LOOKING up the source for a quote, I found the small black journal sandwiched between Boston's "The Outermost House" and Rachel Carson's "At the Edge of the Sea." I don't know how it got there. When I first saw it, I thought I'd found something I'd been looking for with no success - a flexible notebook small enough to fit into a purse. But when I opened the book, the spiky, distinctive handwriting made my heart beat faster.
This was the handwriting I'd seen all of my childhood. It belonged to my grandmother, Huberta Yeatman Frierson. She was a great letter writer, a correspondent to a small girl who waited with pleasure for the letters written and addressed especially to her. What I'd found was part of a journal kept by Huberta. How it came to be separated from her other things I had inherited, I'm not sure.
My cat, Sister, curls up on the desk in front of me and together we sit in the lamplight as I begin reading the journal. I suppose I should explain why I refer to this small book as a journal, rather than a diary. What's the difference? For most people, the terms are interchangeable. Early on, in the 18th and 19th centuries, diaries were primarily the bailiwick of men, with an intended audience. But they became feminized in the late 19th century as a refuge for women, a place to tell one's thoughts to a nonjudgmental listener. But Huberta's book is not a "Dear Diary," but a retrospective journal of days. Journal is linked in my mind to the newspaper trade, and, as I was to discover, Huberta's life and ambitions were linked to that trade.
And so begins the journal of a pilgrim. "I was born on December 12, 1877, in Little Rock, Arkansas." Her father was a newspaperman from Alabama. She tells of her earliest memory of taking two tiny baskets and filling them with rocks, over and over, walking from the edge of a creek and back up to the house until her little legs were tired. She wanted to trade her rocks for something special. "At an early age, I began to scheme and barter. Now in late life I am told I never lost that particular trait." Her
father moved the family to Texarkana where he started and published the Texarkana Courier. It was there that her brother Edgar, and sister Virginia, were born.
Then her father grew homesick for his home in Alabama, and they moved to Butler, Ala., where she says, "He took up his newspaper and journal writing and became editor of the Choctaw Herald." As a young girl, she worked in her father's office as a "printer's devil," setting print, running errands. "I would work for hours in the days of publication. I thought then, that would be my work in life. For I was so thrilled at being of help and some day would write articles and stories for papers." I read her wor ds and wonder if 100 years later, I am writing the articles and stories that Huberta wanted to write. I touch the pages, running my fingers over her words, taking the pulse of the journal.
A short time later, her mother died in childbirth along with an infant son. Two years after that, her father died, leaving the three children orphaned. They went to live with an uncle and his unmarried sister on a plantation in Alabama. She writes, "Even though we were left orphaned, [they] were so dear, and so good to each of us that as children we were made happy again." The three children stayed on the plantation and entered school. Huberta began attending the Presbyterian Seminary in Piedmont, Ala.
I turn the page and find a photograph that was taken on the day of her graduation. Eleven young women, all wearing long, dark skirts and crisp white shirtwaist blouses are captured in the camera's eye. They wear Gibson Girl pompadours and all except one are smiling into the camera. In the back row, Huberta is looking at something to her left. What had she seen that was more important than the class photograph? A bird? A young man? I look at her and hope I see myself.
AFTER graduation and "during President Cleveland's second term in 1893, I was made assistant Post Mistress." Then one night at a party, she met the man who would become her husband. "It was love at first sight, he said. And he was determined to take charge of my life." But Huberta was happy living with her family and waited several years before marrying the son of the Presbyterian minister in 1903. By then, Alexander Frierson was working as a clerk for the railroad and had probably figured out that "taki ng charge" was out of the question as far as Huberta was concerned.
Here, pasted into the journal, I find a newspaper clipping describing her wedding. "The bride is a tall, stately young lady strikingly beautiful and of most lovable character." She and Alex moved to Atalla, Ala., to begin their marriage, but Huberta's health failed and she was told "that I would have to be moved for the great help of sulphur waters at Trenton." After taking the waters, she grew strong again and the couple moved to Fort Payne, Ala., where they began their family of three little girls. Her e, Huberta lists her children and, underneath their names, the names of their children. Her girls are Margaret, Grace, and Anne. Then the names of the grandchildren, my cousins, Lynne, Gail, and Sandra. Then, Sara and Michael. I look at my name. I am here, I am affirmed. I am part of all this.
The Friersons moved several times because of Alex's work with the railroad. Then, on a day in early September, there was a terrible train wreck outside of Meridain, Miss., and Alex was critically injured. "My husband was so terribly hurt, torn in many ways and in and out of hospitals for months...." A manservant was employed to help. Alex had to be moved from his wheelchair to his bed. And Huberta became head of the household. With an invalid husband and three growing girls, Huberta had to depend on her own resources. Her girls came home with copies of fashion magazines. Huberta, a Southern couturiere with a quicksilver needle and an Alabama softness, knelt on the floor, cutting patterns out of newspaper, then fashioning dresses for her girls. My mama told me about a gown "made of peacock blue velvet that Mama made." She made blackberry jelly, buying fresh dewberries and blackberries from little boys who come to the back door. Her recipe for the jelly is included in the journal.
Finally, Alex recovered enough to open a small business and was taken back and forth from work by John, his manservant. "Once again, we tried to be happy. And we did go well for quite awhile, then came the 'panic. The stock market crashed in September, and Alex was forced to give up the business. Throughout this journal, I find not a single word of complaint, nor any hint of self-pity on Huberta's part. She writes, "Although a very sad cripple in body, not in mind, he never let it get him down, even to t he end in December, when he took his last, sweet sleep."
Huberta and her girls moved back to Tuscaloosa where they took a big house with other relatives to wait out the Great Depression. I find a poem pasted to one of the last pages in the journal: "When You Are Old," by William Butler Yeats. I am astonished by this since it is one of my favorite poems. I discover that Yeats was Huberta's contemporary. "When You Are Old" is a poem I put up on my refrigerator years ago in order to memorize it. I have loved the line, "And loved the pilgrim soul in you..." and so meone who loved me, loved it and memorized it too.
I love diaries and journals. We look into other people's lives from where we are in the same way that we stand in the dark and look into other people's lighted rooms. Are there books on the shelves? Is there a fire? Do they drink tea and have a cat? Do they feel as I do about things? Are we together on this dark star? The journals hold the inner vision of other lives for our perusal just as windows provide a frame for the people who live in the houses we see. Huberta shares her vision with me. And becaus e she does, I have followed the journey of a pilgrim soul.