Reading My Childhood Diary to My Kids Made Me Realize How Hard it Is to Be Honest
Reading my childhood diary to my young sons introduced us all to the nine-year-old I’d forgotten
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Last summer, I embarked on a 1,200-mile drive with my three sons and my new boyfriend to view the total solar eclipse. The trip — from Oakland, California to Redmond, Oregon — felt daunting. Facebook was awash with Eclipse-Ageddon predictions: gas stations with no fuel, water shortages, overburdened sewer systems, and roads gridlocked with the crush of road-trippers headed towards the path of totality.
Yet the threat of being parched, stranded, or lacking a place to poop paled in comparison to the risks the trip posed for my relationship. This was the first time my boyfriend of four months had ever travelled with my kids. When I reluctantly invited him to come, he accepted without hesitation, offering to drive us in his brand new car with blithe enthusiasm; this 38-year old guy (who couldn’t recall ever riding in a car with kids in his adult life) had no idea what he was getting into.
I packed every screen and device we possessed, along with all the movies and video games their paltry memory and data plans could handle. I bought miniature versions of Battleship and checkers; crosswords, comic books, and Mad Libs; and an arsenal of refined sugar in all forms to use as bribes. It still didn’t seem like enough.
I called my little sister, who has four kids, to ask her for ideas. She suggested everything from drugging the kids with Benadryl so they would nap (“I think it’s okay if it seems like they might have a cold?”) to bringing my ukulele and a collection of sing-along campfire songs to play in the car.
“I’m looking for ways to spare my boyfriend from being traumatized. Not to reveal how insane I truly am,” I told her.
“Bring something to read aloud. Like your childhood diary!” she suggested.
I unearthed my diary from a tattered box that had somehow survived the Marie Kondo-inspired scorched-earth decluttering campaign I had been waging since 2014. I hadn’t seen its blue cover, fastened shut from prying eyes with a cheap tin lock, since packing up to move out of my parents’ house as a teenager almost 25 years earlier. I threw it in my bag thinking it would take a truly desperate moment for anyone to want to listen to what must be in there: A list of all the names of my stuffed animals? What I got for Christmas in 1985? I didn’t have a single memory of writing in it. For all I knew, it might be blank.
The desperate moment came all too soon. After only a few hours in the car, things got real: the one movie everyone agreed on hadn’t fully downloaded before we left; Mad Libs turned into a contest of who could most creatively use the words “dick” and “balls” and “snot” as nouns, verbs, and adjectives; and while walking back from the bathroom, one of the kids stepped in a pile of what was either dog or human feces, and inadvertently spread it all over the leather interior of the backseat of the truck. After cleaning everything up, we pulled back onto the highway as my boyfriend doled out a package of sour gummy worms, and I opened the diary.
Only six of the 400 pages contained writing; the dozen or so entries spanned two years — 1983 to 1984 — my girlhood from nine to ten years old. No wonder I had no memory of writing in it. But as I started reading, my kids halted their argument about who got the bigger gummy worm.
The first line, “I’m so glad I have this diary because now I can write about private stuff…like which boy I like at church,” elicited roars of laughter from the backseat. At 9, 11, and 13, my boys are simultaneously allergic to and electrified by anything mushy or romantic. They begged to hear more. I proceeded to read about an intense crush on a boy named Tadd Clelland:
“He looked at me through the church pews. I think he likes me. He said I could kiss him if he went under the ‘missile’ toe. I love him he is my boyfriend. It felt good to say that. Sometimes I lie awake in bed thinking about him.”
The kids were screaming. “What does that even mean?” and “You were flirting in church?” and “Mom, he was not your boyfriend!”
There was so much to explain.
As a Mormon, I had spent so much of my childhood at church; though it seemed crazy to them, it made sense that this would be the place where I fell in love for the first time. I explained my comic misspelling of the homophone “missile toe,” I admitted to being mystified as to why I called this kid my boyfriend though we’d never kissed or held hands. I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading — at age nine, romantic love was just bursting out of me with an idealistic abandon that I had forgotten I’d felt for anyone, ever.
I read the remaining pages in fits of laughter and wonder. In one passage, I admitted to falling for Tad’s best friend, Craig. In the next, an account of my first love letter from this new crush, consisting of just one sentence: “You are my dreamboat.” Then admitting in the next breath, “I don’t like Craig that much,” and going right back to dreaming about holding Tad’s hand a picking him for the Ladies Choice song at our local roller skating rink.
The kids begged me to read it, again and again, then took the diary into the backseat and howled at the bubble letters, overwrought exclamation points, and the initials, A.S + T.C. encased in hearts decorating the margins. “Mom, I can’t believe this is you!” my 13-year-old gasped.
It was hard for me to believe, too. This was me. Before I knew what was coming; before the rollercoaster of debilitating crushes, obsessive loves, and tragic leavings that marked my high school and college years. Before the naïve union, secret agony, and terrible heartbreak of divorcing their dad. This was me before dating as a single mom in her 40s, reluctant to name anyone that I’d kissed, much less slept with several times or even for several years, my boyfriend. This was me before I knew that love was as elusive and fantastical as thinking I could keep three kids from fighting or grinding gummy worm sugar and actual shit into the backseat of my boyfriend’s new truck.
We made it to Redmond and watched the 90 seconds of totality, mouths agape. I couldn’t quite believe the enchantment I felt as the moon’s dark orb floated towards the sun; the brilliance of the solar corona during totality; and the velvety twilight that bathed the trash-strewn BLM land (on which we’d managed to camp, cook, and use as our own personal latrine) with a beautiful, purple tinge for a breathtaking minute and a half. Nothing I’d ever witnessed had ever felt so otherworldly, so significant.
And then we turned around and drove home.
The gaming, fighting, swearing, singing, napping, messy eating, and movie watching resumed as we made our way down the endless stretch of I-5 toward the Bay area. Yet the diary — “Read it again, Mom. Please?” — was requested as much as candy or stops to pee. They had so many questions: Did people like me really use the word “dreamboat” in the olden days? And what is that anyway? Isn’t it bad to fall in love with someone’s best friend? Did you ever end up kissing Tadd?
Like the sun that’s there every day in the sky, yet most of the time impossible to truly see, so much of my life had been hidden from my kids. The highs and lows of finding and losing love, the wreckage and nagging regret of divorce. The awfulness of internet dating. Even on the road trip, I tried to disguise the glimmer of hope I was trying to keep alive about my new man — whose countenance and car were looking much worse for the wear than when we’d left Oakland three days prior. Before surrendering my phone to stop the insanity in the backseat, I made my kids swear on their Halloween candy not to read my messages: my diary of texted heart emojis and XXOOs between me and my boyfriend, and messages about him to my sister: I like him soooo much. But what if the kids don’t? What if he doesn’t like them?
I’m not sure how much of the real me I should let anyone see. Especially the people I selfishly brought into this heartbreaking world. Those six pages let my kids glimpse their mother — the other planetary force that is the reason they exist, that makes their days, dependably, go round and round — from a new perspective. They reminded me that though I try to tell myself I’m above it all, and so much wiser than when I was nine, I’m not. Love makes me feel the same way now as it did then. Clueless and lost. At sea on a dreamboat, throwing myself overboard once again.
The next total solar eclipse to transverse the United States will be in 2024. Six years from now. I will be 50 years old. There’s a good chance the relationship I’m in now won’t last that long; I wonder how many more times I’ll drown in those waters. And how many more kinds of sadness I’ll have to hide from my sons. In six years, they will have started down that terrifying road of finding and losing the people who will leave a mark on their lives forever. Though I wish I could, I know there’s little I can do to stop the things that will happen to them, the things that will crack them right through, and maybe break them altogether. I can only hope to build on those six pages of honesty when the time comes.