Sunday, August 11, 2013


My lap desk
I have a little lap desk which I purchased at an antique shop a number of years ago. Every once in a while, I pull it from its hiding place under my bed and add another keepsake to my collection of postcards and fancy bookmarks. A keepsake, according to Merriam-Webster, is "something kept or given to be kept as a memento; (memento = something that serves to warn or remind)." 

There is another older lap desk in my family's possession that belonged to an early relative.

Antique lap desk

When I first laid my hands on it, I admired the grain of the polished wood and wondered whom it may have belonged to. I gingerly opened the lid and found a collection of keepsakes that had belonged to several ancestors who have long since passed on  --  pencils, pens, sealing wax, playing cards, letters, and three small autograph books.

Contents of antique lap desk

I remember having a similar autograph book when I was in grade school, where my classmates wrote doggerel verses  --  "On this page of pinky-pink, I sign my name in Waterman ink"  --  and signed their names. This memento has disappeared in the years since my grade school days.

But who owned the autograph books in the old lap desk, and how far back into the mists of time do they go?

                                                                     *     *     *

Jonas Van Slyke
Once upon a time, a tall man named Jonas tended a lock along the Erie Canal in the village of Mindenville in the Mohawk Valley. Jonas and his wife Margaret had three daughters  --  Kittie, Minnie, and Mary, and later a little boy named George. Kittie was my great-grandmother, born in 1868. The three sisters most likely attended a one-room schoolhouse a short walk from their home.

The youngest daughter, Mary, called Matie, born in 1874, received a small keepsake album, perhaps as a Christmas or New Year's gift when she was ten years old. Hers appears to be the oldest of the three albums. It is not clear who the other two booklets belonged to.

Matie's autograph album

Two of the earliest entries in the album were written by her sisters. On January 26, 1885, her sister Minnie wrote, "When you are old and cannot see, put on your specks [sic] and think of me."

Inscription dated Jan. 26, 1885

On February 8, 1885, eldest sister Kittie wrote, "These few lines to you are tendered by a friend sincere and true hoping but to be remembered when far away from you."

There are also inscriptions by Matie's grandfather, David D. Van Slyke (1813 - 1893), whose elegant script contrasted with his less than perfect spelling.  Grandpa David was particularly fond of Bible and hymn verses:

Undated inscription by David D. Van Slyke

Matie's teacher also wrote in her autograph book:

Note from teacher Ida Fox, November 16, 1885

On the last page, Matie herself wrote, "Don't steal this book for fear of shame . . . " The rest of the inscription is unreadable, the pencil marks rendered illegible by the passage of time. Unfortunately, Matie did not live to the old age her sister's message expected. She died a few days after Christmas in 1888, at the age of only fourteen years and nine months. Her keepsake album keeps her memory alive 125 years later.

In our throwaway era of today, what keepsakes will you leave behind to keep your memory alive a century from now?

Kittie's sisters - Matie and Minnie (undated tintype)

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