It's the eternal dilemma of the journal keeper and letter writer: Toss your private papers into the fire, or leave them for your heirs to be captivated (or scandalized, or bored) by?
I was 51 when I began to keep a journal. I think it was because I was in a panic about my first novel. And because my father had recently committed suicide. I needed somewhere to cry and complain, a place where I didn't have to perform. Unlike a therapist, my journal didn't give advice or charge a fee. Much of the writing was fueled by anger, frustration, and despair—which is why if I died tomorrow, I'm not sure I would want my husband and daughters to read what I wrote. Still, I never dreamed of destroying my journals until a friend accidentally discovered a three-page rant his mother had scrawled many years before she died.

"My children are takers," she wrote. "They're not good-natured. They're selfish, self-centered, self-indulgent, and only need me when they want money."

One of her sons was so upset by the letter that it catapulted him back to the "pimple-faced rage" of adolescence. But his older brother cherished the chance to "hear" his mother's voice again. "It was so her," he says. "Angry, funny. Like a child lashing out. And when I read her words, I could feel her presence."

It was that intensity of presence that overwhelmed me when I read my parents' love letters, which my mother had threatened to throw away before she died. "Please don't," I had begged as we stood in her closet, the box of perfume-scented letters tantalizing me from a shelf. "Why would you care if I read them after you were dead?"

Soon after her death, I spent a voyeuristic week devouring my parents' words, catching glimpses of who they were before I was born.

"The juice is squeezed / the coffee's made / I'd rather stay in bed well laid," my father had written in his delicate hand on a scrap of paper the year they were married.

"I know I'm sterile," my mother lamented when she still wasn't pregnant six months later.

"Don't be discouraged, baby," he reassured her. "It's fun trying."

Unlike me, my older brother had no desire to creep inside our parents' heads (or bed). "I don't care to read that stuff," he told me with a squirm in his voice. "I find it a real intrusion on their privacy."

Then why, I wonder, did Mama leave the letters for me to read? If she'd wanted to protect her and my father's privacy, she'd have destroyed them no matter how much I begged.


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