John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

A Washington woman from 1918 speaks through her diary, now available for all to read

“It is strange that some days have so many interesting things happen and others don’t have any.”

So wrote Ada Hume Williams on April 9, 1918, in the diary she kept that year. At the time, Ada was 31 and living at 515 Seventh St. NE, in a house she shared with her aunt and uncle and an assortment of boarders.

(John Kelly/The Washington Post) - Bonnie Coe transcribed the 1918 diary of her father's first wife, Ada Hume Williams, and self-published the text.

Ada taught Latin at McKinley Technical High School, and her neat teacher’s script fills the lined pages of the little, palm-sized diary.

Bonnie Coe found the diary after her father, Bryan Coe, died in 1969. Ada was his first wife. She died in 1972, age 84.

“I just found it absolutely fascinating,” Bonnie said of the diary. Last year, she transcribed it and made it available on Amazon.com: $8 for a print-on-demand version of “Aunt Ada’s Diary,” 99 cents to read it on the Kindle.

“I wanted people to see it,” Bonnie said. “It’s such a gem. I love the Washington scenes.”

Then as now, ours was a city at war, but a war that was much more of a daily presence. Classes at McKinley were canceled many days during that cold winter, as scarce coal was reserved for war use. Older boys dropped out of class, returning in their uniforms. A captured German gun was displayed near the Capitol.

Ada takes a two-day boat trip with her relatives to Baltimore. On the train ride back to Washington, they pass through Odenton and see soldiers guarding caskets on the platform, presumably war dead on their way home.

But the main reminder of the war was the young man Ada called her “soldier boy.” Bryan was stationed at Camp Meade — later known as Fort Meade — as he awaited transfer to Europe. He occasionally got passes to come into Washington, but soldiers were often restricted to camp because of the Spanish flu.

“It is so mean that he has to be quarantined,” Ada wrote on Feb. 27. On April 5: “I am more and more sure that I could be happy with him.” On May 26: “I become more and more sure that I love him as time goes on.”

Bryan was nine years Ada’s junior and had been her student at McKinley. If there was anything scandalous about the relationship, Ada doesn’t hint at it in the diary.

Bryan did go to France. When he returned, the couple was married. Ada and Bryan had a daughter, Edyth, but eventually divorced. Bryan remarried, and Bonnie is his daughter with his second wife, Ila.

It must have been an amicable split because Edyth and Ada — known as “Aunt Ada” — came to the Coe house on Yuma Street NW for holiday dinners.

“I just assumed everybody had extended family like that,” said Bonnie, 69.

What struck this modern reader was how busy Ada is. She teaches at McKinley. She tutors Latin at home. She writes four or five letters a day. She receives visitors. She reads to housebound friends.

She gets candy at a store called Huyler’s. She shops at Woodward & Lothrop — but often sews her own clothes.

She goes to church, to concerts and to an incredible number of movies. Practically every other entry records her trips to the Apollo, the Belasco or the Columbia, along with her reactions to the silent films she saw there:

“Bab’s Matinee Idol” (“very enjoyable”), “Up the Road With Sallie” (“very original and entertaining”), “A Weaver of Dreams” (“a little mushy, but harmless”), “Rimrock Jones” (“poor stuff”), “Stella Maris,” starring Mary Pickford (“a splendid picture — one of the best I ever saw”).

Ada was not the most self-reflective diarist. Most entries are a mere eight to 10 sentences long. But her essence — well-read, active, invested in her students’ success, only occasionally self-pitying — comes through. I was sad when I came across this on June 28: “Read over my 1914 diary. It seemed so silly I destroyed it.”

Ada, no!

She was a lover of cats, noting on March 6: “On the way home I came across a gang of boys chasing a cat. I tried to stop them but didn’t do much. However, I think it got away. It is strange how many boys are naturally brutal.”

Ada’s final entry rings in the new year: “I was just getting ready for bed when the noises announced that 1919 had arrived. So it ends.”

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

 
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