Making Sense of the Diary

January 11, 1911: Missing entry (Diary resumes on January 12)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later: 

The diary entries resume tomorrow. Yeah!!

Since a diary author doesn’t really write the diary for others to read many years later, sometimes it is difficult to understand the context of diary entries.

Also, Grandma was about 40 years younger than me when she began this diary. How might the age differences frame how I interpret what she wrote? Grandma’s diary entries and my reflections and comments are not parallel.  Grandma was a teen jotting down her thoughts—I’m a mother with adult children reflecting on what a 15-year-old said a hundred years previously.   

To help me make sense of the diary I have several questions that I hope to answer as I work my way through the entries—one day at a time.

  • Who are the main people in the diary (“the characters”) and what are their stories? 
  • How does the diary author portray events, relationships, and herself?
  •  Does anything in the diary help me better understand myself? 
  • Can I learn anything about the slower lifestyle of 100 years ago that is still relevant today?

Grandma’s Parents

Tuesday, January 3, 1911: Missing Entry (Diary resumes on  January 12)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later

The 1900 census image for the Muffly family on the Family Search website provides a few interesting clues about Grandma’s parents. Her father Albert Muffly was born in Pennsylvania in November 1857. He was a farmer. Her mother Phoebe (called Febia on the census form) Muffly was born in Pennsylvania in August 1862. At the start of the diary Grandma’s father would have been 53 years old and her mother was 48.

(An aside: According to the Family Search tool the spelling of Muffly also shifted on census forms. On the 1900 census Muffly is spelled Muffly–but on the 1910 and 1920 ones it is spelled Muffley. I’ve also occasionally seen the spelling that includes an “e” on other documents but “Muffly” seems to be the preferred spelling.  I guess the importance of consistent spelling for future family genealogists wasn’t considered back then. But onward–)

It is also possible to figure out that Grandma’s father was 38 years old when she was born and that her mother was 33. Grandma’s oldest sister Besse (called Bessie on the census form) was 6 years older than Grandma; her other sister Ruth was 3 years older. (By the time Grandma was writing the diary she also had a brother Jimmie who was about 9 years younger than she was. Grandma’s mother must have been about 42 years old when Jimmie was born which seems quite old for that era.)

I had always heard that Grandma was the third child (and third daughter) in the family. According to the 1900 census form her mother had had 4 children prior to 1900—and 3 were still living. So Grandma must have had another sibling who apparently did not live very long.

John and Sarah Derr Family. Taken about 1900. L to R. Front Row: John, Annie (Derr) Van Sant, Sarah. Back Row: Miles, Fuller, Alice (Derr) Krumm, Elmer, Phoebe (Derr) Muffly, Judson, Homer. Phoebe was the mother of Helena.

In the early 1900s prominent citizens in a county were sometimes invited to submit biographical sketches that were then compiled into county history books. The individuals were also required to pay a fee if they wanted their sketch included the book. Some of these books are now available online. Two of Phoebe Muffly’s brothers have sketches in county histories and I was able to glean bits of information about Phoebe from them. Historical and Biographical Annuals of Columbia and Montour Counties Pennsylvania (Vol.  II)   had an entry about her brother J. Miles Derr (pp. 753-4) and Bell’s History of Northumberland County  had an entry for her brother Fuller Derr (p. 1085).

Grandma’s mother Phoebe Muffly was one of nine children born to John F. and Sarah (Houseknecht) Derr.  As an adult Phoebe had brothers living in South Dakota (Homer) and Baltimore Maryland (Elmer). Another brother (Fuller) was a physician in Watsontown; while  Miles was a teacher at Limestoneville. One of Phoebe’s sisters (Annie) was married to a physician in Turbotville.

When Grandma Helena began keeping the diary her maternal grandparents John and Sarah Derr were retired farmers living  in nearby Turbotville Pennsylvania.

Helena, Helen, or Grandma?

Monday, January 2, 1911: Missing Entry (Diary resumes on  January 12)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

There are only a few days of missing entries in the entire four-year diary, and most of them are here at the very beginning of the diary.

Since there are no entries for the next several days–and since I’ve found some interesting contextual information as I’ve worked on this–I’ll periodically post background information over the next week or so. And, then the diary postings will really get going on a daily basis on the 12th.

Grandma’s Name

As I work at posting this diary I’ve struggled with what name to use when referring to the diary’s author.

The diary’s 15-year-old author called herself Helena. My grandmother called herself Helen. I grew up in the farmhouse where my grandmother had lived when my father was a child. When I was a teen I found Helena Muffly’s high school diploma in the attic.

I saw Grandma the next Sunday, and after church I asked her whether her name was Helen or Helena. She said Helen. When I told her about the name on the diploma. She replied, “Oh, that was just kid stuff.”

My cousin Stu did a little research on Grandma’s name using the Family Search tool that the Church of Latter Day Saints has on their website. He found that her name is listed as Helena in the 1900 and 1920 censuses–but that it is Helen in the 1910 one. For the 1900 census the image of the census page is even on the website.  (When I replicated his search, I had the best luck when I used Northumberland County Pennsylvania as her address.)

Helen? Helena? Grandma? It seems strange to call a 15-year-old Grandma, but that’s how I think of her. Maybe I’ll just call the author Grandma when I write about her even though she was many years away from becoming my grandmother.

Ruminations About Why Grandma Didn’t Post for Several Days

 Maybe Grandma had writer’s block and found it difficult to get the diary doing. Maybe she was sick and didn’t feel like writing.

Or, maybe I somehow missed copying a page in the early 1980s when the diary was circulated amongst family members. But how could I have missed copying page 2 of the diary?!?!?

More likely a page or two was removed from the diary. Maybe Grandma herself—or someone else—didn’t want others to read something that she wrote.  What could she have possibly written that she wouldn’t want others to read? . . . a fight with her mother?  . . . a description of potential beau? . . . .or maybe the 15-year-old wrote something that she feared would get her in trouble and tore the page out?  . . . .or maybe her sister read the diary and didn’t like an unflattering comment and tore it out? . . . . or . . . .?