A fragile, humbly wrapped Christmas gift from a grandmother turns out to be a source of countless stories from generations past and the catalyst for a new practice.

My grandmother’s name is Florence—never “Flo,” but sometimes “Flossie” to a few elderly neighbors with whom she grew up. My mother’s mother is, to say the least, a woman of decorum: a small lady of Irish descent who firmly believes some things shouldn’t be shared outside the family or, in fact, with anyone. That said, I hope it’s no breach of confidence to tell you she was born in northern Vermont early in the twentieth century, shortly before the world first went to war. But despite her age, it’s no exaggeration to say that her mind’s sharper than mine’ll ever be.

One of the earliest memories I have of my grandmother is her cooking. Not the food itself, mind—though that was, and still is, impressive—but rather the act itself. More the verb of cooking than the delicious noun in which it invariably resulted. In her kitchen, cooking was a symphony of tight orbits; she was an aproned blur as she paced about the kitchen, tracing a well-memorized path around her dining room table, moving from ancient gas oven to refrigerator to wood stove and back again.

And her arms moved nearly as quickly as she did, reaching into the oven to prod a pie or to pull a too-curious grandson away from the stove. Those arms once lifted me up to sit on the kitchen counter as she slid a batch of cupcakes into the oven. They once shooed me away from a bowl of cake batter with a flick of her apron, a flurry of green and white that framed her wry smile. They once offered a fistful of cracked corn to me in her soft, gnarled hand, which I’d then scatter throughout her henhouse; as the chickens swooped down to snap up the feed in a flurry of feathers and clucking, my grandmother would smile as I clapped and shrieked with delight.

She’s a special woman, one who raised me almost as much as my parents did. Two Christmases ago, my grandmother became a bit more special to me, handing me a humble-looking present, a tiny bundle wrapped up in newsprint, possibly from that week’s paper, with my name written on the adhesive tag stuck on the top. After a few seconds of wrestling with the manifold layers of newspaper—my grandmother can wrap, people—I managed to uncover a stack of three small books, each battered and worn.

I opened the topmost book, and tucked inside was an index card, covered with my grandmother’s impeccable cursive writing. The note said these books were her father’s diaries and that she wanted me to have them.

The three diaries are small, fragile-looking things, each bound in leather and well-used but not brittle—the newest from nearly ten years before my grandmother was born, the oldest from 1884, a full two decades before that. Some mold crept onto a few of the pages in the oldest diary, and its cover is beginning to flake, but that’s the worst of the damage; they’re in remarkable shape. I sat there, slowly turning them over in my hands, unable to speak.

After a moment, I cracked open the middle volume. The title page is breathtakingly ornate: “STANDARD DIARY” set in an elaborate script; beneath it, a zodiac etched in red and black, with “1892” at its center. Most of the front matter is dedicated to almanac data—lovingly typeset meteorological predictions, time zones, dates for phases of the moon—which would have been of interest to my great-grandfather, a farmer, whose daughter grew up to follow in his footsteps.

But it’s the heart of the diaries I cherish most, the blank pages my great-grandfather filled with his own writing. Each day has nine thin rules dedicated to it, three days per tiny page, each pair of pages spanning from Monday in the top left to Saturday on the bottom right. (Presumably, Sundays were reserved for a different kind of book.) Each day contained a brief phrase about the weather (“Cloudy and v. cold,” “Pleasant + warm”) with one or two significant events (“Marvin and I drained ice from Center Pond,” “Got the sleigh shod”). A few spare words in a sloping, schoolboy’s hand doggedly filled in each day over the course of decades.

My grandmother and I talk often, or as often as I remember to call. She makes a show of complaining when she hasn’t heard from this grandchild or that in a few days, always with a smile in her voice as she acts mock-aggrieved. She doesn’t cook as often as she used to. In fact, a task can leave her tired for days, whether it’s a half hour of peeling potatoes, a short drive to the market, or simply a few visitors stopping by for an afternoon chat. A small item on her schedule is an event.

She never says as much, though. Her talk is light, happy, filled with local gossip and questions about my wife and my work. She asks where I’m traveling next; I ask after the latest news from her country church. While we never talk politics or religion, we easily fill an hour with topics we both care about.

But, lately, I’ve started peppering in some new questions of my own: how well she knew her father, and where her siblings lived and worked. I ply her for information about life on the farm growing up, and how she met her husband. The music she listened to, the places she traveled, the places she wishes she’d gone. And as she answers my questions, I begin writing in a new journal I’ve just bought, filling the pages with stories I’ve never heard before.

Ethan marcotte

Ethan Marcotte is an independent designer/developer who is passionate about beautiful design, elegant code, and the intersection of the two. He coined the term responsive web design to describe a new way of designing for the ever-changing web, wrote a book on the topic, and would like to be an unstoppable robot ninja when he grows up. Beep.

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