Artist: Unknown/Olive May McQuown
Title: Autograph Book
Culture: American, Remington, Indiana
Provenance: Olive McQuown’s sister (or cousin?) Anna (my great-grandmother), passed this on to her daughter Elma (my grandmother) who passed it on to my mother. It ended up with me after my mother’s death.
As far back as I can remember, my mom had this delicate little autograph book in the top drawer of her dresser. It was carefully tucked away among her scarves and stockings, and I remember sneaking into her room and pulling it out from among her lovely silk scarves with their faint scent of perfume. My mom told me about the distant relative named Olive (Ollie) who had once owned the book. She told me she was a little girl who had died as a child and said that she had lived a very long time ago. She let me carefully turn the pages and hold the delicate book in my hands. I was enchanted.
As an adult I had mostly forgotten about the book, but after my mom died, my sisters and I rediscovered it and found great comfort in it. It somehow made my mom feel less distant. It seemed like she had joined the ranks of our forebears—she was a part of our family history now—not gone. The many messages relating to mortality and the fragility of life certainly resonated with us in our grief as well.
Holding the book in my hands today, I feel that I’m right there with Ollie and the loved ones who wrote in her book with their elegant cursive handwriting. You can just picture these people sitting down to write in young Ollie’s book, especially as the handwriting gets cramped along the right side of the pages.
In the first entry, on August 25, 1884, her uncle exhorts her to “be intimate with few.” (!) A month later, another uncle wrote a poignant message that seems rather heavy for an eleven-year-old girl: “We live, we die, we part and are no more. Life is but a wave on time’s eternal shore.”
Other people signed her book in September and October of 1884. But after a few blank pages comes a shock from Anna Georgiet Clark: “Sister Olive May McQuown died at seven o’clock and 18 minutes. Sunday October 26th, 1884, aged 11 years 2 months and 17 days. Born Aug. the 9th 1873. Our greatest loss on Earth but one more star in Heaven.”
My mom told me that Ollie died of appendicitis. What would that have been like for an eleven-year-old in 1884? I shudder at the thought and try not to think about it. Just five days before she died, her cousin Anna wrote in her book: “May gladness be your portion, May mirth come at your call, May you be glad and happy, And blessed in dower and hall.” Was Ollie already very sick when Anna wrote this? Was it written as she lay in her sickbed, or was the timing coincidental?
I’m convinced that she must have been sick for several days before she died, as her Aunt Susie Custer also wrote in her book just days before her death: “There’s music in a mothers voice more sweet than breezes sighing. There’s kindness in a mothers glance too pure for ever dying.” If these aren’t words of comfort for a gravely ill child, I don’t know what are. It’s just so awfully sad.
But what a gift it is to have this book today. I’m miles and miles from Remington, Indiana, and nearly 140 years have passed since young Ollie’s death. But this beautiful and fragile little book is an avenue into that long-gone world. I can see right into the fall of 1884 and the enormous tragedy the McQuown-Little family suffered that October. I grieve for them. I wish I could talk to them. I love that they were real and that I’m connected to them and that I still have a piece of them with me today. It’s magical.