(This reflection by Cornelia on “Life in the Archives” was published in the newsletter of the Coordinating Council for Women in History in August, 2011)
I take my favorite place—a chair at the long wooden table that is closest to the tall windows—and wait. Soon a librarian rolls to my table a beige metal cart whose three shelves are loaded with boxes of my archived diaries—spiral-bound notebooks in which I have recorded, daily, much of the past thirty years of my life. I’ve traveled from my home in Chicago to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to visit my past.
I need to come more than once a year or I will never catch up, because I’m only up to 1996, and I keep writing them. Keeping a daily diary has long been a necessary habit for me—writing with a fountain pen on lined pages every morning, accompanieed by a cup, saucer, and thermos of tea on a battered tin tray. When I finish a year’s worth, I send the notebooks to the library, which, at my request, will not permit them to be read for many years. I offered them, along with my mother’s girlhood diaries, because I felt her story and mine matched the library’s interest in women’s personal papers. I was so pleased that the library wanted them.
This autumn I stay for four days, in a tiny room with shared baths at a guesthouse that is a fifteen-minute walk away across Harvard Yard. My room is just big enough for a single bed and a small desk. I feel cozy in it, like a puppy in its crate, and I, and the other guests—mostly solitary, purposeful-looking women—slip quietly in and out of our rooms, the baths, and the common breakfast area, the same way I slip in and out of the past in my days at the library. I sleep happy, for this while away, to be alone, silent, in my narrow bed by an open window, outside of which is a blazing orange maple, and I wake, stretch, to a day which is just for me, in which I will travel back in my life, to the years when, as a mother, I woke always into others’ needs.
In the library, hours pass; the sun fades and clouds move in. In my diaries I see how moods, upsets, and happinesses change, too, and then change again. I find a lot of entries that interest me personally; the few that might interest others, I transcribe into my laptop. Pressed between the pages of my spiral notebooks I find not only—yes, a flower—but also an admonition to myself that I’ve forgotten: “Keep your mouth shut and remember to think before you speak”; a visit to my son’s first, tidy, apartment, where he tells me sunset, when his cat sits and blinks in a single spot of light, is his favorite time of day; a phone call that brought news of the death of a friend in a car accident; a description of two silhouetted ducks at twilight on a mauve and turquoise bay in Wisconsin.
I read about how my daughter, at nine, described a woman as looking “like a mom—friendly but kind of tired out.” For that moment, I have my nine-year-old, careless of her hair, wearing her Smurf glasses, again within my arms. My cell phone vibrates and it is a text from that daughter, not nine, but, somehow, thirty-two, and in the time I am texting her back, I step out of my past into the present. When I return to reading, I find my mock obituary: “After a long battle with clutter, Spelman finally passed away in her sleep.”
By four o’clock, I’ve had enough for the day, and joke to the librarian, “Take the baby back to the nursery!” She smiles as she rolls the cart with my boxes of diaries back into the library office. I am remembering the two times a nurse rolled a cart to me with a newborn, wrapped in a flannel blanket, to be breastfed.
I pack up my things and leave the library for that day. I leave my past behind and walk home in my present, a grandmother now, stopping at a campus student center to buy a fruit cup and roll for my dinner, which I will eat, with tea, in the guest house common area, reading the newspaper. I will shower before the other guests return, and retreat to my room to lie in my pajamas, and read, to call my husband, and to listen to DeBussy on my iPhone. I am perfectly happy. Reading my own life has offered me perspective again, the same feeling I get when I walk along Lake Michigan and gaze out at the horizon. Reading about the dear, ordinary days—which Time strings together like beads to form a life—makes me remember to value each present day. Even though, of course, I will, once again, forget.