Thursday, May 10, 2007

Found Shelley's sister!

I am pleased (and saddened) to announce that I found a death record for Shelley.

That information led me to records for Shelley's siblings. I found a younger brother, born almost a exactly a year after Shelley died. I also found Sybil, the sister mentioned in the diary.

After five or six hours of digging on Sybil (which wasn't really easy -- her name has changed a few times), I found her current address and phone number.

I've called a couple times, but I'm really not a phone person. After realizing how consistently thrilled I was when no one answered, I decided that writing her would probably be a better option. I sent her a letter this evening.

I'm nervous, for some reason. I worry that this stranger will be pissed off that I tracked her down. I'd probably be a little suspicious myself. I also worry that maybe she had a falling out with her family many years ago. Maybe SHE'S the one who sold the diary off, since I bought it in Austin and that's where she now lives. Maybe she doesn't want this thing back in her life.

Anyway, the letter's in the mail. We'll see what happens.

I've also asked the San Antonio Public Library to search for an obituary.


Dear Sybil,

This is one of those “you don’t know me but” letters, and I’m holding out every hope that you don’t dismiss me as the creepy stalkerish sort. I’m writing you because I think I have something that essentially belongs to you.

I’m a freelance writer in California. Several years ago, while on a trip back home to Austin, I bought a little girl’s diary in a thrift store. It was kept only briefly, but it was obvious from the five or six entries that the girl was in the hospital. It was a wrenching, compelling read, and for these few years that I’ve had it, the diary has been one of my most cherished possessions.

I always wondered about that little girl, about what happened to her and why she stopped writing so abruptly. During one trip back to Austin, I searched through some vital statistics records, but I came up empty. I knew her name (she had dutifully written it on the frontispiece of the diary), but I didn’t know anything else about her. I didn’t even know whether she had been from Texas, given the possible transient nature of thrift store goods. A cursory search through the state’s death records came up dry, so I was left to more years of idle curiosity.

I’ve shown the diary to other folks over the years. The response is always the same. The thing is a genuine tear-jerker. Like me, everyone who’s read it wants to know the outcome. What happened to the little girl with the blocky handwriting, sitting in the hospital watching American Bandstand and dreading another shot (or, rather, “shout”) from the nurses?

A couple days ago I dug out the diary again, determined to track down the story of this little girl’s life. With the help of some online friends, I found specific information on her — she was indeed from Texas — on a genealogy site. She died a few months before her 10th birthday, and two months after the diary entries ended.

Eight hours and about 400 web searches later, I found you. I’m fairly certain that the little girl with the dull and dedicated pencil was your sister Shelley.

I apologize if this brings up painful memories. I also acknowledge the possibility that I have tracked down the wrong person, although it’s really quite scary the amount of information — and corroboration — you can find online. I know you’re a writer as well, so maybe you can see how this was also a bit of a professionally interesting pursuit.

If you are the Sybil who was Shelley’s sister (taken to piano practice by your grandmother on one fine January day), I’d just like to make sure that the diary finds its way back to someone who was close to its author. While I’ve certainly enjoyed my stint as its keeper, I don’t think it really belongs with me.

I’d also love to know just a little bit more of the story that’s held my imagination for so long, if it’s not too intrusive for you. I’ve known this little Shelley, without ever knowing her, for a few years now. I’m sad that she’s gone. I really hoped that she’d gotten out of the hospital and put the diary away in favor of jump ropes and sunshine.

If I haven’t marked the wrong woman, please contact me.




Got a response from Sybil. Shelley died of Cystic Fibrosis shortly after the diary entries ended. I won't post too much personal information in order to protect the family's privacy. Here, however, is what Sybil wrote to me when she got the diary in the mail:

When I saw the cover I realized Shelley and I had gotten similar diaries at Christmas that year. Mine contained about the same number of entries: also talking about American Bandstand, but also about boys in Junior High I thought were cute and how much I hated Jamacan shorts and midriff tops that were popular then along with bows in one's hair.

Shelley was still at home when she wrote her entries in that diary. In a month she was too sick to write anymore, and one day when I came home from school, she was dressed in clothes other than her nightgown and my mother was fixing her hair in ribbons and bows. I was all excited to know where she was going.

"To the hospital, " I was told. I had no idea (or did she, I am sure ) that meant to her death.

Thank you again for reminding me of those innocent days of love and loss.

You will always remain in my heart,


Wednesday, May 9, 2007

This is the story of a little girl's diary.

On a trip to Austin about 5 years ago, I found and purchased a old diary at Uncommon Objects on South Congress.

The story inside, although brief, is heartbreaking and compelling. Since gaining custody of this poor, discarded diary (for $2, I might add), I've never stopped wondering about its author -- and her fate. Who was Shelley Newman?

I know a few things, but not enough to piece together the story.

1. She lived somewhere near the coast.

2. She had a sister named Sybil (who played the piano).

3. She was a very sick little girl.


Shelley's diary, at least some 40 or 50 years later, contains a grand total of 5 entries. (Several pages are missing.)

January 13

"Dear Diary,

My shout hurt. Not to much. But the nurse put the shout in my seat & left the niddle in & squred the shout off & put another shout on & Oh!"

January 14

"Dear Diary,

Today I'm still waiting for the nurse. I've been shaking all day long.

Buster came out & talked, talked & talked

All day I've been shaking"

January 15

"The nurse came early today, It [hurt] a little & don't fell so well.

Grandma & Grandpa came out today and they stayed wiht [sic] me. They gave me a book of Valentine cards."

January 16

"Dear Diary,

The nurse came out early today. It hurt! The nurse talked about the ocean & I got homesick.


Now I'm watching T.V. It's AMERICAN BANDSTAND."

January 17-20, pages missing

January 21

"Dear Diary,

Today I did nonthing [sic] but watch T.V. Ave-Nell & Larua [sic] came over and that was not fun.

Grandma came to take Sybil to piano.

Thats all I did. I got some letters from school two."


This is how Shelley's diary abruptly ends -- letters from school.

But also tucked inside the diary is an undated letter to Shelley's mother from her grandmother. [Edited: I know now that Leslie was her father, not her mother.] It's written on perforated note paper, and sometime in the past year I misplaced the bottom third. (Aye! I could perforate myself. I know it's around here somewhere, but right now it's MIA. The missing third contained the signature -- "Signed, Mother" -- which is how I know it's from Shelley's grandmother.)

The Letter

"Leslie --

1 - Must learn to believe God loves Shelley more than you.

2. You, Sybil, Dr. La Pierre sit and discuss from your love what you want that is best for Shelley.

3. When you pray you are only doing that same thing with God who not only loves her but also knows your [been?] heartache & loves you.

4. Your problem in prayer is not to talk God into doing something for Shelley. He is far wiser than you.

Your problem is to rid yourself of man made blocks so God can bring His Will to bear _thru_ you.

[missing section of note]

6. Man -- in the mass -- has turned from believing in God & his power momentarily. They believe vaguely & generally. They live in a world of cause & effect relationship

Shelleys problem is caused by this.

To man's present knowledge it is 100% fatal.

Therefore, the effect -- Shelley too must be sacrificed.

7. God says "No! That is not my Will. My will is life."

8. You must talk with Him as often that He can finally convince you of His Will. That is the purpose of Healing Prayer."

Who was Shelley?
Some questions I can't shake. Did Shelley's diary entries stop so suddenly because her health worsened (or improved?)? How old was she, anyway? Does the grandmother sound like a Christian Scientist, or just a really harsh critic of Shelley's mother? (Or is there another interpretation I'm missing?) A friend who grew up in the late 50s, early 60s, said she had a diary identical to this one as a teenager -- when was Shelley writing?

The main question, of course, is whatever happened to her?

This is such a brief glimpse into a (painful) life that may have been long ago lived out. But it seems important to me, for some reason, to remember it, to acknowledge it. Maybe it's the fact that I came across the evidence of this little girl's existence in a thrift store. The diary had been cast off. At some point, someone close to Shelley had possession of this diary and then let it go, gave it over to strangers. Someone who remembered her held this plastic diary, shrugged, and said "No need for this."

Hell, maybe Shelley herself found the diary in a box in the attic, chuckled at words of her child-self, then chuckled at her adult-self for having kept the thing for so long, and tossed it in a crate with old dime store novels and recipe books. Maybe that's how it ended up with me.

Mostly I'm bothered by the fact that the story doesn't have a happy ending -- or any ending at all, that I know of. Even the pseudo-ending of a full recovery, a Shelley Newman very much alive to this day (though she's gained a few too many pounds in her middle age) who gives her grandkids chocolate when their mom's not looking -- it would suffice.

It's maudlin, I guess, but I'd like to find her. It feels like something I'm obligated to do, just so no one else throws the evidence of her life away.