My grandmother Helen kept a handwritten diary for the last few decades of her life. When she died in the 1980s Evelyn (Evey), my mother, collected Helen’s small notebooks and stashed them in her Bozeman house where they remained until I came across them after her death in 2013. When I found Helen’s notebooks, I asked my dad (Dick) if he wanted them. He was ambivalent. He wasn’t really interested but felt that somebody should keep them. He was a bit relieved when I took them. Helen’s diary now sits on my bookshelves where I dip into it now and then.
Unlike my salacious and frankly embarrassing diary, that I disposed of last year, Helen kept things clean. You won’t find any lurid sexual fantasies, experimental literary endeavors, or delusional pseudo-scientific speculations. What you will find are notes about bridge club gatherings, trips to the store, the day’s weather, the cost of home repairs, newspaper clippings – mostly obituaries, and observations about friends and neighbors. I get the impression that she imagined family members and friends reading her diary and made an effort not to upset too many people.
Helen’s diary begins:
March 7, 1964
My retirement begins at 5 o’clock today.
Birthday and retirement celebration dinner at Ruth and Ig Browns.
Employers gave me a beautiful pin and the Bosses gave me a hundred dollars.
December 11, 1982
Pictures from Cathy Bennet Fitzgerald of the twins. Went to Neitons1 funeral. Dinner and bridge and Glenva’s.
The diary crawls over five notebooks of roughly 180 pages each, so obviously, I won’t be quoting all of it. I’ll do what everyone does when reading books written by friends and colleagues. Look for the bits that mention you or people you care about. In 1964 I was a grade-schooler living in Red Wash Utah with my parents and siblings. Red Wash was a long day’s drive from Livingston and in June of 1964 my paternal grandparents, Frank and Helen, drove down to visit us.
June 1, 1964
Left Salt Lake at 9:15 arrived Red Wash at three o’clock. Most change of course in Steven. He talks quite plainly. Most of the time I am “grandpa.” He calls Dick “Pader.” Evey and I took John to bat practice in Vernal. Ate our dinner at the “Skillit.” Dick has lost quite a bit of weight and he looks much better.
On the next day she writes:
June 2, 1964
Anniversary of Janice’s death 32 years ago. John played ball tonight. His team, the Tigers won. John didn’t get a hit but he played well at second base.
Janice was Helen and Franks’s first child. On June 2, 1932, she wandered away from home, fell in the Yellowstone River, and drowned. It was a searing blow to my grandparents, made worse by gossip about my grandmother’s allegedly negligent parenting. It hurt all their lives, and here, thirty years on, she’s noting it. She continued with:
June 4, 1964
John played ball again. His team won again. John got a two-base hit.
June 8, 1964
Left Red Wash at 9:30 with Aileen with us. Stayed at Blackfoot Idaho at the Colonial Inn. Had a good dinner at “Stan’s Steak House.” Aileen is a good little traveler. Called Sonny and Mami and told them we wouldn’t stop on our way home. We are awfully tired and anxious to get home.
In November of 1965, my parents were getting ready to move to Iran. My dad spent his life roaming around the world drilling for oil. He didn’t like staying put and his job gave him an excuse to move whenever he was tired of a place. Still, Iran was a big move, even for him. I can remember my mother and me getting our globe and looking for Iran. She wasn’t pleased with its location. Helen noted some of this starting with:
November 4, 1965
Frank worked tonight.
Called Dick. They have no definite departure date. Eggar’s came back last Tuesday but I haven’t seen them yet. They were at Red Wash. Called Margot. Weather still fine.
John had 2 A’s, 4 B pluses, and I A on his report card. Aileen had 5 A’s and 2 B’s.
Took my blouse down to have the button holes made. Have the vest finished. Proud of my two bound button holes.
November 11, 1965
University Women’s Club tea this afternoon. Mrs. Ely, from Billings, reviewed briefly three books. “The Blue Hen’s Chick,” by A. B. Guthrie, his autobiography. “One Man’s Montana,” by John Hutchins, and “A School Teacher with the Black Foot Indians” by James Gold2. Mrs. Ely reviews her books with such enthusiasm and enjoyment that it is a joy to listen to her. I bought the first and the third one for Dick and Evey. It will be like taking a bit of Montana with them to Iran. Frank bowled a 576 series. Pretty good.
November 29, 1965
Called Dick tonight.
They go into Salt Lake Friday and stay until plane time. Their plane fares totaled $2470.00. Evey hasn’t received her dresses from her mother. Thinks now they can’t get there in time even by air freight. I never will understand Hazel. Evey enjoys flying. Dick doesn’t.
Helen was a bookkeeper, and Frank was an accountant, they both had a finely tuned sense of how much things cost. $2470 may not seem like a lot, but remember this is 1965 dollars. When you convert to modern inflated Biden bucks $2470 blows up to $24,000. It’s cheaper to fly to Iran today than it was in 1965. Inflation is a constant drip-drip of monetarist theft.
We arrived in Agha Jari Iran in the first week of December 1965. My father suffered a bout of culture shock and wanted to immediately return home, even if it cost him his job. This didn’t go well with my mother, and they had one of the biggest fights of their lives. I remember urging both of them to buck up and stay. It was a rocky start, but for me, it was pure adventure. Back in Montana Helen was fretting about them not writing.
December 24, 1965
Wish we had heard from Dick and Evey. Cocktails at Frank Houts, diner at Win’s, back here to open our wonderful array of gifts. Called Leone. Jenne was with her for Christmas.
December 26, 1965
4 degrees above zero this morning. Wrote letter #4 to Dick. Frank and I went to “Mary Poppins.” Margot wouldn’t go. It was a delightful show. Bennetts are back.
December 27, 1965
Letter from Dick. Things are going smoother for them. Wish Evey would write too. This letter was written on the 18th. No mention of having received any letters from us. Margot and I went downtown.
We settled in Agha Jari and the next year I was sent off to boarding school in Beirut Lebanon. Near the end of our second term, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War broke out and I discovered that war can work out well for some. We were evacuated just before final exams — how convenient for me. Of course, people briefly lost touch with me.
June 16, 1967
Evey called this morning. Standard Oil found out that John was evacuated to Rome and then sent to Tehran and then to his dad. Still raining.
There are gaps in Helen’s diary. Most of us struggle with daily routines and sometimes put things aside. She picks things up more than a year later:
January 1, 1969
After a gap of a year and a half, I’ll try again to keep this up. Margot and Win spent New Year’s Eve with us. Enjoyed Guy Lombardo’s music from the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Win back at nine o’clock for breakfast and to watch the Rose Bowl Parade. Frank watched football from 11:30 until eight that night when I turned it to something else. Fortunately for me, he watches in the afternoon at the Golf Club. Win and Margot came for dinner. Cooked the pheasants we bought from the Jumping Rainbow Ranch and frozen corn from Pansy Ruegg3. Both excellent. Temperatures – High 41, low 29.
Helen paid close attention to friends and family. She often calls out birthdays, funerals, and other social events.
March 19, 1970
Win’s birthday. Invited Margot and Nell Blam for her birthday dinner. A good party. Frank had to bowl but came right home and we played Jan Jan.
March 22, 1970
Frank bowled in Bozeman won 10th place in the singles. Only Livingston man to place in the money. He came home very happy. Win, Margot and I went to the Catholic dinner. Very good. Came back here and watched “The Cardinal.” 3 ½ hour show. Excellent cast and a powerful plot.
The diary continues recording day-to-day events. Rarely does Helen criticize or rail against others with one notable exception. In an unusually long entry on September 25, 1975, she writes:
… John stayed here until the morning of the 23rd and that afternoon Frank had a slight stroke. It left his left hand strengthless, so his golf game suffered because he can’t grasp anything with his left hand.
John was a great disappointment to us. Generation gap, I suppose, but he brought no clothes with him that were presentable. No meeting of ideas or communication. He watched television or read most of the night, slept a good share of the day, had no interest in doing anything with us. Just a place to eat and sleep until he went to Ghana. The most damming thing was a document he left written to a Carl in Edmonton. He expressed his opinion of me, in a most hurtful way. I don’t really care if I never see him again, and probably won’t because he plans to spend his vacations in Africa. He was rude to my friends — He is 22 years old so where did thoughtfulness, courtesy or appreciation go?
Good question grandma! I didn’t learn of Frank’s stroke until much later but her complaints are dead on. I was a self-absorbed inconsiderate 22-year-old. She eventually forgave me but it took years. Helen had strong ideas about how people should be. She didn’t like my other grandmother, Hazel, and often complained to me, as a child, about how crude and uncouth Hazel was. Again, accurate: Hazel was crude and uncouth, but she was also the “fun grandma.” Helen wasn’t the fun grandma. She was the disapproving social climber. She’s the only person I’ve ever met that practiced an upper-class accent. Helen didn’t think people in Montana sounded sophisticated enough. You needed to sound like a New York swell in her opinion. She also constantly nagged Frank about his relaxed, live and let live ways, and was particularly incensed by Frank’s tendency to lend people money. He helped friends during the 1930s when many were out of work, but he was always paid back, and his friends never forgot it. I’ve attended dozens of funerals, but when Frank died it seemed like the entire town of Livingston joined his funeral parade.
Helen didn’t maintain her diary the year Frank died of lung cancer. In her penultimate entry of November 14, 1977, she notes:
… Hazel had a letter from Evey. The offshore well at Esbjerg blew up. The men were evacuated.
I was on that offshore platform, but it’s likely my parents didn’t tell Helen. After Janice’s death, Helen worried about everything. Her fearful timidity annoyed Frank and pissed off my dad. She picks up again in 1979 with:
January 1, 1979
Frank died on November 19, 1978. Dick, Evey and Steve came from Denmark. John and his wife Ruth came from Barbados Island, Aileen from Edmonton, Gayle and Jenne, Frank’s brother John and Blanche came. Frank was buried on the 22nd.
I shall try to keep a journal. Alone all day. Chuck Nickelson telephoned as did Roy Humbert. I called Aileen to wish her a Happy New Year. Called Copenhagen tonight. It was 7 o’clock Tuesday morning there. Dick had left for work. Had a visit with Evey. 6 degrees above and very windy.
A few years after Frank’s death Helen learned of my father’s affair with the ex-wife of a drilling mud salesman. She may have been disappointed with me, but she was furious with my dad! Going so far as to change her will to make sure her daughter-in-law (my mother), received a substantial gift regardless of whether she was technically a daughter-in-law or not at her death. She even discussed dad’s affair with me, and plaintively asked if this changed how I felt about my father. It didn’t. My parents were going through a very bad patch, and when I found out who the other woman was my first thought was, “You can do better dad!” The affair resulted in a six-year separation of my parents but they got back together. Helen approved, but Hazel, and her long-lived sisters, thought mom was making a big mistake taking dad back.
As Helen aged, her memory started to fade. She didn’t develop dementia, but she suffered from what Hazel crudely labeled CRS (Can’t Remember Shit).
August 19, 1982
I must try to keep this up to help my memory.
Evey and I went to “E.T.” A delightful movie. Glad I saw it.
As the diary runs out her entries get shorter and shorter.
November 3, 1982
Took Margot shopping.
December 6, 1982
Rhonda mailed Win’s package.
Helen’s diary ended before the birth of my daughter, her namesake, Helen. By the time baby Helen was born my grandmother had changed into a far more forgiving and tolerant person. People, even in their eighties, can change. She had spent her youth investing in haughty pretensions but found that it was Frank’s many friends that looked after her when he was gone. She also forgave my father and even decided I wasn’t such a disappointment after all. My best phone call ever was when I told her that we were naming our daughter after her. She burst into tears on the other end of the line: great happy tears. Helen was work but I loved her, pretensions and all. Part of who I am comes from her, and even now, three decades after her death I still consider her words.