My parents recently found five journals in one of those listless cardboard boxes that leaves an attic only when somebody dies or the house is sold. (Don’t worry, everyone survived the sale of the house.) The journals were written by my paternal grandmother when she was living with her widowed mom in Gloversville, N.Y. It was July 1910. She was 16, an only child. The first entry begins “Dearest Anybody,” which I took as permission to start reading.
Each of my grandmothers died before I was born. I’ve seen a few austere photographs, but I don’t know what their voices sounded like or how they moved through a room. My family is small, and its history has never been part of my identity. I can probably name more ex-members of Black Flag than I can Rees ancestors. I assumed being disconnected from the past was just part of the modern condition, a liberating byproduct of cosmopolitanism.
Well, the modern condition is a scam. Leafing through your family’s antique media makes every subsequent moment spent clicking through social media feel like saccharine connectivity, a feast of empty calories. We should smash our computers and throw our phones into the ocean, then open every cardboard box in every attic on earth and read whatever falls out.
These are the most euphoric books I’ve ever read. At first, I could handle only a few pages each night — the experience was just too intense, provoking in me an ecstatic, wondering melancholy and a familial pride that felt both intimate and alien. My grandmother finally came rushing into my life with an adolescent, whooping vitality that felt as if it had been building for the entire century since her diaries had last been opened.
I assumed the diaries would be dark, astringent and antiquated, like sipping vinegar through an iron lung. But my grandmother had as much fun as any molly-gobbler at Coachella. She records three primary passions: eating ice cream (“ … in the afternoon we had ice-cream. Oh delicious memory!”); going to church (“The minister preached on ‘cheerfulness,’ and it was awfully good”); and singing with her friends — that is, when they weren’t laid up with the mumps, or the grippe, or any of those other mysterious old-timey diseases.
But my teenage grandmother’s great genius was flirting. Those amazing boys! The “peachy,” “dandy,” “charming” boys of Gloversville, anointed with adjectives now reserved for Yelp reviews of bed-and-breakfasts. I can barely keep up with her crushes, or their fluctuations in status: “But what do you suppose [Peggy] told me? That Bill was mad at me because he thought I was mad at him because he talked to Velma Thorne! And there I didn’t even know he’d been talking to her! Wasn’t it funny. … So I told [Ralph] to tell [Bill] I wasn’t mad and it didn’t bother me how much he talked to Velma!” It turns out poor Bill, being “stout” and a cigarette-bummer (“I hate to see a fellow smoke when he’s with a girl on the street, don’t you?”) was no match for Grant. Or Jonsey. Or the mysterious “Sunshine,” who, if my grandmother is to be believed, was, for one summer in 1911, the most alluring young man in the universe: “one grand rower, fisher and sportsman. Really I never saw anybody like him. Emma & I are both dippy over him!”
Arguments with adults are referred to but never detailed. She doesn’t resent her mother’s discipline, even when she gets a “lovely scolding” for finishing someone else’s ice cream. In contrast, I used my own teenage diary as a petri dish for cultivating ever more potent strains of bitterness, in part through recording every injustice I suffered: “We’re having a party in Latin tomorrow. I got mad at Mom because she only got normal chips. She said everyone likes normal plain chips. I mouthed off at her.” I like to think my teenage grandmother’s superior personality was due to her being 16 before the invention of “cool” as a virtue, or even, for that matter, “teenager” as an identity. Being surly is a challenge if it’s not expected of you. Or if you’re too busy eating ice cream to bother. (I also acknowledge that she was objectively a better teenager.)
I haven’t finished reading the diaries; I don’t want to be done. But my favorite passage so far — the one that finally made me cry — was this, recorded in a moment’s happy aftermath and left as an unwitting legacy: It was a Monday evening in 1911, near the end of summer. My grandmother was sitting on the porch with friends after dining on egg sandwiches, pickles and peaches and cream (“delicious”). A neighbor started playing a hand organ. The music was irresistible: The girls “flew” across the street to listen, and when the neighbor started up with “Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey,” something magical happened: “We all began to dance — right on the street. The people on the corner were dancing on their porch, and we couldn’t help ourselves.”
Eventually the dancers stood still in the evening air to catch their breath. “We all felt so sweet and nice.”
And then, just when my teenage grandmother thought things couldn’t get any sweeter, Harvey walked by.
A story by David Rees from The New York Times