Suzanne Tobias

June 12, 2013

Suzanne Perez Tobias: Diaries offer windows into our childhood selves

The day I turned 8, I got a five-year diary with a locking cover.

The day I turned 8, I got a five-year diary with a locking cover.

The first entry is in my mother’s handwriting — I vaguely recall her sitting at my bedside, demonstrating how to document one’s life — and explains that I celebrated my birthday with a Disney movie about a mule that kicks field goals:

“This is my first time writing to you, my new diary,” the entry says. “I went to see a movie (‘Gus’) with three friends.”

That’s it. Four short lines, which is all the diary allowed for each day’s account. It was designed to hold five years’ worth of memoirs, after all, so it encouraged brevity — a kind of Twitter, circa 1977.

The second entry is in my own childish scrawl:

“Today I read about Noah in my new bible. I drew a few things on my etch a sketch.”

The following week, more excitement:

“I went to gymnastics today. It was fun. I know how to do a lot of things now.”

And two days later:

“Today when I was walking Sam a boy about my age said that he loved me. I’m not going to tell anybody.”

My husband found the diary recently in a forgotten cabinet, along with a fabric-covered journal I got for Christmas when I was 13 and another I started shortly after my 16th birthday.

I had a habit of starting journals and writing faithfully for a few days, even weeks, before abandoning them for months or years. I’d skip a few pages and start over with something like: “I’m sorry! Life is going too fast for me!” It’s no wonder I chose a career governed by daily deadlines.

The books offer a revealing, funny window into my childhood self. But they’re especially poignant now that I have kids who document their lives — at least the parts they don’t mind people seeing — via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.

Had there been a Facebook on March 5, 1977, my status update would have been:

“I thinck Peter Brady is cute. My faverite dream would be to be Mrs. Peter Brady.”

And on April 8:

“I got two love notes today. They are from a boy in my class. His name is Steven. I don’t love him.”

Steven was cute, I suppose, but he was no Peter Brady.

I recorded Little League scores and trips to the dentist, report cards and Halloween costumes. For several weeks I wrote simply, “I had a nice day” or “I don’t know what to write,” or random trivia garnered, I assume, from a nearby wall calendar:

Oct. 7: “It is going to be a full moon tonight.”

Oct. 21: “Thomas Edison lit the first lamp.”

Oct. 27: “Theodore Roosevelt was born (1858).”

I’m not sure what prompted another brief entry: “Mary said Sam looked like Jimmy Carter.” (Sam was our dog.)

So many of the entries leave me wanting more, wishing I had ignored the diary’s four-line boundaries and written every detail down: the music I listened to, the games I played, the things my family did together, the things I thought and dreamed about (other than “Brady Bunch” actors).

The later diaries are more revealing, almost painfully so, relating teen romances, cheerleading tryouts, on-and-off friendships and other high school drama. I used a lot of exclamation points back then.

I read them and think about my daughter, Hannah, who will turn 16 this year. She is, I see now, not so different from my friends and me. Her hair isn’t as big or her clothing as neon, but she feels just as passionately, loves deeply, dreams mightily.

She also writes privately, in decorative journals I offer on special occasions or just because.

I hope she hangs onto them.

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