A private grief, a public response.
by Christine Anderson
The flip-top diary lay amongst my grandmother’s many trip journals. This one, the tiniest, fit in the palm of my hand. It was so old and –so, so curious. I began to read it and found that with equally small entries, Gram had marked the everyday work and the social times of Hawleyville, Connecticut in 1921, where my grandparents lived for a time after World War I.
In March Gram wrote:
Read Cap’n Warrens Ward. Neal and I went to Hydricks. H’s were here to supper—Made my quilt.—Worked until 5 pm. The next day she noted: Hawleys went to Red Cross. Bubes here in pm and stayed for supper. Cut out my gingham dress.
All the while, I’m thinking to myself. Why this little diary? Why the notations of shopping trips, and visits back and forth, and endless washing and ironing, the wallpapering of rooms, and men going fishing or to the theater?
And then I see it. March 28th :
Easter. Ed and I went to cemetery.
Thus her diary continued with many more days of household chores and visitors calling (not by phone) but in person. Many more walks to the cemetery by herself, with her husband, and with friends.
In May Gram wrote: Had marker put on grave today.
And on Sunday: Walked to cemetery. Afterwards went riding with Ernest Hawleys.
On Thursday, May 26: Hydricks took us riding to Southford. Stopped at Dr. K’s in Sandy Hook on way down.
By this time she would have been five months pregnant. So now I saw the diary’s significance: Gram had courageously marked the days between burying a first baby and birthing a second (my aunt)—18 months later.
My aunt and uncle traveled to Hawleyville in the 70s to see her birthplace and the grave of the baby boy my grandparents mourned and about whom they never spoke, I’m told. My uncle felt especially sad for this child in a graveyard without any family nearby.
I didn’t pick up the diary again until after hearing about the Sandy Hook massacre. Having received messages from friends asking how far away we lived from there, I looked on the map, saw Newtown, and then spied Hawleyville nearby. I called my cousin in Michigan to ask where her mom had been born. “Newtown” is on her birth certificate, she said. So Hawleyville, like Dr. Kiernan’s Sandy Hook, was also part of Newtown.
I told her I thought we should send a letter to the people there. We had become newly reminded of our family’s private, distant grief as well as horrified witnesses of this—this unspeakable tragedy now. She agreed. But the problem was that our grandparents’ sadness was so unlike that in today’s Newtown, --truly incomparable. What we people might possibly share could only be about what happens next. We waited until we could put that into words.
So here they are. These are the words.
After Newtown, what? What will be our response?
Something to think about:
The year of my grandmother’s diary, 1921, a radio breakthrough happened on Armistice Day.
“The voice of President Harding was heard by 100,000 at Arlington National Cemetery—and also heard by 35,000 people in Madison Square Garden—and 20,000 in the Plaza in San Francisco. The three groups sang hymns in unison. Editorial comment of the time was characteristically, ‘Will wonders never cease!’”
--From Our Times: The Twenties. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935.