Family History Series: Reading Between the Lines of a 1907 Excelsior Diary


[What] kind of life [is] possible for a young woman who has come of age on the last vestige of the frontier…who has absorbed its values…lived up to its harsh physical demands?…Such a young woman can never accept the constraints of a traditional female role and yet she can never fully assume a male role…what space [can she] claim and what air is [hers] to breathe…?

—Mary Clearman Blew Bone Deep in Landscape


Cora Paul’s 1907 Excelsior Diary arrived in my mailbox nearly a century after it was penned. My mother had rescued it from my grandmother’s barn along with other artifacts, which had rested undisturbed in a dusty old trunk all those years. The author was the fourteen-year-old daughter of a Central Montana rancher and my paternal great grandmother.

I knew nothing of Cora except she had essentially been erased from my family’s narrative. Her crime? She had divorced her husband and abandoned her daughter, my grandmother, and moved back East in the 1920s to play jazz piano. I had even seen her piano in a darkened corner of my second great-grandmother’s parlor, a moment forever seared into my six-year-old imagination. I have never forgotten the sound of the tinkling yellowed keys nor the spanking it earned me.

Cora was wild. She smoked. She drank. She danced. She had lovers. She lived in an apartment by herself. She earned her own living. Not like my mom who married at sixteen and stayed married forty years or her mother who reached her sixtieth anniversary before she died at eighty-six.

On the other hand, I was a divorcee and struggled with the stigma. Despite the gains of Women’s Lib, my generation was still trying to make peace with wife, mother, career woman, jazz piano player, or whatever. Just like the TV commercial promising we could “bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan,” I wanted it all, whatever that was, but had no map to guide me. But along the journey, I had held the forbidden knowledge of Cora’s life close to my heart. She became my mentor, genetic proof of the range of my possibilities. If Cora could do it, so could I.

Three college degrees later (the first woman in my family), I had transformed myself from a mother/housewife, pink-collar worker into a writer, teacher, and, yes, even a blues harmonica player. Luckily, I still got to be a mom, but I was no longer married to the female success formula.

Now, the concrete evidence of Cora’s story rested in my hand in the form of a thin text barely larger than my palm. When I read it, I expected confirmation of my faith in her to be transported through the musings, insights, confessions, and the ups and downs of coming of age on the last American frontier as the Victorian era faded and Modernism emerged. Instead, I found matter-of-fact reportage written in nearly unreadable scratchy script: “January 1, 10 below. Snowing. Don’t remember.” “January 4, 5 Above. Clear. The folks came over. We played the graphophone.”

I had no idea what to make of the “X’s” next to certain names and other cryptic references. I became a diligent detective over the next ten years, unraveling the details of her life. I read dozens of books about the diary genre and western frontier women, searched for documents in the library and online and finally traveled 2,000 miles by plane and trudged through a mile or more of chest-high prairie grass into a remote Montana valley, using old photographs as a guide. I was on a mission to find Cora’s mother’s homestead, the place Cora mainly lived and recorded her young life.

I enlarged and copied the diary pages, which allowed me to transcribe them into the computer more easily. I soon grew worried I might be violating Cora’s privacy by dissecting and sharing her secrets. But if she didn’t want anyone to read it, why had she not destroyed it when knew she was dying of cancer in 1935? It could not be an accident. Of all the fates that could have befallen the diary, it landed intact in my mailbox.

Research revealed an answer: once a subject puts the pen to paper, she is unconsciously seeking connection, asking for a reader, yearning for a witness to her life. I was her witness, her appointed agent, and now and it was up to me to tell her story.

Research also clued me in to the meaning of Cora’s “omissions” or “silences”–what was left in and what was left out. It was those little “X’s” next to her maternal uncle’s name. It was the time he locked them both in the basement and wouldn’t let her leave. It was those provocative romance novels he gave her to read. It was how he tore up letters from her beau and how he seemed to always be hovering. She never once used the word “incest,” or “molestation” to comment on her predicament. She didn’t have those words because the truth is, Cora lived in a time when women’s bodies were possessions to be colonized. Women had no voice. Perhaps her only escape after all was to follow her dream out of Montana until she saw its dust in her rearview mirror.

Of course, such trauma and Cora’s abandonment played out in generations to come. My grandmother grew up without a mother and in turn was a negligent mother who introduced brutal men into my father’s childhood. He in turn carried that brutality into his own family. Defining these intergenerational patterns of dysfunction helped me understand how the unfinished business of generations past has shaped my own life for better or worse. Cora Paul’s story and mine are inextricably intertwined.

When all is said and done, I continue to feel inspired that she claimed her space and her own air to breathe through those faint scratchings of ink in her tiny 1907 Excelsior Diary.


Sonja S. Mongar


About the Author

Sonja S. Mongar, MFA, is a journalist, memoirist, and semi-retired professor of creative writing and faculty mentor in the Western Connecticut State University Professional and Creative Writing program. She is currently working on her first novel and playing the blues at open mikes in Spokane, Washington.