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Friday, December 31, 2010

Lacrimae Rerum

I've been meaning to post this for some time now, but not until this minute have I gotten around to making the necessary scan.  The oldest thing I own is a scrap of paper:  a single leaf from a notebook kept by my great-grandfather nearly 140 years ago. 

He was 24 when he recorded these verses.
Click to enlarge.
I'll tell you how I came to possess this.  My grandparents were the sort of hard-working country-bred people who, though literate, were not the type to keep much reading material lying around, save for the daily newspaper and the family Bible which sat for years, largely unread, on the telephone table in the living room.  But behind the front door was an old homemade cabinet with doors that fastened by a chunk of wood that pivoted on a nail - a thing of utility, not beauty - repainted every few years in the same tan color as the living room walls, but mostly ignored. 

Until one day in my early adolescence, when I decided to explore the contents.  The cabinet held three shelves, full of old herb catalogs and physical culture magazines dating back to the 1920's - my grandfather was a great one for believing in home remedies, and was acknowledged by all to be the family expert on such things - as well as some dusty religious books and tracts, old letters, and the odd catalog of tools and useful implements.   And the stray outdated textbook or novel, doubtless acquired when my father and his sisters were young, and long since forgotten by them. 

Some of these things were interesting to read by themselves.  But the most exciting find I made was three books:  one seemed truly ancient, with what seemed a home-made black leather cover, cracked with age, the pages of which were nubbly, not smooth like more modern paper.  It seemed a book of songs or poems:  I remember one verse was in celebration of "Washington, and Adams too," so it must have been from somewhere around the year 1800.

The second find was a much-worn but still tightly bound copy of Noah Webster's famous blue-backed speller, from the mid-19th century.  It seemed that every lesson began with an illustration of a short morality poem; the one I remember drew a contrast between two schoolboys, Punctual and Dilatory I think.  Naturally, Punctual was the one who succeeded while Dilatory fell by the wayside.

And the third of these antique treasures was the little notebook of my great-grandfather's that I mentioned above:  made of ruled paper, no more than about 3 by 5 inches, missing a cover but painstakingly filled on nearly every page with neatly written quotations from poets and playwrights, along with the occasional note of the price of corn, a home remedy for some ailment, a remark on some unusual weather, or even the exact tally of the nationwide popular vote for a presidential election, culled from a New York paper he must have subscribed to:  the collected musings of a young man who, though he never got further than the 8th grade, if even that far, was nevertheless of keen mind and had an ear for a well-turned phrase, a pleasing poem.

As I do, though I lived in more fortunate times and was able to get a good education.  Which for me, looking at his jotted fragments of thought, reveals a link across the centuries, a testimony of the continuity of something human, some essence of spirit.  I never knew the old man - he died half a century before I was born - and I don't feel particularly sentimental about him.  There are others I might have ended this year's postings with, more near and dear to my heart, starting with my own dear parents and others.  But somehow it seems fitting to end the year with this small bridge across the river of Time. 

Alas, having made these rather exciting discoveries - for even then, I was more interested in the past than the future - I made the great mistake of telling everyone in the family what I had found.  It was not long before some more senior relation confiscated all three treasures - "for safekeeping," of course - and I never saw them again.  Doubtlessly, they have long since been bequeathed to some other descendant, who may very well care little for them and be unaware of their significance.  Since I am the last of my grandfather's line to bear his name, I would have felt it only right that they descend to me - oh but some things are not worth the fight and feud that would result, you know what I mean, fellas?

How this single page came to rest among my keepsakes, I have no idea now.  I certainly would not have torn it out of the notebook.  Perhaps it just came loose on its own, and I stuck it inside another book to preserve it.  Whatever the facts were, I'm glad I have this charming little memento of a bygone day.  The famous Lewis Carroll poem about the crocodile is just the sort of thing I delighted in as a child - and still do.  How gratifying to find that it appealed to my great-grandfather as well.

Tonight, I am struck by the last quotation on the back of the page, which is from Gray's Elegy, written in 1750 and immensely popular for the next two hundred years, until the advent of our jet-fueled, damn-fool era.  Since it is partly obscured, I reprint the stanza here; and if any of my truckbuddies is familiar with this classic work, or will take the trouble to read it, I think you will agree that it also is fitting to end the year, and these reflections, with.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.


Jason Hughes said...

What a lovely treasure you have, and to know how a love of literature has found it's way from your ancestor to you! Have a great new year, Russ!

Russ Manley said...

Appreciate ya Jason, you have a good new year too.

FDeF said...

Those heirlooms are special. They are a real connection to your family history. I have my grandmother's prayer book in Italian. And I located various Ellis Island ship's manifests with the names of each of my grandparents. It makes the past more real and present.

Russ Manley said...

Yes it does. Unfortunately, very little got passed down to me. And of course as each old generation dies off, the thoughtless younger ones throw out so much stuff they consider "junk" - pity.

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