We have had the heat on for about a week now. That’s new. We had one long, noisy night’s rain on the metal roof, with a little more the next day, and that was good for the dry land. What's not new is that social life, even with neighbors here in the ghost town, continues to be carried on by phone, text, and e-mail, as we all endeavor to "stay safe."
I’m about two-thirds of the way through the John Lewis book, with every page amazed by and in awe of the perseverance of those who demonstrated for the right to vote in the 1960s South. I’m also about two-thirds of the way through Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin, which has a lot of interesting brain science, as well as specific information on dogs, horses, and other animals. Have read a few chapters into Penguin Island, by Anatole France, satire with a gentle, light touch. But this morning I picked up a comforting, undemanding book, the first in the series about the fictional woman detective in Botswana: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, beginning again at the beginning of Mma Ramotswe's story. And then I go back to the 19th century on a regular basis --
-- still at the job of transcribing an old diary from that era and interspersing the young man’s entries with my own observations on his time and reports on my own, 166 years later. Every now and then, too, something I read serendipitously connects (for me) to that project. For instance, simple as the Mma Rmotswe stories are, they are filled with important and touching truths, and in this first book of the series the author gives us the history of the main character and her father. The second chapter, “All Those Years ago,” begins like this:
We don’t forget, thought Mma Ramotswe. Our heads may be small, but they are as full of memories as the sky may sometimes be full of swarming bees, thousands and thousands of memories, of smells, of places, of little things that happened to us and which come back, unexpectedly, to remind us who we are. And who am I? I am Precious Ramotswe, citizen of Botswana, daughter of Obed Ramotswe who died because he had been a miner and could no longer breathe. His life was unrecorded; who is there to write down the lives of ordinary people?
- Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
An ordinary person myself, an obscure, seasonally retired bookseller, like everyone else I am the center of my own life experiences. Silas Durand achieved a certain public status in his adult life, but back in 1854, when writing the diary I have in my possession, he was only one more young man starting out in life -- looking for work, meeting people for the first time, exchanging views with others, and forming his impressions of the world as his own views and character formed. In other words, an ordinary person. A young person writing a diary for his own eyes alone.
In his diary, Silas recorded his life’s ordinary events, tried out ideas, and clearly worked on expressing his perceptions and responses. To me, this is fascinating. To me, ordinary lives and the ordinary events of those lives are fascinating.
Now I read news of a memoir that will be a must-read for me. Mary Othella Burnette, age 89, was born and raised in Southern Appalachia. After attending a writing workshop for first-time authors, she wrote and self-published the story of her father’s favorite first cousins, a man who died before she herself was born, in the form of a letter to that man she never knew, not wanting community stories that were only preserved in her family’s oral history to be lost to future generations.
If only I had realized that I was living in the last days of the old Black community and had kept a diary of what I experienced. If only you or my father could have written a book for us. What a marvelous history we would have inherited.
I’ve read several books of life in the Southern hills, all of them fascinating, but none before about African-Americans in Appalachia.
Note that wish – to have “kept a diary of what I experienced.” Again, I think of all the ordinary people, as Alexander McCall Smith’s fictional character muses, all the ordinary lives gone unrecorded. My own grandmother comes to my mind (as she does so often), someone with very minimal education, who worked hard all her life and loved with her whole heart and whose earthly possessions when she died filled only a single cardboard box: some flannel nightgowns, knick-knacks, and snapshots of grandchildren. Or my Aunt Bettie, who died a few days after giving birth, the year before I was born. Bettie died in Nuremberg, where she had been working as a transcriber at the Nuremberg Trials. What must that have been like, hearing those stories of nightmare inhumanity while carrying in her belly a child soon to be born into such a world?
Some people ask, Why keep a diary if no one else reads it? The thing is, no one ever knows on any given day what lies in the future. Young diarists have dreams but no knowledge of what their adult lives will hold. None of us knows what may happen in our own small, ordinary lives or in the larger world around us from one week or year to the next. Even if nothing earth-shaking occurs, there may be value for another generation. Although the 5-year diary my father kept in his late teens has only the briefest of entries and nothing of interest to anyone beyond our family, my sisters and I enjoy word pictures of our father and uncles when they were boys, such as the day one of them got his “first pair of long pants.”
The sun rises, the sun sets. The moon rises, the moon sets. The stars shine. We wait for rain -- or snow.
What we are not waiting for any longer, however, is a dog.
Sarah, as everyone knows, was irreplaceable. Sarah was the gold standard of dogs, the standard of excellence, and always will be for us. But while there can never be a replacement for her, life without a dog – it was just too hard! I couldn't bear it! So we started reading newspaper ads, looking online, visiting shelters, and then we came home with Peasy. Peasy needed a home. I needed a dog. It was that simple.
There is quite a story attached to Peasy, but I’ll save it for another time. Suffice it to say for now that while Peasy is no Sarah, he is a good-looking, sweet, affectionate, and biddable little boy. Yes, a boy. Not what we were looking for. Not even what we thought we had adopted! Big surprise! But there’s no way I could take him back to the prison cell he had occupied for so many long weeks, and for his part, little sweet Pease seems very grateful to have a family at last. He has no idea I still look at pictures of Sarah with tears in my eyes. Sarah, "the big sister he never knew"! Life goes on.