Into our attic, twenty years ago, my brother-in-law and his grandson moved stored boxes of “family stuff.” We had no idea what was there until five years ago when my son decided it was time for us to start sorting through our belongings and preparing for our next move, whenever and to wherever that might be, but leaner, and less burdened.
One of the treasures he uncovered was a binder that my wife’s grandmother, Ysabel, who was born in Hawaii in 1894, kept at first in a day timer, then in a diary. She started keeping the diary in 1911 at age seventeen and kept it almost daily until 1922 at age twenty-eight. During this time, more than once, she and her twin, Irene, moved their families in together while their husbands were away at war. Irene’s husband was in the Navy; Ysabel’s was in the Coast Guard, but during World War I, the Coast Guard was merged into the Navy.
Ysabel took her diary writing seriously. She viewed it as a permanent record that would be passed along to another generation. About the time she stopped keeping it, her older sister Alice published her first book, a highly-touted children’s book in the same series as the Raggedy Anne and Raggedy Andy books. Because Ysabel wanted future generations to read it, she wrote lookback sections for perspective in 1934 at age forty, six years after giving birth to her fourth and final child. Years passed and by the 1960s sister Alice was publishing her seventh book, so Ysabel, in between her two marriages, assembled and flawlessly typed all 310 pages of it. She makes clear that her hope is that someday her journal will be published.
Through Ysabel’s diary, I developed a deep admiration and even love for someone I had met only in her final years. As we read through, we experience the repeated dislocation she experienced as the wife of a young ensign and the mother of two children, often left alone for weeks or months at a time, uncertain when or if her husband would return:
Before our eyes, she recoils at realizing a young, light-skinned black woman she meets in North Carolina is barred, like all people of her race, from going to the movies.
In Chicago, she breaks a box of candy over her brother-in-law’s head after he mocks the notion of women’s suffrage seven years before it became law of the land (“the candy went flying around the room, and sparks flew from his eyes”).
In Woods Hole, when her husband’s Coast Guard mission to rescue ships off Nova Scotia is extended repeatedly without notice, Ysabel fears his eyelids have frozen shut (again), and alone with my wife Ginger’s mother, then eight, she axes his precious, handmade wooden boxes for firewood.
In New York, we see Ysabel lending support to her three sisters-in-law who march as suffragettes and promote women’s suffrage to anyone who’ll listen.
And, throughout, Ysabel anticipates the release of new books or movies; and then, after their release, shares her brief reviews.
By sharing copies of her journal’s sections, we’ve begun to introduce the young Ysabel to her descendants. Her own daughter Joan, born six years after the last journal entry and living near Woods Hole, said, “Thank you for introducing me to the mother I never knew.”
We’ve converted the diary to a Word file to facilitate editing and have begun conversations with the various organizations about the feasibility of having it published. The most sagacious recommendation we’ve received so far is to approach the Naval Institute, where we already have contacts as the institute holds the twelve oral history interviews conducted with my father-in-law, a daring and outspoken Navy officer of immense character who was the first submariner to win the Medal of Honor and live to tell the tale. And the institute wants his papers too. I’m hoping to make a deal with them so Ysabel will fulfill her dream and finally get into print.
Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after rewarding research career. He’s since published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, photography, plays, and hybrid in 175 journals on five continents. Publications include Columbia Journal, Hippocampus, Kestrel, Newfound, Stonecoast, The Atlantic, and Typehouse. Jim and his family split time between city and mountains.