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Article Published March 17, 1999

Sandra Devlin EAST COAST KIN (Canada)
By: Sandra Devlin, Biography & Archived Articles

Thanks For Your Thoughts On Journals & Diaries

Freelance writing is a lonely job. Sometimes it feels like I am whistling into the wind and the only one who hears is this lonely whistler and maybe whistler’s mother (could not resist this terrible pun, but it does relate to the genealogists’ interest in preceding generations!)

It is, therefore, with gratitude and much humility that I acknowledge that I am neither alone nor whistling in the wind.

Many of you took the time to respond to my invitation in the third column back, when the following paragraph was tucked into the first in a series of three about diaries and journals: “ I encouraged you to share your thoughts with me about how you intend to treat your own personal belongings -- those things which will be referred to by your descendants as “artifacts” and “primary sources” of information about you, your family and the world in which you lived.”

I thank one and all. I am encouraged that interest in journal writing is alive and well across North America.

As promised, here are some of the highlights:
    Leo Doucet in Fredericton, New Brunswick wrote: “ I share many of your views regarding the keeping of a diary and I also want my descendants to know me and our family and what it was like in our era. I have written about 30 stories, mostly about my experiences, 19 are about my childhood living in Dalhousie, Restigouche County, N.B. and which my friend Irene Doyle has posted on her web site as it added to her other items of her favorite county.

    I took a slightly different approach in that I name names, places and times and tell it exactly as it happened. I have left out some items that would have been of a more embarrassing personal nature to some as these tidbits would not add anything significant to the stories.

    I have traced my ancestors back to 1595 (I am of the eleventh generation in Canada and my great-grandchildren are the fourteenth) and as I have said before while I cannot tell them where they are going I can certainly tell them where they came from.

    Bev Hayden in Ontario writes: “As President of the Kindred Spirits Society in Hamilton, a literary society specializing in the life and work of Lucy Maud Montgomery, I cannot endorse daily journals highly enough. Unlike LMM whose published Journals carry of wealth of early 20th century social history of both P.E.I. and Ontario, many of ours will be of little commercial interest to others.

    However, comparing the reactions of several diarists of the time will give an accurate overview to life as it was experienced by people. Montgomery's journals are used today as a source book for historians, genealogists, literary students and feminists alike. We now have a wealth of information about villages in which she lived, numerous photos of buildings no longer in existence and one woman's reaction to First World War from the standpoint of families separated, loved ones lost and the women who were left at home to cope.

    I have learned so much about southern Ont history from the Journals, including the Radial Railway system, mental illness in families and its (non) treatment; feminist issues and also lack of confidentiality among the medical and legal communities.

    In a follow-up note Bev adds: “ I have made a written list of whom I would like to have some of my material possessions that I value, such as book collections, jewellery etc. but this in no way will convey the reason to the recipient of why these items are dear to my heart. I have always been an avid photographer and mark, date and put the photos immediately into albums which over the years have grown to nearly 30 in number. I would hope my adult children will value this chronological pictorial of their lives and that of their parents but perhaps not.

    But my thoughts now are to expand into fiction and perhaps through it, write out some of my life's stories, philosophies and folklore on my forebears.

    Personal friend Judi Berry Steeves in Moncton teased: “Gee, Sandra, I'll never get to read your diaries if they can't be opened until you are 100 and not published for another 100! Bet they would make good reading.

    When I started my two years as New Brunswick Genealogical Society president I started keeping a journal off and on. Guess in 100 years from now, if anyone reads it, they will know what life was like during my life time.

    It is not just journals which come back to `haunt us' but it is also the letters we write. For several years I wrote to a distant cousin/friend about life on the home front, news about his friends at South Eastern, etc. THEN I discovered he had kept all those letters in the filing cabinet and when he felt lonely,depressed,etc. he took them out and read them as he knew that someone cared enough to write."

    Cindy in Northern Ontario advised me to grab a coffee because her reply was long. Long perhaps, but interesting: “ I really enjoyed your feature on Journals and Diaries. I am a self-professed journal-a-holic. Oddly enough, I really don't maintain a daily diary but rather a selection of journals on different subjects - dated, of course. If a future generation wanted to take the time to assemble these journals into one publication, they would be able to get a snapshot into my lifetime.

    For example, I keep a journal pertaining to nature... this includes weather, animals and plants.....when seasons changed, unusual weather occurrences, an abundance of certain birds or animals in one season, when the sandhill cranes came and left (a personal favorite) etc. I'll also jot down new plants in the garden, if I dug a new bed, what seeds I saved etc. I live outside of a rural community so I have plenty of opportunities to observe and take note.

    I also keep a house journal. Our tiny home is 102 years old and, when we bought it seven years ago, barely habitable. We've delved into its past, the state it was in upon purchase and the subsequent improvements (or historic under coverings) that have since taken place. I've managed to acquire some old photos to round out the text as well as information on the families who have resided here. Our home was once part of a tiny hamlet (that no longer exists in the postal system) and this journal has enabled me to understand the role of that community.

    My daughter turned four years old recently and I have a very detailed journal about her from confirmation of pregnancy upwards. My hopes, fears, pains and pleasure are all laid bare. Gifts she received, names we pondered and why, milestones etc. are all there. I've started to include short passages on prominent ladies of our family who have since passed away...great grandma and her red painted kitchen cupboards (why I chose to paint mine red, too)....aunt Grace and her yellow hat....etc.

    I work as a freelance writer and, during the summer, I am the curator at a local museum. One day I envision donating my nature journal to them so that it will serve as a reference book. I can't imagine ever selling this house so the house journal is a keeper. The child journal will eventually be passed down to my daughter. I believe I'll wait until she's expecting her first child. I'd probably encourage her to read it from back to front so that she realizes the trials of pregnancy come with many tribulations!

    By the way, I also own several journals or scrapbooks penned by persons never known by me. In addition, I've managed to acquire over 100 letters written by a First World War soldier and they, too, act as a journal of his training and service to his country. To top it off, I'm working on a book on an American woman courtesy of interviews with those who knew her and, what else, her journals.

    Why do I do this? I think it is a combination of being nosy by nature, a sentimental fool and a true believer that EVERYONE has a story.

More diary feedback, next time.

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