaries make the past present

By Bettijane Burger

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I reread 15 years of my diaries last summer. They started with one-sentence entries in a five-year diary in the fourth grade ("Played with Janie"), then expanded into boy-crazy yearnings in junior high and then detailed angst with an off-and-on steady in high school whom I eventually married after graduate school.

A lot of the hurt was revisited, but also the growing young love. The diaries ended the summer before I was married. Since we seemed to share so well, the diaries seemed redundant.

I was shocked at the college boyfriends I had forgotten and the apocryphal stories I remembered incorrectly. It was Roger, not Dave, who told me about JFK being shot as I walked to sixth period. Upon my fiancé asking my father to marry me, my father didn't say, "What took you so long?" It was, "That was my plan all along."

Why didn't I record the last names of several boyfriends, including Michael, the Englishman I dated in grad school? I could stalk him on the Internet and see where he is now, though Facebook photos of other former boyfriends show them white-haired and balding.

I was surprised I had forgotten a molestation of a family member that I had only wondered about in later years. My diary does not record if my parents were told or this older boyfriend of a neighbor was ever confronted. My days revealed a lot of stress with ongoing pressures of school but also fun activities (plays, band) and achievements (editor of a WVU yearbook). I admit I did tear out some pages that read like a bad romance novel.

There is value in diaries and letters. The diaries of my mom's missionary years in the West Virginia coalfields during the Great Depression I donated to the State Museum. Her letters to her parents during her college years captured life in the 1920s so well that the college library was glad to receive them this summer.

What did I discover rereading these? I skipped class more than I remembered. I was glad I wrote such detail of events and feelings. I was fascinated reading of my very own past. For a few days, I again mourned a college boyfriend who died a few years ago. I was able to relive a younger me and my family, like that scene from "Our Town."

Researchers say that writing in diaries lowers blood pressure. Seven years after marriage, I started a diary about pregnancy, childbirth and our daughter's development, which ended when she was finishing high school. When my mom died, I wrote letters to her, titling them "Cosmic Consciousness," that helped in the healing process. Then finally the old habit returned to a daily diary, which is approaching 20 years now. I write each night in one of those pre-labeled yearly diaries, committed to filling each fresh page.

Dr. Carl Jung said that we are the collective memory of our ancestors. I think I have a diary gene. My mom kept a diary for 52 years. Her father kept one of his years as a teacher in the Philippines from 1900-05. I have some small diaries of my great grandfather, an Ohio farmer, who wrote of doing his "choers." The 1813-18 diaries of my great-great-great-grandfather, a circuit-riding preacher, written in German, somehow ended up at the United Methodist archives at Drew University.

One of my dreams is to publish my and my mom's diary entries on opposite pages, showing the same day but 42 years in age apart. There would be cultural differences, but maybe some similarities.

Diaries are fascinating, therapeutic, inevitably historical. In writing, we try to evaluate and make sense of our lives. To be truthful, they have to write of pain along with the joy. Today, extroverted people share on blogs and Facebook, photos included. These are vulnerable to instant exposure and judgment because they are public diaries.

Leaving diaries behind is a way to let my daughter and now my granddaughter know more about me. The only regret is that I cannot ask questions of departed family whose diaries I have. There are only glimpses, but better than nothing. Maybe mine will be treasured or donated to a library or published by an earnest researcher or dumped.

The worth of diaries is that they become permanent when we are not. We do make history in our own way.

Bettijane Burger of Charleston is a retired English and journalism teacher.


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