Emma Brubaker Snyder (1876-1964)

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.

Sue, Helen, Emma, Edna, Abram


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?

Shirley Showalter


  1. melodie davis on February 21, 2013 at 8:02 am

    I had one very similiar to the one you linked to in your post. What a trip back to something I haven’t thought about in decades. I’m sure I don’t have mine any more either. Perhaps that’s good, I keep too much anyway. But love these stirrings of memories!

    • shirleyhs on February 21, 2013 at 1:44 pm

      Melodie, Yes, the physical objects we remember have a power to conjure many emotional and spiritual memories also. Glad you enjoyed the story.

  2. Marilyn on February 21, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Between fruitville pike and roots…..we may have been on adjoining farms!!

    • shirleyhs on February 21, 2013 at 1:46 pm

      We must have been living very close to each other. I was closer to the Fruitville Pike than to Roots. How about you?

    • Marilyn N. on February 26, 2013 at 6:35 am

      The Peifer farms were on the road leading to Roots, very close to Manheim Pike. My paternal grandmother’s last name was Snyder with Brubaker as middle name!

  3. Kathleen Pooler on February 21, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Dear Shirley, What a wonderful story. I feel like I’ve met Great-Grandma Snyder! Isn’t it amazing how much smarter our parents and grandparents get as we ourselves get older? And I do remember those autograph books. Not only have you captured Great-Grandma Snyder, but you’ve also captured a time and place so beautifully and I can relate. Thank you for sharing. Delightful!

    • shirleyhs on February 21, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      You really entered into this story with your whole self, Kathy. You have a talent for doing that. Yes, Great-Grandma Snyder has gotten wiser with every passing year. I know her life wasn’t easy, but she managed to influence many of her grand and great-grandchildren despite her limited contact with us as individuals. One short exchange has lasted a lifetime.

  4. Mary Ellen Mumma Harwood on February 21, 2013 at 11:05 am

    Did you kow that Grandma Snyder also kept a diary on an almost daily basis? Some of those remain. My mother Helen had a number of them and when she passed on we divided them among our siblings.
    They were small notebooks which she labeled by the year and then made entries about her daily life almost every day.
    MAry Ellen

  5. shirleyhs on February 21, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Mary Ellen, we have some of these diaries also. I want to take a look at them again. They are valuable records of her life, even if they mostly catalog the weather and the chores. Thanks for letting me know your family has some of these also.

  6. Ray Evans on February 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    I always thought that it would be a good thing to keep a diary. Even simple everyday things become interesting after enough time passes. Can you imagine how interesting someone’s diary would be after two or three hundred years had passed?

    I never got around to the task, women are much better at such things than men. If it were not for the women keeping their diary’s we would have very little on record of the day to day happenings on the covered wagon migration westward for example.

    TOG, (the Old Geezer from Geezerville)

  7. shirleyhs on February 21, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Yes, diaries, even very mundane ones, can play an important role in documenting the history of a place or a people.

    It’s never too late to start, Ray. 🙂

  8. Darrelyn Saloom on February 21, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    Enjoyed the peek into teenage Shirley. Wish I had a grandparent story to share with you. Never knew mine. May be one reason I love to read about others, especially when they’re set in places with names like Fruitville Pike and Root’s Auction. 🙂

    • shirleyhs on February 21, 2013 at 9:20 pm

      Ah, you’ll love the names of the “Garden Spot of the World,” Darrelyn. Root’s is pronounced like Rutt’s, by the way. 🙂

  9. Shirley on February 22, 2013 at 6:33 am

    I loved reading this with my early morning coffee. I remember my mother’s autograph book. Same little ditty but it went like this:

    Grandpa’s whiskers old and gray,
    always get in grandma’s way.
    When she chews them in her sleep,
    she thinks she’s eating shredded wheat![

    • shirleyhs on February 22, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Now what does it say that two Shirleys have remembered the same old ditty for more than 50 years. I later discovered that my version was a Burma Shave sign. Remember those?

  10. Brenda Bartella Peterson on February 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    Shirley, in 3rd grade autograph books came with our school pictures. My mother wrote in mine: Don’t wait for your ship to come in, go out and meet it. She wrote in my brother Bill’s: As sure as the grass grows around the stump, you are my little Billy-Lump-Lump.

    I was hurt and disappointed because she wrote something sweet and loving in Bill’s and I didn’t even understand mine. It was not the beginning of my designated role as family achiever but it sure was an important step.

    Can’t wait to read your memoir!

  11. shirleyhs on February 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Wow, Brenda, you told us so much in this short story: I didn’t know that pictures and autograph books sometimes went together (this was an early Facebook!). Also, what a memory for your mother’s choices. And how interesting that you connect your history of achievement with your mother’s challenging autograph and your feeling of relative deprivation. Siblings are always looking for signs. I think your mother probably knew both of her children better than you knew at the time.

  12. Linda Gartz on March 14, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Hey Shirley,
    Yep. Had my own autograph book for around the same era as we’re peers. As you know, we had compulsive savers in our family — so I have my Mom’s autograph book from grade school — about 1931 and my uncle’s (whose WWII letters I’m not posting on my blog). He went to the same grade school I did and I have not only his Tilton School Autograph book, but also his 8th grade gold and black grad ribbon (just like mine — but 23 years older!) Most of the entries are silly doggerel, but then on occasion, words of wisdom, like from my dad to my uncle. Yours is a treasure — and especially because you now have a gift from your Great Grandma across the generations.

    • Shirley on March 15, 2013 at 9:12 am

      Your house must be like a museum, Linda. Not only were your family members savers, they were also writers and documentarians. What a treasure trove. Do you have an archive where you can eventually store these materials? The field of American Studies, and its subset material culture studies, must be of interest to you. Thanks for sharing this story. I can see two autograph books in my mind’s eye. Isn’t it interesting that what we initially want is cleverness and popularity, and what we later search for is wisdom?

      • Linda Gartz on March 15, 2013 at 10:28 am

        Thanks for your reply, Shirley, Actually I’ve shown portions of the collection, and the multi-page spreadsheet of everything to the Newberry Library, a premier research library, here in Chicago. They want the whole collection, including my mother’s income tax (saved from 1939-1994, when she died), for their Midwest Manuscripts collection. We’ll be in good company, but above all I’m thrilled that all this saving and preserving will be available for generations to come for research. As long as there’s civilization, I guess this stuff will live on, but of course, nothing is truly forever. Thanks for asking!

      • Linda Gartz on March 15, 2013 at 10:42 am

        Oops, I realize I made a typo that totally changes the meaning of my first comment. Don’t know if you can fix it on your end, but I meant to write I had the autograph book of my uncle’s (“whose WWII letters I’m NOW posting on my blog).”
        I wrote “not posting.” A new website will be up and running within a few days with all those letters and all past Family Archaeologist posts migrated into a single website. Sorry for the confusion! Devilish keyboard!

  13. shirleyhs on March 15, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I think both these comments should stand because people who read them may want to follow you to the new website. Feel free to come back and post the link. And congrats on the contact with the Newberry. You have dedicated yourself to a great cause.

    • Linda Gartz on March 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      Thanks for your generosity, Shirley, and the fact that your Gr Grandma also kept a diary–well I agree with Ray’s comment that mostly women kept diaries. I wonder why. Although my Dad was a diarist–both at age 18-20 (“I’ve never seen a diary from a young man,” said the Newberry Curator) and then for six years in the 1950s; My Mom was a diarist from age 10 on. Because of both their diaries, and all the letter writing, I can just about reconstruct most of the 20th century–and lots of unknowns too. When my uncle was in Training — WWII — only my Grandmother, not grandfather, wrote letters. She had to struggle with the English (she couldn’t write in German during the war), and probably just too hard for my grandpa.

  14. Marian Longenecker Beaman on April 5, 2013 at 6:28 am

    Yes, I remember an autograph book, grey with gold piping, it seems. I may find it when I re-visit my mother’s attic sometime. “Please take your stuff!” she insists, but it is always too hot or too cold when I’m there to bother. Maybe I need to explore next week when I’m back in PA.

    Years ago, I remember finding in the attic a box of napkins, which I collected–fancy napkins with floral imprints and embossing. How trivial it seems now, but my girlfriends and I were so intent on collecting them and comparing what we had. Ah, the good old days!

    • shirleyhs on April 5, 2013 at 8:53 am

      I’m in PA today on my way to NYC.

      I find that the memories flood my mind in this location. Hope you get “home” soon and find some treasures. Those hankies were your Pokemon.

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