I should be working on my novel. I should be working on these short memoir pieces I keep telling everyone I’m writing. Instead, I have my head stuck in a diary from the 1940s that belonged to an elderly woman named Abbie Emeline Kenyon.
Miss Kenyon apparently never married or had children. When the diary starts, in January 1943, she is 87 years old. By 1945 she is writing in it only sporadically, and with a shaky hand. She would die on July 30, 1946, at 90.
I know all this because I’ve been obsessively looking at birth and death records on the Internet. Today my husband and I drove to the picturesque village of Ashaway, where Miss Kenyon lived and where she is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery. It didn’t take us long to find the large stone that marks her family’s plot. We took pictures and tried to decipher names obscured by curlicues of fungus. Born on Oct. 20, 1855, she was the daughter of Matthew Stillman Kenyon and Abby Austin. She had three half-siblings and a brother, but they were all long dead by the time she began writing in this diary.
The diary, a black volume called the Daily Reminder, was printed in 1943 by the Standard Diary Company of Cambridge, Mass. It has been in my family for nearly 50 years but I only recently came into possession of it, when my mother passed away. She had retrieved it from a large, rambling farmhouse on High Street in Ashaway that my parents owned briefly, in 1964. The Lewis family that owned the house were friends with Miss Kenyon and she may have boarded there as she grew more frail. I was able to figure out her identity through Census records.
All of this would only be mildly interesting were it not for Miss Kenyon herself. Her voice is speaking to me from the winter of 1943. It’s a strong, clear, Yankee voice. She is alone and often lonesome, but she does not complain. Her diary records her visitors, the letters she receives, and the various illnesses befalling people in the village. Nature figures large in her writing. “8 above zero and the wind strong,” she writes on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1943. On Jan. 25, 1944, she is living with Mabel Kenyon, who seems to be a cousin’s widow. “Mabel and I moved downstairs to sleep as the beds shook so much & the noise from the wind would not let us sleep,” she writes. Visitors are her life and her lifeline, bringing her food, chopping wood and filling the woodbox, and keeping her entertained. “Did not see anyone to speak to after Mrs. Norman went – until she came at bedtime, except the milk man,” she noted on April 25, 1943.
The war makes only occasional appearances on these pages. Miss Kenyon knits for soldiers. On July 17, 1944, “Mabel had a letter from Prentice. She thinks he is in England. He can’t say where he is. But expects to be back in the States early in Aug.”
Occasionally, she has an ear ache or a dizzy spell. In March, 1943, she spikes a temperature and the ambulance is called. But after a day at Westerly Hospital, “Decided I was not sick enough to be in bed and came home. Waller [Lewis] came for me he brought my coat – which I did not take with me. Mr. Burdick and Isabel were my callers today.” After that, she does not mention her illness, whatever it was.
The pattern of her days, the visitors, the letters, the wind; the clothes hanging on the line (“Washed. Very good day”), the grocery man delivering her $2.50 worth of food, the wood lot she sold for $200 (“Paid the tax for my last time, $2.13”) … these fill the blue-lined pages in fountain pen ink. And now the diary is being transcribed, day by day as it was written, on my Facebook page. Soon I think I will figure out just what to do with this voice that is in my head. For now, Abbie Emeline Kenyon has emerged from her decades of silence. She probably would not approve, but I hope she would understand just why I’m so interested in her, and why I think her voice needs to speak to us after all these years.
If you would like to follow the diary, friend Betty Thayer Cotter on Facebook and send a message noting that you found this on my blog.