My mother use to apologize for leaving me with the task of clearing out her basement. I would quickly suggest that she help me by bearing witness as I pulled each box down from the shelves, opened it and began the arduous journey determining what was to stay and what was to be thrown away. Mother would just as quickly back away from my suggestion, obviously preferring that I take that journey alone, after she was gone.
And that’s what I’ve been doing. Box by box, whenever I felt strong enough, I’ve been going through the many shelves and piles of things left behind from lives well lived.
Sometimes I find things that I know must have been important, and may still be, but I have no idea about the story or the history behind the items. Yet once in awhile I come across something that is pure treasure. That was the case when, in a box of hankies, photographs and unopened bottles of Avon cologne I found an old autograph book. As I carefully opened the worn, fuzzy orange cloth cover with the white plastic flowers on the front I was treated to my Great Aunt Pauline’s carefully scribed name, followed by the year, 1895.
I never knew Pauline. I may have met her, but she died in 1955, three years after I was born, so I have no recollection of her beyond the photographs I’ve seen. To hold something that she once held was humbling, but to read the carefully written friendship poems inside touched me deeply. I felt connected to something much greater than I, much longer lasting than my fleeting lifetime. I can tell by the carefully worn pages that Pauline must have looked through this book of wishes from her cherished friends many times. Inside were “forget me not’s” and lovely rhymes, such as:
“Live for those that love you,
For those whose hearts are true,
For the heavens that shine above you,
And the good that you may do.”
Many of the names signed below the wishes are familiar to me, having heard of the Surdez’s, the Junod’s, the Bonjour’s and the Jeanerret’s, some who were distant relatives, all through my youth.
Pauline Cosandier was my grandfather’s older sister. They, along with their mother and three other siblings came to America from Switzerland in 1888. I’ve heard the stories and I know my mother always had fond memories of Pauline, but holding her autograph book made her come alive to me.
Maybe it’s my age, having just turned 60, but finding this book has somehow deepened my interest in history and the people who have gone before me. When you walk through your local historical museum and see your high school band uniform on display you feel a bit historical, if not hysterical realizing that you are now old enough to have things that were part of your lifetime displayed as though they are artifacts of a bygone era.
Maybe I’ve now lived long enough to have a history. When you drive down the main street of your hometown and can remember what businesses were at each location…over the last 50 years, you have some history in you.
Whatever the reason, Aunt Pauline’s autograph book has prompted me to try to learn more about my family’s history, which I now realize is a significant part of my own history.
To hold something once held by a family member over 100 years ago provides a wider and deeper perspective. Aunt Pauline lived, just like I live, she had friends she loved, just like I do, and she kept this book to remember them by.
And, now, I will keep it too.