The Keepsake

In the summer of 1974 I came across a handwritten Album belonging to Elizabeth Garrett Atwood (1800-1833).  It was nestled in a box of books, which I bought for a dollar at a farm auction, in Emerald, Wisconsin. Elizabeth acquired this object in October of 1828, indicated by her signature on the opening page. Uniquely, it served as a place for her to transcribe verses reflective of her inner feelings. She also carried the Album when she traveled to see friends in neighboring towns of Ohio, where she shared her Album with her social circle to record their favorite lines.[1] On these visits Elizabeth’s book functioned as a literary space, facilitating communication of friendship, empathy and sympathy among her friends, and sometimes family.  In its entirety, the collection of verses acted as a metaphor for the events, and tragedies in her life e.g. marriage, in 1829, human loss, especially the death of her brother John,[2] and that of her two-years old daughter Ellen, in 1832. And finally, for her own death in 1833. 

A few months after having the Album Elizabeth inserted a poem of an unknown author, called “The Keepsake.”[3] I came to realize that “The Keepsake” represented the Album itself.  The Album was, and still is the keepsake mentioned in the poem, as follows.

Oh! Know it thou why, to distance driven

When friendship weeps the parting hour

The simplest gift that moment given

Long, long retains a magic power.

Still when it meets the musing view

Can half the theft of time retrieve.

The scenes of former bliss renew

and bid each dear idea live.

It boots not if the pencil’d rose

Or severed ringlet meet the eye.

On India’s spark’ling gems enclose

The talisman of sympathy.

Keep it, yes keep it for my sake

On fancy’s ear still breathes the sound

Nor time the potent charm shall break

Nor lose the spell by nature bound.

New Lisbon Feb. 8th 1829                    Elizabeth Y. Garrett

“A small memento left behind – Recalls an absent friend to mind.”

As the quote at the foot of the poem suggests, the purpose of her Album was to remember absent friend(s). The irony of Elizabeth’s choice to include “The Keepsake” in her Album lies in the idea that her Album blossomed into ‘a talisman of sympathy,’ even after her own death.

The powerful tone of this very old poem, probably of British origin, is in my estimation, the reason why the Album survived.  Someone close to Elizabeth brought her book halfway across the country from Ohio, to Wisconsin.  By surprise it ended up in a box of books at an auction for me to buy, for a dollar, when it could have ended up out in the rain. (I was the only person to bid on the box.)  I knew when I unearthed the book from the box that it was special if not a little too gloomy for a nineteen-years old. I kept it anyway and preserved it in memory of Elizabeth and her long-gone community of friends, who live on in 2023. I guarded Elizabeth’s Album, her keepsake, as the words in the poem suggested, “Keep it, keep it for my sake.” I still have it today, almost 200 years after her writing. 

Elizabeth brilliantly, if not unknowingly, reshaped aspects of her own life in the totality of her book.  The Album, probably a gift of friendship as the first verse of poem states, remained as a ‘charm that time would not break,’ and ‘its spell was bound by nature.’  Its impermeable quality calls into question whether or not our objects hold a ‘magic power’ long after we are gone. but not just magic for magic’s sake.  For Elizabeth, the value of her book lay in the power of a gift given out of friendship. Elizabeth, a religious Baptist was also exposed to a variety of secular literature of Asian influence, suggested by the idea that a keepsake was akin to the mystery hidden within ‘India’s sparkling gems.’ If we don’t believe in gems and magic, we might concur that our possessions can at least hold memories that live on in the minds of others, if others choose to keep them, making clear that our possessions outlive our own fragile existence.  The Album honors Elizabeth and the people in her life, but it also honors the writers and poets whose work they chose to transcribe, ‘to bid each dear idea live.’  These poems help us today to understand the universal complexity of grief and sorrow that our ancestors felt.  As an object, the Album sustains its impact primarily because of the written words put down inside it, by curious minds of people long gone, with the ability to express feelings and thoughts. Elizabeth truthfully spoke about the importance of feelings at the beginning of her book:

“The feelings of the heart leave traces on the memory more sweet as well as more indelible,

than any action of the Mind _ and a glance of the eye which awakens one chord of affection,

will be remembered, when the brightest sallies of intellect-the happiest strokes of wit, are banished forever- EYG”

Words are put down to preserve our everlasting feelings, a testimony to our existence. No one felt this more deeply than Elizabeth.   

Brokenhearted Elizabeth wrote her final transcription “Is it well with the child?” on the evening of Dec. 31st, 1832, interestingly on the last day of the year.  This poem reflected Elizabeth’s desire to communicate with her dead child, baby Ellen.  The importance of the Album lived on for her friends, even after this entry. On January 20th, and 23rd, 1833, a mysterious friend named O Stoughton wrote three separate verses within. These were called, “oh still as the circle of social affection,” “Oh if there is no human tear,” and “The flower is not whithered, it is only transplanted.” All written in honor of Elizabeth’s loss, and losses.

Elizabeth died from consumption on November 3, 1833, 15 months after the death of Ellen.   Four months after her death, on April 20th, 1834, the book’s final verse, “The close of life,” was inserted by E. A. Wardlane, Nelson.  The initials E.A. likely stand for her husband Edwin Atwood, and Wardlane may have been a place name in Nelson, unless it is the person’s last name. Not totally clear, but it’s my sense that the Album remained in the home of her husband Edwin Atwood and from there made its way west. One final time, the ‘talisman of sympathy’ served as a mouthpiece for Elizabeth, and for her society.   

Elizabeth is a legitimate author, and editor of this small meaningful book.[4]  In the first quarter of the 19th century illness and death were the norm, and grieving was ever present in people’s lives. The keeping and creation of her Album was an extension of her grieving, the importance of relationships in her life, and of her need to share her feelings with her friends through literature. She had a natural, and uncensored tendency to express herself freely and the Album was a vehicle for her to engage her friends, in joy and in grief. Relationships mattered to Elizabeth.  They were the breath of her existence and she gave them relevance in her Album. In modern times, the Album is a magnificent example of a 19th century process of social media. 

In the words of her Death Notice, ‘Elizabeth was a woman of uncommon intelligence.’ This could not be further from the truth.  She had a magnetic personality, which followed her wherever she went, and continues to emanate from her Album to this day.   She was an ingenious and creative writer, an editor, promoter and preserver of literature, as witnessed in her keepsake, the Album. She should be remembered for her contributions.

[1] Of interest is how Elizabeth and her friends gained access to a variety of literature in Nelson, Ohio, in 1833.  Her early handwriting samples from 1815-1816 contained a wide variety of transcriptions of English poetry.  These were done in Mercer, which was part of Ohio at the time.  But in Nelson, did the family library have books and magazines?  When she traveled to the homes of friends, where she would stay for several days or even weeks, it appears they shared selections from their own library, in her Album.  How this literature reached the frontier of Ohio is another point of research.

[2]  She mourned John’s death for an entire year, but the sorrow over his loss never left her.     

[3] In my internet search, I found “The Keepsake” with an unknown author, published in “A Lover’s Dictionary; A Poetical Treasury,” 1867, thirty-eight years after Elizabeth chose it for her book.    I believe the author was British, rather than American, evidenced by the use of the expression in the third stanza, first line, ‘It boots not…’ meaning ‘it serves not, or isn’t useful.  This phrase was spoken by William Shakespeare’s King Richard to Mowbray in the following: “It boots thee not to be compassionate.” By the same token, it’s not impossible that an early American poet re-coined the words to fit his or her poem, but that would mean the expression, in use since before the 17th century, reached the pen of a colonial writer.

[4] Elizabeth, coinciding with her Album, kept a personal journal during the last seven years of her life. It’s hard to believe that Elizabeth didn’t keep a journal as a young girl, though no surviving papers exist to my knowledge.

All Together

Sometimes a poorly exposed photograph is worth the effort. In this case I was able to bring back the memory of three small children, in a small way. Here we have the grave of Little Mary Smith (1865), Little Fannie, and Little Someone Else. The inscriptions were hard to read, but with a bit of tweaking, I was amazed how the letters and words become clearer, until “Voilà!” You have a phrase.
Plainfield, Connecticut August 26, 2016

The Little Flower Dies

Photo courtesy of David Dreimiller

Florinda Udall, born in May 1833, died at age 11 years and 8 months, on January 25th, 1845. She was the daughter of Alva and Phebe Udall, from Hiram, Ohio, and had one brother, named Edward.  She was a schoolmate of Lizzie Atwood Pratt and Lucretia Rudolph Garfield.

Lizzie Atwood records the death of Florinda in her diary, on January 24th, 1845, which is in conflict with the death date, on the stone:  “I spent the evening at Mr. Boyds.  Florinda Udall one of my schoolmates died of Bowel Complaint, after 6 days illness AE 11 years, and 8 months.” On the 26th she writes:  “Florinda was buried at the center of Hiram.”  The diary entry is true to the tone of Lizzie’s writing, which was matter of fact, and sparing of emotion.  This was the style of most of her writing.  At 12 years of age, she proved to be an objective observer of events that took place around her, in her village, and does this as well, in the case of Florinda’s illness and death.

Florinda’s name, comes from the word ‘flora,’ meaning ‘flower’ in Spanish, and is derived from Latin.  It must have been sad for family and friends, when their little flower died.


Wandering down a country road,

in search of clarity and purpose,

A man saw a barn.

It was a landmark in rural decline.

A place of broken dreams from the past.

The day was dismal, and stormy.

Forlorn thoughts clouded his mind.

He paused at the crossing,

and stood in the wind and the rain.

All around him, time was moving fast.


Always had a smile,

My very best friend,

A little older,

At times, my mother hen.

You gave me a name,

I still keep today,

You were the one,

with whom I wanted to play.

But now, like then,

We have to part ways.


Others frowned at our friendship,

But little did they know,

You and I lived like sisters

Through our fun, and our woes.

Under the falling stars,

Those warm summer nights,

Blessed Mary, the only witness

of our dreams, to unfold.


Yes!  Young, you have gone;

But you got your wishes, too,

With your horses, and children, and husband.

Their love is true.

Go peacefully,

knowing, I loved you, as well,

and in my heart,

our memory dwells.

For if not, pray tell;

What is the meaning of life?

Your friend,




Interruptions in Life

Reading can bring back memories, help to understand oneself with respect to the past, the present, and even give direction in life. It can stimulate the imagination and desire to create outside of a story, and make one’s own stories. “The Song of the Lark” strikes many such chords for me. Through Cather’s quiet introspective narrative tone, we watch the character, Thea Kronborg, grow into herself.

In Part II of the novel, Thea, with the encouragement of Doctor Archie, goes to Chicago to complete her musical education. While she takes piano lessons from Mr. Harsanyi, a Hungarian immigrant, she simultaneously sings in a choir for a church. Only by accident does Mr. Harsanyi discover that Thea is also a singer, possessing a beautiful, but untrained voice.

Life for Thea in the city takes on an aspect of drudgery and loneliness, feelings she never experienced growing up in Moonstone. She is the daughter of a Swedish minister and nonjudgmental mother, who believes in the power of fate. Back in Moonstone, Thea was a free-spirited girl, who carried around with her ‘under the cheek’ that inexplicable sense of innate happiness. Now in Chicago, that feeling has since dissipated, and been replaced by the routine of her music practice, and daily living.

One scene which recalls a memory for me is described in the opening passage of Chapter V, Part II:

By the first of February Thea had been in Chicago almost four months, and she did not know much more about the city than if she had never quitted Moonstone. She was, as Harsanyi said, incurious. Her work took most of her time, and she found that she had to sleep a good deal. It had never before been so hard to get up in the morning. She had the bother of caring for her room and she had to build her fire and bring up her coal. Her routine was frequently interrupted by a message from Mr. Larson summoning her to sing at a funeral. Every funeral took half a day, and the time had to be made up. When Mrs. Harsanyi asked her if it did not depress her to sing at funerals, she replied that she ‘had been brought up to go to funerals and didn’t mind’.

It’s this last scene that struck home with me, because I too was brought up going to funerals, to sing the Requiem. You see, the school I went to was attached to the Catholic Church. The best part of each classroom were the very large windows that looked out onto the grass and swing sets. The children could also watch the cars that drove by on the driveway, as they circled the school and the church. When there was a funeral the procession with the hearse and all the cars filled with mourning family members would also go by. This was our indication to go into the church and sing. We went to Mass every morning anyway, and sang in Latin, but when someone died, it was different. It was a solemn time, and we had to show the greatest respect.

Like Thea, going to sing for a funeral was not a task of drudgery, and even though I look back and realize it wasn’t what most normal children had to do, I didn’t mind. I enjoyed singing, that much, and looking at the beautiful stained glass windows inside the church. Similarly to Thea, these frequent interruptions to go sing at a funeral, were a real part of my school day life. As school children, it was our place to attend to the matter, give our voices to the sad family, and then get on with life. We learned to take the good, with the bad, and the sad, with the happy, and always had that something under our cheek to keep us company, even if it seemed to step out for awhile.

Although, I haven’t finished the story yet, I imagine that Thea has a lot of growing to do, that she will have to struggle even more; But if I know Willa Cather, her heroine will overcome, whatever steps in her way. Thea will undoubtedly be rewarded for her struggle, and be resurrected to an even more dignified level of being.

Without Friends

Summer's Secrets
Summer’s Secrets

Summer’s secrets

hold much in store…

frolicking, playing, and more

Sadness, and storms, with thunder and lightening,

Keeping one up

it’s quite frightening.

Life and death are fare game…

Without friends

it wouldn’t be the same.

For my friends by TiffanyCreek

When you can see…

Jeffrey Jones offered these very touching words upon the death of my mom.  She was an art teacher at New Richmond High School.  Her popularity among students, even those who never had her as a teacher, gained her the name Mart, for Ma’ Art.

After my graduation, Mart came up to me and said she wished I would have taken an art class, I laughed and told her “I’m not an artist” And I wasn’t, lol. She told me, When you can see, instead of looking, when you can feel, instead of touching, when you can listen, instead of hearing, you’ll find that artist. Never forgot that. Made sense when I had children. She taught, more than she thought, lol. No one is ever gone, as long as there is someone left who remembers. Mart will be with us, a very long time.

Mart passed away at 90 years, 3 months and 6 days, July 13 2015.

Struggling to Understand

Thoughts on an article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sunday, August 17, 2014

IGHGrampa writes about ‘struggling to understand issues of Life (and Death)’. He reflects upon the suicide of Robin Williams, saying he had everything a person could possibly want, so how could he possibly want to take his life? Perhaps he has a point, but, many would ask, who is to judge? This point of view reminds me once, when I actually took the attitude, that if someone wants to kill themselves, it is alright. Today, I think twice before making this judgement, and it all stems back to when Someone, somewhere, when I lived in Nebraska, had taken their life. I don’t remember who they were, but it was someone, a coworker of mine and I were talking about one day, at a cafe, or bar. What I do remember, is my conversation with this very attractive blond girl, younger than myself. I really liked this girl a lot.  I think it was her very strong character and the self-confidence, with which she projected herself. In reference to this suicide, I said something to the effect, that it was this person’s decision to do what they wanted with their life, whether it was to continue on, or end it by their own hands. What will never leave my memory, is this girl’s totally unexpected, and strong reaction to my statement. With her steel blue eyes, she looked into, my eyes, and told me point blank; “It’s wrong!” She was adamant and unwavering in her statement, and went on to say that it was a totally selfish act, and that this person had no regard for the feelings of others around him or her. She was so fixed in her opinion that it truly made me stop and think about the act of suicide. To this day, and with utmost respect, I think of the proud and moral position this girl took, and I admire her still, for standing her ground on an issue, about which many people were, and still are, wishy washy. Furthermore, she was young, in the years of the late 70’s, a time when, ‘everything goes’. Today, I shame myself for not having a stronger spine and for following the opinion of the flock.

Going back to the article, IGHGrampa goes on to talk about ‘the struggle’, so to speak. He makes reference to the main character of the movie “Precious”, a woman who seems to have “insurmountable” problems. He writes about the struggle by astronomers to acquire knowledge and an understanding of how the planets and stars are formed, the forces of existence itself.

Pondering these struggles, Grampa remarks on his own trivial struggles, and that ‘sometimes you just have to put the struggles aside for a time.’ He even works on his own little problems in his workshop, to help him forget about the larger struggles of the world. Or, he likes to simply listen to classical music, to escape. His final statement makes so much sense to me, and that is, that perhaps, in order to understand, the key is ‘to make an effort to remove oneself from the struggle’, someway, somehow.

Grampa’s words bring me back to the idea of the struggle, to choose life, or death, between what is right, and what is wrong. In light of these thoughts, it is our duty, to find something that can be done for those, who find themselves alone in a moment of desperation, something to prevent them from hurting themselves, and/or others, whether it be with words, actions, or no action.  The passive-aggressive route. To help them to make an effort to ‘remove themselves from the struggle, and carry on in this world of life and death.  If my blond friend were here today, she would know. She would know what to say, and do.

Presently, I am thankful that this girl stepped into my life, if only for a short time. Like a few people in my life, she is gone, hopefully living, nonetheless, out of my radar.  Yet, the spirit of her hopefulness, has not subsided.  When the question of suicide ever comes up, I think of this girl, who worked by my side, in Lincoln, Nebraska, and, I think twice.