It had been stuck for years between two drawers in a desk that sits in my mother in law’s living room—a thin stack of photocopied papers, folded into fourths. Trash, most likely. That’s what we all thought. All the trash gets caught between desk drawers.
Then we unfolded them and discovered that what we thought was trash was treasure instead. That thin sheet of paper, so worn and dated that to open them was to risk their destruction, was a collection of pages copied from my wife’s great-grandmother’s journal.
From 1937, to be exact. That’s seventy-five years. A time when war loomed and a financial crisis gripped this country like a vise, when people were scared and worried and oftentimes, very often, it felt like God was about to throw in the towel and call the whole world off.
Much like now, really.
My parents still talk about those days, even if those days were still a little before their time. We’ll sit around the kitchen table on the weekends with pizza, talk about our weeks and what’s been in the papers, and after a while conversation will usually swing to what my father calls “the old days.” To hear him say it, most everything was better in the old days. The air was cleaner, people were nicer, and there weren’t so many damn liberal Yankees in town. And then my mother will chime in and say that not all the liberal Yankees in town are really so damnable, just some, but that in all the other ways Dad is right. Things really were better.
Me, I’ve always had my doubts about that. And when we found the pages from that journal, I figured this was my chance to see who was right and who was wrong.
I sat down with them just a little while ago. Brought them out to the porch where the light was good and the outside was calm. Went through the entries one by one, reading that feminine script that was both precise and delicate. From a fountain pen, I guessed.
The section covered May through September of that year. A hot summer, from the reading. Some days were blank. Most were not. What I found was the usual fare, which was exactly what I wanted. There were worries about crops and drought. Births and deaths. Family gatherings, pig roasts, parades. Carnivals. There was fear—plenty of it—about war in Europe, but there was also plenty of peace and joy since everyone seemed to think that war, if it came, would be none of our concern.
People were married.
Children grew and left home.
Life came and was enjoyed and went on, a great wheel that spins often without our knowing until it’s time to get off.
And you know what I found in the end? We were both right, my parents and me. Because those days were better and they were also not. It was a time in my part of the world when horse and buggies were just as prevalent as cars and most people still didn’t have a telephone and a journey of twenty miles was more excursion than trip. The world still spun then, the world always has, but it was slower going. And in that, my parents were right. Because if there’s anything I think we all need right now, it’s to slow down.
But there was still hurt. There was still fear. There was hardship and sorrow and hunger and want. Things were different then, yes, but there’s a great contrast between different and better. And in that way the world then was no different than the world now, just as the people then were no different than us. Ancient Viking or modern American, caveman or cosmopolitan, we’re all the same and always have been. The times may change, but we do not.
If that sounds a bit depressing, I assure you it isn’t. I found a great comfort in that journal. Everything about that summer of 1937, all that joy and especially all that bad, was endured. People moved on. They survived their hardships, lived through their wars. And even in the midst of those, they found reason to laugh and love and hope.
Would that we find the courage to do the same now.