The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 15, 2013

We are family:

Creating a journal of reminiscences

By John Blankenship
Register-Herald Reporter

Just a little preview

We hope you enjoy this family feature story by John Blankenship.

It stands as a preview of the many stories you will read in The Register-Herald’s 2013 Yearbook Southern West Virginia Footprints.

The first of the 18 sections that make up the special edition will publish Monday, Sept. 23.

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Many families design T-shirts, hats or bags as souvenirs for their annual summer gatherings.

But the Gross family added a new twist to its reunion at Shady Spring a few years ago. For the past several years, each of the family’s patriarchs and matriarchs kept a journal of reminiscences.

“Oh, what a day of memories,” explained Naomi (Gross) Williams of Daniels of the event. “It’s good to laugh and cry with family who can share and understand the hardships of growing up with nine kids and a father and mother who showed their love by their interest in what we were doing.”

The value of such a practice is enormous, according to Williams, who recorded some of her favorite recollections in her diary: a whistle blown by an engineer as a train passed the house, sheep shearing on the family farm, and sitting down to mouth-watering dinners after a hard day’s work.

“We thought Beaver Grade School was haunted at dusk,” she recalled. “My brother fell off a barn roof during a snowball battle and broke his leg. Another swung from a grape vine, fell, and split his pants. He said he should have listened to his mother instead and gone to church.”

Not all recollections are as pleasurable, though.

“How about washing dirty diapers in the creek behind our house,” Williams offered with a laugh. “Who ever heard of Pampers or Huggies back then?”

Even so, reminiscing and sharing family stories are a big part of family reunions everywhere, and the practice seems to be gaining popularity with the Gross relatives.

The distinguished clan met to celebrate family life and meet the new additions as well as hear tales from the older members.

“Instead of the usual horseshoe contest — which some are getting too old to pitch anyway because their bones won’t stand the strain — the memory trip is a wonderful idea,” Williams explained, adding:

“Everything — the joys of pregnancy, the hopes for a closer relationship, the doubts about career choices, or the dream of writing a novel — all become more real when written in a journal.”

And that’s not all.

Family members also fill their blank pages with recipes, scary symptoms, ideas for home remodeling, titles of books they want to read. They even record some of their prayers, gripes, gratitude, travels and even exercise routines.

Journal or diary, it’s all the same to the Gross tribe. A journal tends to denote reflection; a diary, historic record-giving merit to the mundane, or providing a sounding board to arguments perhaps best left unspoken.

The records are, according to Williams, “the way we begin to connect the dots of our own experience, of our lives, our experiences that actually have plots. But until you keep a journal you can’t see it because things become so chaotic.”

She added, “And when you read back on it in years to come, especially if you wrote it during a trying time in your life, you’ll see patterns of resourcefulness you didn’t know you had.”

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Every year, meanwhile, some 10 million blank books are sold — and that’s not even counting one- and five-year diaries. Yet while countless people write in them faithfully, many put them aside before January’s end.

“Some people tend to think: ‘Who could care about my life?’ What do I have that is worth recording?” mused Williams.

Still, the petite grandmother noted that journals show “what we often take for granted, or the heroic of the everyday.”

Williams, an avid writer and reader, observed that at book fairs, first-edition diaries usually are the top sellers.

“Those generally are diaries kept by ordinary people much like ourselves,” she pointed out. “You’re picking up the kids, making a meal, saying hi to your parents. But when it’s written down, you start to see the richness and rhythm of life. When you pick up someone else’s journal, it’s like watching a family movie with emotions attached.”

Williams hopes that in the years to come the journals and diaries being written now will unleash a deluge of happy memories — memories “you’d have sworn you would always remember. But not until you open the pages do they — and long-since-forgotten details — re-enter your mind. You think you’ll never forget, but you do. A page in a diary can bring it all back. It’s a whole window that can be opened.”

The journal enthusiast also likes to record funny stories, visits, special words — all sorts of grandmother tidbits. Entries can be as basic as the year you bought that new couch or a favorite dog died. But they also record historical events, and the writer’s response to them.

Diary reflection, she said, is twofold: “It helps us remember events of a certain day, or the way we perceived or dealt with them.”

Williams reflected: “Journaling has given me a comfort I can’t find anywhere else. I enjoy reading back on my diaries and seeing how situations were resolved, how I used to think, act and behave.

“I don’t really think anyone is ever going to read my diary for historical purposes, but it serves as a backup for me personally: what sort of person I was and am today, what my expectations have been and what I have accomplished, where I made mistakes and how I dealt with them. My diary is my life.”

The beauty of keeping a journal is that there are no rules.

Journal writing requires nothing more than a pen, paper and your thoughts, Williams said.

“You have to develop a strategy that allows you to become the observer of your own experience. I suggest keeping a journal. It’s is the most effective method of gaining self-awareness in your daily life. By putting your experiences on paper you will be able to review them, becoming an observer of your life. Only then can you discover how you create your reality.”