The daughters of Loretta Kennedy thought they knew everything worth knowing about their late mother until they recovered her long-lost diaries.
The diaries were written while their mother was still Loretta Juliano, a pretty, popular teenage girl living in wartime Mineola. The first entry was made on Jan. 1, 1944, during World War II and entries continued for several years. They recount her courtship with Tom Kennedy, a handsome U.S. Navy veteran from Williston Park, who had served on a submarine hunter in the South Pacific. The couple married in 1951 and started their family, eventually having four girls. They moved in the ’50s from Mineola to a Bethpage ranch, and that’s about the time the diaries stop.
Ten years ago, in the months before Loretta Kennedy died at age 80, she asked her daughters to find the diaries so she could relive those girlhood memories. They searched in vain. Four months and two days after their mother died, their father passed away at age 81. In 2009, when the daughters were getting the family home ready to sell, the diaries were found in a box in the basement.
For the sisters — Michele Kennedy, 54, of East Northport; Christina “Tina” Kennedy, 62, and Laura Leigh Agnese, 57, both of Bethpage; and Kathy Kennedy-Smith, 60, of Ellicott City, Maryland — the journals revealed a chapter in their mother’s life before they were born.
On a recent evening, three of the sisters gathered at Michele’s home to talk about the handwritten keepsakes, spread on the dining-room table. Michele Kennedy says she was so drawn to them that she wanted to share their content with her extended family. She typed most of the entries in a marathon that took about eight hours per volume. In 2013, she published the personal history using a do-it-yourself vanity press website — at a cost of $12 a copy — in a 317-page softcover version.
In December, Kennedy found another diary from 1949; her mother writes about marriage discussions with her husband. Last month, Michele Kennedy typed up that diary, then uploaded a revised edition of the book on Amazon. She’s still hoping to find more of her mom’s journaling. “I have a 1950 diary, but there are very few entries,” she says.
The diary entries range from typical teenage reports of trips to the soda shop and beach, to news of historic events that shook her Long Island hometown.
“Japan wants to surrender,” Michele Kennedy says, reading the sole entry from Aug. 13, 1945. Notations that followed were equally terse: “V-J Day [Victory in Japan]!!! Victory and Peace!!!!” It was Loretta Juliano’s reaction on Aug. 14, 1945, the day Japan surrendered, ending World War II. She was 19.
The details of a daily life, originally penned for an audience of one in a careful, cursive script, speak loudly to the daughters whose mother wasn’t particularly forthcoming about her formative years. “She didn’t talk about her life in the olden days,” Michele Kennedy says.
“She lived through the war. It was a different world,” Tina Kennedy explains.
Ordinarily, perusing the pages of another person’s diary would be an invasion of privacy, and when those pages reveal secret adolescent musings, well, you might just want to burn them after reading. But for the sisters, those everyday jottings are a treasure trove of comings and goings in the late 1940s, when their mother did her patriotic duty by writing to soldiers stationed overseas while working in the bursar’s office at Hofstra College. Innocent rather than salacious, the diaries also recount a beautiful, budding love story at the dawn of the Baby Boom.
If you want to pursue your own family history, diaries from decades past are priceless, and they are also important resources for local libraries, historical societies and professional historians, says Natalie A. Naylor, a Hofstra University professor emerita and president of the Nassau County Historical Society.
Traditionally an avocation of women, narratives have become increasingly important in recent years for historians who “have begun to focus on social history, including women’s history and family history,” Naylor says. They are especially valuable “because they provide details on the domestic sphere and everyday life.”
They can also be explosive if too much is told. After finding the memoirs, Michele Kennedy says she had “cautiously read the first few pages.” to see if “the diaries revealed thoughts and details too personal to share.” She admits, “If they were really private, I would have put them away.” Instead, she was pleasantly surprised.
“What I discovered was a beautifully written story revealing a glimpse into the day-to-day activities of a first-generation, young Italian-American woman as she began working, attending college and dating young veterans home from the war,” she says. By reading the diaries, she learned about her mother’s childhood, during the Great Depression, growing up with her brother and three sisters. “I read how excited my mother was to receive her first portable radio. I read about when the family bought their first phonograph. How exciting it was when her brother went to pick it up, and they were able to get their hands on a couple of records to play.”
There are warm memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas and the lasagna dinners that are still a family tradition. “I enjoyed seeing the types of presents my mother gave — a slip, a pipe, nail polish, perfume,” she says. “I loved reading about the glamorous full-length gowns with long gloves she wore each New Year’s Eve, and the house parties she hosted with her girlfriend.”
The first entry in 1944 details a date with a Marine, who took her to the movies to see a double-feature. “He wore his dress ‘Blues’ and he looked Swell!” the young Loretta writes. It ends, “Kissed good-night.”
Although her mother’s G-rated prose required little censoring, Michele Kennedy says she did exclude entries out of respect for her father. Those excluded excerpts were about guys her mother dated, even after meeting the man she would marry.
Dominick M. Juliano, 88, of Westbury, Loretta’s brother, is among the family members who have read the book of memories. “I didn’t know she kept a diary, but it was a good thing she did,” he says. Although they were close as kids, he says, “I learned more of her personal life by reading that book. We had a good family life, it brought back some things that I had forgotten about, such as her flying in a plane.” As a girl, he says, she had taken a ride in a Cessna at Mitchel Field.
Reached by phone, Kennedy-Smith, who read the diaries in their original form shortly after they were found, said, “One thing that really surprised me was how beautifully she wrote. . . . I just loved it because it really painted a picture of what life was like back then.”
So far, Michele Kennedy says, eight diaries have been found. “Most amazing was reading about the moment my parents met . . . their first date, their courtship and the love story that followed,” she says.
The entries describe events in Loretta Juliano’s life, not unlike scenes from a 1940s romance movie, such as when the happy bride-to-be spent Christmas 1948 with her intended. “Tom was so gentle — and grand,” the future Mrs. Kennedy writes. “For the first time in days I was happy — completely — because I felt I was ‘home.’”
Even if there are no more diaries to be found, the sisters are grateful for the colorful glimpse of their mom’s transition to adulthood. “She had a whole life before us,” Agnese says, “and it was an amazing life.”
Have you discovered things you never knew about family members through old letters or diaries? What was the most striking or surprising thing you learned about a loved one? Do you have your own stash of letters or journals you’ve kept packed away for decades? What will you do with them? Do you want your children to read what you wrote so long ago? Do you want them made public? Share your story for possible publication. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Act 2 Editor, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11743. Include your name, address and phone numbers. Include pictures that illustrate your story.