My work with family history goes through a cycle, the pattern of which, now, after years of being in its thrall, is becoming discernible to me. I listen for a particular project to form itself in my head, and hear it begin to call out to be done. I put it on the project list, and make estimates about what is required to complete it, in time and ink and the assistance of others. It sits on the project list until a gap forms between other projects, and then it calls louder, demandingly, becoming raucous.
At hiatus stages of other projects, caused by delays in receiving the input of others, or delays in necessary material coming to hand, these calls become irresistible, and I answer the demand.
Recently I finished transcribing and footnoting the eleventh of my great-grandfather’s journals, and while waiting for the remaining seven to arrive, digitized, from an English archive, I resumed work on my brother’s story of his experiences on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, getting the pictures sequenced and captioned. Now he has gone off to write the narrative to link his “Letters from Reunion” and I am left with tidying up odds and ends of data entry, catching up on postal correspondence, attempting with a notable lack of success to organize both my computer files and my paper ones, and yearning for the time when in my working life I had a secretary. The odds and ends done, the demands of THE AUTOGRAPH BOOK became thunderous and now I must yield to them.
When I was in public school 65 years ago, there was a great fad of collecting classmates’ and relatives’ messages and signatures in little notebooks with pastel pages. I don’t know what became of mine, but my sister kept hers and it provides a fine example of the autograph books of that time, with a few entries from older connections being holdovers from a past era. The verses typically are silly or sentimental or punning. The older generation also was very big on moral aphorisms. Most entries are dated. The dates provide clues about the lives of both the writer and the recipient.
It seems that my notion of autograph books being a fad of my childhood days is in error. Once I started looking, I found family autograph books dating to a century ago, and one of a friend dating to the later years of the nineteenth century. There is an extensive Wikipedia article on the history of the autograph book, which will appear in my book of autograph images.
The book that now demands to be made will present for the most part the images of the pages, rather than a transcription of the words. The images too offer clues about not only the writer but the era, as well as the life of the recipient of these messages.
Everything is connected. In one of my great-grandfather’s diaries he quoted an aphorism, unattributed, which gave me a frisson up my spine.
“Count that day lost whose low descending sun
“Views from thy hand no worthy action done.”
The Internet tells me the couplet was found in Bartlett’s Quotations, and was anonymous. But it wasn’t anonymous to me. It connected me, with a shock, to my grandmother. She was about eleven when her father, my great-grandfather, wrote that passage in his diary, and its familiarity convinces me he had quoted it to his children at the time he wrote it in his diary. And many decades later my grandmother quoted it to me.
And the intent of the couplet has been – I now realize – a guiding principle in my life.
There are many books on the merits and values of tracing one’s ancestors. I don’t recall this one being mentioned, although its importance means to me that it outweighs all the other benefits. This sudden sense of kinship – of inhabiting the same mental landscape as my grandmother and her father, was profoundly moving.
And so I will spend my time with the autograph book images my husband scanned for me, captioning them to show the family relationships reflected therein, and imagining the lives that were being lived when the verses and drawings were made.