Soon after I started dating my future husband, Chris, I discovered that his deceased father had been a writer. Vernon Patterson had three published books, but what really intrigued me were his unpublished journals, named for his sons and his first grandson: The Book of Timothy, The Book of Christopher, and The Book of Benjamin. Stacked in my future mother-in-law’s closet were the originals (typed and handwritten) and bound copies (transcribed and typed by a hired secretary). The originals came with the added benefit of photographs, similar to very literate scrapbooks, and the bound copies were in blue, red, and pale green cloth hardcover with gold lettering at the spines, each volume at over 300 pages, forty volumes total.
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them. But I had to play it cool. Chris had resented his father’s invasion of his privacy. At eighteen, he’d asked his father to stop writing The Book of Christopher, and his father never wrote directly about Chris again. Though Chris had not read the journals, he distrusted his father’s version of history, and even after his father stopped writing about him, their relationship was strained. Pat had written the journals about his family, for his family. Yet as far as I could tell, the intended recipients had no desire to read them.
At twenty-three, I was beginning to call myself a writer, but Chris (correctly) assumed that my keen curiosity wasn’t born purely out of literary motivation. I wanted a window into his soul, since I was madly in love. Imagine: all the useful insight into his childhood, his ex-girlfriends, and his rebellious past. An operating manual, or a blueprint to his family, and, more importantly, to him.
My future mother-in-law, Teresa, had cracked open her closet door, revealing the goldmine. Although she’d been widowed for many years, one could feel Pat’s presence surrounding her. Over twenty years her senior, Pat had lived through the Great Depression and ridden trains as a hobo. He’d never owned a driver’s license and wouldn’t drive a car, believing himself to be too absent-minded.
After Chris and I had been living together a few years, he agreed to let his mother dole the books out to me, one at a time. What an uncanny sensation to be reading a detailed accounting of a family’s history, and then to be in the present, with that family, participating and creating more history; watching, noticing, and connecting the past with the present and future, in large ways and small.
In one journal, Pat wrote, “I was fiddling around in the garage when I saw something scrawled on the wall. Next to the pencil sharpener appeared these words: CHRISTOPHER PATTERSON SHARPENED HIS PENCIL HERE.” The next time I went to Teresa’s (she lives in Chris’s childhood home), I looked in the garage and found the scribbling. I told no one, a little secret between Pat and me.
Pat refined and edited his journals. I’d sometimes have trouble matching our unruly lives with the distilled and amenable version that was Pat’s. Or family members would come across as far wiser and wittier. Yet his descriptions of his family often correlated with mine and enhanced my understanding.
I’d find myself entranced by Pat’s childhood Chris. Pat wrote: “Chris was sympathetic to all and willing to project himself with such ready and complete sympathy into the role of the unfortunate. He half-ashamedly would turn away to wipe his eyes when in one of his bedtime stories the hero would die or some heroic person would suffer. He hadn’t been taught at home that to cry indicated weakness, but he would try to conceal his tears by burying his head in his pillow or by vigorously blowing his nose.” How could I not fall more deeply in love? And why, Chris would ask while we were watching a sad movie, are you looking at me?
Sometimes I’d read passages aloud to Chris, and he’d smile, but at other times, he was ambivalent and uncomfortable, so I stopped. The written love experience, I concluded, was between Pat and me.
The journals were also an emotional reckoning. All the particulars, the minutiae of their lives so carefully and loving documented, and yet life was uncontainable, unstoppable. “Parents can wield their power like little gods,” Pat wrote, “and then be surprised when life takes hold and swings them in directions unplanned.”
The journals became even more prescient after Chris and I married (with a two decade age spread similar to Pat and Teresa’s) and had two sons with an age difference analogous to Chris and his brother, Tim. Substitute our kids’ names, and often the journals could be describing them.
Pat’s list of questions that Chris and Tim asked as children could apply to our sons: “What is air? How long did it take the earth to cool? Have you ever seen a real, live bandit? Why do you have dreams? If you stand barefoot on an iceberg, how long would it take for your feet to freeze? Would you rather be dead or would you rather have your legs cut off? Would you rather be a glass of milk or would you rather be dead?”
Pat nicknamed his sons McGillicudy and McDougal, and I started calling our sons by these names, and the nicknames took. We still use them.
I continued to write, partially influenced and encouraged by Pat. For me, his chronicling of his family’s life had created something magical. I wanted to achieve that spark, whether published or not. And I began keeping journals for my boys, hoping to give them (or whomever) something like what Pat had given to me.
My boys’ journals have the distinction of having splotches of breast milk on their dark covers from my trying to breastfeed, write, and care for a baby and a toddler.
Soon, my journals became unedited reflections, quick furtive handwritten entries about the struggles of motherhood: “My son pinches almost every time he breastfeeds,” I wrote. “The skin around my nipple is his favorite area and we’ve had serious battles. I push his hand away. It creeps back. I yell NO! and he looks at me passively. He reminds me of a cat, the way it flexes a paw.”
My journals remain raw and unedited, and although I’m a very different writer than Pat, by ceaselessly commenting on my world, and by taking daily like as fodder, he has influenced me.
Even now, Pat’s description of Chris’s older brother Tim in 7th grade fits my son, currently in middle school: “Tim is moodier and physically clumsy for the first time, more inclined to anger. He seems to need constant action. When he gets home from school, he kicks off his shoes, throws down his books, and heads right for the refrigerator.”
The 1960s and 70s baffled Pat, as did his teenagers, and his journals became more introspective. “What kind of satisfaction,” he wrote, “do young people find in the so-called rock music? Chris has dozens of such phonograph recordings. Now and then he asks me to listen to a favorite recording, and I try to listen sympathetically, but all I ever get is a kinesthetic jolt.”
Chris and I have been together for eighteen years: fifteen married, thirteen with offspring. Like his father, Chris is an artist: a painter. Our history is entwined with his past, and although we don’t actively speak of Pat’s journals, they’re imbedded in our lives.
What Chris remembers and what Pat wrote are separate. The truth, I learned, doesn’t exist in Pat’s version, or in Chris’s. The truth is complicated and nebulous and open to interpretation. It is large and unwieldy and full of love and misunderstandings, similar to a family. Since Chris loves his privacy and I love him, I’ve learned to leave the story between father and son alone. The irony that Chris married a writer is not lost on him, nor would it be lost, I believe, on Pat.
Pat’s journals have a meditative and ruminative quality, and the final journals before his death are especially beautiful. He was an insomniac and wandered his garden, wearing his robe and slippers. “Dawn approaching almost imperceptibly,” he wrote. “The moon sharp-rimmed, like polished steel, shadows of the trees lying black on the lawn. The air so still that after turning off the sprinkler, I can hear the water seeping into the soil.”
Rather than that window I’d expected into Chris’s soul, I saw deeply into Pat’s. “Repeatedly,” he wrote, “I ask myself, Does my family know, blood and bone and tissue, that they are cherished and loved?”
I understand my family and my life by writing and through writing, just like my father-in-law, and his journals helped compel me to write. I often go back to them for inspiration. He quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “A place to stand and love in for a day, with darkness and the death-hour rounding it.” He taught me how to love and appreciate and be in a family—his family. At times I feel so much a part of him and he a part of me, I have to remind myself that we’ve never met.
(Image courtesy the author)