My Great-Grandma Snyder was a widow from March 15, 1924, until her own death forty years later. She reared four children to adulthood and managed a farm and then a house in the town of Lititz until she was no longer able to do so. Then she rotated among her children, living in a spare room and making braided rugs and helping with cooking and childcare when possible.
When I was born in 1948, she was already seventy-two years old. She died at age eighty-eight when I was sixteen.
I remember her as a serious woman whose suffering was not hidden on her face, but whose kindness shone through underneath. I remember her most because of this story:
When I was a girl of about 12 years, I used to go to the empty rooms of our huge, rambling, farm house located between Fruitville Pike and Root’s Auction and dig through the treasures stored there—my mother’s 1942-45 Manheim Township high school yearbooks. One day, I found an even greater treasure: my mother’s autograph book.
Do you know what an autograph book looks like? I wish that book had survived, but I can’t locate it today.
From today’s vantage point, autograph books look like an early harbinger of Facebook. The peer-conscious forces were similar: how many autographs can you get in your book? And do you have cool ones from cool people?
As I read the entries in the book, I skimmed over ones that seemed too familiar, sentimental or pious poems. I searched for the ones like this one: “Grandma has a habit of chewing in her sleep. Last night she chewed Grandpa’s whiskers and thought them shredded wheat!” For some reason I found that ditty uproariously funny.
As soon as I stopped laughing, I knew that I wanted my own autograph book. And I wanted to fill up every page with autographs from friends just as clever as my mother’s. Somehow I managed to fulfill the desire to get a new autograph book.
One of the first people I asked to write in it was my great grandmother Emma Brubaker Snyder. She was in her 80’s at the time. I asked, eyes all shiny, if she remembered autograph books. (Aside: I thought an older person would be an excellent catch, because I knew these books had been far more important to her generation then to mine.)
Great Grandma Snyder took my proffered pen and the nearly-new book. I remember noticing the brown spots on her hands as she slowly opened the book and stroked the pages. I remember admiring the intricacy of her old-school, Palmer Method handwriting. After a long pause, she relaxed into a slight smile. I held my breath.
She waited for the ink to dry and then turned the book back to me.
I eagerly scanned my eyes over the page and read these words: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6.
I was mortified.
A bible verse! About a child! I was almost a teenager. It was 1960, not 1860!
My autograph book was ruined.
Of course, I smiled wanly, thanked Great-Grandma as heartily as I could, and left the room so she would not see my disappointment.
That story came back to me as a college president and now as a memoir writer. My perspective on it is entirely different from the one I had then. Now I can see that my Great Grandma gave me a much greater gift than the one I was seeking. Do you have a similar story? Do you know what an autograph book is? What, in your opinion, is the best way to pass along a legacy?