Why I Have Refrained From Burning Them by Caroline Praderio

journal with pencil inside

Smoke curled up from the driveway as soon as my grandmother’s house came into view, once we rounded the last curve on Laurelwood Road.

“What the hell is going on?” my mother said from the driver’s seat, more to herself than to me. She didn’t seem alarmed, so I wasn’t either. “Is he burning shit? Did he get a permit to burn shit? I can’t believe he actually followed through and got the permit. Way to go, Billy-boy!”

When we pulled into the driveway, my Uncle Billy was crouching next to a pile of brush, kindling a small flame with clumps of dried grass. He was in jeans and black steel-toed boots. When my mother and I opened the car doors, he turned over his shoulder. He hadn’t known I was coming.

“Hey, Caroline!” he said, stepping toward me through the soft layer of snow lingering on the lawn, though it was already March. “How are ya?”

“Good,” I said, returning the hug he offered. “On my wild and crazy spring break,” I added sarcastically, hoping he’d laugh. He grinned instead, showing the gaps and chips in his teeth. He went back to the fire and, with some intervention from the lighter in his pocket, the wood began to catch.

My mother stepped up to the fire. “So you got the permit?”

“Yup,” her brother answered. “Called the fire department this morning.” I scanned the pile of branches that he’d pulled from around the property, the collected trimmings of all the tree maintenance my grandparents had done while they were still alive. Most of the brush was wet from the snow, spotted with multicolored mold or lichens, but it was burning.

I looked up to the house. Even from the outside it looked empty and unlived-in. My grandfather had been dead for nearly seven years. My grandmother had been dead for only a year and a half, after succumbing to a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. They were my Grampy and Babcia (Polish for grandmother) respectively. And after Babcia’s death, the matter of their house—on a wooded corner lot in Sterling, Massachusetts, the split level packed to the eaves with dust and Christmas decorations—remained unsettled. Six months passed before my mother and her brothers decided to sell the house and started cleaning it.

While I was away for my senior year of college in Boston, my mother told me about the schedule she’d arranged for the cleanup. There was a lot to do—tear up the rugs, repaint the ceilings, sort through the boxes, burn the unsightly piles of brush in the yard—so they tackled the overwhelming list one week at a time. My mother, Uncle Billy, and Uncle Bob started spending each Sunday there, throwing out the unsalvageable, picking out the antiques and estimating their market value. The tasks for this particular Sunday had already been set: burn the brush and several boxes of old documents, move Babcia’s collection of neglected garden ornaments from the back deck to the dumpster, and inventory all remaining furniture to prepare it for divvying among the siblings.

Going through her late mother’s possessions with the intent to give or throw most of them away was more difficult for my mother than for her brothers. She was, after all, the one who kept her children’s first grade artwork eternally affixed to the kitchen walls, refusing to throw any of it out even when the construction paper and watercolors all faded to the same sun-aged shade of brown. She thinks hard before she throws anything out—because last season’s catalogue might still have a coupon, that old t-shirt would make a fine dust rag, the stuffed animals in my closet are the only physical reminder of the times I spent playing with them. As I got older and purged some relics of girlhood from my bedroom, my mother inspected each item I put into black plastic bags and labeled for the trash. She keeps the items that she’s not ready to part with, even if I am.

This is why I hear a teary edge to her voice when I call her on Sunday afternoons.

“I’m just at Babcia’s house, going through some stuff,” she says, and I might hear the flaps of a cardboard box opening in the background or the drag of a table across linoleum. “What are you up to?”

This is why, each time I visit my parents, I see a new collection of vaguely familiar lawn ornaments and holiday decorations collected unseasonably on their front porch—shaded from the summer heat, smiling behind snow, still smiling their painted-on smiles.

* * *

I began keeping a journal on July 17, 1997. I was six years old and not quite able to spell. The two-sentence entry sprawls across an entire page, reading: Today is the 1st day thath I am writeing in this book. Tomorrow I am going camping at Eestrn Slop’s. It will be fun.

I have kept journals ever since that day with varying regularity. My collection, when stacked, is over two feet high. There are 15 in all.

These journals have been the friend who never rolls her eyes, a boyfriend when I didn’t have one, the arms of my mother when she is far away. They have been a place to spill without needing to clean up. In the smooth, lined spread of two blank pages, I am the only person who can criticize me. Inside their covers, anger turns into nothing more than memory as soon as I write it down. It might cramp the muscles of my hand on the way out, but then, just as quick as I can scrawl it in my wide, unruly cursive, it’s out. It’s on paper, which is another way of knowing that whatever troubled me has passed. Through me and out of me like vomit, a sneeze, a glitch in the picture.

The fortunate byproduct of these journals has been a detailed (at some points daily) record of my life. This record is an interesting thing to possess, because even though I treasure it, it’s very boring. Many entries are addressed to Winnie the Pooh. Several pages were set aside to practice my signature and construct pro-and-con charts for sorting through problems. Most all of them discuss the trivialities of an untroubled upbringing—rejection from boys, punishment from parents, an unsatisfied craving for ice cream, a feud with a friend, successes and failures in school.

In the journals I rarely situate my life in a greater context, whether cultural, historical, or political. I failed to document some of the most newsworthy days I’ve lived through: the death of Princess Diana, Bill Clinton’s fall from presidential grace, New Year’s Eve 1999 and the arrival of the new millennium, the installation of dial-up internet for our first home computer, September 11, 2001, the capture of Sadam Hussein and the night Osama Bin Laden was killed, the nights I stayed up reading the latest Harry Potter books until I could see by sunrise instead of a flashlight, Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti or any natural disaster other than the snow that piled in my own front yard. I left all this out.

This realization came fast and hard at the very end of my sophomore year of college. I had been working through Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, adulating every sentence until I reached the essay “On Keeping a Notebook.”

“At no point have I ever been able to successfully keep a diary,” she writes. “On those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best…In fact I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry.”

Pointless was the word that stung the hardest. How could the trials of my sixth-grade romance with freckle-faced Liam O’Sullivan have been pointless? Surely the tearstains dotting the entries on temporary heartbreaks and stomachaches weren’t pointless. I turned immediately to my journal at the time—cream-colored pages bound in red imitation leather—and wrote an entry to express my indignation.

I read Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook” while I ate my salad for dinner today, and it made me think. Why do I keep this book? Why do I record the mundane details of my life? Didion denounces diary-style records of each day as pointless. I feel very much to the contrary.

            But the more I paged through that journal, the more pointlessness I saw.

February 3, 2011: It has been snowing, literally, every other day.

March 4, 2011: I just ate my only snack and am still super hungry.

June 10, 2011: This week really has been completely uneventful, thus rendering this entry completely pointless. 

I was discouraged to find that Didion was right. At the time, I didn’t understand my compulsion to write about my life inside books that no one would ever care to read. But the habit seems obvious when I consider the way my grandmother amassed hundreds of garden ornaments, and the way my own mother holds fast to clothes that don’t fit and shriveled prom corsages. It’s not the objects that we have in common—it’s the keeping of them. It seems that I was predisposed to be a keeper, too.

A few months after my encounter with Didion’s essay, I came across an interview with E.B. White, published in a 1969 issue of The Paris Review. The interviewer asked White whether or not he’d like to publish his journals. White’s answer was firm: “The journals are…full of rubbish. I do not hope to publish them…Occasionally, they manage to report something in exquisite honesty…This is why I have refrained from burning them.”

I latched immediately to his philosophy. He understood the compulsion to keep journals but comfortably acknowledged their inferiority. I like to think this exquisite honesty has cropped up occasionally in my own journals, too. On December 1, 2004, when my body was under siege by hormones: I don’t want to be a grown-up woman—that stinks. I just want to be little for longer. On June 13, 2009, when I finally got over my first heartbreak: Right now, I’m listening to the nice summer rain fall outside my window and I’m feeling alone. But I’m feeling that maybe it’s okay to be alone. And on March 30, 2012, halfway through falling in love: I keep getting that tingly stomach-drop feeling when I remember last night, and when I remember that it happened to me.

Those are the moments that make me fall in love with the way I used to experience the world. They are proof that I have managed to keep bits of the person who put those words to paper so many years ago and that somehow nothing has changed.

* * *

Uncle Bob, my mother’s youngest brother, arrived a few minutes after we did. We heard his voice from inside the house, where my mother had been showing me each room, showing the progress they’d made while I’d been away at school. The carpets had been torn up, the items from the attic and the basement dredged from boxes and spread out across the main floor. There were stacks of puzzles next to the dining room table. The coffee table held several birdhouses—some shaped like houses and others like roosters or pears or amorphous ceramic blobs. An old phonograph was in the corner of the living room, on top of a cabinet stuffed full of vinyl records thick and heavy as dinner plates. One of my grandfather’s golfing trophies stood next to the paper towel holder on the kitchen island. The legs of a stuffed witch—black-and-orange-striped with black boots—dangled over the edge of a cardboard box labeled “Halloween.” All the spoons in the silverware drawer were filled with mouse droppings.

But the upstairs had been repainted, the old hardwood floors freed from deep-pile carpets, the attic and bedrooms completely free of the keepsakes and knickknacks that had accumulated since Babcia and Grampy moved there in 1960.

Uncle Bob came up the front walk. His bald head was covered with a baseball cap. He hugged me and asked how I was doing before returning to the driveway to tend the fire. While Uncle Billy, Uncle Bob, and my mother threw branches and stacks of envelopes onto the fire outside, I moved through the house with a notebook and a dull pencil, room by room, noting the small reddish end table, the green recliner, the tall bureau with brass handles. I would type the list when we got home and email it to each brother. The following Sunday would be the day for divvying it all up, for loading up the backs of pickup trucks with the dressers and stools and cabinets won by the luck of the draw.

I brought the list outside when it was done. Blackened curls of tax returns and credit card statements floated up toward the overcast sky each time Uncle Billy or Uncle Bob tossed a fresh armful of brush onto the fire.

“Finished the list,” I told them.

My uncles nodded, crossing their arms and watching the branches burn down. Sap dripped from the edges of the larger pieces, crackling as it landed on the coals below.

“Excellent,” my mother said. “How about you and Uncle Bob go clean off the deck?”

Uncle Bob led me around the house, from the fire to the backyard. He packed down the snow as he went since I hadn’t thought to wear boots. We reached the deck, where a number of my Babcia’s lawn ornaments were arranged in neat rows on a rotting picnic table. My grandmother had been a yard sale prowler, out early on Saturday mornings and always on the hunt for a new ceramic or blown-glass feature to place in one of her gardens. She amassed quite a collection before she died—and now that my mother had taken her pick of the fat stone toads and whimsical scarecrows—the rest were marked for the trash. They looked to me like a jovial graveyard, a resting place for unwanted wooden chickens and scarecrows bearing tin signs that read Welcome to my Garden.

Uncle Bob picked up as many as he could fit in his arms. He headed back toward the driveway, where the rented dumpster sat half-full. I picked up an armful of my own—a sun with human facial features, a scaled-down Statue of Liberty wearing a red, white, and blue robe, an angel with hands folded in prayer, a rabbit pushing a wheelbarrow, now full of snow.

I stepped carefully off the deck, backwards through Uncle Bob’s tracks to the top of the stone wall that separated the driveway from the backyard. It was about five feet high, cut into the hill over which the house’s two levels were split. Uncle Bob stood tossing his own load of garden decorations into the dumpster’s wide metal mouth. Then it was my turn.

The first item, the miniature Statue of Liberty, fell into the dumpster intact, landing on a roll of discarded carpet with a subdued thud. Next was the angel, who didn’t quite make it far enough. Her wing caught the lip of the dumpster and cracked.

* * *

My grandmother died after battling Alzheimer’s for five years. My great-grandmother, my family suspects, suffered from the same disease, though it went undiagnosed until her death. My mother seems to have accepted the disease as her fate, too. The odds certainly work against her.

“When I’m old and Alzheimer-y,” she’ll sometimes say, using it as a guilt-inducing precursor to a favor she asks of me. She means it as a joke, mostly, but there’s something honestly fearful about it, too, as if she were really saying I’m doomed  to lose my memory and independence and someday we won’t even be able to talk and maybe I won’t know who you are, so will you please take out the recycling?

I think my mother’s tendency to cling to physical objects was exacerbated when she watched her own mother lose her memory, her ability to speak, her will to live. Now that she assumes she’s subject to the same end, she’s trying to hold fast to the memories she has. I ask her why she keeps my old watercolor of autumn leaves hanging by the phone in the kitchen. I imagine it’s been more than ten years since I painted it—I don’t even remember when or where I made it. Her answer is usually just a stern look—a look that says don’t push me. Let me save it.

And I do.

Joan Didion also wrote that “keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

The first person I think of when I read that sentence is my mother. And the paintings in the kitchen, the way she saves everything because there’s always the chance that one thing could be important, the logic that saving an object will prevent the loss of memory. The way she winced when the ceramic angel got nicked by the edge of the dumpster.

The second person I think of is me—the stack of journals two feet high, the way I record the mundane details of my everyday existence because there’s always a chance I’ll report something in exquisite honesty—the belief that writing something down will prevent the loss of a former self.

My mother walks into her mother’s house, I open a journal. My mother sifts through boxes, I read through paragraphs. My mother picks up a ceramic angel and relearns its grooves, I whisper a sentence out loud to relearn its inflection, the way it sounded in my mind at the time I put it down.

I don’t think I’ve ever truly entertained the possibility that one day I’ll lose my memory, too, but it seems that, on the pages of fifteen journals, I’ve been preparing for it my whole life.

* * *

Uncle Bob and I made trips to and from the deck, taking turns to toss the garden ornaments from the stone wall into the dumpster. Each time we missed we laughed. I couldn’t help myself. Even if it was my grandmother’s, there was something undeniably funny about a decorative scarecrow flying through the air, its joints held together by rusted rings of wire, its body tumbling awkwardly down the side of the dumpster it didn’t reach. After all, I reasoned, it was only an object. A pointless decoration that may once have graced the garden, an object picked up at a yard sale because the previous owner had deemed it pointless, too.

My mother was in the garage but she could hear us since the door had been rolled up. She came out from around the corner with some manila envelopes in her hands, mouth agape. She saw the shards of terra cotta snails and wooden lighthouses on the ground. Then she saw us laughing.

“Babcia would be crying right now if she saw this,” she said, very seriously. “Crying.”

“Mom,” I said, “come on. It’s okay.” She only narrowed her eyes.

I waited for my mother to go back to the garage before I began tossing again. A ceramic goose nicked the edge and then its neck was in pieces on the snow. Uncle Bob laughed.

* * *

For the first time in my life, I’ve begun to wonder what will happen to my journals when I die. I wonder who will be first to find them—maybe a daughter or a friend, a husband or a brother. Maybe a granddaughter will volunteer to pace through my empty house, taking inventory with a dull pencil. Maybe she’ll find them all, wedged into a dusty bookshelf or sealed inside a box under my bed.

Maybe she’ll start at the beginning and find that on July 17, 1997, I believed camping would be fun. Maybe she’ll open the one with cream-colored pages bound in red leather, read a page or two, and think, pointless. Then she’ll stack them out back on a picnic table and mark them for the trash.

Maybe my granddaughter will toss my journals into a dumpster and laugh when she misses, when the loose pages fall from weak binding into the snow. Maybe she’ll drop them onto a brush fire and watch the blackened curls of paper float up into an overcast sky, wondering why, for so long, I had refrained from burning them.

caroline praderioCaroline Praderio is a Massachusetts native who earned her BFA in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College in Boston. By day, she’s an editor at Down East magazine, published in Rockport, Maine. Her creative nonfiction has also appeared in The Emerson Review and the catharsis. You can find her on Twitter (@c_praderio) or at carolinepraderio.com, where she keeps a blog about keeping diaries.

 

Print Friendly
  • Pingback: New nonfiction! | CAROLINE PRADERIO()

  • Pingback: Open Book, Volume 16: Too Cool | CAROLINE PRADERIO()

  • Caroline–
    I have a lot to say about this piece, so bear with me. I will try to be as brief as possible and still say what I need to say.
    First of all, I would like to comment on journal-keeping. I used to keep extensive journals. Plural. I kept journals because writing and literature instructors thought journal-keeping was a valuable experience. I was never really open in those journals because I knew other people would be reading them. In those journals I wrote about writing and reading. I had no qualms about trashing those journals as soon as each class was over. My personal journals, which I wrote concurrently with the others, and wrote also when I wasn’t taking classes, and even before and after I was a university student, were a lot more honest. Finally, I stopped writing them. It took me a long time to make the decision to destroy them all. That was the right decision, I believe still today. My decision to destroy my journals has a lot to do with the quality of my life at the time I was keeping them. I was lonely and isolated, alienated from others, and maybe all my journal-keeping could be condensed into those three adjectives. My journals were a scream, a howl. Yours are not. I can understand why you might like to keep them. It would be good if your children, or your grandchildren, read them. I know that just seeing my grandmother’s or mother’s HANDWRITING so many years after their deaths is a significant experience for me, gives me pause to think and remember. Journal-keeping IS valuable in two senses. 1) It helps you recall the general tenor of your days, and 2) if you are having significant interactions with prominent people or artists who help you think, journals can be historically and artistically valuable. I think about the journals of Anais Nin, for instance, in this sense. Journals can help you clarify thought. Many writers draw extensively from their journals–they are troves of detail, much of it trivial but some of it significant, that could be forgotten otherwise. So much for what I think about journal keeping.
    What I really wanted to say about your piece, “Why I Have Refrained. . . ” is that it doesn’t work for me. Let me first put that into context, and then let me explain why I don’t think it works. The context is this: I haven’t written much for the past forty years. I am just starting to write again. It is wonderful. You are a much more accomplished writer than I have been. And you are good. This is lucid narration. I get a sense of time, of place, of person. I hear the narrator’s voice. What I DON’T get is a sense of what makes these particular happenings wondrous and momentous, what makes them special. There is a richness here that you don’t exploit. Babcia. That is a name that should be loaded with meaning. A Polish heritage that you should be able to make ring for us like a bell. Other than the daily clutter of your grandmother and grandfather’s lives (clutter you are throwing into a dumpster without sentiment) I don’t get a sense of them as people. I don’t hear their voices, I don’t know what was important to them. I kept waiting for you to discover something special, filled with meaning, like a journal Babcia secretly kept that might reveal a lover no one knew about, or an unfulfilled dream. That sort of thing. I wanted you to CONNECT with these people, tell me why they were special, so that I could connect with them and believe they were special too. Instead, I finish the memoir and I am left with nothing but the questions: Why am I reading this? Why did she write it? You don’t answer those questions, and I so very badly want you to answer them!

  • Pingback: Setting | Jim's Course Resources()