The folder contains a kind of journal, though it is really only an intermittent series of entries, each on a separate piece of paper, from the years 1956 to 1966, and mostly from the first three of those years, starting when I was 14. What impelled me to hold it back from the tomb that was about to swallow all the other paper remnants of my life was the prospect of mortality—though not my own mortality as a 59-year old woman with a full, productive life behind her. In fact, if you’re not prepared to die when you’re almost 60, then I would say you’ve been falling down on your philosophical responsibilities as a grown-up human being. As for the manner of my death, I would have preferred to start swimming out across the Gulf at dusk, which is shark feeding time, and was still hoping to squeeze that in, should the cancer take a turn for the worse.
No, what scared me on that clear breezy spring day was the knowledge that the journal is not a self-explanatory, stand-alone, document. It begins, promisingly enough, on a wry note:
Today, July fourth, 1956, is a national holiday. That means that people who would normally work elsewhere are now free to work at home. Independence Day is celebrated all over the nation by noisy declarations of disregard for all laws prohibiting firecrackers.
But too often it is tangled and evasive, especially on some of the most important things, which I as a girl had found too private and too searing to commit to paper. I knew the journal would require a major job of exegesis, a strenuous reconstruction of all that I once thought was better left unsaid. So the sad thing was that, if I—the 59 year old Barbara—died, she died too: the girl who had written these things so long ago. That’s who, or what, I was determined to save, because if I have any core identity, any central theme that has survived all the apparent changes of subject, the secret of it lies with her.
I knew, roughly speaking, what was in the journal, and that it records what led up to an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that I never, in all the intervening years, wrote or spoke about it. I did make an attempt once or twice with someone I was especially close to, only to have them change the subject or look away uneasily. What had happened did not occupy any category that intersected with my central adult concerns, such as making a living and taking care of my family while at the same time doing what little I could to try to reduce the amount of cruelty in the world. Besides, despite what I like to think of as continual improvements in my ability to express myself, when it came to this one topic, there were no words.