Ron Arias: Notebooks a family obsession

Ron1v

As near as I can tell, my writing habit began more than a hundred years
ago on a cattle ranch in northern Mexico. That was when my grandmother,
at seven years of age, wrote three words in a little notebook her
mother, Cristina Terrazas, had given her: hoy murio mama. No capital H,
no accent marks, no other details–little Julia Terrazas simply wanted
to record that her mother had just died.

Many years later, Julia
gave her own daughter, my mother Emma, a notebook in which to jot down
everyday happenings, thoughts, prayers and poems. Eventually, when I
was nine, my mother also presented me with a notebook. I was confined
to a hospital bed after having my tonsils out, was restless, and my
mother wanted to keep me out of mischief. "Here," she said, "write what
you see, write some stories." I did as she told me, and that’s how
three generations of Terrazas women passed onto me the itch to write.

I
still write in notebooks-my latest one is a lined, pocket-size
Moleskine–when I have time and mental space. But like most everyone
these days, I’ve succumbed to the lures of the digital, electronic
world. However, I’ve discovered the ease of e-mail comes with a catch.
I can reply, copy, forward, print or save, but ultimately I might as
well delete everything because it’s all virtual, not tangible the way
notebooks, diaries and journals are, especially old ones written by
people no longer with us. Such written relics are filled with intimate
thoughts, quirky handwriting, odd spelling, smudges, crossed-out words,
even doodles and sketches. My mother and grandmother may have died
decades ago, but when I hold their creations in my hands and read page
after page, I see the world as they did–I touch their lives.

Several
years ago, while trying to unravel some disturbing family mysteries, I
regularly touched the past in this way. For me, the personal,
confessional writing of my relatives had more than sentimental value.
The hundreds of entries allowed me to pinpoint dates, names and events,
led me to other sources, documents, letters, often to people I could
interview. Eventually, my hunt for the truth evolved into a book, a
memoir, about my family. Yet the project would never have started if I
hadn’t wandered into the tool shed behind my grandmother’s house in Los
Angeles the day we buried her.

Well
into her eighties when she died, Mama Julia–as we called her–liked to
watch Mexican lucha libre on television. Every week the sequined capes,
scary masks and flying leaps off the ropes captivate her for a few
hours. The frail old lady I saw whenever I visited her place had always
been a quaint, slightly raunchy figure who just happened to like short,
tubby men in tights. She’d call me Manos de bragueta, not because I
fidgeted with my fly but because in her mind men’s hands were vile and
had no place in her kitchen. "Fuera, manos de bragueta," she would
mutter. "Fuchi, fuchi,"–as if to say, "Yuck! Outta here, boy."

But
after her funeral, everyone gathered at her one-bedroom house in a
central Los Angeles neighborhood, officially named Elysian Valley but
on the street called Frog Town because it runs alongside the L.A.
River. We all poked around and took keepsakes of her presence. From the
kitchen I came away with the comal–the griddle on which she had  made
me hundreds of flour tortillas over the years. Then in her bedroom I
claimed a photo album no one seemed to want. Finally, I stepped outside
and went around back to the tool shed. Inside, behind a rake, hoe and
shovel, she had stored a small cardboard box on a shelf. I brought the
box out into daylight, opened it and fished out a stack of her
notebooks and some index cards covered with her invented prayers and
poems. I glanced at a few pages but only remember that the rhymed
verses in Spanish spoke about things like love and faith. For a long
time after that I kept all her writing stored away and unread.

When
my mother died I did the same thing–after the funeral I came away with
a bundle of her notebooks and diaries that I found in a bedroom drawer.
Yet rather than store them away, eventually I began to read them to
look for answers to the lingering questions about the odd circumstances
surrounding her death. She died at home at the age of 48 from
drug-related heart problems. Months later my father, a secretive,
enigmatic U.S. army officer, disappeared from me and my two brothers,
never to return.

I
read and re-read everything–notebooks, diaries, journals, letters,
postcards, store receipts with scribbled notes on the back. For the
most part they gave me the answers to my questions. But the truth
wasn’t always in facts. Often it was in the touch of words. As a
writer, in trying to create whole lives, of real people who lived and
had minds and dreams and desires of their own, I was blessed by having
all this in their own words. When Julia Terrazas writes that her mother
died, or when Emma Arias writes on July 19, 1952 that she longs for her
husband–who was then a prisoner of war in North Korea–I know I’m
touching the truth.

[Ron Arias is a staff correspondent for People magazine and the author of "Moving Target: A Memoir of Pursuit"]

[Originally posted 7.1.05]

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
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