By Thomas Garreffi
Journaling (or keeping letters or diaries) is an ancient tradition, one that dates back to at least the 10th century Japan. Successful people throughout history kept journals. Presidents maintained them for posterity other famous figures for their own purposes. Oscar Wilde, the 19th century playwright, said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” There are some people who use journaling to record their thoughts or feelings to keep from being overwhelmed. My mother was one of those people.
My brother Michael’s death on April 22, 1975 ultimately destroyed my mom and she lost her mind and her will to live. In reality, the only thing left in her life was the love she felt for her other two sons. I believe our mother would have committed suicide right then and there had it not been for writing in her journals. Within a year or so after this horrible tragedy, my mother began writing in a journal and she would continue doing so for the remaining years of her marvelous, unforgettable life.
My mother was a beautiful human who was born on July 16, 1943. She would be named Janet Marie (Manning) by her mother and father Doris and Leroy Manning. My mom had an appearance that was nothing short of stunning from top to bottom and with a personality to match. I remember my mother’s weight was barely one-hundred pounds soaking wet and for just being a little over five feet-four inches tall. Despite her size, she always seemed to be a giant to me. While my mother’s long, strong, black, shiny hair stood out in a crowd of people, it was her no nonsense, no makeup face along with her endless smile that would ultimately take a person’s breath away. My mother’s dark brown eyes were like candles in the night, lighting the way through our darkest times. I can picture her lips now—they were thin, full and rose color red. Her fingernails were gentle yet sometimes they were sharp and painful just like thorns, especially when they clamped on my arm when I was acting up in public. Her nails were in sharp contrast to her hands which were soft like pancakes and smooth as butter. Lastly, her arms were always open like the branches of the huge willow tree in our family’s yard.
The one thing that always kept my mother’s arms open to us was that she had an outlet for her feelings and never vented her frustrations to us. The writing created a space for her that allowed her to have faith—a faith that helped her believe that things would work out. She was able to record hopes and dreams, failings, faults, disappointments that occurred throughout all the days of our lives. Everyday my mother wrote down her most unfavorable feelings, like anger, fear, sadness, panicking, self-loathing and from doing this one action she ultimately saved us from drowning in our tears. I can hardly imagine the sheer grief this woman must of felt from the death of her oldest son Michael. How much indescribable pain can a person take at once and how do they find the words to write them down, to read them and weep like the rain running off our dear willow tree? In truth, my “Wow”-Mom became an indestructible entity in comparison to our favorite willow tree. My mother learned how not to take life and herself so damn seriously. Sometimes, when I am working on extraordinary changes in my life due to physical, mental illness and financial circumstances that can be overwhelming at times, I find that a way to handle these feelings is to pause and relate them back to the tenacity of my mother’s steadfast formula of love through understanding God and acceptance in life.
One particular day after school I was determined not to chicken out and decided I would finally climb this weeping willow in my backyard. After climbing as high as I could I became trapped in the tentacles of the tree. I called out to my mother who climbed up to save her youngest son’s life. And, after a lot of reassuring, she showed me how to climb back down the same way I went up until my feet were safely planted back on the ground.
On the opposite end of the size spectrum was my father, Michael. He stood close to six feet tall and from his broad shoulders stemmed arms of steel that had hands that were strong as a vice. The hair on his head was dark brown and he had teeth that could bite through a steak with ease. The legs and feet he stood on carried his weight of one hundred-eighty pounds both were straight as an arrow. To see him any boy would feel safe, but unfortunately, his past would come back to haunt us all. When he was a three-year-old he and his little brother Jim were given up to the state after his father died from cirrhosis of the liver caused by drinking and his mother turned out to be mentally unstable. Furthermore, his relatives didn’t want to take care of him and his brother. Growing up as a “state kid,” he just didn’t feel he fit in anywhere. He constantly felt second best to everybody in his life, and when he finally reached eighteen, he moved out on his own. He bounced from job to job becoming a jack of all trades from carpenter, to mechanic, and even to gardener. He also turned into a drunken gambler who was out of control, beating his wife almost every week until their oldest son committed suicide. The police were scared for their lives; they did nothing to help my family.
The fallout from my brother’s death caused our parents to divorce and moving became a way of life for my middle brother and our mom. The first time we moved was when the family home had been sold after the divorce. The first apartment turned out to be rather small and was a trailer located right down the street from our old house. My uncle Jim owned the trailer and we paid rent to his ex-wife. Unfortunately, she never gave my uncle the money, so, he decided in a drunken rage one night to come pay us a visit and wrecked the whole place, ruining all our stuff throughout the trailer. After the trailer fiasco we moved from Clinton to Gardner, Massachusetts where it seemed the bottom fell out of our lives. We were alone in the world without family roots or support. The truth is, my mother had been dealing with two angry teenagers who turned to drugs and alcohol for help throughout the 80s. My mother continued to channel her feelings into her journals and kept being strong for us. She had written so much that she began to store her journals in a metal box that stood two feet high by a foot and a half foot long. The box held ten to fifteen journals which were two-hundred page books that were nine and a half inches long by six inches wide. The journals held all of her memories, hurts and joys. The box varied in weight over the years and when we last moved it had to weigh close to fifty pounds.
It was my mother’s journaling that turned out to have life-saving consequences; not only in her life, but subsequently, in mine too, for it was through keeping these numerous journals that my mom wrote herself “well.” By periodically reading earlier entries in her journals she helped transform herself from a hurt creature to a person who could learn from her past. Doing this made it possible for her to learn better values and ways to accept life no matter the outcome.
One day while visiting with my mother at her home, she looked really seriously at me and hesitantly said out of the blue, “Tom I have been meaning to tell you this for a long while now; you are the good son!” In the long run not only did she endure losing her oldest son Michael, but she lost her middle son John, in May 2001. We (John and me) finished celebrating our Mother’s Day having lunch with her by sharing a few laughs, gifts and letting her know how much we loved her. Later that day my brother began to drink heavily, had some sort of disagreement with his girlfriend, and was dropped off at my mom’s place. It was sometime later that night that John, having had way too much to drink, started fighting with mom and left the house mad. Later that night she awoke to the smell of smoke, noticed the shed in her backyard was on fire, used the hose to put it out and went back to bed thinking she would assess the damage in the morning. My brother’s girlfriend, realizing that John didn’t come home the night before, discovered his body in the shed. My mother believed her son had driven off with his girlfriend Danielle that night and before leaving had set the shed on fire in a fit of rage. She realized her mistake and blamed herself for the rest of her life, especially in her journals. I’m grateful though for my brother John’s seven-year-old son Jack, who at that time lessened his Nana’s pain and who is still with us today!
These journal pages are so very important to me. Reading my mother’s simple words of wisdom is even more special to me now. Why, you ask? It’s from knowing that I have the journals to look at whenever I want. It makes me feel more alive, more at peace and of course certainly more loved. Also, my mom’s graceful style of writing contained her brand of proverbs and notes to herself. She was careful to put where, who and what happened during the particular year, month, even the time of day when her life experiences took place. For example, she wrote on April 19, 2007, “Stopped Smoking Cigarettes I Had To! I Hope It’s Not Too Late!” And another example, On June 12, 2007: “Inside every older person is a YOUNGer person wondering what the Hell happened.” On front of one of her journals there’s an owl picture with the caption underneath which reads “Whooooose Responsibility?” On Feb. 9, 2008 she writes, “You are out shopping for me and Ruben…what a nice man..That’s You! And tomorrow your very first Daddy Daughter Dance. How sweet.. You’re a nice man! So, she’ll act like a Date! And you’ll both have a wonderful memory! God does bless you; I keep telling you that because it’s true. Wow I hear the dress got lost-you found it-we fixed it and I’m waiting to hear about the dance. I told you you’re blessed!” As I page through the journals I am struck that she wrote about family and friends’ visits, phone calls, going for walks, shopping, household chores, doctor’s appointments, directions on how to play cribbage, drawings showing how to do Yoga exercises, how she hoped and felt about us, or just how she was feeling, too.
In the end, my mother was dying from cancer and the last thing she experienced was death, but her writing and learning on the final thoughts she was having from the effects of cancer are in these magnificent journals. Although uncomfortable reading at first, they showed me how brave my mother treated her everyday life. On my daughter’s third birthday this woman showed up wearing a bright orange net jacket pull-over, a white sweater underneath, along with her best blue jeans and a white pair of sneakers. I am reminded once again of the sheer tenacity it must of took for her to get cleaned-up, get dressed, to come down the stairs from a second floor apartment sliding on her rear end, walk out the door of the house, climb into the car, drive at least two miles to our home, climb back out of the car, walk up the not only the several stairs outside but, also, the several more inside stairs up from the foyer and into the dining room to sit next to her granddaughter to be at the last birthday party she would ever enjoy again. Yes, my remarkable mom was a wonderful human who still gives me goose bumps. Remembering just how strong she must have been that very day back on April 25, 2008—and no matter what the circumstances are in my own life, I will always think back to a moment in our lives when I walked into my mother’s place wearing a T-shirt that had “Wow” spelled on the front and said, “Look Mom,” then stood on my head!
On Memorial Day, mom and I would have our last talk. She was supposed to come spend time with the entire family as they all were invited to my house, but it was getting warm and the heat started to bother her so she didn’t make it. She did manage to call me and ask if I would please bring her over an air conditioner. Of course, I said, “yes.” After putting the unit in I felt the a/c wasn’t working that well so I offered to go pick up my friend’s a/c around the corner. I brought it back, took her a/c out and put my friend’s in, but she requested nicely that I put hers back in because it did work better. I turned to look at her and said jokingly, “you’re just seeing if I will do whatever you want me to do,” and we both laughed.
The next thing she said was that I was her best friend; we had gone through so many unexplainable experiences together: Of course the loss of her two sons (my brothers). Then there was homelessness, going without a car, there were many days we went hungry and basically going through Hell and back again, too. So, in the end, we both said “I Love You” and I went home. My mom went to sleep and never woke up again. When I went there the next day to give my mother flowers I saw my wife pull into the driveway with our two daughters, and they were crying. I knew she was gone. So I said, “Girls, Nana would want you to have these flowers,” and we all gave each other a group hug. When I saw my Mom that morning I could see a little smirk on her face and I felt she was finally at peace. Coincidentally, I happened to be wearing that same “Wow” T-shirt!
I occasionally look at the journals—the few that I have left—when I need a reminder of how good things can be. I also need to get a good dose of my mother’s practical advice. The idea of being able to write for your life and then pass that writing onto someone else, whether it be old friends, children, grandchildren, etc. is inspiring. You can journal every day and then pass this legacy on to loved ones later in life. Maybe they can learn about you and what made you tick as a human. More importantly, when you start to write about your feelings and how situations in your life change, you gain the ability to start to process those feelings. Rather than leaving feelings completely bottled up inside, you can put them down on paper and get them out and understand them more. Another benefit is that you know yourself better. By writing routinely you will get to know what makes you feel happy and confident. You will also become clear about situations and people who are toxic for you. Similarly, you can reduce stress–writing about anger, sadness and other painful emotions helps to release the intensity of these feelings–by doing so you will feel calmer and better able to stay in the present.
A written perspective also allows people to solve problems more effectively. Writing about misunderstandings rather than stewing over them will help you to understand another’s point of view. And you just may come up with a sensible resolution to the conflict. In addition to all of these wonderful benefits, keeping a journal allows you to track patterns, trends and improvement and growth over time. When current circumstances appear insurmountable, you will be able to look back on previous dilemmas that you have since resolved. Even though the benefits I listed above come from experts, I saw firsthand how journaling made my mother’s life better and healthier. Her writing has allowed me a glimpse into another part of her life that I wouldn’t have had. I am so happy that she lugged that heavy box around and saved her writing for me.