WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Marion Underwood has been through the pages of doting cursive handwriting so often in recent weeks that she knows just about every bit contained in a book started in 1927 and marked, "My Baby Days."
The entry about a mother's first impressions of her baby: "Was that he was the finest, biggest, sweetest and precious boy on earth." The musings following the prompt of "Baby Talks:" ''From morn till nite, tho we can't understand what he says." The reflections of a holiday where the baby boy got four Christmas trees, a nod to visits to the homes of four relatives who had gifts waiting.
What Underwood, Purdue's dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences, still can't figure out: How a baby book commemorating the earliest days of her father, James Ross Underwood, and curated by a grandmother she was named for, but never met, wound up in a barn in a part of Texas she'd never been.
"I'm just so thrilled that this found me," Underwood said, tucking newspaper clippings and her grandmother's National Congress of Parents and Teachers — signed in Corpus Christi, Texas, in October 1934 — back into the front cover of a book she's been carrying with her for the past two weeks.
"How it got here," Underwood said, "now, that is a story."
It goes something like this.
Sylvia Elliott, a secretary in the maintenance and facilities department at the Copperas Cove, Texas, school district, was out junking with her husband, Gary, on the Saturday after the Fourth of July — "kind of like we always do on weekends."
Elliott said the she and her husband don't go to many garage sales. But they make regular circuits of thrift stores and antique shops in driving distance of their home in Copperas Cove, 10 miles outside Fort Hood and about 60 miles north of Austin. ("We're right in the middle of Texas, if that helps you," she said.) They'll hit estate sales along the way, looking for things for her collections — oil lamps, Bartlett Collins cookie jars, old orange juicers and Campbell's soup items — and for items she figures she can resell at an antique shop booth she hopes to open when she retires.
Elliott said their rounds on July 6 took them to a couple of places they know about an hour away in Taylor, Texas. She said they decided to take a roundabout way home, a backroads route that put them in Bertram, Texas, and a sign that read, "Barn Sale," with an arrow pointing down an even more backroads lane.
Elliott said the barn sale, 5 miles off the main road and two days in by that time, had been pretty well picked over. But she was drawn to a wicker bassinet, marked down from $10 to $5.
"In the bassinet was this book," Elliott said. The book was in good shape and unpriced. She said she didn't hesitate when the owner figured $3 would be fair.
"On our way back home, I just started thumbing through this baby book," Elliott said. "I couldn't believe a baby book existed that long ago and still existed from then. All I could think was, 'This mother really did a good job.'"
That, and: "I really need to get this to someone who knows James Ross Underwood Jr."
She started with Facebook. On July 7, she posted a cover photo of the baby book, James Ross Underwood Jr.'s name and birthday, May 15, 1927, and locations mentioned in the book: Houston, Corpus Christi, Bishop, Austin, San Antonio, Sequin and Galveston, Texas.
Within a day, Facebook friends had helped her track down the obituary in the Austin American-Statesman of James Underwood Jr. — a university professor of geology who had died in 2012 — that included Marion Underwood and her siblings. Elliott said an internet search traced Marion Underwood to Purdue, where she'd become a dean in 2018 after 20 years at the University of Texas in Dallas.
Elliott sent a direct message via the Purdue College of Health and Human Science's Facebook page, offering details about the barn sale find and asking whether she had the correct Marion Underwood.
"I believe that it would be a treasure for a daughter or grandbaby to have," Elliott wrote in a message, which made its way to Underwood.
Underwood said details from messages and social media posts convinced her that the baby book was about her father and had belonged to her grandmother. She said she offered to pay for the book and postage if Elliott would drop it in the mail. Elliott refused the money, saying she only wanted to get the book to a family member. ("At that point, I realized it couldn't be a scam," Underwood said.)
"I got goosebumps when I read her message and that I'd found her — and in just two days," Elliott said. "I was so excited to put it in the mail. ... How I found that book in such good shape in a barn in Bertram, who knows?"
Underwood said she could only guess.
Her grandmother appeared to stop updating the book about first songs, first tooth and first steps when her father, an only child raised in Corpus Christi along the Gulf Coast, was 3. A hospital bill for a May 1930 procedure — the price was $20 for surgery to remove her father's tonsils — was tucked in the front cover. A June 1930 entry found her grandmother lamenting, "It is a shame that I don't take time to write down more of the smart and cute things 'our boy' says."
After that, Underwood said, her grandmother could have stowed the book. Her grandmother graduated with a master's in home economics from the University of Texas in 1937 and taught high school and community college courses. Her grandmother died while in her 50s, before her namesake could meet her. Underwood speculated that the book was lost in the shuffle at some point, as keepsakes were passed along.
Underwood said her father told about how loving and attentive his parents had been. The baby book, she said confirmed that for her, with descriptions of a boy who loved to dance — "My father never stopped loving to dance," she said — and anticipated a child who would grow well past 6 feet tall when her grandmother wrote at length about a son whose feet pushed holes through the heels and toes of his socks. (Among the collection in the front of the book was a single, yellow and pink, knit boot with worn heels and toes.)
"I'm not sure my father ever knew my grandmother had written all these things," Underwood said. "I'm glad she did. I feel like I'm learning so much about him."
Underwood's own research concentrates on digital communications - the good, the bad and everything in between. That wasn't lost on her as she considered how Elliott tracked her down.
"Here you have something good coming out of the internet and Facebook," Underwood said. "What are the chances?"
Elliott said she was just glad she and her husband had made the detour at Bertram, Texas, to a picked-over barn sale.
"I don't know," Elliott said, "but this warms my heart just talking about it."
Source: Journal & Courier
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com