I have been away from school since mid-March, having completed my masters. Exhausted, in a new job, with a home and teenagers to care for, I breathed a sigh of relief. Five months later, I am still exhausted, still have a home and teenagers, and I miss school. I miss the writing, the pressure to submit thoughtful ideas which I was required to defend. I miss the learning but most of all, I miss the writing. My soul feels empty without it, my mind dull in the evenings; instead of studying, thinking and stretching my mind, I find myself watching movies or facebooking. It is a waste of me and a waste of my time.
Last night, I took a box from the top shelf of my closet and opened it with my 16 year old daughter. In the box is a Bible of my paternal grandmother’s grandfather, dated 1848; daguerreotypes of men and women in the 1800’s whose genetic lineage I now carry in my body. Among the treasures were my grandmother’s journal of her travels with my grandfather, and her journal of her life in Holland during WWII. My grandmother and grandfather journeyed from Houston, Texas, east to New York by train in 1930 when my father was 2 years old. From New York this small family sailed to Holland for two month’s vacation before they travelled on to Java where they would spend the next five years. They travelled by train across Europe, then by ship across the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal, and then on to Indonesia. What an incredible journey to take with a small boy, to a land they knew not.
My grandmother wrote of the people, places, ship companions, scenery and of settling into a transplanted European community that did not welcome her. Shortly after arriving in Java, her mother, my great-grandmother, passed away in South Dakota. The pages following this event are filled with my grandmothers’ loss, her depression and her grief. It was too long a journey for her to return to the United States to bid her mother fair well. Her sadness is palpable in those pages; her self-confessed restlessness symptomatic of her depression and loneliness.
She wrote, “I wonder if this diary is to be an emotional outlet for me. Today (Aug 3, 1931) I feel I should like to confide in someone and have that someone advise and help me. I realize as I live longer and longer that I am no leader and what is more I cannot decide many questions for myself.” On another page she wrote, “There seems so little to look forward to. If I could look forward to going home…but with mother gone and with Father’s prospective of losing all the money…would I be happy doing it? I dread to return to Holland [my grandfather’s family.] There is no one there who really loves me….” My grandmother left the United States at the beginning of the Depression and would not return until after WWII ended. She would not see her sisters or father or any family during that time; for the last two years of the war she would not have any contact with them at all. She would have to make a way for herself as a mother and wife without the counsel of family or close friends.
I didn’t know my grandmother until the 1960’s, when she was an old woman who seemed unapproachable and scary. I saw her through my own mother’s eyes as a difficult woman who we seldom saw and rarely visited. I heard stories from my mother about my grandmother’s odd behaviors, and naturally defended my mother when disagreements arose. I did not know of my grandmother’s strength, of what she lived through, of her resilience and determination to be a good wife and mother.
It was only later, after my grandmother’s death, that I read her journals and began to love her. I was in my thirties and a mother in my own right; I was navigating the deep waters of a difficult relationship with my mother-in-law and felt unloved and misunderstood much of the time. I began to see my grandmother as an adventurer, a world-traveler, a woman who was quite intelligent and clever. I came to realize that I had lost the opportunity to know her, to talk with her, to live near her; and yet, her journals have given me clues as to who she was.
My grandmother did not see herself as a leader, and yet she led her family through fifteen years of living cross-culturally, both in Asia and in Europe. She would add two more children to her family, and stand beside her husband as he moved up the ranks as one of Shell Oil’s head geologists. She stated that she could not decide many questions for herself, and yet, she would end up making many decisions in life-threatening situations to keep her family alive.
I feel a kindred spirit with my grandmother tonight. I sit on my deck in the cool of the evening after a long week at work. As a single mom, I think similar thoughts: there is no one who really knows me anymore, who really cares what happens to me. I feel the burden of providing for my children, of the distance between my mother and me, of the loneliness of my life. I feel, too, that perhaps I am not a leader, that it is too much to ask that I be a leader, and that I don’t want to be a leader any more.
What are the lessons my grandmother’s journal hold for me? What are the truths about her life that speak into mine eighty years later? One thing I do know: my grandmother was a writer. And so am I. This undeniable urge I feel to write, to study, to understand – she felt it, too.
Sometimes I grieve that I did not know her, and that the times I had with her were colored by my fear and uncertainty. Sometimes I grieve alongside her, as her words reflect what my heart feels. And at times, I am jealous of her – that she traveled the world and lived a rich life. Perhaps, before I die, I will do the same.