I teach classes that deal with historical artifacts—speeches, posters, pamphlets, memos. One of the things we talk about in these classes is the idea that rhetoric entails publicity and criticism comes with critical distance, even if you can only measure it in inches. Some of these documents didn’t start out as rhetorical artifacts. I often use my own diary as an example. My diary, I argue, is not a rhetorical artifact right now. In a century, though, it might be—an artifact of a suburban, Wisconsin, middle-class mom.
My first diary, purchased from Walden Books at the Pekin mall, was burgundy with tiny white polka-dots and a picture of a honey-colored, shaggy-furred teddy bear on the front. It closed with a flimsy golden lock, and in it I recorded my secret thoughts and desires, or the secret thoughts and desires I imagined an elementary school girl who was destined for stardom would have. I wrote that diary, in other words, with posterity in mind.
Since then, my diaries have become more a collection of important dates and to-lists, groceries I want to buy and things I scribble down and forget as soon as I have released them onto the page. Still, I keep them all, a collection of various colored Moleskine notebooks, bullet journals, pleather-bound volumes with swirly designs on the covers. I don't know why I keep them, if I am being honest. I don't know who will ever read them. Ben and the kids when I am gone? Me when I want to remember the happy golden days? No one ever? Who knows.
I do know, though, that I love my notebooks and that writing in them is a way to wrap my mind around all of the things jockeying for position in it. I’m thrilled when it's time to by a new notebook, and I love to grab a few stolen minutes at Paper Source or Barnes and Noble, perusing my options. I always look at planners even though I know I will ultimately reject their structure for blank pages. I think about how these notebooks will look open on a table at meetings, resting in my lap while I wait for Dorothy in dance class, balanced on the handles of a cart at the grocery store, and before I start a new one, I look at the old one and reflect on its beginning and ending.
My most recent notebook started on April 24, 2019, the day before my dad died. A perfectly normal day, judging by the looks of my to-do list. I wrote the first page in a pencil, even, and it's smudged all to hell because I am left-handed. My dad’s last full day on earth, just a bulleted list of items I crossed off—checking on my adjunct online class, adjusting a student’s attendance in my large lecture class, packing snacks and tablets for the little kids for take-your-kid-to-work-day.
On the 25th, the day he died, my list is normal as can be as well, and I even jotted one for the 26th on the opposite page. That’s something I like to do every night—I call it a brain dump, and I try to sketch out my day before I go to sleep. I usually start again the next day with a fresh list, but getting a hypothetical one on paper before bed helps me rest. I started this in college when I would travel to the season-culminating national speech tournaments at the busiest time of the semester, and I wanted to make a list of all the things I needed to let go of before the competition. Storing them in a notebook both let me shed their weight and reassured me that I be able to find my burdens all neatly organized as soon as I got home.
I sat in my office yesterday trying not to cry when I read my hypothetical April 26th list of to-dos. So normal! So mundane! Such a luxury!
The next page is my real April 26th list—notes from our meeting with the funeral director, advice from my uncle about accounts to check and bills to redirect, a running list of thank you notes to write.
In my office, I have framed family pictures from just after Jack was born, and one of them features both sets of our parents, young and smiling, right behind a really bloated me and an exhausted Ben and impossibly small Harry and Jack. On the page in front of me rested all the practical details of how to deal with my dad’s death, and right in front of me there he was in a frame in khakis and Rockports and white button-down—a white button-down that is probably still hanging up in my mom’s laundry room because he had dozens of those shirts and wore them to work and for special occasions, like these family pictures from April of 2008.
None of us knew he’d be dead eleven years later, that he was closing in on the last decade of his life, that his health would slowly decline—first pneumonia, then hip replacement, then shoulder replacement, then back pain, then, finally, the aneurism and the pulmonary embolisms. It's a picture of joy and a squishy newborn surrounded by the people who adore him. It's a picture of potential, not teleology, but I still can't help but thinking about where the end began.
On the other side of the end, I am left with a book that started on my dad’s penultimate day, his last full day, a day that only comes into being with critical distance, and with this new book and all its potential. I am a grown-up, feet firmly planted in the world of multi-tasking and work-life balance, raising kids from the trenches of incoming adolescence, and my new notebook will surely tell that tale. Between the lines, though, I am only muddling through, a fatherless daughter, still so sad sometimes that I can only sit quietly and think about all the might-have-beens that won't.
It's not very often that I appreciate the contingency of my every day or get a little glimpse of the may be as it coalesces into the is. A new diary is this magic window, and when it opened for me yesterday, I practiced gratitude for mundanity, routine, an untidy mental load, kids whose feet stink, stolen moments with an open bottle of wine and DVR full of questionable television, a smelly dog who rests her lady parts on as many throw pillows as she can at once.