Author Diana Raab made some interesting discoveries about her family history. The first is a sad discovery, one that no one wants to find – her grandmother’s suicide. The other discovery is one that every genealogist longs for – her grandmother’s journal. In Regina’s Closet, she tells her grandmother’s life story in a mix of memoir, history, family documents, and – naturally – her grandmother’s own writing.
Regina, the grandmother, wrote a journal in her later years that recounted her harrowing youth and young adulthood. Born in Galicia in 1903, her youth in Poland was spent among the difficult years of World War I and cholera epidemics. Orphaned at a young age, Regina’s descriptions of loneliness and poverty are heartbreaking. She also writes about her immigrations to Vienna, Paris, and eventually the United States prior to World War II. But despite the hardships Regina endured and the glimpses of depression that would later cause her to take her life, the book also shows the strength of her spirit – a strength her grandaughter Diana inherited. The focus of the short book is not necessarily her grandmother’s suicide, but the life she lived. It’s about family and relationships, and it offers an interesting glimpse into history and how it affected people’s lives.
I was attracted to the book for several reasons. Any book that involves a “secret journal” peaks my interest! Who wouldn’t want to find a relative’s secret journal, something in their own had that would give us more than just simple dates and facts that we dig up in historical records. A journal is personal, revealing – it offers insight into who the person was and how they felt. I have no such documents in my family history, so I’m left to wonder about what my ancestors were really like. But the way Raab weaves her own story into her grandmother’s poses an interesting question to genealogists – what are you doing to tell your own story for future generations?
Another reason I read this book was the fact that her grandmother committed suicide. I also have a suicide in my family history, my great-grandfather John Piontkowski. He hung himself from a rope in the basement of his house when he was 71 years old. It happened five years after the death of his wife. My father was a boy, and his father never told him much about it in later years. In an attempt to uncover some insight into his death, I even located the inquest case file from the Medical Examiner’s Office. It revealed very little: he was likely dead for three days before being found, the police found “nothing suspicious” about his death, and his son signed an affadavit saying “There did not seem to be anything wrong with him, he was not under any doctor’s care.” Yet another family mystery regarding the only great-grandfather of which I have no photograph, no sense of who he was or how his personal history affected him.
Stories like Regina’s Closet remind us that all of us have a story to be told, and it inspires us to try to discover our ancestors’ stories. Diana Raab has a wonderful quote in the book from Francois Mauriac in The Desert of Love:
We are, all of us, molded and remolded by those who have loved us, and though that love may pass, we remain nonetheless their work — a work that very likely they do not recognize and which is never exactly what they intended.