Susan Hagan

Two decades later, she was dying and this seemed impossible. My parents mentioned her journal to me and asked if I might want it. None of Gramma Teny’s five children had laid claim to it. I couldn’t understand why. I was one of 19 next in line.

I had no special right to it, aside from my own desire, and belief that Gramma had granted consent when she’d lent me a peek all those years ago. In the days after the funeral, I braced for fate to favour someone else. I brought the matter up swiftly, but delicately because nothing complicates a family transaction faster than wanting something and being tactless about it.

“Is her journal here?” I asked my Dad, while we stood in his farm shop where her remaining possessions were laid out on tables. I picked over mementoes—knuckle-length rings, mismatched tea cups and a re-glued, ceramic First Nations Chief. I feigned interest in a jar of buttons and wondered whether Gramma’s private thoughts were my business. Did I want to know and carry around her secrets? Unlike novels, the main characters in journals are not heroes redeemed through moral lessons. They are observers of life’s details; not storytellers. I didn’t know if she wanted her personal notes to be read or destroyed. I didn’t know what that red binder might reveal.

Dad disappeared behind the tractor and found her journal near the back. He stashed it in a grain sack—all valuables are kept in grain sacks—and it road shotgun on my long car trip home. I fled with the treasure—and the ceramic Chief—unchallenged.

Once home, I removed the battery from my ticking clock, poured tea and cracked it open. How else could I learn from her now? We told the appropriate tales of Teny’s life in the obituary and the eulogy and shared less formal ones at the funeral’s after-gathering. She would have been no more satisfied with our depictions than she ever was with any portrait of herself. It’s no wonder that Teny sat down to relive her life in words when she was 62 years old, after her house had grown quiet. On page three, she sportingly gives her descendants permission to read on: She dedicates it to “my children, grandchildren, great-grand-children and all the children that follow me.” 
No longer questioning Gramma’s desire for privacy, I settled in as a privileged guest reading a long letter written for a chosen audience, not a low intruder eavesdropping on confessions. 

“Tell me about the olden days? I have tried to write about what happened in my young days, and some in my old days, about some very good people,” she wrote and taped to the inside cover, beneath a picture of herself standing in a Delphinium garden beside her house.

‘Tell me about the olden days’
Gramma reflects on her childhood, back when women suffered from 
too many babies, folks were broke, moonshine was made in the shed 
and a séance was good entertainment. Growing up poor, Teny wore 
dyed flour sacks that her mother stitched into “pretty dresses” 
with the brand name “Purity” still imprinted on them. The stone 
house she was raised in was hand built by her father in 1906. 
As a young mother, she tossed the baby in bassinet into the buggy 
hitched to a spirited horse that sprinted the instant it felt 
its helpless passenger. Tena bunched her skirts and leapt aboard, 
narrowly avoiding catastrophe. That horse was replaced with one of 
skin and bones, and matted hair “where he had any.” 
He was so sickly and weak that he got the carriage stuck in a mud puddle, 
she complained. 

Gramma ripped the storm plastic off windows on the first fair day in March, though Grampa grumbled at her impatience as wind frosted the pane. Influenced by infrequent visits from a rebellious sister, Teny 
resented housekeeping and cooking for hired men, so a domestic chore was worthy of an entry: “Red letter day, I cleaned my oven.” The pulse of the farm mattered and needed to be recorded: “The bulls at the big sale had balls too small to pull a price.” Gramma wrote about a neighbour who had a leg sawed off. She wrote about another neighbour who was talking on the phone and died; she was astonished by how life can blink off mid-sentence. She was broken by the loss of an infant son. She wondered how long Grampa’s new watch battery would tick inside his coffin, which begged her darker question about the pacemaker. 

Gramma lived so long that her death still shocks me. Christena (Jordan) Hagan only published one article in her life, but she left behind an intentional work, containing enough strife and wit to fill a novel. She didn’t write one. But I may. And now I possess Teny’s observations of a time and a place that would have been beyond my own imagination. (William Faulkner read a plantation owner’s journal, kept during the American Civil War. Faulkner used vivid details about daily life and the price of slaves to produce his masterpieces.) 

Does Gramma’s story now belong to me? John Steinbeck wrote in Journal of a Novel, the daily notes he took while writing East of Eden, that, “It is a strange feeling to be taking people who are close to me apart and putting them on paper. But I see no reason why I should not. They are mine and I can do what I like with them.”

As she writes about the past, Gramma slides into the goings on in present day; she’s enjoying reading East of Eden, she’s lonely and her leg hurts. And then, I come across a growing number of specific dates and facts. The question nags me: How could she possibly remember in 1994 that the barn roof almost blew off on Oct. 10, 1980, because of a bad storm in the night? And then, I stumble upon this entry: “I was reading my Diary, every day was cold except for two in Jan. 1982.” The book I have is not a daily account, but a summary based on more frequent logs, which nobody has mentioned. 

Preserving greatness
General George S. Patton saw himself as a great hero, from a long line of great heroes who kept notebooks. Patton used journals to strategize, succeed and immortalize himself. “Find the enemy, attack the enemy, invade his land, raise hell while you’re at it,” he wrote, as his greatness manifested. Alice Cunningham Fletcher wrote about life amongst the Sioux when she camped out with them for six weeks in Dakota Territory—she intentionally recorded her personal observations of a culture as it was being annihilated. Samuel Pepys witnessed the beheading of a king, a plague that killed thousands and the great fire that swept through London that next year: he tracked the chaos all around him as he endured and prospered. 

In the months that follow, I asked my parents about the other diaries that Gramma might have kept since girlhood. Dad told me that it’s possible she wrote other diaries, “she was always writing something.” We dug deeper through her personal papers and found the notes that she took on a paper bag documenting a trip out west. We found several photocopies of her unfinished story “My Day is Done.” We found slips of paper tracking every penny spent on road trip meals, hotels and gasoline. These, she kept and left behind, for a snoopy granddaughter to probe.

What happened to the notes she took in private and only for herself? I ask, even though it’s none of my business. 

The diary pact: Pulling the Trigger
George Eliot didn’t want some of her personal pages subjected to “hard curiosity” so she ripped them out. Charles Dickens fed his diaries to backyard bonfires every year. Steinbeck said in Journal of a Novel that his other personal notes were meant for burning. These writers could be completely honest in their pages if they kept a pact with their private notes and destroyed them.

It may be weird to become so self-absorbed that we write down our most private thoughts in the first place. But alone in our homes—with only thoughts, pen and paper—we can confide anything without judgement. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diaries that these pages are a place to vent “irritation or misery.” That vent helped her to “loosen the ligaments” for serious work. Writing personal notes allowed Steinbeck to ease anxiety and feel the joy and confidence he needed to write his masterpieces. Susan Sontag wrote that a diary allowed her to create herself as an artist and an intellectual: She said in her diaries that she often wrote when she couldn’t feel, but she was trying to.

We trust these pages to hold our secrets as we figure out our complicated lives, and put down truths that we wouldn’t admit aloud to many people. In writing down our secrets, we accept the paradox that we could die at any moment and lose all power regarding them. Despite the risk, many of us cannot stand to burn them. So we hoard our private diaries to read back through in order to understand past lessons and note unfinished business. Franz Kafka wrote that we can look back upon our former condition and admit our courage, as “we persisted even in sheer ignorance.” 

We can instruct our friends and family to burn them, but who’s to say they’ll carry out our wishes? Philip Larkin’s former secretary and mistress shredded 30 volumes of his diary, as instructed. But she let a few slip by. Kafka, who burned much of his own work and barely published in his lifetime, told Max Brod in a letter to destroy everything he had left behind, including his diaries, manuscripts and letters. Brod immediately published everything he could find after Kafka died, making the previously unknown author famous. 

Some writers are proud of their written discoveries and leave instructions to share them. But those closest to the diary keeper might fear blistering secrets that could bring shame upon a name for generations. Lord Byron wanted his memoirs to be published when he died. But his sexual preferences were varied, incestuous and predatory. Fearing the worst, his publisher John Murray had his memoirs tossed in his fireplace. Byron’s portrait now hangs proudly above it. Some of Lewis Carroll’s journals are missing and several pages are ripped out of his nine surviving notebooks. Scholars believe that his family hid or destroyed them to conceal his obsession with a young girl named Alice. 

Sometimes, writers make their diaries public to reveal what isn’t understood, valued or recognized. Leonard Woolf edited and printed excerpts of Virginia’s diaries after her suicide—time has removed all sensitivity and her diaries are now freely available. Sontag sold her diaries to UCLA before she died of cancer, a wise move to get what she wanted—her son has said that he would have kept them private. These candid personal notes reveal the torments of sexual abuse, mental illness and hiding homosexuality; at the time, matters the writers couldn’t discuss with very many people. 

Keeping her pact 
Did Gramma have secrets that she spilled in her diaries, but value the dignity of privacy? Did someone pull the trigger for her? Did she simply track dates, events and weather on scraps of paper and toss them after finishing her journal? Could her notes be tucked in a grain sack in the back of a shop, to be discovered by another generation? What else could I learn from my grandmother if only I had her diaries?

A single Dickens’ diary dated 1867 rose from the ashes in 1943. Carl Jung’s kin vaulted up his Red Book—what he called his soul—until 2009. Sylvia Plath’s last diary before her suicide is missing. Her husband at first said he destroyed it to spare their children great sadness. Later, Ted Hughes confessed that he’d hidden it to protect a secret, and added that one day, it might be rediscovered. 

I reluctantly arrive at the last page in Teny’s book. The date makes her 91, not long before age forced her from the farmhouse to the town apartment, where she sat, pen taking only to paper scraps and envelope backs, until she was almost 99. “I’ve read this all today,” is all she says in her final entry. Her pen stops. Hand rests on a stack of empty, blue-lined pages. I hear in my mind her long sigh over the steady tick and chime of the wooden clock behind her.

Teny wrote a record of her life to justify her experiences and preserve her greatness. I act on my remaining obligation: to scan and distribute the journal to relatives who are interested in a final visit with Teny. This is what she wanted.

As for her other notes? Lacking evidence and resisting hard curiosity, I imagine Teny standing by the farm’s burning barrel before she left her home forever, setting page after page on fire. 

1. Batuman, Elif: “Kafka’s Last Trial” The New York Times Magazine (Sept. 22, 2010)
2. Bowen, Elizabeth “The Principle of Her Art Was Joy: Virginia Woolf's Diary Reveals Her Deep and Intense Relationship to Her Writing” The New York Times (Feb. 21, 1954)
3.Campbell, James: “Seeking Susan: The Second Volume of Susan Sontag’s Diaries.” The New York Times (June 22, 2012)
4.Carroll, Lewis:
5.Corbett, Sara: “The Holy Grail of the Unconscious” The New York Times (Sept. 16, 2009)_
6.Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (New York: Knopf, 1999)

7.Fletcher, Alice Cunningham:;

8.Flood, Alison: “Newly discovered plantation diary was key inspiration for Faulkner's novels, says academic: Nineteenth-century journal, known to Faulkner, 'likely served as an important source' for his Yoknapatawpha fictions” The Guardian (Feb. 12, 2010)

9.Frank, Michael; “Plath and Hughes: Good Times, Bad Times and All the Rest of It” The New York Times
(Sept. 23, 2005)
10.Hagan, Christena Jordan: Journal of Christena Jordan Hagan (recorded between 1977 and 2006)
11.Harris, Margaret; Johnston, Judith Johnston: The Journals of George Eliot; Cambridge University Press (1998) 
12.Kelly, Hillary: “Philip Roth’s empty threat: Burn my papers” The New Republic. (Nov. 15, 2012) 
13.Knights, Mark Dr.: “Diaries of the Seventeenth Century”(Feb. 17, 2011)
14.Levin, Angela “I was Philip Larkin's (third) bit on the side: Secretary who helped him juggle his life and girlfriends reveals her role as secret lover” The Daily Mail (Dec. 7, 2010)
15.Patton, Benjamin, W. “For General Patton's Family, Recovered Ground” Smithsonian Magazine (June 2009) 
16.Pepys, Samuel:;;
17.Steinbeck, John: Journal of Novel (1969)
18.Temple, Emily: “10 Famous Authors on the Importance of Keeping a Journal” (Jan 29, 2013)
19.Temple: “A Peek Inside the Notebooks of Famous Authors, Artists and Visionaries,” (May 27, 2012)
20.Woolf, Jenny, “Lewis Carroll's Shifting Reputation: Why has popular opinion of the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland undergone such a dramatic reversal?” Smithsonian Magazine (April 2010)

​End Notes
1. Sally Wolff-King, a professor at Emory University, interviewed the great grandson of the diary-keeper, Francis Terry Leak, and learned that Faulkner had visited the home and read the diary, which described plantation life and the American Civil War, including a price list for individual slaves.  

2. George Smith Patton, General George S. Patton’s grandfather, chronicled his experiences during the Civil War. General George S. Patton’s son, George S. Patton Jr., tracked his life, as well, but lost his journals in a fire—his son Benjamin says that his father was crushed by the loss of his journals. Benjamin W. Patton interviewed his father, so the family stories could be remembered and told.

3. Fletcher recommended integration, by educating aboriginal people to behave and live more like Europeans, as was a popular notion at the time. Fletcher, Alice Cunningham journals:

4. Some diary keepers go to great lengths to keep their words private: Anne Lister, a wealthy 19th century landowner, ducked the riskiest part of keeping a journal. She wrote four million words in her diaries. But when she wrote about being a lesbian, she put it in a Greek/algebra code, so that readers of her private words would not find out her secret. Her code was cracked only recently. University of York, Bothwick Institute for Archives:

5. Betty Mackereth said it took all afternoon to shred his papers and—though she didn’t read them—she said she couldn’t help seeing a few pages and they were filled with sadness.

6. During his lifetime, Kafka burned an estimated 90 per cent of his work. He left a letter in his desk drawer for his friend Max Brod. “Dearest Max, My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.”

7. Scholars speculate that Carroll’s family was covering up his obsession with, and marriage proposal to, an eleven-year-old girl named Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.

8. Leonard only published excerpts that he deemed worthy of literary study. The full contents of Virginia Woolf’s diaries were published between 1977 and 1984 in five volumes.

9. Sontag’s son, David Rieff, has said in interviews that he would not have published his mother’s diaries if the decision had been his.

10. Copies of Jung’s pages were reportedly showing up elsewhere, so time and pressure let the genie out. Jung’s Red Book was locked in the Union Bank of Switzerland, after bitter disputes amongst family. 

What happens to our personal notes when we die?
A final visit with Teny
Published in WestWord Jan/Feb 2015
Gramma Teny showed me her journal once, years ago. She let me read a few pages, something painful and honest.

She took the red binder with numbered sheets away from me after a calculated time. My question was obvious and natural. “Would you leave me your journal when you die?” But it came out awkward. 

Gramma smiled for a long time before she answered. “I just won’t die,” she said, convincing me. She pushed the plate of gingersnaps towards me and filled my cup with thick tea. She paused, for effect, before adding, “Fate will land it in the proper hands.” In large families, the proper hands tend to be the swiftest.