I love journals.
I started keeping a journal before I could even write. I must have been 4 years old when my mother and I sat on my bed in the basement at the end of the day, her hands writing the words I dictated about the highlights of my day.
As I got older, writing in my journal became an escape, a way to release the pressures of my life onto a page that harbored no expectations or judgment. I found solace as I poured my heart out about boys who broke my heart, my frustration with my family and friends who also filled my days with fun. At some point I started writing to an unseen reader, some future descendant, and I wondered what my words would mean to them.
After all, I think the hardest thing to preserve in family history is context. Without context, all the words in the world are a mystery.
My grandmother Fleeta, who died before I was born, didn’t keep a journal. But my father and uncle did keep some of her papers as she studied to earn her master’s degree in counseling. Sometimes they will send me scans of her work, and I read the pages, studying the cursive writing in the margins, looking for clues to her deepest thoughts.
One day, my dad sent me a document with one of my grandmother’s assignments from the University of Oklahoma dated 1964. She got a B-minus for being too brief in her analysis of the pros and cons of group counseling, which I thought was interesting. Was she being brief because she had two kids at home who needed her attention when she was working on her assignment? Did she do her homework before or after she made dinner for her family from scratch? Was she up late that night and tired all of the next day? Was she pleased with her B-minus, or was she upset?
It’s all context I don’t know.
The next page in the document had a series of questions with my grandmother’s answers circled in pencil next to them. The questions are odd and baffled me.
The words “Null Hypothesis Brain Inventory Government Form 1” are typed across the top of the page in fading bluish-purple ink, followed by 36 question like these:
1. I salivate at the sight of mittens. (Fleeta marked false.)
2. If I go into the street, I’m apt to be bitten by a horse. (False.)
3. Some people never look at me. (True, she said.)
4. Spinach makes me feel alone. (False.)
5. My sex life is A-OK. (She marked true.)
6. When I look down from a high spot, I want to spit. (True.)
7. I like to kill mosquitoes. (True.)
8. Cousins are not to be trusted. (She circled true.)
9. It makes me embarrassed to fall down. (True.)
10. I get nauseous from too much roller skating. (True.)
11. I think most people would cry to gain a point. (True.)
12. I cannot read or write. (True.)
Wait, hold on, true?
That stopped me in my tracks. What is this quiz, and what are my grandmother’s answers? At first, as I was going along, I thought, “Interesting! A personality quiz! What a great way to get some insight into my grandmother’s mind all of these decades later!”
I found it interesting that she said she’d like to spit when she looked down from a high spot, and that cousins are not to be trusted. Why would she say that? Not to mention the shock of imagining my grandmother saying her sex life was A-OK.
Then the questions get even more mysterious, like:
17. My mother’s uncle was a good man. (False.)
20. I have never gone to pieces over the weekend. (False.)
21. I think beavers work too hard. (True.)
23. God is love. (False.)
Now I was really puzzled. What was this quiz, and what did my grandmother’s answers mean? I later realized the missing piece was context. Next time, I’ll tell you how a little bit of background helped shed light on what was turning out to be a very disturbing piece of old, faded, bluish-purple paper. To be continued.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.