Josna Rege

125. My Autograph Book

In 1960s, 1970s, Britain, Childhood, India, Stories, United States on October 21, 2011 at 11:48 am

As I prepare to attend the 40th reunion of Brookline High School’s Class of 1971, I think of the three different high schools I attended before my family moved to the United States, and of all the people I had to leave behind, some of whom have since passed away. Parts of me must have been left behind as well, since I find myself perennially harking back, as if seeking those missing pieces.

One small volume remains with me, containing “an infinity of traces” (Gramsci): my autograph book, filled with both sentimental and humorous messages, signatures, and tiny black-and-white snaps of schoolmates from Mount Hermon in India, Broxbourne and Parliament Hill in England. It has a satin floral cover, pastel-colored pages of pink, blue, pale green, and white, with a zipper wrapping around three sides to safeguard its contents, still unfaded after all these years.

Since nobody I know here in the United States seems to have one, I looked up the history of the autograph book. Apparently, as they were used by university students from the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth-century, autograph books served a purpose not unlike the original Facebook. Subsequently they began to be replaced by yearbooks, in the U.S. at least (although when I got to America in my junior year of high school I didn’t know about that U.S. custom, so none of my Brookline High classmates signed mine). But girls, especially young girls, continued to use them, at least into the 1950’s and early 1960’s, as a verse like this one attests:

I wish you love, I wish you joy, I wish you have a baby boy;
And when his hair begins to curl I wish you have a baby girl;
And when she puts her hair in pins I wish you have a pair of twins.

Or this old chestnut:

Tulips in the garden
Tulips in the park,
But the best tulips
Are two lips in the dark

Miss Haslewood, our dorm matron, penned the following lines in my autograph book, evoking an even earlier era:

O’er roses may your footsteps move
Your smiles be ever smiles of love
Your tears be tears of joy!

By the late sixties we considered such sentiments “corny,” even in India where 19th-century tastes persisted as in many former colonies, and at age 14 I asked my friends not to write anything “stale” in my autograph book. Accordingly I received witticisms like this one, from my friend Preet:

Dear nut-case,

When you get old
And think you’re sweet
Just take off your shoes
And smell your feet
(An effective cure for “swollen head” fever even when you’re young!)

As I left India, several of my messages admonished me not to forget my country:

. . . anyway, I just hope before
you do anything you will remember
your country, India, first.

or, again from Preet (since we had just been to the neighboring St. Joseph’s to watch a school production of Annie Get Your Gun):

Remember: “just like Falling Pants, Running Nose,” you’re an Indian too.

Her sharp, multi-layered ironies upon ironies of belonging and (mis)appropriation continue to tickle and prick more than 40 years later.

Some of the verses are juvenile doggerel, still eliciting a disgusted “ewww,” as in, “Little pig/Busy Street/Motor car/Sausage meat.” Many more are private, teenage-girl giggles. Several friends and teachers commended me to the care of God, invoked our shared love of singing, or reminded me that I talked too much. All of their messages are precious to me. Looking at my autograph book today and recalling the emotional goodbyes as I prepared to leave Mount Hermon—and India—that misty morning in Darjeeling, perhaps the least sentimental message came from my 1969 batch-mate Omprakash:

Wish you the best of luck in your unknown future.

He was right, of course; I didn’t know what lay ahead of me. But those heartfelt farewells enclosed tightly in my autograph book sent me on my way with confidence, my footsteps moving lightly o’er beds of roses. I was loved; I was missed; and again and again, if mostly in memory, I would return.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Its a girl thing but tickles my sensitive side, perhaps comes from spending a few childhood years in convents surrounded by girls. Always nice to be taken back to MH-Darj.

    • It’s true that I don’t know of any of the boys in our class who had an autograph book, but boys certainly contributed to mine. Their entries were solemn or sentimental—all very sincere, none of the teenage girl silliness!

  2. Oh, what memories you evoke. I had an autograph book in middle school, in the Philippines. It was powder-blue leather with gold lettering on the front, spelling out — my initials? My autograph book? I don’t recall, and alas, I have lost it. It, too, zipped around three sides and had pastel colored pages — girls (and it was mostly girls who signed it) would flip thru to find their favorite color page, rather than writing on the next blank one. During this time, I also kept a diary (also lost, perhaps a blessing) that recorded mostly silly crushes on boys and the slights (real or imagined) of the more popular girls. Such an introspective and self-centered age — the necessary focus of a teenager trying to find her “self” and get centered. I love your posts — they send me in many different directions, and to different times…. xxoo, –N

    • Yes, those powder-blue and pastel-pink pages!
      On this page of pinky-pink/I write in letters of inky-ink
      I’d like to write my name in gold/But ink is all this pen will hold.

      I love your gloss of that necessarily self-centered age.
      xo J

  3. “Roses are Red; Violets are Blue.
    Sugar is sweet, but not as sweet as you.”

    This was another classic. Boring though it is.

    I had lost my autograph books ages ago. What a pity. I remember how we used to pass on our autograph books around to the seniors toward their final years. Some would write in prose, poems, or simply short sentences, depending on how much they “felt” about the authograph owners. Most of the seniors don’t even know us well, but because they were “polular” folks, or made names for themselves in academics or sports, we just had to have their autographs. These were our heroes. And we would wait with anticipation for what they would put in for us. Whehever I got my autographs back, I would study their handwritings in blue Quink ink. Bold hand-writings or small scribbles. Said so much about the writers.

    Thank you so much for brining these memories back to me again.


    • Yes, that verse has to be included. Here’s a link to the song I associate with it (which also mentions an autograph book):

      I love the way you sought autographs from seniors, and then studied their handwriting! I must look back at the handwriting in my old autograph book. And yes, absolutely, blue (royal-blue or blue-black) Quink ink! (BTW, I have written a Tell Me Another story about writing with fountain pens that you might like:
      Thank you for this, Tip. J

  4. I am responsible 4 what i say, not 4 u understant

  5. What a lovely entry and what beautiful memories that you can have with you for life – much better than Facebook! 🙂

    • Thanks, Linda. You’re right about the durability of my little autograph book. Facebook, though, has delighted me by reconnecting me with a number of the classmates who wrote in that book some 45 years ago. I wrote some stories about my schooldays on Tell Me Another, and suddenly they were being shared via Facebook all over the world–so exciting!

      • Yes, Facebook does have that immediacy of connection and communication, and I use it too. But the book itself is very special. 🙂

        • Agreed, Linda: irreplaceable, almost sacred. (By the way, I save the email letters from dear friends in Word documents so that I could print them out and put them in a binder. Otherwise they are so ephemeral, and I treasure those long-running, intimate conversations.)

        • I do the same with emails, Josna. I have an awful feeling that, if the internet and/or other electronic systems are badly affected by something like a giant solar flare, we will lose the records of more than a generation. So I back-up on paper! Perhaps silly, but it makes me feel better. 🙂

        • That makes me feel better, that I’m not a complete lunatic! I’m sure your children and grandchildren will thank you for it.

  6. I remember having one of these when I was a child, but it seems to have been lost along the way as we moved several times.

    • Ah, the things we have lost along the way. Still, you have other ways of remembering, I’m sure. That’s what you do! Thanks for your writing and for coming by.

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