Josna Rege

299. Time Travel (Birthdays & Birthday Books)

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Childhood, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Media, Stories, travel on February 7, 2015 at 12:58 pm

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It was while we were living in Greece that I acquired my now-battered copy of Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book, in 1962 or 1963, when I was about eight years old. (The stamp on the inside back cover shows that it was purchased at Pantelides Bookshop which, when I looked it up on the Internet just now, is still in business, is still the largest English bookshop in Athens, and still has the same telephone number!)

IMG_0640I immediately set about asking everyone I knew when their birthday was so that I could enter their name in my new book, or asking them to write it in themselves. After we left Greece for India, I wrote our new address under the old one and began adding new names, first from friends in Kharagpur, then from classmates and teachers in Darjeeling. Five years later, as a teenager in England en route to the United States, I asked my English family and classmates from two different secondary schools to sign in as well.

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By the time I arrived in the U.S., nearly sixteen, my ardor had cooled off, so that only a sprinkling of names have been entered since high school in Brookline. Besides, as the rate of my new entries slowed to a near standstill, the speed at which the years have rolled by seems to have increased exponentially. Now I know several people who share the same birthday, sometimes from three different generations. I wish I had thought to ask everyone to enter their birthdates as well their names, but as a child that didn’t even cross my mind.

My mother was always the one in our family who remembered and made sure to commemorate birthdays. Now that that task has fallen to my generation, I’m afraid that I’m not as consistent. I hadn’t consulted or updated the old birthday book for years, but this morning I was suddenly unsure of whether dear Uncle Ted’s 90th birthday was today or in a couple of days. Climbing precariously on a chair, I retrieved Kate Greenway from a top shelf in my book-crammed office, and confirmed the date. Coincidentally, I found my old Kharagpur friend Robin’s name entered on today’s date in my childish hand, and sent him birthday greetings in London via Facebook.

University of Florida Digital Collections, Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature

University of Florida Digital Collections, Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature

Kate Greenaway was a wildly popular illustrator of English children’s books in the late nineteenth century. Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book was first published in 1880, with a different cover from that of my edition, but with identical illustrations (369 line illustrations and twelve color plates), format, and interior design. The University of Florida has digitized all her works, including her Birthday Book, online and fully searchable.

It is always heart-warming to receive birthday greetings, especially from friends and family far away, even if you know that they only remembered because they received a pop-up notification via Facebook. Last year I looked up and surprised a childhood friend from India with a Facebook message on his birthday, even though I had not had any contact with him for more than fifty years. How on earth had I remembered? It was in my birthday book. Recording birthdays in this way is clearly a fast-disappearing practice. It is perhaps for that very reason that I derive a special thrill from setting eyes on an old friend’s name, in her best handwriting or my untidy scrawl, and instantaneously being transported half a century back in time through the four-inch square portal of one little book.

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Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. What a lovely post – the snow and Uncle Ted did a good job in inspiring you today. Loved our email chat too. Hugs and love xxx

    • Thank you, dear Lesley. Love it when a story comes right out of a conversation or experience and I can write it on the spot. xxo J

  2. I remember family birthdays pretty well but friends birthdays sneak up on me.

    • Yes, Kristin, I have quite a few of the closest family and friends’ birthdays stored in the old memory banks. But there were birthdays I didn’t regularly remember but my mother did; now that she can’t remember them anymore, the task falls to me, and I’m not always up to it. Then there are new birthdays continually piling up on top of each other, sometimes several on the same day. And of course there is the phenomenon that birthdays seem to come around faster and faster with each passing year. . .

  3. Beautifully illustrated Josna. There is something about hard copy images that entrances the mind. E

    • Thank you, E. I had wanted to photograph my old birthday book for a long time, but wasn’t particularly inspired to write an accompanying piece. Some stories are like that—-brought to life by the images rather than the ideas. Although I try to create my own “hard copy image” (as you put it so well) whenever possible, I often spend quite a lot of time searching the internet for an appropriate one; sometimes I feel a little as if I’m cheating when it is a borrowed image that is the best thing about the story.

  4. Josna – only in an ancient city like Athens would the bookstore still exist !! I remember Kate Greenaway mainly because of the charming illustrations. I agree – both birthday and address books have mostly fallen by the wayside, but if we’ve been sentimental enough to keep them, they certainly jog memories. And in your case, renewed contact with some ‘old’ friends!

    Did your handwriting differ at any age? I tried several different styles when I Tried on new personalities (even wanted a different name) but now I’m a mere scribbler of my early cursive!

    • Yes, Sammy, I am guilty of both keeping things and being overly sentimental about them!
      My handwriting sure did change! I went through stages of emulating each of my parents’ handwriting in turn, and later still, my boyfriend’s. My mother had been taught a new kind of handwriting in Britain which was not altogether cursive, much more like printing. I loved that style and my adult hand settled into an irregular version of hers. But with each passing year it seems to become a more-and-more-illegible spidery scrawl.

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