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


Wartime Journals

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.

Transcribing History

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!

Story Starters

For all my writing and imaginative  friends…

Here are some old photos that each tell a story. Who are these people? What is going on? Why are they here?

Tell me your thoughts!





All photos from the Holleman Family archives- please do not copy without my consent.



Horse Beauty

I saw a horse the other day.

It was tied to a lamppost in a paved parking lot, drinking water out of a 4 litre (one gallon) ice cream container. It was harnessed to an old buggy with wooden wheels- like the kind you might see a bride and groom parade in, only much, much worse. It was dirty and worn. What struck me the most was the state of the animal. While looking muscular and healthy overall, it was dirty and sweaty. It had a matted and stringy mane, and its tail was not much better. It’s winter hide was starting to molt in uneven patches. Standing alone, it was a desolate scene.

That got me thinking about horses and their history. The horse in the parking lot was definitely a working horse in all ways, and it caught my attention. It was not a Heartland version, or a 4-H show animal, or a Calgary Stampede winner. This was a stuff-of-earth humble horse.

The house I live in was built circa 1834, and it is believed that there were horse stables across the road. Horses were very valuable to this original homeowner as he was the first postmaster of the village and had to travel constantly on rough roads in all weather. Joshua Bates, Esquire, was one of a group of men who were given government contracts to improve the roads. They designed corduroy roads- logs placed tightly side by side- to avoid the mud (no wonder they were called corduroy- can you imagine taking a buggy over that?) and tried other road-building  innovations as well. Long before taxes for roads, our little village collected tolls. That all to say that these horses of pre-Confederation played a large part in carving out a place from the wilderness for future Canadians. They helped clear land, move rocks, move people and mail alike in the development of the country.

I wonder what the horses of Joshua Bates looked like, and how well groomed they were. They must have had some rough days. And if the humans in charge of their care did not make the effort to haul the water to wash and comb them, some of these animals must have been very sorry looking. Perhaps I am wrong, but I have a hunch that horses at that time were generally not given the care and pampering that so many of today’s horses receive.

But my romantic side cannot leave it at that.  Undoubtedly some horses were very loved and very well cared for. Some were full of good character, working diligently and faithfully in often difficult circumstances.

Which is more beautiful? A well-groomed, majestic animal or  an animal working hard in the face of adversity?

I love the sight of a beautifully groomed horse (and I am not alone, given the amount of time horses spend in the media), but perhaps we can learn some lessons from the working horse.

True beauty is not limited to outward appearances, but to a great extent is revealed by inner character.

Horses hauling logs 1895 (photo borrowed from University of New Brunswick forestry department-

An Architect Named Angelo

Another coffee shop adventure…

Recently my husband and I visited a coffee shop in a little town I love. We sat in the corner in the small seating area. Another customer came and set his book on the table (so close that we could have touched it- the cafe really is small!) and went to get his coffee. We both read the title Frank Lloyd Wright, and instantly looked at each other and smiled.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a creative and prolific architect in the late 1800s and early 1900s  who liked to design one-of-a-kind buildings that used natural materials, and blended into the landscape. He developed the Prairie style of architecture and is most well known for a residence called Fallingwater, a home which is built over a waterfall.

My husband and I had visited the Wright-designed Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and had delighted in the out-of-the-box ingenuity that Wright displayed. We have been fascinated with the work of this man to this day, and that’s why our eyes lit up when we saw this book on the neighbouring table.

When the owner of the book sat down with his coffee, we engaged in a conversation about Wright, and the book-owner’s passion for Wright architecture. Lingering in the midst of the tutorial on Wright was conversation on work and doing what one loves, and about faith and religion. We learned that this man’s name is Angelo, and that he is an architect, and that he is designing a bed and breakfast home for relatives in Japan.

Wright himself lived in Japan for part of his life, in the early 1900s, designing many buildings in and around the Tokyo area. He thought Japan was one of the most beautiful places on earth, and when you look at some of his designs in North America, you can see Japanese influences.

Which leads me to be  thinking about Angelo and his family in this week of disaster in Japan. I wonder if Angelo’s family members are okay. I wonder if Angelo will be able to build this house that he was so happy to be working on. I wonder if he can be an influence for change and growth, much like his admired architect. I wish him all the best.

To check out the Meyer May house, go here:

To learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan, go here:

Meyer May House Grand Rapids, Michigan

The Privilege of Writing

Today was a day that a writer loves. A day where I could indulge my interests, with the added bonus of being paid for it!

I love history, and I had the privilege of interviewing Pat, who is part of a small group with a big vision to resurrect a local one-room schoolhouse. Sitting at her kitchen table surrounded by old photos and documents and a 1953 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, we had a lively discussion while I plied her with questions. The history of the schoolhouse goes back to the time of the settling of the United Empire Loyalists in the area, and was in use until the late 1960s. Hearing her passion and desire to preserve the best of the past is so inspiring.

Before we sat around the kitchen table, I was invited to have a cup of coffee with Pat and her husband, Hans,  and we made the interesting discovered that Hans immigrated to Canada from Holland on the same ship that my father did, in the 1950s.

Not only did I do research for a story, I made some neat connections with people in my community whom I had never met before, and this is the joy of writing! Days like this sustain a writer through the lonely, slogging-it-out days when it is just you and the blank page.

I cherish days like this!