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.
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.
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.