By Jim Withers
Soaked in a cold drizzle, I was eager to finish my run, get home and dry off. Then, in an alley less than a block from my downtown Montreal apartment, I spotted it.
“It” was a book lying next to a puddle.
This was on a miserable morning around the turn of the millennium, back when nothing would interrupt my daily run. In those days, I’d weave between cars rather than break stride and jog on the spot waiting for the light to turn. Something told me, though, that this discarded book was important, so I stopped and picked it up.
Its olive-green front cover was emblazoned in gold lettering: “YEAR BOOK 1969.” It was an appointment diary used as a personal journal. Inside were loose black-and-white and faded Kodak Instagram colour photos. The cursive writing was in ink from a fountain pen, reminiscent of a time before communication became all about cellphones, emails and texting.
I glanced up and down the ruelle to see if someone had just dropped it, but there was no one. Figuring that I couldn’t just leave a 30-year-old time capsule to get ruined in the rain, I took it home. Given the almost-dry state it was in, I assumed it hadn’t been on the ground long. But why would a personal journal end up in a rain-soaked laneway? Had it fallen unnoticed from a van driven by someone in the process of moving? Had it been tossed out by a jealous lover? Considering the condition it was in, it had obviously been someone’s treasured possession.
In the following days I immersed myself in the olive-green book. I studied the young faces in the pictures, especially the mug shot on a 1970 season’s pass to Man and His World that, along with a handwritten school composition on folded foolscap, was tucked among the photos. It was that of a young man in a turtleneck and a moderately long ’60s coif. His name was Jim, same as mine. The season’s pass, which included his Montreal address (nowhere near where I found the book), was evidence of Jim’s existence post-1969.
Yes, it’s a violation of a person’s privacy to, without permission, read their most intimate thoughts. There’s a reason why schoolgirls’ heart-adorned, pink diaries are outfitted with a little lock and key. But I suspect most people, if they find a diary, read it. I had no qualms about reading Jim’s journal; I’m a retired newspaper guy, and we newshounds have what John le Carré called “that persistent inquisitiveness which for journalists and lawyers is an end in itself.” We can rationalize eavesdropping on restaurant conversations or snooping in diaries because we see it as a noble effort to better understand the human condition.
(Even ex-journalists, though, need to have some respect for people’s privacy, and so I’ve omitted Jim’s surname and the name of his hometown, and changed his friends’ names.)
As I read his journal, I was struck by what we two Jims had in common. Was it destiny that I, of all people, should find his diary? In addition to having the same first name, he and I were both baby boomers (born in 1948) who grew up in Ontario – me in a hamlet on the southern shores of Georgian Bay, my namesake a two-hour drive south in a suburb of Toronto. Both of us couldn’t wait to complete high school, get out on our own and find out what the world had in store for us. Also, Jim and I were both seduced by the dream of living in a French-speaking milieu. What we didn’t have in common was musical talent. Jim had some – and could actually play instruments. Nor did I share his deep appreciation of choral music, Dvořák, ballet and La Bohème, but then Jim’s journal didn’t reveal any of my passion for sports, politics, rock’n’roll and early Dylan.
In the first half of Jim’s 1969 diary he’s living under his parents’ roof, struggling to survive the home stretch of Grade 13, the erstwhile final year of high school in Ontario. His account of those months is a welter of bellbottoms, acne, tiresome teachers, interminable math classes and rampant young-male horniness, with its attendant flirtations and infatuations. Jim stresses out over exams, homework assignments and lack of sleep. Jim’s version of High School Confidential evokes memories of that long-ago, restless, confusing stage of life. Like him, I never really knew where I stood in the all-important social pecking order, except that it sure wasn’t on top. It’s a time of clumsily negotiated relationships with friends, family, and teachers. As Jim writes:
“Stan and I had a fairly rough fight. … I couldn’t hack his continuous criticizing and superiority. I wasn’t speaking to Stan today. How childish can I get? And him for that matter? Perhaps we’ll apologize tomorrow.”
And then there’s Julie, the dark-haired girlfriend with whom he sees West Side Story and dances the evening away at the school prom and debutantes’ ball.
I wondered about their relationship as I looked at a black and white photo of the good-looking young couple – Julie, in her prom dress, beaming while holding a corsage, and Jim, in a tux, wearing a self-conscious smile. It’s the look of someone whose feelings lurch from “Julie looked very beautiful. The ball was a long hopeful dream come true and a gorgeous dream at that” to “She’s basically selfish and has no care for my future plans. I think I can rid myself of her right after the Grad Ball.”
Does Julie know Jim is gay? Perhaps they just avoid the issue the way adults did back then when it came to Liberace. How was it that grownups could see homosexuality as deviant behaviour, yet be fans of such a stereotypically flamboyant entertainer?
Jim doesn’t spell out what his parents know of his sexual orientation, but he occasionally makes opaque references to their feelings. Describing how beautiful his sister’s wedding was, Jim writes about how he and his mother stayed up talking until 6 a.m. and “I told her my problem.” Does Jim choose the afterglow of his sister’s big moment as the time to finally come out? Is he conflicted about his sexuality? What is Mom’s reaction? And what about Dad? How sad if he views his homosexuality as a “problem.” Decades before same-sex marriage became legal, when “queer” was still a smear, it took no small amount of courage to be openly gay in 1969. It was an added complication to an already complicated time in life.
In a Holden Caulfield cri de coeur in the depths of February, Jim despairs over what he sees as the irrelevance of school while being racked by self-doubt:
“Some days I wish that I were dead and this was one of them. As usual school was a big farce. I don’t know when the system will get straightened around to be able to suitably educate people. If I ever have kids I hope the god damned mess will be cleared up. How the hell can an exam evaluate me? … At times I feel I am the stupidest person on this ugly earth. I have yet to find the purpose in life. … This cursed earth. I wish I was never born!!!! SHIT.”
But it’s not unrelenting anguish, especially when Jim is playing Chopin on piano, listening to his Vivaldi record or attending a performance by the Vienna Boys’ Choir. (“Music seems to be the only thing I’ve really got and thoroughly enjoy to its fullest.”)
Twenty years old, Jim is still trying to find his place in the universe. His journal doesn’t try to capture the late-’60s zeitgeist – the Vietnam War, race riots, FLQ bombings, Woodstock, John and Yoko’s “bed-in,” etc. Even Earthlings’ first steps on the moon merit only a couple of sentences. Instead, Jim is focused on where he is and where he wants to be.
“A new chapter in my life begins,” he writes on June 14, on the eve of leaving home for good. “I got my hair cut before going to work.” (He has a part-time job at a men’s clothing store.) “It was a very sad day. But that’s life. The guys gave me a carton of cigarettes and I cried. Today was the last day for a lot of things.”
Jim’s coming-of-age chronicle changes course in the second half of the year when he boards a train for Montreal, rents a room northwest of the city and begins his new life in Quebec. He switches from English to roughly hewn French, perhaps to hone his proficiency in that language, or maybe just to keep his unilingual parents from uncovering details of his love life. Jim is on his own for the first time, working in the GM assembly plant in Sainte-Thérèse and, on days off, busing into Montreal and cruising the city’s gay-bar scene, dancing and drinking and often waking up in strangers’ beds. He works crazy shifts, sometimes through the night, and lives for his weekends in the big city.
The Montreal narrative shifts gears from Jim’s earlier, more cryptic and euphemistic accounts of late-night encounters in hometown parks. In Montreal, newly minted friends like Stéphane, Jean-Philippe and Jacques supplant Bob, Mike and John from back home. Jim has moved on, literally and figuratively, but his new life in Quebec isn’t all bacchanalia. In the first couple of months, he is forced to deal with bouts of homesickness, writing long letters to family and friends.
Then, after he has so diligently filled each page with the day’s thoughts and happenings, Jim’s diary comes to an abrupt halt on Nov. 25 for some unknown reason.
It was always my intention to find Jim and return his diary. I imagined arranging a meeting in a café or bar. There’d be an awkward moment as I’d hand him his olive-green book and confess to having read it. I’d point out that we shared the same name and age, and were both francophiles from Ontario who’d gravitated to Montreal. And while trying to not sound patronizing, I’d explain that my closest friend in high school was gay, and that I could at least relate to people of Jim’s sexual orientation. To top it off, I’d mention how I, too, keep a journal.
Unlike Jim, though, I didn’t chronicle my high-school days, probably out of concern that my words might fall into the wrong hands (parents’ or sisters’).
The first reference to Jim’s journal that I can find in mine was this 2003 entry: “I’ve got to try again to locate the owner of that diary I found in a puddle a few years ago.”
And try I did, making numerous phone calls across Canada to people with Jim’s surname, but without success. In frustration, I stowed the lost journal in a desk drawer, where it sat undisturbed for 17 years.
Fast-forward to March 2020: While looking for projects to tackle during the initial stages of the coronavirus lockdown, I renewed my search for Jim.
It occurred to me that he might have died of AIDS, a fate that befell many in the 1980s and ’90s, so in addition to checking addresses and phone numbers through online directory assistance, I widened my search to include cemeteries. For this I went to Find-a-Grave, a website I’d recently discovered. Sure enough, when I typed “James,” his middle initial, surname and hometown, the image of a grave marker bearing Jim’s name and “1948-1992” popped up on my screen.
So there it was: Jim had died 28 years earlier, almost a decade before I’d chanced upon his diary.
Stunned, I sat staring at the screen, wondering how his journal could have wound up in a rainy alley some eight years after his death.
I wanted to find out how the rest of his life had gone.
It dawned on me that I should try to contact Jim’s sister. His only sibling, after all, is mentioned throughout the diary.
I searched Canada411.ca for someone with her husband’s surname in the Toronto suburb where she and Jim grew up. In this peripatetic society, what were the chances that Marilyn and Ted hadn’t moved away in the past half-century?
I found a couple of promising land-line listings, and rehearsed what I’d say to whoever answered the phone. The trick would be to avoid giving the impression that I was a telemarketer or scam artist.
When I got a voice mailbox on the first call, I launched into my elevator pitch, mindful of the brief time the recording would afford me. I thought I sounded nervous and dodgy. Days passed without a response, so I tried the second number. The man who answered sounded surprisingly unsuspicious as I raced through my spiel, which concluded with me asking him if he had a deceased brother-in-law named Jim. He did. Handing the phone to his wife, I could hear him say, “There’s a man in Montreal who says he found a diary belonging to Jim.”
Whatever anxiety I had about calling evaporated when Jim’s sister came on the line. Marilyn hadn’t known about the diary, but she said she’d love to see it. I was glad that she wanted to meet me because I preferred to personally deliver the diary, rather than risk sending it in the mail. I wanted to meet this flesh-and-blood connection to the man who, unknowingly, revealed so much to me. I hoped Marilyn would fill me in about Jim’s life and early death.
My plan was to drop in the next time I visited family in Ontario, a get-together that took longer than expected – four months – because of COVID-19 concerns. In the meantime, Marilyn and I kept in contact, during which I avoided revealing much about the diary’s contents because I didn’t want to influence her reading of it. Fortunately, there was nothing negative in it about her, Ted or her parents. Reading between the lines, I sensed that there was a lot of love. On Feb. 2, 1969, Jim mentions how “bare and lonely” his sister’s room looks after she has “finally fulfilled her longing to get out on her own.”
So, in July 2020, after visiting family, I finally got to take Jim’s diary to his sister while on my way back to Montreal.
I rang the doorbell and a minute later was greeted by a senior version of the attractive young woman in one of the snapshots in Jim’s diary. Putting me at ease as she had when I phoned her out of the blue four months earlier, Marilyn ushered me into the living room, where she introduced me to Ted.
Her husband, I learned, was another francophile. A retired high-school French teacher, Ted turned out to be an engaging, loquacious fellow with a penchant for prefacing each story with “Long story short … .”
Marilyn was also a retired educator – teaching full-time for five years, and the rest of the time on an occasional basis. “It worked great for me,” she explained, “because Mom had MS, and it was easy for me to get time off when she needed me.”
The couple had two grown-up kids and six grandchildren.
It felt like I was relinquishing the Holy Grail as I handed Marilyn a manila envelope containing the olive-green book. Marilyn removed the loose photos, examined them and identified people from Jim’s past as she handed each picture to Ted.
Some of her fondest memories with her brother, she said, were when she and Jim performed duets from popular musicals – The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and Oklahoma! – with her singing and Jim playing piano, “even though he preferred playing more classical music.”
Jim, I learned, spent his final 22½ years in Montreal and environs. After several years on the car-plant assembly line, he worked as an engraver at a Jewish headstone company.
Marilyn showed me a photo of Jim and his long-term Québécois boyfriend decked as elves or reindeer – I wasn’t sure which – and Ted chuckled while recounting how the two had delighted the kids during a surprise Christmas visit. When the relationship with the Québécois partner ended, Jim took up with a Frenchman whose family hosted Marilyn and Ted on a visit to France. The happy times ended, however, when drugs took over Jim’s life, something that became shockingly evident when he came home for his mother’s funeral in 1988.
“It was the last time I saw him,” Marilyn said as she showed me a very different photo of her brother, his unsmiling face is gaunt and ravaged, his cheeks sunken, and his hair long and dishevelled. He’d given up on personal hygiene.
Jim’s dad blew up when his son asked him to help procure street drugs. His father refused to pay for Jim’s transportation home or even drive him to the train station, forcing Jim to hitchhike back to Montreal. Disowned by his dad, Jim fired off a hateful letter to his sister, the details of which left Marilyn shaking her head.
Four years later, Jim phoned to tell her that he was to undergo surgery for a brain tumour. He admitted that he was afraid, but hoped he’d pull through.
Jim died soon afterward, in January 1992.
“I thought it might have been AIDS,” I said.
Marilyn said she believed the tumour might have been AIDS-related.
After close to three hours, it was time for me to hit the road.
(Shortly after my visit, I received an email from his sister saying: “Reading the diary brings back so many memories. I was very aware that he disliked school but had no idea how much and how depressed he was. … We are grateful for having met you. Thanks for your perseverance in finding us.”)
We all wear multiple personas, acting and speaking in different ways depending on whom we’re with, but perhaps our most authentic selves can be found in our diaries. Keeping a diary is one of the few ways in which we can feel truly free to let down our guard. While the written word can, at best, convey only an approximation of our deepest feelings, an unvarnished diary comes about as close as you can get to the heart of who a person is. It’s like a window on the soul, revealing secrets about the diarist’s inner life that he or she might not want to share with even the closest of friends. It can offer insights to anyone who has ever wondered whether we all experience life pretty much like everybody else or in our own truly unique way.
I don’t know what prompted Jim to keep a diary in 1969 – a pivotal year in his life – nor, for that matter, why I started mine.
Perhaps Anaïs Nin explained diary-keeping best when she wrote: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.”
I see diary-keeping as a way of measuring life’s journey, therapy, a way of making sense of it all, and an attempt to reassure ourselves that our thoughts and experiences matter. That we matter. In this ephemeral world, where we seem to go from adolescence to obsolescence in a heartbeat, I suspect we all yearn to leave something of ourselves that is lasting.
Having read his most personal thoughts, I felt like I knew Jim – or at least who he was in 1969.
There is no way of knowing if my namesake and I ever interacted during the 7½ years in which our Montreal days overlapped, but his words live on – not just with those who merited inclusion in his olive-green diary, but with me, a perfect stranger.
And so, after having Jim’s diary in my possession for two decades, the mystery surrounding it and its author has finally been solved. Sort of.
Jim’s life, I learned, had come full circle, and he’s buried near his parents in the old hometown.
His olive-green diary is now home too.
Better late than never.