David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Artifacts & Academics: The Drive

November 10, 2019

My mother was a fascinating woman.  She shunned most technology, barely watching t.v., having no interest in a cell phone, and almost certainly never accessing an ATM at any point in her life.  However, computers and word processing were a whole different story.  And when sometime in the early 2000's, someone introduced her to the flash drive, I believe her life changed.

During my childhood, my mother kept a 7 inch by 8 inch monthly calendar as produced by the Grass Medical Instruments Company out of Quincy, Massachusetts.  I suppose they must have had a sentimental value for her because of the Quincy origin; I also suppose my parents received them for free every year, probably as part of some business relationship Dad had with them.  They were almost always a robin's egg blue with tiny squares for each day where Mom attempted to squeeze in the most pertinent appointments or information for the day.  Historian and collector that she is, she saved all of these calendars, and they became the basis of her extensive journals of her and my dad's married life. 

When she discovered the flash drive, she became all the more committed to being the Fleming historian, transcribing her journals, filling in details from photographs, letters, and conversations with others who lived the time.  She so loved the idea of the flash drive that she backed up her files on multiple flash drives, even giving me one (and probably my sisters as well).  As you can see, she was determined to make sure people valued it as the historical document that it was.

In the end, she wrote just over 878,000 words about their 63 years together.  And at 878,00 words, that's a lot of reading that I haven't even completely read. (As a comparison, one scholar has calculated that William Shakespeare only used 625,500 words for all of his plays.) In fact, it was only upon opening her 1952 journal that I learned that her appreciation of the flash drive was even deeper than I thought: 

"[I]n 2006 when we were introduced to the Flash Drive, which can hold hundreds of pages in a device the size of our thumb and can be worn on a cord around the neck or on a key chain, I decided this journal could be buried with me."

Serious 'oh, crap' moment.  Pretty sure my sisters and I failed to do this for her, although since she was cremated, wishes they had expressed for many years, I am thinking she may have been half kidding. 

I have now learned that the Glass Instrument Medical Company calendars started in 1964, and that previously, she had been using other calendars, all of them carefully packed and stored in sealed bags in her study.  Ever faithful, Mom recorded what the Glass Instrument Medical Company calendar's cover image was. (1972--"The Shape of Living Things by Scanning Electron Microscopy"; 1979--"Parameters of Neuronal Integration"). I mean, really, Mom, with all of your fascination in toys, houses, travel, design, books, famous people, you kept using calendars with medical instruments?  You were an enigma.

My mother's intellect can be seen in her introduction to the entire "box set" (seems like the best metaphor, as the flash drive contains hundreds of pictures, email exchanges, scanned postcards, and more).  She recognizes very well what she has set out to do:

"This really is not a diary as such as it does not contain deep thoughts or even many major international events, but includes mostly personal events that were recorded somewhere . . .   So, this is not so much a personal account as a logbook and in many ways reads like a stream of consciousness. In fact, I realize that memory uses a filling-in trick that often is colored lightly by the present. As someone wrote, one’s 'brain just cannot store the full-length feature of our past experiences, rather only tidy descriptions.' For the remembered past, this journal is a collection of ‘impressionist paintings.’ Few subjects are more ambiguous than emotional experiences, which can’t be recorded.  This is less a history of our private life than an assemblage of things that happened."  

And, yet, that final line is not quite true, at least for this reader.  One of the reasons I (and I am pretty sure this is true for my sisters too) have not read every single part of her journals is that much of it is painful.  As I look at 1971, at the bottom she has typed in script, "not one of our best years. (We had moved across Morgantown, and while there was drama before the move, and drama with the new house, I am sure my sisters and I would never characterize it as anything less than a pretty good year.) I hate looking at her 2010 journal because her introductory overview to the year ends with "it was a painful year for David, Pix, Lincoln and us."  I fight back the tears to know how much her children's troubles troubled her, and yet it is still the year when we traveled with them, via train, to Montana and spent a wonderful time being exposed to her childhood and seeing our distant relatives. It was a year when her grandson, Chris, graduated from college, at the same time that I received an "alumni of the year award" from the Eberly College of Arts & Sciences, both at WVU. It was the year that I cranked out It's All Academic and found that freedom sometimes makes one free to write.

So, yes, 2010, sucked in a big way, but as with most things in life, the pain can be shaded by many fortunate moments.  I think this is why I have always hesitated to keep a journal. Recapturing life in a day by day or minute by minute linear fashion leads me to see everything large, when life truly is defined by the small things, the accumulation of laughter, love, and joy that allow us to endure.

Still, I am in awe of my mother's drive . . . both literal and figurative.  It seems out of place in today's world where people don't want to take the time to read about the past, who don't want to understand the events that led them to where they are. 

Mom has left me this magnificent artifact, and I do plan to read the entire 878,000 oeuvre from start to finish.  I better get going.  My track record is not good. I still haven't gotten around to Shakespeare's Pericles.