Have you ever kept a journal or a diary? I have distinct memories of writing nightly during my adolescence and teen years, at first in a small pink book that I locked, and later in whatever type of notebook I picked up at the grocery store. I lost track of the journals as the years passed, and I’ve often wondered what would happen if my children were to get their hands on some of what I wrote. What would they think? Would it help them to see me in a different light?
Gloucester resident Jean Tabb Clarke could probably take a stab at answering that question for her own family. Clarke’s grandmother, Mary Octavia (Tavey) Smith Tabb, kept a diary during some of the most turbulent years of our history – from the height of the Civil War through the early years of Reconstruction, at an age when many young women in our society are busy selecting colleges and buying prom gowns.
Beginning January 1, 1863, then 17-year-old Tavey began documenting her thoughts about her life, from the mundane (the daily weather) to the tragic (the loss of loved ones in the war). As I skimmed through the entries, what struck me most was young Tavey’s passion for the cause of the Confederacy, and how heavily the days of conflict weighed on her.
The diary opens: “1863 January 1st – The New Years day has past (sic) and now it is night, such a lovely day it has been. Would that the state of affairs were in accordance with the day, but alas it cannot be. As I look back to the past year how gloomy a greater part of it seems, and oh, it is too true that the many dear forms and faces I have known, some of them are no more. Ah, how sad to reflect on, to know that cherished hopes and bright anticipations lie withering dying under the scorching effects of Civil commotion caused by the blind fanaticism of an invading foe who threatens all that the heart of our Nation holds dear.”
Initially Tavey wrote daily, but after time she began to skip days, and even months. What holds steady throughout is the tone – the sadness of war and daily life – right up to the final entry where she journals about a troubling misunderstanding with a friend.
“Thursday Oct 1st 1868: … I verily believe there are some people, if you were to spill your heart’s blood for, they would still think it was not enough. … I feel sad on such a night as this. When all things around look so beautiful, a charm steals over me making feel a sad regret.”
The entries in between chronicle Tavey’s everyday life in the area known as Smithville (present day York County). As a young adult, she began to teach school from her home, and she assisted in the family business of providing lodging for travelers and preparing meals for the community. Her faith is a common theme throughout the entries as well. Still, that melancholy prevails, especially as she writes about a man she loved who fell victim to the war. Clarke described the diary to me in an email as “both a love story and a historical epic,” that “tells of ships that were sunk, generals that were killed, the news of the day and the hardships they endured.”
The diary was passed down to Clarke’s sister, Mary Elizabeth Tabb Hambleton, who transcribed it, then to Clarke who worked with a number of local scholars and historians to publish Tavey’s thoughts. In 2009 the diary was released as “Love and Loss, A Virginia Girl’s Civil War Diary” (Paxton Press, Hampton).
In addition to the actual diary, the book contains a synopsis of each day’s events which readers might find helpful. Tavey’s greater history is included as well, most notably her marriage in 1871 to Alexander Tabb and her charter as postmistress of Smithville in 1893. The remainder of the book might read like a treasure map for those interested in the area’s history, including family trees, a map with legend, photographs and images of documents such as Tabb’s post-war Certificate of Release from Prison and the oath he signed pledging loyalty to the U.S.
“Love and Loss” can be purchased at online retailers in paperback for about $17.
Want more memoirs?
Early next month, the Tidewater Community College will host its 12th annual literary festival, featuring five memoir writers, including keynote speaker Anchee Min whose memoir “Red Azalea” tells of her childhood in communist China. Also scheduled to appear are Gwen Cooper (“Diary of a South Beach Party Girl”); poet Remica Bingham-Riser (“What we Ask of Flesh”); poet Tim Seibles (“Fast Animal,” finalist, 2012 National Book Award); and Wade Davis, former Washington Redskin who writes about his experiences as a gay professional athlete (“Interference”).
The festival kicks off on April 1 and concludes on April 4. For more information, call 822-1122.