Mrs. Penney’s Diary

Years ago, when we were gutting the inside of the empty big house, I found a tiny notebook. Its black cover had script letters which read, 1948 diary, and I knew it was Mrs. Penney’s handwriting which filled each page inside. At the time, the pencil marks didn’t hold my attention for long; I had gleaned a few interesting facts about the farm, when I glanced through the faded pages, but entries were mostly about the weather, and some other people I didn’t know, ironing and potato hauling, and I was busy with one boy in diapers. So the diary was put aside in my bookshelf at home, 100 miles from Wellsboro. I certainly intended to someday bring it out again. Perhaps I would type up some of it for the historical society, or maybe to publish the diary of a farmwife, but it sat neglected for a long time.
This summer, I had a reason to open the glass door of the shelf and remove that diary to reread it. I was searching for verification of these two women who had unexpectedly appeared. One hot weekend morning, we were up at the farm, doing the things l like to do, in this instance shoveling dirt from an enormous pile, into wheelbarrows. We were filling some ruts in the lawn with the soil and were standing, shovels in hands, when two women drove their truck up the driveway, stopped and greeted us.
I eyed them askance, assuming that they were from a natural gas company, here to attempt to cajole me into allowing them to perform seismic testing on my land, for free. That had happened before and I was not in the mood to accommodate these pests. All summer, helicopters had flown VERY low over our land, circling and re-circling low over the house, presumably to test our neighbors’ properties, and that intrusion was loud and disquieting. Now they were again approaching us, I supposed.
A slim, attractive woman approached, smiling, and pointing to the house, the big Penney house in front of me. I listened as she offered surprising news, completely unrelated to gas drilling: she, Evelyn, had lived in that house. I smiled but was doubtful. The Penneys had lived there since the 1930s or ‘40s and had had no children. This 60 year-old woman was too young to have been one of the Baldwin family who owned it before that. The younger woman walked around the back of the vehicle, as I scratched my head with my dirty glove and told Evelyn that the Penney’s had lived here. She chimed, “Oh, yes, Aunty Florence….”
Now that was Mrs. Penney’s name, and I asked, “Oh, are you one of Mrs. Penney’s nieces?” No, they explained that they had just called them Auntie and Uncle, because they lived with them. I wondered if this was some kind of con artist trick, you know where strangers befriend you and before you know it they have locked you in the basement and left with your credit cards, automobiles and personal information. It just didn’t quite match. Who were these women? The first one told me that her mother had been a war bride from France and I stared, confused and totally suspicious.
I calmly probed further, and out came the names: they had been Evelyn and Jocelyn Madison, and instantly it clicked! Stanley Madison had been an old man when I was a kid, but he would stop and visit my father and tell him endless stories about being a driver for a general in the war and living in our house and working for Mr. Penney as a farmhand. I hadn’t paid much attention to the stories, but now they dovetailed with those of these women who were standing in my driveway. They were his daughters and they had lived in our little house, and Mrs. Penney had loved them as an aunt. We chatted and exchanged addressed and promised to share copies of old photos, but I was still a little wary. Later I would vaguely remember sitting in Mrs. Penney’s living room with her telling my mother that there had been two little girls living in our house, just like Natalie and I were.

When we were back home on Sunday night, I pulled out the diary as quickly as I could and squinted at the faded writing. I was startled to see Mrs. Penney’s first note in 1948 being of the birth of Jocelyn. Evelyn had stayed with her during the days when her mother was in the hospital. It was all true. How strange. Here was documentation of these women’s girlhood, notes that an exhausted mother had no time to make herself. I read on and on and suddenly the people jumped out at me in ways I had never expected. Georgette must be their mother, I deduced; and what about Ruth Reamer’s wedding? It was 1948…that probably was Mrs. Ruth Harper’s wedding. I excitedly showed Tom my findings.
That world suddenly came alive for me; the weather seemed to matter to me; the icy roads, the news from the radio. There was a vague reference to a public health incident which is now so documented and familiar to me because of my air pollution class: the 1948 Donora Pollution episode. Many people died in this southwestern Pennsylvania steel town, due the respiratory issues resulting from smog (smoke and fog combined) collecting in a valley (due to a temperature inversion).
I am startled and excited by my findings. I called Jocelyn and told her that I wanted her to have the original diary, though I wanted to type up the diary first, to keep a copy. She was pleased. It is now on my list of things to finish this summer, and I am on February entries. (It cannot be scanned, as it is too faded.)
Another thing strikes me, almost coldly, though. As I read of the past, of Mrs. Penney thinking it was too cold (minus 12) to do laundry (to hang onto the line to dry) and then later her mentioning that she ironed, it is more than the temperature in the story that chills me. I realize, rather breathlessly, that she was spending her life in ironing and other seemingly mundane tasks.….Now, don’t get me wrong, I do my share of them, and I don’t mind them- I am one of those strange people who finds comfort in tedious household chores, really.. What shocks me is that I was reading her life years after it had passed her, and I wanted to somehow communicate to her, wanted to reach her, to tell her that she would be seventy years old soon and an old lady and near death when I would meet her (30 years later). That she should forget the ironing, the weather and everything else and live out her dreams! I felt a sense of urgency…and helplessness.
Then I wryly think of my own diary and how I tell of spending my weekends shoveling soil into ruts, for fun…There is a lesson in this, but what is it? Tom teased me by his answer: “The lesson is, ‘Mind your own business and lease the land so hubby doesn’t have to work at mundane tasks.’”

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