Lisa Rivero has published four nonfiction books about education and parenting and is the author of a middle-school historical novel, Planting Words: My Friend Oscar Micheaux, represented by Bree Ogden of Martin Literary Management. Her current writing projects include A Nice Bright Day: Reading Aunt Hattie, Writing Myself and a novel, Wherever Women Have Lived. You can visit Lisa at her website, http://lisarivero.com.
Reading Aunt Hattie, Writing Myself
By Lisa Rivero
“Do you keep a diary?”
That’s the question I hear most often whenever I tell people about my project of transcribing over thirty-seven years of daily entries from my great-aunt Hattie’s diaries. Inevitably the conversation turns to family diaries preserved and read, and personal diaries begun and often abandoned.
“I do now,” I say.
At first, I began to read the diaries out of curiosity. Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher was my grandmother’s oldest sister, and I was enchanted with the possibility of reading not only about my grandmother when she was a young woman and courted by my grandfather, but also the births and childhoods of my father and uncle and aunts. As Rebecca Rasmussen writes (with my warm appreciation for hosting this post), “I am interested in all things old and outdated. I love to think about hope chests and house dresses. Sideboards are big ones, too...I'm always on the brink of trying to put up jam like my great grandmother used to do.”
There is also Hattie’s fascinating personal history. She was born in 1881 in what was then Dakota Territory on the Great Sioux Reservation. She was the daughter of a Civil War veteran, the wife of a World War I veteran, and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Her father, originally from New York state, lied about his age in order to fight in the Civil War, and her mother was a half-blood Native American who could neither read nor write and who spoke of having seen General Custer marching toward what would be his last stand.
The more I continued to read Aunt Hattie, however, the more I fell in love with this woman I’ve never met, not because she was my ancestor, but because she was a writer. She paid attention. She used words not only to record her world, but to understand her place in it, to know her own thoughts, disappointments, and hopes.
Who was Hattie Elizabeth Whitcher?
I am still finding out. While I have transcribed portions of each of her sixty-eight volumes, I have only finished the first six years from start to finish, and those tally to over two hundred single-spaced typed pages. So far, however, this is what I know.
She was a woman who tried hard to be both a good wife in the tradition of her family, religion, and community and a good citizen according to her intellect, ambition, and conscience. For example, she grew frustrated when the American Legion Auxiliary women spent more time “fussing over” their children than dealing with business, and noted with impatience that the “men are right on to ropes of Legion stuff and continue to have their same officers” while the ladies often “just visited.” She often felt silenced and outnumbered by the male voices around her: “All the men were upset because I wanted a higher school at Hidden Timber, and I am in for making them prove their charges against the referendum, but I guess the day was spent in vain.”
She was very sensitive, and she wrote about her emotions with acceptance and without judgment:
June 7, 1928: Bright most of the day except for a few clouds and a sprinkle followed by a strong northwest wind, and a beautiful rainbow. Ben and Dave went to plow for cane at Dave's and took lunch for dinner. I just did ordinary work and hoed fruit trees, and when we were fishing, I got stalled on a steep sand bank, and there was a river below, so I couldn't move and was nearly frightened to death. Harriet and Jeanette braced me and ran for help. Mr. and Mrs. Curt Elshire were going by, so he pulled me out, and all evening I had laugh-spells and would cry when I was alone.
July 4, 1950: We had to stay home this late p.m. in such a beautiful part of the day, and I had such a lonesome feeling, felt as if we were entirely out of the world.
And she loved to talk, perhaps more than almost anything else.
May 9, 1954, Sunday: Dick and Bud were in Harold’s car, talking, and Sadie came to our car and we talked and talked. Van Epps were at church, but came to the store, we talked there.
I recently asked two of my aunts if Hattie’s diary “self” is the aunt they knew from their childhoods. One replied, “The Hattie that Mom would tell about is not the one who wrote the [diaries]… in all cases.” The other told me that the woman she remembers and the one she is reading are one and the same.
Their contradictory responses seem somehow just right. In the end, isn’t that why many of us write and read, read and write, almost to point of compulsion—to attempt to come a bit closer to knowing the complex and contradictory and, ultimately, unknowable self, whether that self is our own or someone “old and outdated”?
Do you keep a diary?