In the company of old words

My work priorities have shifted somewhat for December and January. Two weeks ago, N., the 17-year-old daughter of my husband’s nephew (which makes her our grand-niece I think), came to Canada from Paraguay to stay with us for two months, with the goal of improving her English. So we’re speaking our very best English and enjoying her being here and also setting her up with various local volunteer experiences.

"Papa's Tagebuch" -- 5 notebooks brought by N. for me to transcribe.

“Papa’s Tagebuch” — 5 notebooks brought by N. for me to transcribe.

What this has to do with my priorities isn’t so much the presence of a teenager, however, but a time commitment I made on account of her coming. H’s father, who died before we were married, kept a diary for several years in the 1930s and then again for several years in the 1950s. His oldest sister had begun the work of transcribing these diaries for the benefit of the entire family. Thanks to her work, I’ve read the first two years of it in typed form — from Heinrich Dück’s leaving Russia in 1929 through the early years of settlement in the Chaco, Paraguay which included the deaths of his parents (his mother by lightning) and also his marriage. I confess I’ve been itching to read the rest of the diaries but my sister-in-law isn’t well and so she hasn’t been able to proceed.

It occurred to me that I might help her and resolve my curiosity at the same time by offering to do the remaining years for her. She was willing to trust me with this, and to send the rest of Papa’s Tagebuch to Canada in the care of N. So here I am, giving myself to the world of the Chaco for a while, and to the words of a man whose voice I never heard but now hear speaking on these age-browned pages. He wrote in German, so that’s what I type of course. I’ve learned the Alt command for the umlaut and turned my computer’s (English) spelling-error alerts off for the time being so the entire screen isn’t a mess of red.

A page from "Papa's Tagebuch" in 1935.

A page from “Papa’s Tagebuch” in 1935.

N. proofreads my work against the original. Some 18,500 words in, we’ve reached the end of the 1934-35 notebook, the most fragile of the five books she brought along. And we’ve done a section of the small red notebook in which my father-in-law and N’s great-grandfather documented some ongoing health issues in 1966. This was probably important for him to keep track of but we’ve decided — in current parlance — it may be Too Much Information! After Christmas we’ll tackle the remaining three books. Then I’ll send the files to a nephew in Paraguay to format and the books will travel back in N.’s hand luggage.

The links N. and I have to the diary writer are different, our perspective on the events he described various too, but both of us are finding the diary quite fascinating. I’m still processing my encounter with it all so won’t say too much at this point. It seems almost odd to me, however, that a diary of short daily entries, often only a record of daily work such as plowing, planting, dealing with recalcitrant oxen, working as well in the Schmiede [forge] he set up on the yard, notes of local deaths and marriages and family visits and illnesses, a rhythm broken only by Sundays’ notes about who led the prayer time at the Versammlung (meeting) and who “served with the Word,” should be so compelling. Once I get going on the transcribing, I find it hard to quit. Just to the end of this page, I’ll tell myself when there’s something else I should probably be doing. Once there, Well, maybe just one more page. And so the hours pass one after the other while watching Heinrich Dück’s days pass too, nearly 70 years ago.

Have you had the experience of working with a diary like this? Any insights why even a factual diary can be so mesmerizing? 

P.S. And my warmest best wishes to all readers for Christmas! Back with you again, D.V., in 2013.

18 thoughts on “In the company of old words

  1. I love doing this kind of work, and I too am mesmerized. I did a Saskatchewan farmer’s diary for a neighbor (the farmer was a bachelor) some years ago and between all the factual stuff, like how much milk the cows gave, how many eggs the chickens laid, etc. there were little gems like: “Nellie came for a visit”, and “Nellie came again”. They are little needles in a haystack that tell their own story. Who was this mysterious woman, and why is she there among the cows and the chickens? You get into the life of another person and a story begins to take shape!

  2. What a great project! My own Dad kept (and still does!) diaries for years, mostly about the weather and various farming notes. Here and there are sprinkled bits like “Went to town tonight. Asked Sharon to marry me,” and “Took Sharon to the hospital. Kelly Dale born at (whatever time it was).” Not much for words, but like you say, still a fascinating peek into his life and what was/is important to him!

  3. This sounds like an exciting project. I have had family that transcribed my forefathers diaries and hearing about the crops and who died all mixed together give a picture of life in there time. Wishing you a Blessed Christmas. Myrna – Saskatoon

  4. Would love to read Opa’s words. Will have to ask Dad for his copy from Tante S. I’m sure I’d go about reading them with mixed feelings as well, since I’ve never met Opa, but I’d hope to be able to understand him better! That he could “come to life” for me. Enjoy your time with N., and God’s richest blessings for you and Uncle H. this Christmas season!
    Love you! Caroline

  5. Dear Tante Dora! I´m glad, you are doing this important job. Looking forwards to the “readable” results. Merry Christmas to you, O. Helmut, and the rest of the family.

    Hartwig, Betty and kids

    • And same to you Hartwig, Betty, and family. Thanks for your interest! (Saw some good pics of you at the grad, on FB.) — And @ both Caroline and Hartwig, and other nieces and nephews, I’m going to be interested to hear your reactions to the pages. Dani said she was surprised by how much involved her great-grandpa was in music in those very early years; she’d not known of him with those interests (playing and singing).

  6. Dora, you will be so enriched by deepening your relationships both to living relatives and those who left only this scratches on paper.

    My mother kept diaries throughout her life, and especially her teen years during WWII. It’s a major source for my own memoir and really helped clarify some of the themes of her life and mine. I wrote about it and will offer the links here, in case the comparison is helpful in any way. I used to think that only journals (with feelings and thoughts described) were much more valuable than diaries, and I would still choose them. But, like Kelly, I love the details of the diary, too.

    I notice that you commented on these posts, Dora. You must have been preparing yourself subliminally for your current work: http://www.shirleyshowalter.com/2011/09/21/february-27-1943-anne-franks-diary-and-barbara-ann-hesss-diary/ Also, http://www.shirleyshowalter.com/2011/09/19/two-diaries-of-two-young-girls-anne-frank-and-barbara-ann-hess-1942-1943/

    Have a very Merry Christmas. I look forward to reports of the insights as they unfold.

    • Thanks so much, Shirley, for taking me back to your own diary work, and yes, perhaps subliminally I was preparing, who knows? (And perhaps this post and the invitation in it too!) I find it interesting that you say your mother’s diary also helped you clarify some of the themes of your life.
      Re. feelings vs. facts, these are definitely primarily facts, but there are feelings that emerge here and there, and that is part of the fascination, discerning those.
      — But back to your posts, my thanks especially because I’d forgotten them, I confess, but am newly excited by them in my own “in the midst of.” Although my current work is transcription and a personal “getting to know” a kind of stranger, following one more thread in that knowing (a thread alongside the answers to questions I’ve asked my in-laws about this man, each responding with quite different perspectives and their own journey of coming to terms with him), who knows what other work lies ahead in the tunnels we enter? The scholarly approach you took in comparing Anne Frank’s diary and your mother’s opens up an idea for another, later step. It strikes me as newly brilliant, Shirley, so kudos to you!
      So now I’ll have to think about what diary or diaries might offer revealing comparisons. Another Chaco diarist of the period? Some world figure diarist (like your Anne Frank) of the 1930s or 1950s? Hmmm… And ideas from readers?

  7. Last year I worked on my Mother’s mother’s words. An uncle had done what we thought was a translation. As I studied the original in her own handwriting in a little brown scribbler, in Goetische Schrift, I was at once startled and thrilled to discover that my uncle’s words were only a simple summary….there was more, much more….and I suddenly realized I was ‘hearing’ her voice.

    • What an interesting story, Martha! Thanks for it. BTW, I recently came across a copy of your father’s autobiography in the MCC Thrift Store and bought it with delight, as I’d wanted to read it at some point but figured I’d have to go to the Archives or someplace. I didn’t know him, except at a distance, but admired him. I found the detail of his book curiously compelling as well!

    • Yes, I know Connie and enjoyed her book. I appreciate your thoughtful review of it, also the insistence that we who do such “memory” work claim our location within the story.

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