After we have passed our 16th decade of life, we have more years behind us than we do ahead, so perhaps it's natural to have a few regrets, to wish there were words, actions or moments we could change. For me, more than any other moment, there is one. It happened in the spring of 1970 in Buffalo.
I was 24, a graduate student in the American Studies Department at SUNY Buffalo. I was involved in the strike against the Vietnam War, and I'd just had a life-changing epiphany: I was going to drop out of graduate school, travel to Italy and write a novel about the anti-war movement and the new "women's liberation movement," later called "feminism." Since I wasn't originally from Buffalo and didn't plan ever to return, I had given away everything I possessed. The only question was my diaries, the daily journals I started in 1954 when I was nine years old and my mother gave me a blank book as a birthday present. When I asked, "What should I do with this?" she told me to write in it, and when I asked what to write, she told me to write about my life. So I did. I wrote about what happened, what I felt, who I had a crush on. At 13, I had a terrible crush on Elvis Presley, and loved him with all my heart.
Now, however, the diaries presented a problem. My family's home didn't feel like a safe place to store my writing. I couldn't leave them in Buffalo. There seemed nowhere to keep my past. Anyhow, I reasoned, I was a new woman with a new future. Why did my past matter?
So late one night I took all those years of diaries, put them in a brown paper grocery bag, carried them out to the back yard of the American Studies house on Winspear Avenue at the edge of campus and placed them in the battered old metal garbage can.
The next morning I woke to the sound of men talking outside my second floor window overlooking the back yard. Though I couldn't hear their words, peeking out the window, I saw sanitation workers standing over the open can, my diaries in full view. Their voices got louder and louder -- they were arguing -- about my diaries! I wanted to run down and retrieve the diaries, but my body wouldn't move. Their arguing seemed to go on and on. I put my pillow over my head until the truck drove away. I never saw my diaries again.
As the years passed, I came to regret more and more what happened that day, and realized I'd discarded a written history of my life. Yet I always believed one of the men took the diaries, thinking some day the girl who foolishly discarded them would want them back.
Then, while walking this winter, I suddenly had the oddest feeling that the man who'd saved my diaries had passed on, his daughter found them and wondered what to do with all these books with faded pages her father kept so long. Perhaps she even smiled looking at the one I bought at the five and dime, its pink plastic cover stamped with an image of a pony-tailed Bobby Soxer in the Poodle Skirt. Perhaps my thoughts were foolish fancy. But I'd love to see those old diaries again. I don't recall much about my adolescence. I'd like to know who I was -- or pretended to be.
Do my words ring a bell to anyone?
Does anyone out there have my diaries?
Can anyone give me back my past?
Ruth Geller, who lives in Western New York, mourns the day she threw out her written adolescent memories.