It’s a little like being in a Jane Austen novel. There’s tea at the parsonage, preachers abound. There’s a war going on on another continent, a naval base on the outskirts of town, a capital city within reach, an endless round of social engagements, calls made and repaid, gifts delivered, changes of season and fashion, births, deaths, weddings, funerals. What’s missing is a plot and, more important, Jane’s mordant wit, edge of her irony, some means of understanding how the characters rank and rub against each other so I can line them up between wisdom and folly, a place for everyone and everyone in his place.
Year Book, 1944 (five and a half by eight and a half inches), has a forest green cover with contrasting Kelly green plastic binding. Gold lettering on the front reveals title and origin: King G. Price, Insurance, 118 North Peters, Norman, Oklahoma, Telephone: 945. On the back is the company’s circular logo depicting an eagle whose spread wings reach beyond its circumference. Each page within has an insurance related heading, Fidelity Bonds for Fraternal Order Officers, Check Forgery and Alteration Bonds, Automobile Collision Policies, and provides equal space for two days, beginning with Saturday, January 1, and Sunday, January 2. At the end are five blank pages headed Memoranda, one of which narrates doings from January 19-31, 1945, and a page of calendars for the years 1943, 1944, and 1945.
As to the appearance of notations on the page, I find blue and black ink from a fountain pen, handwriting small and neat, stiff not loopy, slanting here and there to right or left. Most entries do not fill the space available, and there are few crossings out, usually to correct spelling. More than a few spelling mistakes have not been spotted. Rose M. Van Dyke employs capital letters, periods, quotation marks, parentheses, and apostrophes, often abbreviates and, year, and through. No colons or semi- colons. In spite of many run-on sentences, her style is terse and to the point. She seldom uses the first person singular, but plunges ahead with an active verb: went, washed, ironed, baked, hoed, planted, wrote, worked. She repeats many actions, week to week, but she does not shrink from or skip over these. She is forthright, not murky. She pays attention, names names, counts how many were present at a meeting, notes numbers of eggs her hens have laid and whether they are molting, records domino scores and games she wins.
I begin to be at home here, to understand her lingo. I no longer call her by her full name, or even by her last name, which would be usual and proper. No. She is Rose. Rare telephone calls are specified as such to distinguish them from the many calls she makes in person. To relatives only she gives first names; friends and acquaintances are Mr., Mrs., or Miss. To visit is to do more than talk, implies a conversation of some intimacy.Dinner is at midday; supper, the evening meal. Putting up is canning; she gets dinner, eats mashed taters; neighbors take sick, a show is a movie. Nifty, swell, goody, and jolly good stand out as slang among Rose’s favorite adjectives: cute, fun, good, nice, and lovely. She mentions the weather as it affects outings or gardening, but rarely describes setting in detail whether indoors or out.
This is no country of war shortages, nor is it the dustbowl, which I have lately learned was mostly in the panhandle. Rose and her family live in a land of plenty. A land of milk and honey, I might say, an earthly paradise in which fishermen fish, hunters bring home their kill; chickens lay eggs; cellars store apples and potatoes; butter, flour, sugar, fryers, pork roasts, and Arkansas peaches for cobblers can be found at the store to supplement the prodigious fruits, flowers, and vegetables grown in backyard gardens. (1) When spring comes, Rose is able to furnish seven card tables with white, yellow, red, and lavender tulips. And geographic borders, some tangentially related to this bounty, stretch far beyond Oklahoma to California, Hawaii, Mexico, England, and Russia (tacked a comfort for the Russians), to missions in China and Africa, subjects of talks given at meetings Rose attends.
The action takes place during the calendar year which provides a kind of structure, punctuated as it is by national and religious holidays (2) as well as family birthdays and anniversaries, but I leave these aside for the moment in order to place emphasis on dailyness. At the center of each day (3) is what Rose does. She washes and irons. She irons her sheets. She cleans her house, even though she has help in the form of Mrs. Long, good cleaner, who comes in once a week. She cooks and bakes for her own use, for family and friends, and to supply refreshments at various events: pecan rolls, ginger cake, and sugar cookies, all in a morning; six coffeecakes, eight pumpkin pies at a clip. She is provident, setting her dough at night to save time next day. She plans meals, arranges flowers, participates in gift exchanges of tea towels, bars of soap, and Pyrex pie plates, serves food and drink at USO events at the Armory. She babysits, pays bills, sees her G.P., Dr. Berry, and a foot doctor. She attends showers, weddings, and meetings as a member of several societies. (4) She pays calls on family and friends, on the sick and the dying. She is often either hostess or guest at luncheons, suppers, and backyard picnics. When not entertaining or being entertained, she spends her evenings reading (5), or out riding in the family car. Only once, for her 40th wedding anniversary on January, 12, does she eat in a restaurant, the Spinning Wheel Tea House, where she has a turkey dinner, followed by present opening and a party at home.(5) She plays dominoes, a domino game called 42, and a board game, Pollyanna. Infrequently, she naps. She has her hair done or simply combed; she gets a cold perm and a facial, has her nails polished, sees a style show at the Christian church. She grows vegetables and flowers, feeds chickens. She shops for groceries, once in a while for clothes, a mesh dress ($25.00, alterations and tax included), stockings, face powder, a fall hat. She gets her fur coat out of storage. She sends birthday cards and writes many letters. She goes to the McFarlin Methodist church, sometimes twice on Sunday, and to prayer meetings, one of which lasts all day-- also regularly to movies at the Boomer or the Sooner.(6) She sews (new curtains for the church basement, a sun bonnet), mends, dyes, embroiders dresser scarves and luncheon cloths, crochets, cuts dandelions for her chickens, gathers eggs. She often goes up town, less often to Oklahoma City, and twice on longer trips to Shawnee and Skiatook, Oklahoma.
She keeps all this up, day in and day out, does Rose. A remarkably energetic, active, fun-loving, and sociable person, it would seem. Not Rosie the Riveter, but doing her part for the war effort. Patriotic, religious, mindful of her civic and Christian duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked. Self-effacing, but not murky, as I have said. And yet there is something opaque, impenetrable, in her absolute equanimity. Almost without exception, books, movies, sermons, lessons, programs, speakers, and meetings are good. Every baby is cute. On January 3, she begins to crochet a table cloth; on March 16, she finishes it and sends it to the laundry to be blocked; on March 21, it comes back, and it is lovely. And in this one word in praise of her accomplishment, there is a note of triumph. Yet she does not think, as another woman might, of how this cloth will wow her guests when she uses it for the first time. Perhaps it is not intended for herself, but as a gift for someone else. Perhaps. But the reader will never know, for she does not mention it again. On June 6, she writes, Early this morning 4 0’clock the McFarlin Church chimes rang out ‘Rock of Ages.’ D-Day has come. Though her simple phrasing suggests something longed for and hints at historic significance, the Normandy landing causes no more stir in her mind than a tablecloth.
What I choose to call negative space pervades the diary. Rose uses active verbs, but she is also fond of passive constructions (very nice time was had; part of the play ‘Oklahoma’ was enjoyed), so much so that in trying to describe her writing, I begin to use them myself. Rose drives me to it. To enumerating what is missing, what is not. No pronoun I. No outpouring of fear, doubt, worry, grief, regret, desire faith, love, or hope. No juicy gossip, no disapproving glances, no wondering whether or why. Who preached, but not what; who was honored, but not what for. Not one of the seven deadlies can I accuse her of. Rose does not drive; Frank and fellow club members take her everywhere. Neither does she smoke or drink except for tea, coffee, Sanka, and Coca Cola. She does not listen to the radio. She does not have, as the saying goes, a job outside the home, but earns money occasionally selling eggs at fifty cents a dozen and, more consistently, by taking in roomers. In the Memoranda section are lists of couples or single people who have stayed in her home since the war began, ten in the front room, twelve in the middle room ($2.50 per night). Mrs. Cory was a cooking school instructor, Mr. Powers, a defense worker. Everyone else is identified simply as Marinesor Navy. These people hardly seem to exist except in their arrivals and departures when their rooms must be cleaned and aired, their sheets and towels laundered.
Like these roomers, the presence even of central characters is faint; they are not described, rarely speak in their own voices. Chief among these is Rose’s husband, Frank, also called Dad. Frank works for Van Pick’s where he unloads transports of oil and gas which sometimes make him late for dinner. His jobs around the house include: mowing the lawn, spraying cedar trees, hauling chicken feed, putting up the flag, cutting weeds in the alfalfa patch, trimming hedges, and painting the house. He is a Rotarian and church steward, often called upon to present awards at banquets. On his birthday, June 16, Rose made an angel food cake and bought Icecream at the store, gave him a shirt. In late September, Frank leaves for South Dakota on a hunting trip, returning with 41 pheasants on which he and Rose feast together and with friends for a solid month. In a rare expression of affection and coquettishness, she writes: I was glad to see him and have him home again. Had my hair done and a facial.
Similarly, she does not gush over her grandson, Lester, except to call him cute fellow.Lester is Howard’s; that is, he is Howard’s son, as Howard is Rose’s; Margera is Lester’s mother, Howard’s wife. When Rose writes was over to Howard’s, she means much more than Howard’s house. Her use of the apostrophe suggests the man and all he possesses: wives, children, grounds and gear, chattel. Slaves, if he had them. Rose and Frank interact with this family and with Rose’s sisters, Belle, Sophia, and Tena, almost daily what with Margera’s popping by with Lester on her bicycle, companionship at meetings, help with sewing and cooking, planned and impromptu calls, exchanges of guns, boots, ducks, quail, and pheasants, babysitting, holiday dinners, church going, after supper rides, and paving a sidewalk to the henhouse. Family closeness and harmony among sisters and with a daughter-in-law are built-in, not worth mentioning in the face of more important activities to write about. Howard, whatever he may do for a living, grows tomatoes, cabbage, and beets, cans bushels of cherries and spinach, and goes on juice and pickle-making jags in his spare time. Rose notes mildly that Howard has been deferred and without comment that he has a good offer from an unnamed Tulsa paper. Any rivalry or unevenness in intellect, talent, interests, and fortune (think how pointedly various are Jane, Elizabeth, Lydia, Mary, and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice) among the four sisters remains unexpressed, unspoken. As are Rose’s feelings about her two other children who do not live in Norman. It is to Marguerite in New York and to Bill in Hawaii that Rose writes her many letters.
Reader, I knew her. Down to her bones, which are mine now, jutting out at the base of my thumbs just as hers did. As some have known all along and others have no doubt guessed, Rose M. Van Dyke was my maternal grandmother, and I am a cheat, a spy seeking to pluck out the heart of her mystery. Wherefore should I do this? Why should I say again in tedious and excessive detail what Rose has said already? Why, for Rose. For myself. And for Virginia Woolf who on March 8, 1941, was keeping a diary of her own. And now with some pleasure, she writes, I find that it’s seven and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down. Why, to gain a hold. On the heartland in the middle of the twentieth century. On a life my mother fled, but which might have been hers. On the diary of a sane housewife, who passed on her genes, who did not think of drowning herself, of filling her pockets full of stones before walking into the river Ouse, as Woolf did less than three weeks after her diary entry.
But now that I have blown my cover, everything I say breaks Ransom’s rules, will be seen as subjective. So I will stop. I will not fast forward into the future which I can see, but Rose cannot, and for which she has no insurance policy, protective eagle on the back cover of her diary notwithstanding. I will not now speculate as to the sources of her evident and enviable content, call her a Zen Buddhist, an existentialist (we are what we do), a utilitarian philosopher dedicated to the promotion of general happiness, fusing what is pleasurable with what is good, as Keats merges truth and beauty. I will say instead what I often say to Leonard when he objects to one of my Netflix choices, some plotless film we are watching in bed, obscure, shaky as to direction, practically cinema verite, but which takes me somewhere I have never been, will never see. “Slice of life,” I tell him. Or, puzzled, he may ask me: “Is this slice of life, Darling?” So we pass it back and forth, a running joke. But that’s exactly it, what Rose’s diary is. Slice of life, darling Rose, slice of life.
1. Garden crops: apples, cherries, grapes, watermelon, tomatoes, snap beans, English peas, lima beans, turnips, asparagus, cabbage, corn, spinach, wheat, and alfalfa. Rose has a lily pond and grows lilacs, chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, tulips, and iris.
2. Holidays: Armistice Day, Decoration Day, D-Day, Flag Day, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July (celebrated with a cakewalk, games, and singing), St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, Easter, World Prayer Day, and Worldwide Communion Sunday. On October 31, Rose goes to an all-day prayer meeting, but does not mention Halloween.
3. January 5 and 6, when Rose has a bad cold, are blank.
4. Societies to which Rose belongs: Women’s Society of Christian Service (W.S.C.S.); General Missionary and her particular branch or circle; Garden Club; Sorosis (an important sorority-like organization devoted to household crafts among other things). Less frequently, Rose attends White Shrine and Eastern Star meetings.
5. Book titles: The Robe; Tears and Laughter; Strange Fruit; Papa Was a Preacher
5. Movies: Home in Indiana; Harvest Moon; Christmas Holiday; Wing and a Prayer; Song of Russia; The Butler’s Sister; The Chance of a Lifetime; Jack London; White Cliffs of Dover; Jane Eyre;Blonde Trouble; Love Crazy; In Our Time; Winter Time; Lassie Come Home; Heaven Can Wait; Whirlwind; Whistling in Brooklyn
6. Guests: Reverend and Mrs. Mansfield, Mr. and Mrs. Hackett, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, Dr. and Mrs. Walker, and Mr. and Mrs. Christopher.