In her latter years, my mother often seemed to be engaged in an on-going conversation with herself. Her streams of thought flowed like a hidden river, subterranean and unnoticed until a few words bubbled to the surface, spilling over and inviting response.
We were folding freshly laundered towels one afternoon when she surprised me by breaking the companionable silence to announce, “We had Facebook when I was in school.” “What?” I said. “Facebook? There wasn’t any Facebook when you were in school.” “Of course there was,” she said. “We just had another name for it.”
Bemused, I asked if she meant her high school annual, and heard the slight intake of breath that always signaled impatience. “No, we didn’t have those. I just can’t think of the word right now. I’ll think of it.”
She never remembered her word, and I forgot the conversation until recently, when I discovered two autograph albums – one from her sixth grade term, one from her freshman year in high school. They’d been tucked into a box with school programs and report cards, along with a photo of her senior class. Looking at the faces, I remembered the names I often heard while growing up. My mother’s best friend, Lucille Luke, was there, along with Mary Gianni, Helen Hester, Jimmy Loncarich, Vera Gasparovich, Jack Larson.
As I thumbed through the albums, the memories and greetings they contained seemed quaint, but touching. Each page contained only one entry. All were dated and signed, about half were in ink, and a few were in the beautiful cursive hand that still defined handwriting when I reached school age.
Autograph books, I thought. That’s what she meant when she said she and her friends had Facebook.
In fact, autograph books have experienced a bit of a renaissance in folklore circles, studied for the poetry they contain. Nearly everyone has heard this bit of folk verse that’s a staple of autograph albums:
Roses are red, violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet, and so are you.
Several humorous variations of the couplet are scattered through Mom’s sixth-grade book.
Violets are blue, violets are yellow,
you’re the girl that stole my fellow.
Roses are red, violets are blue,
Send me ten $ and I will owe you.
Roses are red, violets are blue,
I have a bulldog that looks like you.
In some cases, the roses and violets have been completely transformed, but the pattern still is recognizable.
Sugar is sugar, salt is salt – if you don’t get married, it ain’t my fault!
Humor suffuses the sixth grade book. Much of it’s animal-related, perfectly understandable given the context of a small town in rural Iowa.
If I was a little pig and rooted in your yard,
And you was a little dog, would you bite me very hard?
If I were a rabbit and had a tail of fluff,
I would jump up on your dresser and be your powder puff.
Even in the sixth grade, there was interest in love and marriage. Their view of things wasn’t always sweet and sentimental, but the tone remained just slightly humorous and tongue-in-cheek rather than nasty.
When you get married and have your twins, Come over to my house and borrow safety pins.
When you get married and live by the river, send me a peice [sic] of your old man’s liver.
When you get married and your old man’s cross, pick up the ink bottle (or rolling pin, or fireplace poker, or tree limb) and say “I’m boss”.
When you get married and the baby’s cross, come over to my house and eat applesauce.
Sometimes, there’s evidence of ambivalence, a sense of inevitability mixed with high romance.
Wanda now, Wanda forever, Elliott now, but not forever.
Love your dollies, love your toys, but never, never love the boys.
The ocean is broad, the ocean is deep, in Buzz’s arms I’m longing to sleep.
Here I stand on two little chips, come over and kiss my sweet little lips.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, If JM don’t get you, somebody must.
Eventually, the kids began to grow up. Grade school gave way to high school. The larger world began to make its presence felt. The beginning of the Depression, the closing of the coal mines where so many fathers worked, all of the anxieties of economic loss and dislocation became a part of life. The Class of ’35 began to think about more than dollies and toys, and their concerns show up in the second, later album that I found.
The importance of the friendships they shared, and a recognition that friendships can end, appeared here and there among the more humorous entries.
In your ring of friendship, let me be the diamond.
Friendship is like a golden thread, easily broken by what is said.
When the rocks and rills divide us and you no more I see, just read this verse, my friend, and think again of me.
Inscriptions by teachers and older relatives almost always included words of guidance and counsel for the future, but even classmates began to draw on observation and personal experience to pen their own words of wisdom.
A wise old owl sat in a tree.
The more he heard, the less he spoke,
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?
Money is scarce, boys are plenty,
But don’t you marry until you’re twenty!
Just a little advice to aid you as you travel down life’s path,
Do not look for wrong or evil, you will find it if you do.
As you measure to your neighbor he will measure back to you.
As the boundaries of their world expanded, some entries in the autograph books became more cryptic. When the Melcher, Iowa Union reported on the morning of January 17, 1935, that “the Melcher High School girls won a very one-sided victory over the Lucas girls last Friday night at the local gymnasium, with a final score of 67-9”, that was my mother’s team. She played guard, and it’s not hard to find her teammates – or hints of hi-jinks – in her book.
“Away back here, where no one will look, I’ll sign my name in your precious book – Your classmate and forward, Vera”
“Dear Guard – Did you ever go home from a party like ‘this’? – The Jumping Center”
“Remember last night after basketball practice?”
Whatever they did after basketball practice, they weren’t telling. It was enough to acknowledge the bonds of friendship, achievement and shared experience that made them pledge, over and again, to be there for one another, forever.
Yours ’til snakes have hips… Yours ’til the catfish has kittens… Yours ’til they shave warts off dill pickles… Yours ’til aeroplanes lay eggs… Yours ’til cows crow… Yours ’til stones begin to jump… Yours ’til the Statue of Liberty shimmies down Broadway (a reference to The Shimmy, a dance popularized by Gilda Gray during the Roaring Twenties).
By 1935, ready to leave school and begin life, the classmates grew introspective. Their entries became poignant, filled with subtle reminders of distance, time and death.
When your hair has turned to silver, I will love you just the same,
I will always call you sweetheart, that will always be your name.
Leaves may wither, flowers may die, some will forget you, but never shall I.
In filling your memory’s woodbox, put in a stick for me.
I wish you health, I wish you wealth, I wish you gold in store,
I wish you heaven after death, how could I wish you more?
When twilight pulls the curtain down and pins it with a star,
Remember me, dear Wanda, though we may wander far.
Working my way through the albums, I began to understand how my mother could misinterpret Facebook as a modern version of her autograph albums. Still, there are differences. Facebook is marketed; autograph books are passed on and treasured. Facebook promotes public exposure; autograph books by nature remain private and intensely personal. Facebook promises connection; autograph books are read and re-read by people already so deeply connected it takes only a date, a name and a single brief inscription to call up a lifetime of shared experience.
Obviously, there are hundreds of millions who log on to Facebook every day, and I wish them well. But life is filled with choices, and these are mine – first, to forego Facebook for other treasures of life, and now to trace the contours of a cherished album, to breathe in the mustiness of decades-old paper and rest in the blessings directed to my mother so many years ago.
In the book of life, God’s albums, may your name be penned with care,
And may all who here have written, write their name forever there.