April 15, 2008

The camp journals

Camp journals

In 1968, my parents bought a couple acres of land, a peninsula of oak trees tucked into acres of cattails on the river, the place that we now call camp. That spring we'd drive up for the day, bringing food and an old canvas to sit on, and we'd have a picnic. We kids would explore the new land, climbing over rocks and looking at trees, while my parents tried to figure out where, amidst the cattails, they might build a dock. That summer, my parents set an old canvas tent up under the oak trees and we felt like we were in paradise.

But our camp journals go back only as far as 1985, which was the year when my brother bought a spiral notebook and wrote the first entry. Oh, we've got a log for the sailboat, with entries from all family members, that goes back into the 1960s when my Dad built the boat, but that journal describes only events on the water. The first page of the camp journal contains a list of rules from my brother, including admonitions to print instead of using handwriting and a plea to use only one side of the paper so that ink didn't bleed through. Most of us have pretty much ignored those rules and done whatever we pleased. Ignoring rules is a family tradition. And we are great respecters of tradition.

The journals are written mostly on spiral notebooks and sometimes even looseleaf paper although my mother has gathered up the notebooks and put them into hardcover binders. My mother has served as the keeper of the journals; all summer, they sit on the shelf in the cabin and she'll say to a grandchild at the end of the weekend, "Hey, why don't you write an entry in the journal?"

Despite the ridiculous number of authors for the journal, there is somehow a fairly consistent voice that has developed over the years. For instance, everyone writes in third person. If you read through the journals, the reason for this becomes clear: we all have a penchant for the hero narrative, and it's much easier to tell a dramatic story of heroism about yourself if no one knows until the end that you are the one who wrote it. Nearly everyone in the family likes to use adjectives that quite exaggerate the noble quantities of the people in the story: it's always the gallant trio, the happy couple, the brave hikers, the courageous soul.

The two oldest authors, my parents, have a tendency to stick to actual facts when writing in the journal, but none of their children and grandchildren feel that need. Here, for example, is a line from an entry written by my youngest sister after we returned from swimming: "Urban Sophisticate and jo(e) amazed everyone with their grace and superb ability as they performed stunts similar to those seen in old Esther Williams movie." You don't really need to watch me swim to see the hyperbole in that sentence.

The journals are filled with constant references to the weather. "It was so cold that Granmother-of-the-family had to break the ice in the bucket every time she washed her hands." An awful lot of rainy weather is recorded, perhaps because rainy days give everyone plenty of time to write. Most entries talk hopefully about how the weather is going to get warmer and sunnier. The writers quote my father as saying things like, "The wind is shifting," and "The barometer is rising, " while Blonde-haired Sister is famous for saying, "I think I see a patch of blue sky headed this way." Other entries are more blunt: "Red-haired Sister realized that she had come 300 miles to be wet and miserable with her family."

The kids in the family start writing in the journal just as soon as they are old enough to write. Here's an early entry from Schoolteacher Niece: "THE FUN AND HAPPY DAY WITH MY COUSINS AT CAMP AND WE WENT FOR A SWIM AT AN ISLAND. WE LIKE OUR CAMP." Of course, many of the early entries remind me of those good old days when our tents were filled with toddlers and babies. "Saturday night was cold and clear, a good night for sleeping if it were not for a certain teething child who woke up every half hour screaming in pain."

My mother is the one person who records such things as marriages and births. She'll get to camp and note in her journal entry that she has two new grandsons, or that she just came from a wedding. Other family members record Firsts: the first time Dandelion Niece caught a fish, the first time Boy in Black fell off the dock, the first time Suburban Nephew swam to the shoal, the first time With-a-Why jumped off the rock into the water. And of course, no matter how cold the water is in May, certain people will always go swimming just so they have something to brag about in the journal.

I brought the journals, or at least the early ones, home for the winter so that I could use them for the book I'm writing. But it's easy to just start reading them and get distracted from my task. I keep reading aloud entries to my kids about stuff they don't remember. Mostly, though, just looking through the pages makes me wish for summer to come faster.


Lomagirl said...

This is a beautiful tradition. I can tell from your blog that your family is rich in these traditions, and rich in family community.
Can't wait to read the book you're working on.

YourFireAnt said...

Good post, Jo(e). Stop reading the journals, though, or you'll end up having to give them to BSWDaughter to write the book. You can write the book right now from the few shreds of memory you have. Use imagination to flesh out the story.


But you know all this.

BlackenedBoy said...

There is so much I love about this.

"Ignoring rules is a family tradition. And we are great respecters of tradition."

I hope that one day I can build a family as wonderful and unique as yours.

kathy a. said...

the journals are contemporaneously prepared source materials! who could resist getting lost in them? they are a gold mine.

a few years ago, my dad's cousin transcribed a bunch of old letters that had been passed from one family garage to the next. they were mostly written by a relative during the civil war, first during his military service and then when he had a business supplying troops. [halliburton, it was not.] there were a few later letters, and she found a number of photos, too, of descendants and relatives.

Anonymous said...

What a treasure!!

Gawdess said...

love those big scrawled letters.

from away said...

Scan them! It's not the same thing at all, but it would be a nice backup someday when the pages are yellowed and disintegrating.

Yankee, Transferred said...

I totally love this.

concretegodmother said...

omg! i love this so much and have been thinking about it since you first mentioned it back in the green bench story. the coolest! i'm considering starting a house journal, since i don't have a camp or anything.

i love your discussion of the unified voice and the heroic narrative! i wonder if this kind of journal-y thing could translate to the classroom.... i have my students for a year.... hmmm.... (goes off to scheme next year's course outline)

crazymumma said...

What an incredible legacy! I cannot even imagine having such a treasure of time in words by so many different authors.

Lilian said...

I fully agree with from away -- you (better yet, the "kids" in the family -- since scanning is a tedious and time consuming job) should scan those journals.

Thanks for posting about them, I just love reading about them and if I were you I'd be reading them instead of writing the book. But I don't think you have to stop reading in order to write... i'm all in favor of distractions, they do make things take much longer (take my dissertation, for example ;-).

RageyOne said...

what a great way to document family memories.

Cloudscome said...

What a treasure trove. Interesting how your mother is the keeper of the journals and the instigator of recording. Not at all surprising really. Is she writing a book? Maybe you could get her to blog?

Tie-Dye Brother-in-law said...

"Is [your mother] writing a book?br/>
I'm surprised you didn't respond to that. Seems like a good topic for another blog post.