Monday, June 10, 2019

Dear Diary: Clues to Truth of Family Stories

Excerpt from diary of Edgar James Wood
Edgar James Wood (1903-1986), my late father-in-law, wrote every day in his diary. As an insurance adjustor, he had to be able to say where he was and what he was doing if called by the court to testify in a case involving an auto or truck that his company insured. Knowing the care he took to record his activities day by day, I've come to trust his diary as a valuable resource for family history research.

Index Those Diary Entries for Clues

Most of his diary entries are fairly brief (how much can you say in in a three-inch space?). He was meticulous about listing who, what, where, and when. His diary entries about non-work activities have helped me understand more about family relationships and dynamics.

To make sense of the 30 years of diaries I'm lucky enough to have in my possession, I had to index the people and places and dates, which I did a few years ago. Now I can look at the index, pick a person or place or date, and go directly to the part of the diaries where Ed wrote about what I'm researching. Lately, I've been examining family stories and trying to figure out how much (if any) is true, and whether there are nuances I can better understand by digging deeper.

Visiting John Andrew Wood

Case in point: One family story about the four Wood brothers. I'd heard from Ed's children that their father was not at all close to a younger brother, John Andrew Wood (1908-1908). It's true that Ed, married and living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, rarely saw John, who lived in Indiana for most of his adult life.

However, Ed's diary entry from August 19, 1964, provides subtle insight into this family story. That week, Ed was on vacation from his job. He was driving his wife (Marian McClure Wood) and father-in-law (Brice Larimer McClure) to see family members in other states. He took his diary with him and jotted notes every evening, as was his habit.

They had just finished an overnight visit with McClure relatives in Peoria and arrived in Michigan City, Indiana, for an overnight stay with "John." According to the diary, as shown above, they enjoyed an "evening of visiting & a late supper." Next day, they had breakfast and Ed drove on to their next stop, a visit with a cousin on the Larimer side of the family.

Reading the August 19th entry, I recognized Michigan City as the home of Ed's brother John. John's wife was Rita Goodin Wood (1918-1988). This entry suggests that the brothers did stay connected through the years, even if the relationship might not have been as close as Ed's relationship with his two other brothers.

Clues Hidden in Plain Sight

Again and again, I found little clues like this, hidden in plain sight within my father-in-law's diaries. The diary entries hinted at how close Ed was to certain family members and how often he spoke or visited with brothers, sisters-in-law, and cousins, not to mention his grown children and, later, his grandchildren. Also I learned to read between the lines and see who was NOT mentioned in the diary.

Most of the time, Ed didn't explicitly spell out family relationships in his diary entry, because he obviously knew these people well. But when a relationship was also an affectionate honorific (as in the beginning of the diary entry at top, where "Aunt Becky" is mentioned), it was especially easy to connect the dots and confirm which family member he was writing about.

Thanks to Amy Johnson Crow for the #52Ancestors prompt of "Dear Diary" this week.


  1. I imagine an index of 30 years of daily diary entries was a huge undertaking! I'm going to read that post next.

  2. It is interesting that his work-related habit of note-taking spilled over into personal notes too. I can’t even imagine what 30yearsworth looks like!

  3. All 30 years' worth of diary calendars fit into a box in my bookshelf. It took time to index them, but I enjoyed the process, feeling like I was in a time machine following along as Ed went about his daily life. The index has been a huge help in identifying family and friends!