When a Journal Becomes a Legacy

Journal writing is one of the many topics I write about often. I use my own journals as a way to figure out what I think, feel, believe, dream about, or anguish over. I write for myself, with no thought of having someone else read these uncensored thoughts.

But I have a secret dream: that I find, in an old trunk somewhere, a pile of journals left behind by someone who died long ago. Reading those old journals, I would get to know the person who wrote them.

And even though my mother is still alive, I have especially imagined finding and reading her writings from the time when she was an 18-year-old bride marrying her sailor returned safely from World War II. What were her dreams and aspirations? And when did the fairy tale sour, the marriage begin to crumble? Was she ever aware of her ambivalence toward me, the baby whose birth she insists was so wanted and anxiously awaited after the stillbirth of the first child 14 months earlier?

There is no stash of journals written by my mother, but I still fantasize about finding someone’s—anyone’s—journals. They would be a window into somebody’s consciousness, into a particular life lived in a particular time in a particular place.

That must be why I’m so drawn into stories in which other people describe finding those journals. Here are three examples of how a journal can become a legacy.


In Love, Mom: Journals Left By My Mother alto, whose real name is Allan, provides an excerpt from a journal his mother left for him when she died of brain cancer at age 78 in September 2010. The long passage he transcribes is one of the last entries in the journal she left him.

I am publishing this to demonstrate that people are more than their histories. My mother was an example of someone who did not let a painful childhood completely define who she was and how she would parent. She overcame her history to be a mother that, in my estimation, defined the term.

In this passage his mother explains to him, the grown man, that in reading over her earlier journals, “when you come across the entry that refers to August 17, 1973, the day your grandfather died, I need you to know that your mother is telling you a complete fabrication, a very well executed and intentional lie.”

She explains that she told him the lie when he was younger to avoid confusing him and burdening him with the reality of her own relationship with her father, Allan’s grandfather, whom she calls evil. But at the end of her life, she wishes to correct this family secret, the lie told to protect the child and probably herself as well, the lie that allowed her to avoid explaining and processing her own complex and, probably, shameful feelings.

All of the journals she left her son are her legacy, but most especially the final one in which she insists on telling the truth to the son who is no longer a child.


Over at transcribing memory a blogger (I haven’t been able to find her name) is transcribing the journals of her husband’s 97-year-old grandmother, Babu.

Unnamed Blogger (UB) is just beginning the transcribing process with the oldest volume they have, from 1935, the year Babu turned 17. UB types up the journal entries, then prints them out in a large font for Babu to read over. UB then talks with her and asks for more information about the people and events recorded in the annual diaries.

Of the hand-written journals UB writes:

I turn every page eagerly yet extremely cautiously, looking for what happens next. The cover has a tendency to shed tiny painful black flecks whenever handled in anything but a tender way. The blue bleeding ink, written in cursive, is consistent for as many pages as I had read or peaked ahead to and it is not always easy to decipher. I widen my eyes and look closer searching for answers to questions: Did she finish her story and what did her teacher think of it? Did she get a part in the senior play? Will anything ever happen between her and D? In fact, has something already happened?

Later UB writes about the universality of the experiences she’s finding in the journals:

She [Babu] is allowed to write a short story as her theme in English and she signs up for auditions to the school play. How hilarious, I was probably doing exactly the same things during the last few months of my sixteenth year. The two of us have more in common than either of us thought. Or maybe this is always just life, no matter who or when.

The value of this journal transcription project lies not only in Babu’s memories from her teenage years, but also in UB’s ability to respond and relate to what she’s reading and learning. Although they’ve just begun this project, I look forward to following new entries. These journals and Babu’s ability to discuss them with UB are a legacy for her family and for anyone else interested in what life was like at that time.


red leather diaryKoppel, Lily. The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal

Most apartment buildings in New York City allot residents a wire-enclosed storage space in the basement. These storage spaces are often not emptied when residents move out, and some accumulate stuff for years. One day, when unclaimed things had been put out on the sidewalk to be hauled away, Lily Koppel saw and rescued a red leather diary with a brass lock.

Inside the diary Koppel found entries for every day between 1929 and 1934:

Opening the tarnished brass lock, Koppel embarks on a journey into the past, traveling to a New York in which women of privilege meet for tea at Schrafft’s, dance at the Hotel Pennsylvania, and toast the night at El Morocco. As she turns the diary’s brittle pages, Koppel is captivated by the headstrong young woman whose intimate thoughts and emotions fill the pale blue lines. Who was this lovely ingénue who adored the works of Baudelaire and Jane Austen, who was sexually curious beyond her years, who traveled to Rome, Paris, and London?

—Source: Goodreads

Koppel manages to track down the diary’s owner, Florence, then a 90-year-old woman living in Florida with her husband of 67 years. In her book Koppel combines the diary entries with information from interviews with Florence to create a picture of upper-class life in New York City in the 1930s.

My library book group back in St. Louis read this book a few years ago, and everyone was fascinated. Through her diligence and effort Koppel has turned an almost-lost journal into a legacy for anyone interested in history.

One thought on “When a Journal Becomes a Legacy”

  1. Mary, I’m glad you found my blog because now I’ve found yours. What a wealth of information! I’ve already downloaded The Red LeatherDiary and can’t wait to dig into it.

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