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Family Diary - A Commentary

By Stephen Whitley, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Last year we cleaned out my Grandmother's house after she moved to the nursing home. Her Alzheimer's disease wouldn't allow her to live by herself anymore and we could no longer find anyone to stay with her full time. As we were sorting things, my Mom found some journals my great aunt Chris, who died in 1992, had written several years ago. As I began to read what she had written in two Southern Living Appointment Diaries in 1982 and 1986, I started to remember all the times I had visited her house and had helped her in her garden. I remembered spending time in the antique warehouse she had behind her house and the musty, dank smell it had. I began to think about what my life was like back then, and how different my life today is from hers.

One of my fondest memories growing up was of listening to my grandmother and her sisters talking about their younger days, and talking of shadowy aunts and uncles who had long since died and who I knew only through the smoky lens of my relatives' memories. I remember thinking about the 1920s and 30s and how simple that time must have been, and how much fun they, as young people during that time, must have had. Of course, there were stories about the hardships of that era, of having only one pair of shoes to wear, and of picking cotton until your fingers bled. There were the allusions of my great-grandfather's wanderlust and how he shepherded his family from place to place in central and east Texas, looking for work and barely scraping by. But by listening to the stories of my great aunts and my grandmother, I felt I knew where my family was from, our history, and how we got to where we were. I wonder if my nephews today have that same sense.

Certainly we talk about things today and discuss the past in our family. But I'm not sure we convey the same kind of sense of place in history that I received. Our society today is so transient and fast-paced. We don't put down roots as quickly as people did 50 or 60 years ago. Today, when I journal, it is often on a computer and doesn't convey the mundane chronicle of life my Aunt Chris' journal did. She talked about the weather, what she cooked for lunch and dinner, who visited her, and itemized the various illnesses and complaints she had about life. When I write in my journal, more often than not I'm trying to work through an exercise my therapist has given me, or trying to toil through the reasons for my latest breakup. I'm not quite sure I would be willing for my nephews to read my writing twenty years from now, even if they could get the floppy discs to work.

We've given up a lot in the last twenty years to gain so little. I wonder what the next twenty years will bring? Whatever our future, I hope I can someway help my nephews to understand their past: who they are and where we came from, and in doing so, clear some of the smoke away from faces of those who have gone before me.

Stephen Whitley is a writer living in Dallas.