ACROSS AMERICA — It was the lock of hair that put the lump in Nancy Hughes’ throat.
It was fastened securely to a page in a baby book, a keepsake that somehow found its way into a box of books Hughes, a voracious reader, bought at an auction a few years ago.
Here’s what Hughes knows for sure: The little girl was named Helen Lorraine Darland. Her parents were D.L. and May Darland. Dr. E. Christy was the attending physician when she entered the world at 9 a.m. on March 14, 1918, in Hastings, Iowa.
“That little curl, that little curl of soft brownish-red hair from a little bitty girl,” Hughes, 69, told Patch on Wednesday in a phone interview from her home in southwest Iowa. “Oh my gosh, that’s the part that just got to me.”
Hughes is grateful for her animal menagerie — horses, dogs and a barn full of rodent-patrolling cats that seem to stop what they’re doing and pose for the photographs that give Hughes such joy. She’s grateful for the memories of her soul mate — a man who taught her to be bold — and a job in the printer’s trade that feeds what can rightly be described as a love for the printed word.
The lock of hair holds no tangible meaning for Hughes, nor do the old black-and-white photographs, creased and torn in places but still in one piece, that spilled out of the baby book. But she has some of those same keepsakes in her own caches of memories. What she wouldn’t do to get them back if they were casually tossed by a stranger who never intended to acquire them in the first place.
Hughes said that when she found the baby book, her first thought was, “Oh my gosh, how did this get in a box that I have? Who would put that in a box of books to just sell at an auction? Somebody in that family surely wants this.”
Hughes bought the box of books at an auction in Sidney, Iowa, about three years ago. That’s about 30 miles from Hastings, where Helen Lorraine Darland, was born in the midst of America’s other great pandemic, the influenza pandemic that killed millions of children and adults.
Had little Helen Lorraine survived? Whoever she was, her mother had high hopes for her. In the beautiful cursive penmanship that was typical of the era, a mother wrote this to her little girl:
“My fairest child, I have no song to give you, No lark could pipe to skies so dull and gray; Yet ‘ere we part one lesson I can leave you for every day; Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever. Do noble deeds, not dream them all day long; and so make life, death and that vast forever one grand sweet song. — Your mamma.”
In the same flowing hand were other messages, snippets of poetry and “things that are just wonderful thoughts that obviously meant a lot to her,” Hughes said.
“There are so many things that make me …,” she started. “I hope we can find someone in that family that it will mean something to.”
More than a century has passed since Helen Lorraine Darland was born. Her baby book stirred in Hughes a passion to return the memories to the family’s descendants. So far, she hasn’t had much luck.
A genealogy aficionado in the town where Hughes bought the box of book has filled in some missing blanks by combing through old newspaper records.
She had two sisters, Mildred and Ruth, and four cousins, Leon, Marlin, Dorothy and Marion. Other surnames surfaced — Eacrett, Lemonds, Jackson, Anderson, Buffington, Clipson, Parker, Stark, Hathaway and more Darlands — but the researcher was unable to locate a phone number associated with any of them.
“The bad thing is, everybody has a cell phone,” Hughes said. “You can’t look through a phone book and find anyone.”
It’s a long shot, but Hughes hopes the grapevine of the internet — a platform the little girl’s parents couldn’t even have imagined — will fill in some missing blanks for a family she has yet to meet.
That’s gratitude: appreciating the gift of a mother’s words to her child and a trove of other family treasures, but wanting those to whom the memories mean more to have them.
“I hope with everything in me that we can get this to a family member,” she said. “I would hope that if someone found something like that that was part of my family, they wouldn’t just toss it in the trash. It’s nothing to them.
“The pictures — I have pictures that look very similar of my own family,” she said. “I just hope that someone can have them.”
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