I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Ammo Grrrll’s Friday morning posts on Powerline. Today’s post, Make New Friends, and Keep the Old, is no exception. Her fond recounting of some of the entries in “Mama Dorothy’s autograph book” put me in mind of this post I wrote on Ricochet eight (!) years ago about one such item of historical and sentimental interest from my own family. Here you go:
I’m really lucky in my genes.
Many of the ‘elders’ in my family have been exceptionally healthy, and incredibly long-lived. I’m so glad I have clear memories of, and memories from, a great-grandmother who was born in 1869, four years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and also from an uncle who, at the age of seven, staffed the tea trolleys with his mother, my grandmother, as the British Expeditionary Forces boarded the trains to the strains of “Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy” and headed off to the Western Front. (Uncle Arthur thought the song was about him, and started to cry, every time it was played).
The oldest living member of my family at the moment is Aunty Betty, who’s 102. She’s lived an extraordinary, ordinary life, which is a story for another day.
I’ve mentioned her a few times in previous posts, particularly her successful battle, at the age of 97, against the pointy-headed bureaucrats of the Wychavon District Council (her name’s really Jenny, but everyone in the family calls her Betty), and of her present situation, in which she and her imaginary boyfriend “John the King of China” reside at a delightful nursing home in the English Midlands.
One of the reasons I love this nursing home so much is that when “John the King of China” failed to show up for Betty’s 100th birthday party in 2012, instead of arguing with her about whether or not such a person actually existed, the staff simply told her that if “John the King of China” was so inconsiderate that he forgot to attend such an important event, he wasn’t worth bothering with, and she should just give him the old heave-ho.
That worked for quite a while. However, Betty eventually forgave him, and now they are as thick as thieves again . . .
Mr. Right isn’t as fortunate as I am in this respect, and although many on his side of the family tree live to a good age, they don’t enjoy the hobbit-like longevity of some of my relations.
His mother, my mother-in-law, was a pleasant exception in that, as she was in many other ways as well.
I’ve written about her before, too, and particularly about why I’ll always be grateful to the forty-second President of the United States for his role in saving her life.
But I digress.
Jokes. Adages. Sayings.
As the keeper of a small number of family treasures, I’m the proud curator of a couple of autograph books, one belonging to Aunty Betty which is dated Christmas 1922, and the other belonging to my mother-in-law, Geraldine, from the early 1930’s.
They are a window into another time, whose representations of affection from friends, admirers, and family members will probably seem unimaginably strange to many denizens of the present age.
Herewith, a sampling from each:
When you get old
And cannot see
Put on your specs
And think of me.
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
If it weren’t for kisses
Your lips would rust.
May she to whom this book belongs,
Few trials have if any
Her hours of care may they be few
Her sunny moments many.
A few lines by a Bewdley poetess
Sugar to sugar
Cheese to cheese
What’s a kiss
Without a squeeze?
Go my lad and shut the shutter
A mother to her son did utter
The shutter’s shut the son did mutter
And I can’t shut it any shutter.
There’s so much good in the worst of us.
And so much bad in the best of us.
That it ill behooves any of us;
To find fault with the rest of us.
And, even in those days, social commentary:
Lincoln freed the slaves
Mellon rang the bell
Hoover went to Wall Street
The country went to Hell.
The illustration at the top of this post is a page from Aunty Betty’s autograph book. I’ve no idea who “Winifred Thompson” was, or how old she was in April of 1924. Betty would have been twelve at the time.
The style is very much that of Mabel Lucie Attwell, a popular British illustrator of the time, who produced hundreds of postcards with similar sorts of themes and pictures. I don’t know if Winifred copied one, if it’s original, or where the inspiration came from. (Perhaps it’s Betty and “John the King of China.”)
In any event, it’s a watercolor, beautifully done, and I imagine it took quite some time to complete.
Which leads me to wonder: Do people (especially girls in their early teens) still have autograph books? If so, are they still used the same way, and what sorts of things do they, and others, write in them? (I shudder to imagine). If not, has anything replaced them? If so, what is it?
I’m afraid I know the answers to these questions, and as with many things, the older I get (I’ve still got the better part of half-a-century to go, if I don’t want to let the side down), the more it saddens me that the opportunities to create and enjoy such exquisite and marvelously personal tokens of friendship, and vignettes of lives well lived, have vanished, perhaps forever.
2022 Note: As is so often the case with Ammo Grrrll’s posts, today’s is about more than merry persiflage. As with:
The whole topic of Friendship has always interested me: how do we figure out whom to befriend? How do we KNOW what people we can trust as we expose our true selves? And especially, how the heck do we know at age 6 or age 14 who we will still love at 75?
I think it is very much like falling in love, only (obviously) without the sexual attraction aspect. And then, like with a long-term marriage, we accumulate a history of fun times together and mutual support for the tough times. We also develop a short-hand way of communication, with a thousand “code words” to trigger memories of shared experiences. With Carol, my late friend from age 6, we could say “Cheese for sale” and crack up at the thought of a game we played in my basement wherein we were Heidi-like orphans, who were on our own and had to sell cheese to survive. (We had no television and were very imaginative little girls.) Mother would buy back her own Velveeta and Daddy would say, “Go outside, girls.”
To make a friend, we have to make ourselves vulnerable.
Hoo boy. Would C.S. Lewis have signed on to that last sentiment, or what:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.–C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Friendship, and any sort of love, is hard. We expose ourselves and our vulnerabilities to another, to someone we’ve decided to trust with them. Sometimes it succeeds and the outcome is lovely. Sometimes it fails, and the outcome is brutal, humiliating, and destructive.
Is it worth the attempt? I always think, yes. Because sometimes you’ll strike it rich, you’ll win the affection jackpot, and your friend will stick with you for all of your, or his, or her, life. And when you (or he, or she) is gone, the stories, and the memories, remain.
Cheese for sale!
PS: My stepdaughter and I (who between us have lost all those close to us who remember the very early years of our lives) often reminisce about this. It’s a part of growing old–the day I realized there’s no-one still living who calls me “Loolie.” (It was my “Lilibet” moment–one which occurred because I couldn’t say my given name.) The day she realized that no-one still living was part of the secret triumvirate composed only of herself and her brothers. What we have left is grief, the “price we pay for love,” and remembrance. We should pass those memories on.