How did a young teenage girl live and feel in 1911? Would her problems and joys be similar to mine or different? I have been able to find out by following a fantastic blog: www.ahundredyearsago.com.
It is the diary of a young teenage girl in 1911 whose grand-daughter, Sheryl Lazarus, has been posting her journal entries exactly one hundred years later in 2011. So I thought it would be great to hear from Sheryl herself about this adventure. Take it away, Sheryl!
Diaries & Journals Shed Light on the Past
I’m sure that I have lots of interesting ancestors, but the ones I find the most interesting are the ones who left behind enough artifacts so that I can get a sense of their personality.
One relative who I find particularly interesting is my paternal grandmother, Helena Muffly (Swartz). She kept a diary from January 1911 through December 1914. She was 15-years-old when she began the diary.
I’ve been posting her diary entries, as well as my reflections and comments, exactly 100 years to the day after she wrote them. I sometimes include old-time recipes, photos from 1911 magazines, or other things that I find interesting.
Diaries and journals can bring the past to life. They provide candid, dynamic snapshots of everyday life, and are full of details. Diaries also provide an intimate glimpse of the author–and share the writer’s hopes and fears.
The words of ordinary people reveal both similarities and differences between the past and now. The similarities enable us to better understand both the author and ourselves. The differences beg questions—Why was it different? What has changed over the years?
Why I Decided to Post the Diary Entries
Several years ago I compiled a family cookbook, and included some family photos in the book. One was a photo of me walking through a doorway at my bridal shower. Sitting on the couch in the photo’s foreground was my 82-year-old paternal grandmother.
When I gave the cookbook to my children, my daughter asked who the old lady was. I told her that it was her great-grandmother. But her question jogged my memory about a copy of an old diary I had —
After Grandma died in 1980, her children went through her belongings. One of the items they found was the diary that Grandma had kept as a teen. They circulated the diary amongst family members. While I had it, I made a copy before passing it on.
The copy lay in a paper bag in the bottom of my hutch for more than a quarter century until my daughter’s question reminded me of it.
My memories of Grandma Helen are of a frail, elderly woman—Helena (the name she used in the diary) was a fun-loving, self-absorbed teen. I wanted to learn more about her and how she evolved into the grandmother I remember.
I also wanted to share the diary entries with family and friends. At first I planned to write a book about the diary but that seemed like too daunting a task, so I decided to post the entries daily in a blog. (Check it out! www.ahundredyearsago.com– BV)
What I’ve Learned
I’ve loved digging through the diary and other resources to pull the pieces together for the blog. It’s been a journey of discovery for me and other relatives.
My children can now relate to a great-grandmother who died years before they were born. For example, on April 3, 1911 Grandma wrote:
“One day is passed of the dreaded three, and they will soon be over, for we are having our final exams now. I’m so anxious about what I will make, fraid it won’t be any too high, and sincerely hope it will not be the opposite.”
The evening that I was working on this entry my college-aged daughter called and asked what I was doing. I said that I getting ready to write about Grandma’s final exams.
My daughter replied, “Final exams are stressful!” Some things never change.
At the same time the diary has brought me closer to my elderly father (Grandma’s son). When I visit him we enjoy going on car rides to take photos of the places that Grandma once frequented, and he likes helping me figure out what some of the diary entries mean. Without his help I never would have been able to describe how farming was done in the days before tractors.
I’ve been surprised how many people who are not relatives enjoy reading the posts.
For example, several young women told me that they love the way Grandma writes about her sister—and that it helps them better understand their own relationships with their sisters. Grandma had a sister named Ruth who was just a little older than she was. The diary entries portray an intense love between the two girls, co-mingled with competiveness and sibling rivalry. For example, when Grandma was annoyed with Ruth she referred to her as “Rufus” or “her highness.”
The quiet, elderly grandmother I remember often seemed almost invisible—overshadowed by others at family gatherings. As a result of the diary I now know my grandmother much better than I did before I began this endeavor, but more importantly I now feel like I have a close connection to her and a deeper understanding of myself.
Thank you, Sheryl, it has been wonderful to read how your grandmother’s diaries have enriched your life. We look forward to reading more about her on www.ahundredyearsago.com.
I love reading survival stories from World War II in Europe. It intrigues me how people can come out of horrific situations and “live to tell about it”. The oppression and suffering that millions faced have been passed down to people of my generation who hear these stories orally, or through books.
Many books have been written about WWII experiences, and whenever I see a new one at my library, I always take it out and read that too. No too stories are exactly alike, and the resilience and creativity of the human spirit to survive is an amazing thing. That anything good can come out of these terrible situations is for me a compelling reason for the existence of God.
It is also interesting that there are still “new” stories being published about wartime experiences. Even though the war ended over 50 years ago, people today still find an interest in old papers and photographs. Many old stories that are newly published are based on people’s journals of their experiences. Some journals were kept during the war, which is truly remarkable given the threat of punishment if these were found, and also the scarcity of writing materials. Other journals were recorded later on, as a memorial to things that happened that should never be forgotten.
I think writers- journalers- have courage to be able to make their thoughts and impressions tangible through the written word. I thank these people for revealing to us a world I never would have known about.
I think also of my great-grandfather , Arie Jacob Holleman (1863-1950), who wrote a journal during the last year of the war. Although I cannot read it since it is entirely in Dutch, it is a very special thing to see his handwriting, knowing that he felt compelled enough to write it all down. My father has orally translated some of it for me so that I can understand, and we are working on having the entire thing translated and put into writing. (I did plug it into Google translator to get the gist of what he was writing about, but there are some big glitches that don’t make sense).
Arie Jacob wrote about the price of food and about bodies in the street. He wrote about the church and the liberation. He wrote about hiding his pocket-watch for fear of theft from the Germans. He was 82 years old when Holland was liberated.
Little did my great grandfather know that one day his great granddaughter would blog about his journal! And I thank him for it.
For all you writers out there- published or private- never forget the influence that your words can have.
For almost a year, I have been working on a unique project.
I am transcribing several journals of an early (circa 1900) Canadian, Mrs. Robert Simpson. Written in ink, in small notebooks, every line is full from one side of the page to the other; there are no margins at all. Her script is clear and tidy- there is hardly an error that she corrects, and if so, there is a tidy single line through it. The grammar is poor and run-on sentences abound. Yet these are remarkable because according to Simpson family lore, the author had no formal schooling.
Julia wrote these journals around the turn of the 19th century. The second wife of Mr. Simpson (his first having died), she had eight children with him, two of whom died in youth, and one who died at age 31 (childbirth?). Her husband was of Irish descent, and perhaps she was too.
These journals are unique, because they are not a diary or a re-telling of daily events. Rather, they are fiction. “Lillian Angroves Choice” is the title of one of her stories, another is called “Bessie Heath’s Courage”.
Another journal is all poetry, exclusively memorial poems for those who have passed away. They all have the same heading: “In Memory of (name), who died (date), aged (number) years. A particularly poignant example is:
In Memory of Clara Evelyn Simpson, Died June 16th, 1912, Aged 13 years, 2 months and 12 days.
This was Julia and Robert’s youngest daughter. One year later, she wrote another poem about Clara called “Not Forgotten”.
Another interesting and very valuable part of the journals is the family records Julia wrote on the inside covers of the them. She lists her own birth family- parents and siblings- with all their dates of birth and death. She lists her own children too.
This is a bit of a pain-staking project, but marvelously intriguing too. I so wish I knew more about her life. These journals are so tantalizing!