There are certain childhood memories that refuse to fade. I distinctly remember coming home from a friend’s house one afternoon to face my mother, sitting in her living room chair, smoking what had to have been a pack of cigarettes. I said hello. She said nothing. I asked what was wrong. She pounded her Viceroy into the ashtray and looked at me with an icy stare that I can still feel.
“Never leave an opened diary.”
I turned as quickly as my heavy feet would allow and walked into my bedroom, where I searched for the diary that was left in plain sight.
There it was, on the floor, by my stereo. I usually stuffed it between record albums, but for some reason, I’d failed to return the book to its proper hiding place.
At least, I assume I left it out. To this day, I’m still not sure if I left an opened diary for my mother to pick up — and read — or if she looked for something to read while I was at my friend’s house.
I was about 14 at the time, so the entries could be described as “coming of age” thoughts and confessions. Sitting here typing a version of those observations, I can still recall the ringing in my ears and nausea swimming in the pit of my stomach.
I flipped through the pages. Dear God. Did I have to write all that? Why did I write any of that? What was I thinking? Better yet, what was I doing? I know the rules. If you don’t want it read, don’t write it. If you don’t want it told, don’t say it.
The experience grounded my writing interests for years. I didn’t write one word outside of class assignments, and I changed my college interest from journalism to advertising. When a Manhattan publisher returned my packet of poems with red check marks on each page indicating that the editor wanted them all, I hid the envelope under my mattress. I was too afraid to show my parents what I had written, fearing a similar reaction.
Most of the poems were about being dumped by a boy. Young heartbreak. Teenage angst. Immature attitudes. Insecurity and uncertainty. Naivety. Poor judgment. Material that was good enough to be in print. A writer who was talented enough to be endorsed…in junior high.
I didn’t revisit my love of writing until my mother passed away. By this time I was 27, and I inched back into the creative world by penning letters to her every day for a year. More than 400 letters sealed in envelopes, identified only by the date on which they were written, filled a hat box. I still have them, but they’re tucked away in the basement, where I worry they’ll be found by my daughters. They were grief-stricken summaries…updates on what was happening (or not), what was going on with my dad, with Mike, with work. Girl talk. Topics that weren’t and still aren’t to be shared with anyone else.
Is the content that scandalous? Hardly. But like anything written, words have permanence. My bad mood expressed on a dreary Tuesday in 2001 could hurt someone today. My frustration with this project or that client could end a business relationship. My irritation with a size 6 frame that fought to be a size 4 might unveil a perfectionist past (that has loosened up like an elastic waistband).
Yet, they reveal too much information. And the troublesome part about writing is that the author can’t use the phrase, “Oh, that was in the past.” We can’t accuse someone of reading too much into things. You see, when something is written, it remains in the present. Having written something a long time ago means nothing to the reader if the revelation is a little too honest.
My daughters are starting to jot notes to each other, and every time I find a folded square or triangle under the couch or bed, my heart skips a beat in anticipation of what I’ll discover. Part of me wants to toss the droppings into the trash, unread, to protect myself. Do I really want to know that one of them thinks I’m so mean!? Do I want to know that older sister has ranted away in ink about younger sister, who gets on her nerves and bugs her day and night? Do I want to be reminded that AVA LOVES HARRY! on every flat surface? Do I need to see that Maryn feels a little left out when she advertises for someone to play with her (mark ‘x’ for YES or NO)?
In the age of cyber-parenting, moms and dads who are connected to their children through Facebook and Twitter (even Pinterest), find themselves engaged in “Did you have to post that?!” debates on a daily basis. But counselors, admissions directors and human resource specialists argue that people who refrain from social media altogether give their families, friends and colleagues much more to worry about. What are they hiding? What are we not supposed to know? But there’s a fine line when it comes to reading the fine print: Should we disrespect our children’s privacy in order to teach them to respect themselves?
After my parents died, I started two blogs that became the foundation for material I contribute to the Daily Mail. I wrote a book last year about life at home, and I have a children’s story slated for publication later this summer. I know for a fact that my mother would have hated my Monday column. But it wouldn’t have existed because I would’ve been afraid to write it. This opened diary — which gives the world a clear view of my marriage, my home, my career and my mind — has served an important purpose, though. Not only have the essays cataloged my daughters’ lives in a way that serves as a time capsule for our family, but they’ve uncovered a lot of lessons that I’ve had to figure out on my own. Hopefully, they’ve generated a “that’s me!” reaction from readers who find themselves in my stories on occasion. They can relate to this or to that. They’re not alone.
E.B. White admired “anybody who had the guts to write anything at all.” So the next time I find a balled up piece of notebook paper, the diarist in me will demand that it be placed in the trash. But the mother in me now understands why it’s so critical to remain in the know.