Shedding Light on the Past

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:

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.

Helena Muffly around the time of her diaries in 1911.

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.

Sheryl walking in on her bridal shower; her grandmother Helena is seated.

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!– BV)

The Muffly Homestead as it looks today- near McEwensville, PA.

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.

The Muffly barns as they look today.

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.

Sheryl Lazarus

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


Tidal Life

Growing up on the East Coast, my family has always enjoyed the ocean. I have dozens, if not hundreds, of memories of family within feet of the tides. So when I was recently working on an article, perhaps it was natural for me to associate families and tides.

There are ups and downs, times of storms and times of calm, but always there is rhythm, a constant and continual pattern of high and low tides.

I like this image very much.

No matter what your family is like, it is part of who you are. Through the highs and lows and the diverse seasons of life and life, for better or for worse, your family is there. Let’s do the best we can to make our families thrive and be beautiful!

These children are sitting above the high tide line for the summer. See the seaweed near their feet? That’s how you can tell. In the spring or fall when tides are higher, the high tide lines may be well beyond where the children are. In this photo, the tide is coming in.

~Photo taken at The Bay of Fundy, NS

Sour Cherries

A friend recently posted a photo on Facebook asking what kind of cherry she had found. It is like a large chokecherry. While I couldn’t definitively answer her question, it reminded me of the sour cherry tree we had in our backyard the first decade of my life.

It was quite an old, large tree and it produced lots of fruit. It made the BEST jam- a sweet-tart deliciousness that was my favourite. I don’t know if I’ve ever had any since.

Photo copied from

The tree reminds me of my mother and her industriousness. Whenever the fruit ripened, she would diligently get out there and pick as many as she could before the crows and starlings cleaned off the tree. She would spend time pitting them all- individually. And then she would make preserves and jam- all while minding four children under the age of 10. You’ve got to respect that!

I don’t remember ever helping, but I do remember that my grandmother from out-of-province was there one time when the cherry harvest was on. I remember her sitting in the shade of the tree pitting brilliant red-orange fruit.

I remember sparkling, noisy aluminum pie-plates dangling in the tree in an attempt to keep the birds away. I don’t know if it worked.

I also remember that our picnic table sat in the shade of the tree, and my brother and I would play there. He liked to put on shows and I was the audience.

Best of all was going in to eat the yummy cherry jam on fresh bread when we tired of playing.

Thanks Mom!

Now to find myself some sour cherries…

Aging and Life

An aging man in the airport security screening has to take off his jacket and shoes and has to be completely scanned. He is out of sorts and doesn’t understand why there is so much fuss. When he is finally cleared and can put the contents of his pockets back  in place, and his outerwear back on, he walks away, only to realize that he has lost his glasses. He goes back to retrieve them, not knowing where they are, and the cold-hearted personnel do nothing to help him until he becomes a nuisance. They are doing a job, you know?

This was a picture of my father-in-law this past week. A man who in the past was strong in body is now walking slowly.  A man who would not hesitate to speak his mind is now showing great vulnerability. It is profoundly sad.

We can do nothing to stop aging. Millions have been spent on attempting to slow down the effects of time on our humanity, but ultimately, the end result is the same. Like watching a loved one go through airport security when you stay behind to watch, unable to help, death and aging can be frightening, frustrating. We can feel so helpless, and even hopeless.

So what do we do? How then do we live?

There are so many things that are out of our control.

Like aging and death.

But what is in our control?

Ultimately, I think the only thing that we can really take responsibility for is our own choices. We have opportunities every day, over and over, to make good or bad decisions. We can do right or wrong. We can love or hate. We can be bitter or be beautiful.

We cannot necessarily change the ugliness of life and death, but even in dark places, our choices, our attitudes and our actions can make a world of difference. In every situation, we have the opportunity to counter the downward spiral of things and make bold choices in victorious living.

That is not to say that we shun painful things. Rather, I think truly victorious living is when we look painful things in the eye, acknowledge them, and move forward despite it all.

There is a great poignancy here, living between pain and optimism. There is also a richness of life in these places that cannot be found by drowning in or denying either pain or optimism. Both are part of life, and embracing both leads to the best life possible, no matter what the circumstances.

I encourage you, no matter what your situation is, to embrace life, embrace death. And above all, to consider the choices you are making. Will you live a life that makes a difference?

Picking Mayflowers

I have such crisp memories of picking wild mayflowers with my brother. Scrounging around on the sun-splashed forest floor, moving decaying leaves with our bare hands to find a delicately scented flower smaller than a dime.

Trailing arbutus are not easy to find; their flowers tend to hide under the leaves. It takes quite a few flowers to make even a small bunch, but they were worth it. When we could find mayflowers, we knew summer was just around the corner. I especially remember the strong scent of wintergreen berries, squished underfoot. I can even now smell the scent of broken ferns under the giant pines. So fresh was the cool spring air, so invigorating was it to be outside exploring after the wait of winter.

Mayflowers (trailing arbutus). Photo from the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Trailing arbutus… waxy thick leaves, flowers with a hint of pink… it has quite a history. In Nova Scotia, it was declared the provincial flower in 1901, and was in use in publications as far back as 1825. According to the Canadian Heritage website, the mayflower was seen as a patriotic symbol- perhaps suggesting achievement in the face of adversity. It appeared on the buttons of the Nova Scotia militia, and on postage stamps along with the rose, the thistle and the shamrock.

These little flowers can only grow in the presence of a certain fungus, and they do not easily propagate. So delicate, yet so strong. Achievement in the face of adversity.  It is a picture of life and beauty, don’t you think? Despite the challenges we face,  there is beauty in abundance… even if we have to hunt for it.

So spend some time outside this spring, especially with those you love. Marvel at the beauty you discover together. And give thanks.


Quilt Therapy

One of the things I do to relax and rejuvenate is play with fabric. The wonderful colours, patterns, and texture of printed cotton is an endless source of delight.

And using geometry and other math skills to piece the fabric together stretches my brain in another dimension, that is sure to benefit my writing…

I give my mother the credit for this love of sewing, quilting and using fabrics. As far back as I can remember, Mom has always had a sewing machine standing ready for use. She used to sew me clothes. I remember distinctly when I was in grade two that I was home with the chicken pox for two weeks, and during that time Mom sewed me a new red outfit- pants and a tunic top. I wore it back to school that first day, and was thrilled with all the compliments I received! I’m not sure if the compliments ever made their way to my mother’s ears, but she did a fine job!

Later in my life, Mom naturally became a quilter. Everyone in our family has been the recipient of more than one beautiful quilt throughout the years. We all think it is fantastic that she had the opportunity to be a quilt store owner for a few years as well. (To see her recent work, go to: It was an awesome, cozy feeling to visit her in the store, surrounded by beauty and comfort.

So I guess it is natural that I absorbed this love of quilting. It makes me feel alive and satisfied.

How fun it is now- to teach my teenage daughters the same skills. To infuse their hearts and minds with the ability to create beauty. I hope this becomes part of their lives too. Thanks, Grandma!

A Mariner's Compass Quilt made by my mother almost 20 years ago

Strawberry Jam

Tonight, ten days before Christmas, I made cooked strawberry jam.  I used crushed berries that we had picked this summer, and froze. What a yummy smell in the house in this dreary dark weather! The scent of strawberries is so fresh and summery and brings back wonderful memories.

Memories of this past summer u-picking strawberries and raspberries with all six of us. Memories of me, small, watching my mother diligently making all sorts of preserves. Memories of phoning her when I was first married, to make sure I was making the jam right.  Memories of my father and my brothers always wanting mom’s jam on their fresh bread… and as memory goes, one thought leads to another… all evoked by the smell of strawberries cooking.

Before my children all grow up and fly away, I better teach them how to make strawberry jam!