Trapped in 1942

Grandma in a tree, 1940
Grandma in a tree, 1940

For the past few months I’ve been painstakingly transcribing my grandma’s diary from 1942. I say painstakingly because, wow, that girl had some undecipherable handwriting. I have a small advantage because I taught myself to write by tracing her grocery shopping lists in the mid-1970s. Her handwriting never improved, it just got more… mature.

Grandma Pat had an emotional intensity familiar to anyone who has ever been a sixteen year old girl (or boy). When she was mad, she was MAD. She didn’t tolerate imbeciles or “old bags” as she referred to the girls she didn’t like. Boys were falling in love with her every other entry, to a decidedly tepid or even hostile response. But when she fell in love, she fell IN LOVE.

Grandma first mentions Zip in the Valentine’s Day entry, which was later adorned with a lipstick kiss. Grandma is so flustered when Zip asks her to dance that she refuses. At this point she is so obsessed with some boy named Dave that she carries his picture in a locket and goes to Sunday school just to look at him. Dave doesn’t stand a chance.

One night in August, grandma leaves the skating rink with Zip. And she falls, and just keeps falling, in love.

More than anything, this diary is a love story. It’s an imbalanced love story, because we never get the other side of the story. It’s hard to tell if Zip has feelings for grandma. He’s twenty years old, likes to get drunk, and goes out with other girls while grandma stays home with a bum toe. He is about to join the Navy, and he is enjoying his final months as a civilian.

I’m not sure whether I like Zip. He’s never around when he should be, tells lies about where he goes and with whom, has something going on with some girl at the service station. Not to mention some short, fat, easy redhead. And Phyllis. Ugh, Phyllis.

Ok, so maybe Zip isn’t perfect. But this meticulous transcription of grandma’s heart laid bare is having an unnerving side-effect. I’m falling in love with Zip. I can feel the deep longing when grandma is waiting for Zip to show up, not knowing when she’ll see him again. I feel the relief and joy when he finally does show up with beer and cashew nuts.

One night, parked in front of grandma’s house, Zip falls asleep with his head in grandma’s lap. She sits, listening to music on the radio and watching falling stars. I can imagine myself in her place, my fingers in Zip’s hair, listening to his steady breathing, allowing him to be vulnerable.

When he leaves for the Navy, I can’t bear the brevity of the single goodbye kiss. I can’t stand the uncertainty as to whether he’ll write. I can’t stand the idea that he’s gone away. And then the missing him gets even worse. Every day that there’s no letter grandma is in agony. And the letters that do come contain none of the endearments grandma craves.

When I finish transcribing this diary, there’s going to be a strange void. These days spent in 1942 — falling in love and dancing to the Hit Parade with Zip  — will be hard to say goodbye to. Not to mention grandma. She was my best friend when I was a kid. She died when I was 12. And now I’m standing in as her best friend as she opens her heart on the page.

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