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Snippets of Souls: What We Can Learn from Journals

Updated: Oct 23, 2022

Preserving people in pen and ink

My, how much has changed!

When my daughter was young, I offered to make her hot chocolate. I grabbed the milk from the refrigerator, the tub of cocoa, and the canister of sugar.

“Mom, what are you doing?” she yelled. “Don’t you KNOW that to make hot chocolate you just put water in a cup and stir in the mix?” 

She simply did not know that in the “old days,” hot chocolate was made from scratch and never from pre-purchased powder. She did not know that I much preferred hot-milk cocoa to microwaved chocolate-water.

How things change. And how would she know?

How will kids know that televisions used to be huge boxes on legs? That “once upon a time,” mail was sent without electronics. That a single telephone was attached to a wall and used by an entire family.

Yes, of course, they can watch movies about the olden-days. Films may depict how life was, but they can’t capture the snippets of souls that writing can.

Texting can’t either.

Don’t get me wrong. 

I love texting. I love the spontaneity of it, the quickness of it, the fast results. I appreciate the ability of people to get in touch with me with a few keystrokes from anywhere in the world.

But I miss the written word.

The old-fashioned version of penning words on paper.

Ah, the look of handwritten script. The deep color of ink against a crisp white page. A note delivered via “snail mail.”

And I believe that no matter how wonderful our technological age, the way we leave something of ourselves behind, the way our children will know what we were really like, is through scribbles and jottings of personal writing — writing not immediately lost to “delete” functions or electronic whims.

Take, for instance, the note I found in my grandmother’s Bible long after she had died. In her shaking handwriting, Maw-Maw had made a note to herself so she wouldn’t forget:

“I’ve saved a $20 bill in one of my Sunday shoes.” 

I could see my resourceful, spunky, hard-working grandmother stashing away emergency money for herself in an era where women didn’t have access to their own cash. She wrote it down because — being the resourceful woman she was — she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t forget where she put it.

Then, there was the entry she made in her diary of her trip to California. Penned in a brown, pocket-sized paper notebook, Maw-Maw chronicled the sights she and my grandfather saw as they traveled to California in March of 1945. Her one-paragraph, handwritten entry spoke volumes about her faith. She recorded her sense of wonder and her belief in God on seeing what is now called Hoover Dam:

“Of all things I’ve ever seen in my life, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful, so wonderful, majestic, or grand. I could have, had I been by myself, fell on my face and wept out my sentiments. As it was, I could not refrain from tears. Boulder Dam is one of the wonders of the world. It took 12,000 men six years, night and day, to complete it.”

Her words. Her voice. Her personality immortalized in those inked lines in a ten-cent-notebook, priceless to me.

People preserved in pen and ink

My Maw-Maw is just one of the millions of people throughout time who have kept records of their daily lives, not knowing they were giving us glimpses into their souls.

It is through the journal writings of women on the westward trail that I began to understand not just what the trek was like, but what the women who traveled that trail were like. Journal and diary entries underscored the strength and tenacity of female trailblazers, as well as the sheer fatigue, the physical hardships, and the ever-present acknowledgment of death: Elizabeth Greer wrote,

“I was so cold and numb that I could not tell by feeling that I had any feet at all. There was not one dry thread on one of us — not even my babe. I have not told you have we suffered. I am not adequate to the task.”

Another female traveler on the westward trek wrote,

“the heart has a thousand misgivings and the mind is tortured with anxiety, and often as I passed the fresh-made graves, I have glanced at sideboards of the wagon, not knowing how soon it might serve as a coffin for some one of us.”

Diaries and journals from years ago tell us that some things never change. The entries on housework ring true even today. More than a hundred years ago, America Rollins declared,

“Oh, horrors. How shall I express it? It is dreaded washing day. But washing must be done and procrastination won’t do it for me.”

And one lovestruck woman wrote of her new husband,

“Oh, aunt. I wish you knew him. He is one of the best men. He is not pretty at all, but homely people are always the best, you know.”

Real words. Real people. Real stories.

So much to learn from actual writings. So much history and life in a few simple pen and pencil lines.

So much to lose if we stop writing about our lives. So many personalities are lost if we stop reading about the past.

Handwritten journals, diaries, and letters show us snippets of souls — people and personalities captured forever in pen and ink.

I go back to my beloved grandmother’s travel journal, remembering her over and over again in the lines she wrote about her tour of Hollywood:

“Saw some movie stars’ homes, which, of course, were beautiful. But I’d rather be just plain little me, with the experience of salvation, and lead a quiet, peaceful life than to be in any one of their shoes.”

She wrote to remember her trip. She didn’t know that through her words, I would remember her long after she has passed from this earth.

Begin a journal. 

Keep a diary. 

Write letters.

Record adventures.

Hopefully, our ancestors will know us.

Maybe our children will grasp a little bit of what our lives were really like and who we really were. With luck, they’ll hear our voices. Maybe they’ll sense that snippet of soul embedded forever in our written words.

Mollie Sanford, a woman who traveled to Nebraska in the 1850s said she wrote because she did not want to be forgotten.

Pretty good motivation.

Write, so you won’t forget. Write, so you won’t be forgotten.


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