I turned the pages carefully, the 42 year old cursive handwriting immersing me in the journey of a lifetime. I held in my hands the travel diary that my husband’s grandmother kept on her 1972 trip to communist Czechoslovakia. Mentie traveled with her husband, Edmund on his journey to his homeland – his first (and only) time back since he’d fled, alone on a ship, at age 12.
Born in 1918, Mentie grew up on a farm in Arkansas and moved with her family to Flint, Michigan, along with so much of the South when the siren call of the auto factories beckoned. That was the extent of her travels until she boarded the jet and flew to London with “Dad,” as she called him in the diary, and on to Prague.
We departed for Prague on time, a nice trip, delicious lunch. Our trouble started when we arrived. The Cedok young man showed up immediately but Dad had trouble communicating in Slavish. We discovered he knew some English but still had problems. We had to exchange into their money and go through customs. I was so relieved when this Russian (looking) fellow finally put his stamp of approval on us. Then began this crazy taxi-cab drive to the Hotel Flora. The driver and Cedok man in front, we in back, all I can say is it was a reckless, mad, drive.
I’d heard her stories over the years of her time in the tiny village of Bytca and the exotic city of Prague. Even while more recent events and family members faded into the mists of her mind as she aged, she could still recall – with crystal clarity – moments from the trip. When my husband Brian and I made the trip ourselves in 2009, long after Edmund passed away, she was overjoyed that we got to meet the family in the old country, and from then on we could reminiscence together.
But to read her own thoughts, unfolding as the trip progressed, was a window into a time and place I never knew. It was also a means to relive the wonder and thrill and fear of a first time in a foreign land. Her honest, unfiltered words brought the trip to life. I’ve been to the places she described; met the people (albeit more than three decades later), but that’s not why I could see them. She noted with interest the smallest details – how long it took a cousin to mix the batter for a cherry cake, how many eggs the family was allotted a week – and recorded with her reactions to this other way of life.
I couldn’t put the little book down until I’d read every word, rapt with Mentie and Edmund’s time in Czechoslovakia and their trans-Atlantic sailing home. I had so many questions I wanted to ask when I finished, so many things to exclaim about. But I was reading the diary too late. We were gathered with the family after Mentie’s visitation service. She’d passed away, at age 96, a few days before. In her last hours her granddaughter read the journal to her, hoping to leave her with happy thoughts.
I wondered, after finishing the journal, what family might make of my writing after I’m gone. Mentie’s story was spellbinding. I’m quite certain the listicles and slide shows I’ve churned out as a paid writer won’t merit a glance from any future great-nephews or nieces. Mentie faithfully captured a place at a moment in time; I wish I could say more of my writing did that.
Some things I write to pay the bills, and I don’t have the luxury of turning that work down. But when I’m writing for myself – in my trip journals, or my blog – I want the words in that little blue diary to be my inspiration. I told Mentie every time I saw her that I’m a writer, when, memory failing her she’d ask again. I want to be a writer in a way that she would appreciate, and leave at least a little something behind that might captivate a reader long after my traveling days are over.