Mean grey old morning.
Immolation of someone else’s diary was not how I had planned to start my day.
It was early March of 1974. I had been out of gainful employment since the previous June, trying to write fiction and babysit my infant son. My wife worked as a secretary, driving back and forth to Tacoma in a $40 Pontiac Grand Prix that would be worth a small fortune now. Nobody wanted the big Detroit iron that year. The Arabs had supposedly squeezed off the world’s supply of cheap oil, and you waited in long lines at gas stations and hoped they’d let you have five gallons, if any was left when it was your turn.
It wasn’t the first winter I spent in the Pacific Northwest. It wouldn’t be the last. But it was one of the toughest. I first saw Washington State in summer and watched June blend into July amid squalls of rain and dismal temperatures. By the spring of 1974, I had the uneasy feeling that I was living in the bottom of an uncleaned aquarium.
It was a mean grey old morning. I didn’t know then that was what to call it.
I wanted some warmth in the house, so I touched off a milk carton and some twisted newspaper pages in the fireplace, trying to get the split alder wood to ignite, and knock the damp chill off. The baby was still restive, after a restless night; the chimney wasn’t drawing yet; I needed more paper. There was a brown grocery sack beside the firewood carrier. Inside were hundreds of pages ripped from a bound diary, all jumbled together. The earliest entries I noticed were for 1936.
My wife said a friend of theirs, a remarkable, gravel-voiced Texas lady who was a radic-libber before anyone coined the term, was preparing to die. She wasn’t particularly ill right then, just clearing the decks and settling accounts, so to speak.
The diary was her mother’s.
She could not bring herself to burn it. But she had decreed that burn it must.
The thought of consigning the written harvest of a life to the flames made me vaguely ill. Still, it was her wish and the fire was foundering. So I began the immolation.
I held my curiosity down by main force, lest I spend the whole day in a dank room, trespassing in someone else’s memories. I couldn’t suppress a yearning wonder if some eternal truth might not be crisping into ash and smoke, borne away on the weak blue-grey plume the chimney finally produced. The alder began to crackle greedily. I fed the flames more words, more emotion, more vivid recollections. My eye fell on the top sheet of a new handful.
“Another mean grey old morning to contend with…”
Just a glimpse of that phrase, as my hand completed the already-begun gesture.
The fire fattened and belched, and almost began to purr. I fixed a Thermos of hot tea for my wife’s drive to work, and backed the Pontiac out of the boggy, treacherous driveway. She thought she might be able to find gas for the beast today.
I was slower to feed the fire then.
Words floated by my gaze. In San Francisco, one day in 1944, the diarist visited a lonely friend for dinner. She saw the residential lights running down along the bay there as “a necklace of brilliants” against the night and fog. There was one funeral attendance. There were probably more; as one grows older, it becomes a usual thing. There was a fondly recalled trip to Berkeley, California. Each Sunday church visit was dutifully recorded.
But not once, as far as I could determine, for worship.
She went to church to “lobby.” Frequently the word was in quotes; but she never explained why. How enigmatic. How charming. The Greek demand for outer logic and precise definition be damned. A host of possibilities unfolded themselves as the diary died. I wrote down one in my own journal:
“Lobby: A cynic’s evaluation of the power of prayer?”
The fire was so hearty now it sucked the marrow from the pages and spit twisted bits of carbon up the chimney. I fed it faster, and it gurgled with surfeit. The room was warm, the baby content, and I was just finishing my grim work. The remaining pages of the diary, with its bulk already consumed, seemed drained of their vitality, sentenced to die, awaiting the flames. An unrelenting toll of repetitious early risings on dreary mornings, but how the day often turned “lovely” later on.
Almost the last to burn was Jim, a brief flare of renewed passion.
An anniversary of an old grief was commemorated. It dawned clear and bright, and the diarist noted the irony. Jim was either the love of her lifetime — or a Beagle hound. Once more, the charm of blurred distinctions. But the emanation of pain from the words was tangible. Then the words were gone, like Jim.
The baby was asleep, his head propped on the belly of my patient Labrador retriever. I sat for a long time, gazing out the window at the chimney smoke adrift in the windless, dripping gloom. Someone once said you can spend your whole life putting words on paper and be lucky to find one phrase that resonates.
Mean grey old morning.