I’ve been thinking these past few days about citizens’ diaries and especially those written before and during World War II.
I was reminded about them after reading Of Mantelpieces and Pansies, an article written by Annette Januzzi Wick and posted on Medium a few days ago.
I had already been thinking about keeping a diary during these difficult days. Like my grandmother, I keep a few notes about each day in a book on my bedside table, but I decided now is the time to take some time to write a little bit more.
Of course, if I had known all that would transpire in March, I might have started writing my diary on March 1, or February 1 even. But I didn’t, so now as I write each day—two days in a row so far—I’m also going to look back at my daily notes and remind myself what it was like a month ago and make notes about that day in my diary too.
One month ago on March 1st, I went to the local greenhouse which had opened for the season that day. I bought three flats of pansies and posed for a selfie with the owner as we stood side by side. I went back to the same greenhouse last week for some snapdragons and alyssum and this time I stayed with my truck while she loaded the flats in the back and then I handed her a check for payment. No social contact. No selfies side by side. Much had changed in three weeks!
Side note: In Indiana, at least, greenhouses and garden centers are on the list of essential businesses. They would love to sell you some early spring vegetable starts and early spring flowers, plus seeds, onion sets, and seed potatoes. (It’s too early here for tomatoes and peppers.) Most will take your plant order over the phone and then bring it to your car and load it for you while keeping an appropriate distance away. A few might even deliver to your driveway if you live nearby. It will do you good to plant some flowers and it will definitely help them out for you to buy some flowers.
The most famous diary from the World War II-era is arguably The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which many of us read as a school assignment in junior high or high school. But there are many other diaries written by ordinary citizens that document what life was like during that time, including Mrs. Miles’s Diary by Constance Miles, which I read last year. On the back cover, the quote from the book starts out, “No Sunlight soap in the shop today…”
I suppose for us that line would be “no toilet paper at the Walmart today…”
In the spirit of a diary, though not actually a diary, is We Made a Garden by Margery Fish. Fish wrote eight or so books on gardening in her lifetime and this particular one, which she is most known for, is the story of how she and her husband, Walter, made their garden in a little Somerset village in England beginning in 1937. She notes that it was after a visit to Germany that they realized a war was inevitable and so decided to move from London to a small village.
I re-read We Made a Garden today and remembered how much I enjoyed reading it the first time. Fish is quite down to earth, appropriately opinionated, and like me, wanted to have flowers blooming throughout the year. (Her husband, on the other hand, did not.) She also wrote about flowers I’m growing today, including Corydalis, Epimedium, and Helleborus.
Reading We Made a Garden reminded me of the thread of gardening that connects so many of us who enjoy digging in the dirt not only from place to place but from age to age. It also reminded me that our ancestors—parents, grandparents, great-grandparents—went through trying times of their own and came out of it stronger and more capable than they thought they were. And through it all, many of them planted gardens, lots of gardens.
I see that today. People are making plans to grow their own vegetables. Online seed companies are slammed with orders. I hope those buying all those seeds know what to do with them. Some of the questions they ask online via Facebook make me wonder. But fortunately there are also a lot of people willing to help answer their questions.
I suspect their gardening efforts will be like the parable of the sower in the Bible. Some of the seeds will fall on rocky ground and wither and die. Some seeds will end up being choked out by weeds. But hopefully, a lot of the seeds will sprout and produce good food and encourage new gardeners to continue to plant vegetable gardens every year, even when we don’t have a pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
Me? I’m planting my usual vegetable garden. Probably the only change this year is I’ll be more diligent in harvesting and sharing the extra produce with others.
And I’m keeping a diary, which maybe someday later generations might read to understand what these days were like, at least for one person.
I encourage you to do the same.