A Start Is Enough

By  |  June 4, 2015
“Bridal Party” from “In Case of Rain,” by Aline Smithson. A book of her work is to be published in Fall 2015 by the Magenta Foundation “Bridal Party” from “In Case of Rain,” by Aline Smithson. A book of her work is to be published in Fall 2015 by the Magenta Foundation

Among my mother’s effects that I found after her death was a datebook for the year 1944, apparently a promotional item for the Harrell-Haynie Agency in Camden, Arkansas (insurance, from the familiar woodcut of a bold stag on the first page). The early days of January are covered with lists of names (as if it weren’t a datebook at all but simply a blank notebook)—a plan for a party, if the “B.Y.O.B.” atop one page is enough evidence. I suspect this was my grandmother’s list.

Many of the following pages are blank, until the date of Thursday, March 16. There, on the bottom half of the left-hand side (every page in the datebook covers two days), the “Thursday” has been crossed out and written above it in cursive script is the word “Friday.” Penned to the right of the number 16 is “1945.”

Apparently, my mother, age fourteen, had appropriated her mother’s datebook from the previous year.

An erratic diary keeper myself, I noted the neatness of this initial entry—even lines, full loops in cursive letters, thoughtful punctuation—a common enough trait at the start of a writerly journey, all optimism and hope and clarity, before the messiness of life intrudes.

The full account for the day reads like this:

I went to school. Afterwards went to the beauty parlor. Stayed home 4:00 to 6:30. Went home and ate supper. Fooled around till 8:30 p.m. Then I was about half dressed when Billy came after me. Mike had the Andrews’ car. We went to the dance. Had a good time. He didn’t kiss me. Spent the night with Dib. Elsie was there. Decided I liked Mike. Had a corsage of red carnations.

The New York Times front page that day declared U.S. BOMBERS BLAST HITLER’S HEADQUARTERS, but if the war was reaching small-town South Arkansas, my mother wasn’t recording it. Perhaps the war was evident in her self-imposed rationing: the use of the discarded utilitarian datebook from the previous year as a girl’s diary, rather than some flower-covered volume specifically designed for that purpose, with a rudimentary lock to seal the secrets, such as liking Mike.

The strangest coincidence for me was the day she began it, March 16. Exactly eleven years later, she would give birth to her first child, my brother Walt. A little more than fifty years after that, in June 2006, he would be found in his apartment by a cleaning woman, lying on his bed, a washcloth over his eyes, dead. Over the next six months my mother’s own decline would be swift. She was eventually felled by pneumonia but also, I firmly believe, by the toll of burying her first-born. She died on a day of new beginnings and many neat diary entries, January 1.

 

The youthful journal continues as she records the fleeting happenings of her life. Repeat characters include her mother, nicknamed Puggy, her sister, Bid or Biddy (short for Elizabeth), and friends Elsie, Slick, Dib, Dub, and, of course, Mike. On the diary’s second day, Saturday (again and throughout, the day of the week from 1944 is crossed out and replaced by the correct one from 1945), she notes that she “Slept till noon,” a custom my brother also often followed, “then we went to the bakery to get some doughnuts.” On the way home, she “Walked by Mike’s. Mr. C---- came out and gave Mike the keys and told him to take us ridding,” before she ended the day by listening to Hit Parade.

The spring days in Ouachita County spool out with movies, schoolwork, “fooling around,” and listening to the radio. Her humor makes an appearance early on when she recounts on March 20 seeing the film The Very Thought of You and notes about stars Dennis Morgan and Eleanor Parker: “He kissed her about 14 1/2 times.” The strikethrough of the hedging word “about” suggests she subjected the kissing to close analysis. And what does half a kiss look like?

Certain entries tell of activities that seem anathema to contemporary parenting: a school-night sleepover, an afterschool movie, the day when she appears to skip school completely and go shopping in El Dorado with a Mr. Smead. “Dr. Kack,” she notes of someone I am guessing is the school superintendent or principal, “didn’t complain.”

Hints of deeper problems arise amid the simple pleasures, and the cryptic entries take on the air of a mystery. Right after the Dennis Morgan movie, she writes, “Came home to get some clothes found out they had gone to get Puggy.” Who is “they” and why had they “gone to get” her mother? The next day, after spending the night with Dib, she writes: “Ate breakfast and went to school stopped at home to see Puggy looked a lot better. Went to school nothing happened. Came staright [straight] home. Puggy and I went to the cemetery and stayed about two hours.” That struck me as a long time to stay unless you’re having a picnic.

The mundane record continues. Almost every day begins with the time she got up, the fact that she “ate breakfast” and “got dressed.” A nascent tomboy emerges in a Saturday entry, which begins, “Woke up about 9:00 got dressed and played baseball till noon. Came home. Went horseback ridding.” I immediately recalled a summer day when I was Little League age and she took me to the Green Stamp redemption center at Park Plaza mall in Little Rock, where our family lived, and traded the stiff-paged, bulging books for a new catcher’s mitt. She offered to play catch with me in the backyard, and I gave her my fielder’s glove. I can still remember my surprise at her easy throwing motion and casual glovework as we tossed the ball back and forth.

The chronicles of Mike continue. Down the margin of the penned entry for March 23, she writes in pencil:

Mike
asks
Elsie
for
a
date
after
school.

Also in pencil, she squeezes Nat said I think Mike likes Elsie between two lines in the middle of the inked chronicle of March 24. Further on, the record for successive days, in a simple recording of the facts, suggests the emotional upheaval Mike has caused: On March 28, after her day trip to El Dorado, she ends the entry with “Wrote [illegible] note to Mike.” The next day begins with this: “Woke up about 8:00 got dressed and ate breakfast. Went to school had Latin test. Tore up the note to Mike.”

Were those penciled-in notes about Mike after-the-fact emendations of the historical record, her attempt to go back and construct the course of the infatuation? On March 30, she changes over fully from ink to pencil, and in that medium the clarity of her penmanship degrades. She notes that on Friday night Dib came over and they “Talked a long time.” Sunday provides an unintentionally wry heading, a conjunction of the silliest of days and the holiest of days that she notes without further comment:                   

                            Sunday
April Fool’s SATURDAY, APRIL 1 Easter

For that day, both resurrection and joke, she gives a capsule of events ominous and lovely:

It was raining cats and dogs. . . . Had a part on the program. My dress was white jersey with gold buttons, a white coat shoes, and a halo of artificial flowers. . . . River rising fast it is very swift.

The next day, the front page of the Camden News declared ouachita river breaks all records and reported that 4.16 inches of rain had fallen in the previous twenty-four hours. The state highway department announced it would close the Martin Free Bridge over the river and warned that workers at the naval ordnance plant—a sign of the local war effort—might be stranded on either side.

Meanwhile, in my mother’s diary, the mystery of the cemetery, of Puggy’s seeming medical troubles, of my mother’s peripatetic school days among friends and family, of Dr. Kack’s lack of complaint about her missing school, is seemingly solved. In a compact paragraph on the confluence of nature’s and life’s fury, I read my teenage mother’s unadorned, elliptical notes of an important, emotional day, the day after the odd symmetry of April Fool’s Day and Easter:

Monday
SUNDAY, APRIL 2

Woke up about 7:30 got up and dressed and went to school. Starting Lady of the Lake. Came home Puggy said the bridge was about to wash away and that the water power might be shut off. We (Puggy & I) went to see the river and it was up past the Made Rite. Went out in the woods and picked some flowers. Mr. Daniel took us to the water works. Jackie has been gone 3 months today. Puggy very [illegible].

As I read those last words, my eyes welled, a flood of tears rising like the flooding Ouachita River in Camden, if I may be allowed a sentimentality and objective correlative my mother obviously didn’t possess in her plainspoken youth. What was the illegible word, the scrawl of pencil? She knew what it was and that was what was important since no one else would ever see these scribblings (or so she must have assumed), least of all some unimagined fifty-year-old son. As she ran out of space for that date and tried to squeeze it into the datebook’s limiting lines, thus rendering it unreadable, the emotion she attributed to my grandmother would remain forever unknown. Jackie was my grandfather, my mother’s father, whom I would also never know. He died on January 2, 1945. I cried for the fourteen-year-old who was having to cope with the death of her father, the grief of her mother, and the real grief, yes, so important at that time in life, of Mike liking Elsie and not her.

During that month when she was assessing her personal losses, bombs dropped relentlessly overseas on both Germany and Japan, killing thousands.

 

The diary begins to lose steam toward the beginning of April. The last date recorded is Monday, April 9. The handwriting is loose, uneven and rushed seeming, a stark contrast with the neat beginning a month before. Now in pencil, it is erasable, ephemeral.

Puggy drove to Little R. Went to school. I had a Latin test made_____. went to the show ate supper at the Orlando came home and played record player. Dib spending the night with me.

Earlier, she had written Made a _____ on my poem (in saying it) for a recitation, later going back after she’d received her grade to fill in the blank with an “A.” (Did she think she would do worse since the article before the space was not “an,” but “a”?) Now the blank remained empty. She didn’t go back to fill it in. She was through with the diary, though the next three days are prepared with the crossed-out day of the week and the correct one for 1945.

Why was the diary begun in the first place? Was it suggested to her as a way to deal with the death of her father? Was it to record her crush on Mike?

I found another journal among her things, a clothbound one with a marbled-paper cover I’d bought on a trip to Italy and given to her for her birthday. I wanted to encourage her to write down her memories and stories.

I opened it, and on the first page, she’d dated it in the upper right-hand corner: “Friday, Feb 11, 2000,” the same form as the diary from 1945. The entry, again with the neatness of the optimistic beginning diarist and this time with the flawless penmanship honed during college and then in a Little Rock business college stenographer’s course before she met and married my father, read:

I found this journal Jay gave me for my birthday in 1998. It’s been missing for a long time but tonight it almost jumped out of the bookcase. Someone somewhere must believe I have something to say. Well, we will see. I think it’s very late in life to begin a journal, but here we go. I plan to be surprised by what I write because I have no idea what’s going to end up here. But for now, a start is enough.

The rest of the pages are empty.


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Jay Jennings is a senior editor of the Oxford American. He is the author of Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City and the editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany.