Yesterday I started work on a long-cherished project. I have wanted to explore Grandma Elizabeth’s papers for years. Since I started working in archives I have wanted to ensure the papers are properly housed, arranged, and cared for. Cared for as properly as I can without the facilities and resources of an actual archive, that is.
For an archivist or a historian, my grandmother is either a blessing or a complete nightmare. Biased in her favor though I am, I see that. She wrote voluminously – letters, journals, anecdotes, journals… and she saved pretty much all of it. Like I said. Blessing or nightmare, take your pick. In my mind I see an imaginary Elizabeth as a sort of dam, trying frantically to channel and guide a powerful and seemingly endless river of words. The flow is too strong to halt completely, so all that can be hoped for is some attempt at control.
As I continue to gain experience in archival material, I grow increasingly aware of a certain category of document. Some letters, journals, and so forth are written with an eye to future readers or publication, creating a tone that inevitably permeates the writing. Much of Grandma’s writing is heavy with this consciousness. I hesitate to say that the tone is affected, but there is a clear awareness of a potential future reader. I imagine she envisioned someone rather like me, in fact – an archivist or scholar, diligently preserving her writings for posterity.
However, there are times when she lets go of the carefully constructed literary persona, and it is these moments I like best. Her real thoughts and feelings shine through and the emotions communicated are intense. I love the biting snark of some of her letters to the editor of the local paper, while her personal writings occasionally break free of consciousness and express anger, grief, and joy in wonderfully evocative ways.
Grandma had what I would describe as a tendency to romanticize – a tendency I may have inherited to a minor degree – and as a result I suspect my big challenge in this project will be to avoid over-empathizing. It is good to be kind and sympathetic towards the collection’s subject, but I must try to avoid putting her on a pedestal. Her papers do not include the whole story, after all.
It is less one-sided than many collections. She wrote letters almost daily at times (if the snippets of journal I have seen so far are to be believed) and they were mostly written on a typewriter. By some stroke of luck (in my opinion!), she had the sense to keep a carbon copy of almost every letter she wrote. In other words, for every correspondent, we have much of both sides of the conversation. It is an extraordinary, detailed view into her life and thoughts. Perhaps it will be a future resource for a micro-history!
I have only sorted one box so far, and it is clear already that her world was a strange and incongruous combination of stark reality and very sheltered. However, I have increasing insight into what I and my relatives have inherited from her. Grandma communicated her love of language to her children, who in turn gave it to my brother and myself. Personality quirks lead it to manifest itself differently in each member of the family, of course, but we are all highly verbal people, loving to read and learn and talk. We all communicate well, especially in writing – what my uncle Greg calls “that Marsh writing gene.”
I can see much of myself in her words. I am, I hope, rather more grounded (most of the time), but I go through times when I can barely control the river of words that flow through me and out of my pen. Sometimes it feels like some other intelligence is writing through me. It is a compulsion – I sit down with the urge to write on some topic that haunts my mind. Paragraphs or pages later, I sigh and sit back, feeling both depleted and elated, rather surprised by how much I had to say and where the train of thought led me. And for a few hours or days, my mind is quieter – until the next persistent thought starts knocking around, demanding to be heard.