I am in Portland, Oregon to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday. A 90th birthday brings up a lot of things — it’s a huge celebration of an extraordinary person, and also, it reminds you how fast your own life is going. My grandfather seems calm and is very kind, and that makes me hopeful; it makes me believe in something that I don’t quite understand yet.
My parents still live in my childhood home. I know that this is a rare thing, and that it is lucky. But on the other hand, my childhood home (and maybe yours too) is FULL of GHOSTS! Not “Ghostbusters”-style ghosts, but ghosts of different lives that I used to wear that now have past. Right now, I am on a big bed in a little room that I slept in when I was in high school. This wasn’t always my bed. I had a twin bed that fit perfectly in the corner with a window that opens out to the tall apple tree that was planted the year I was born. The bed fit so perfectly in that corner, in fact, that once I had a boy over and we were, um, enjoying ourselves, and because the bed was so wedged into that corner, he broke a window when he kicked his leg too hard. This was embarrassing, but also, I felt a little proud about it. (Because who has a sex life so wild and crazy that they break windows over it?)
Recently, my mom dug up her high school diaries. First of all: Aren’t they adorable? And also: Nineteen cents!? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Say what you will about the early ‘60s, but that era’s office supply game was on point. Mom left one of her diaries on the counter in our kitchen next to the toaster; this morning I read it over breakfast.
First, and most importantly: My mother is a genius. I always suspected this, but it’s hard to know if people who are older than you are natural-born geniuses or if they just worked really hard and became geniuses later in life. My mother was a born genius, and I can prove it by pointing to things she wrote privately when she was 17. When I was 17, my diary said, “There are SO MANY BOYZ [sic]! I wanna be a FAMOUS ROCKSTAR!” When my mother was 17, her diary said, “Curst is the thinker because he knows what he is."
If I really wanted to benefit you, reader of my blog, I would transcribe this entire diary right here and now. It is more useful than many of the books currently in my home. (As a side note, my mother kept a list of all the books she read when she was 17 in the back of her diary. It is literally longer than the list of all the books I have read in my entire life — not counting “The Babysitter’s Club.”)
Instead — mostly because I am lazy — I will say that reading someone else’s diary has a strangely profound effect: Diaries show you how important small things are to people; they take you outside your own tiny place in the world and remind you — by showing you someone else’s tiny place — how big everything really is. And also, even if you weren’t there, a good diary resurrects a past life and sets it in motion right in front of you.
In the bedroom where I am right now, I can see these things: A Cabbage Patch Kid with red overalls that was purchased for me after much whining and moaning and begging in December of 1989 (and subsequently functionally discarded in 1990); a little brown purse with a long strap I bought at Urban Outfitters when I first moved to New Orleans and needed something that would hold my small cell phone and my debit card; the clunky antique piano lamp that lobbed light over sheet music I learned to play on our upright piano for my entire childhood, until the light burned out and it was relegated to the unused desk in this mostly unused bedroom; a thumbed-through copy of my once-favorite book, “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” There is also a fragile pink pin cushion my mom said belonged to her mom, that she found in a hope chest and moved into this room because she liked the look of it.
What freaks me out about being in this old bedroom is having to share space with all the things attached to memories I’ve already lost. I don’t remember where the straw bag in the back of my closet came from. I don’t remember the origin story of the sort of flesh-toned (?!) teddy bear sharing a shelf with the Cabbage Patch kid. Who would even have a bear like that, anyway? Apparently I would, but I don’t remember.
Sometimes I feel scared that everything is happening too quickly; that all the old Sophies are dying all around me all the time and I don’t even notice when it happens. I’m too busy to see myself change, and then suddenly, I am at my grandfather’s 90th birthday party, and my kid cousin who I SWEAR TO GOD was JUST a baby is now 9 and speaks in complete (and emotionally mature*) sentences. And who have I decided to be? And what am I doing with my life?
Thankfully, my 17-year-old mother is still alive in this little thin-paged book. And on August 22, 1965, she says, “I am many. I play the role which fits. I am not a thousand clowns — but maybe I am ten. I am not ‘nobody.’ I am many.”
And then later, on September 2, on the subject of her own diary, she says, “I was reading past passages. … My love for this person (myself) who understands me and organizes my thoughts is phenomenal. I am not ashamed. … I can look at old thoughts and discern what type of person I was, am, and hope to be."
Seventeen-year-old Loretta did not know in 1965 that she was, in fact, writing to her 30-year-old daughter, who needed this wisdom. And I don’t know who I am writing to now, either. It makes me believe in something I don’t quite understand yet.
* My 9-year-old cousin has the emotional intelligence of a 30-year-old woman. I have the emotional intelligence of a 9-year-old girl. I hate that she has surpassed me. At Grandpa's birthday party I made a fart joke and she literally rolled her eyes at me. And I thought, "Yeah. You're probably right."