One thing I’ve learned as I’ve pursued genealogy is that deaths of children were more common in years past than they seem to be today. While researching my family history, I’ve come across at least one ancestor who died as a child in almost every family. Some died as unnamed infants soon after birth, others lived longer but never made it out of the single digits.
One of the latter, who would have been my great aunt, was Dorothy Gideon. She was my grandfather’s older sister and died in 1920 at the age of nine. One of the more poignant pieces of family history I’ve come across is Dorothy’s death certificate. After seeing my great grandfather’s signature at the bottom of the document, I realized it was his writing in the personal information section as well. I hurt for him as I thought about how he must have felt filling in these details about his young daughter who’d just died. Under “Occupation,” he wrote “schoolgirl.” How sad and unnatural that must have seemed. Even in 1920, it’s clear death certificates were assumed to be for adults – people who grow up, get jobs and live many years, not nine year old girls.
My grandfather never talked about Dorothy; he and Grace were very young when she died. Nevertheless his sister occasionally did. We called her “Aunt Grace” and usually saw her a few times a year. I remember once at Christmas she talked about “our sister who died” and teared up, even after all those years. Since she was so young when Dorothy died, most of her memories of her sister probably came from her parents, which means the sadness probably did too.
I’m sure they carried the memory of their daughter with them the rest of their days. My great grandfather, John Hardin Gideon, died in 1948. “Mama Kate,” my great grandmother, died in 1965 when I was four years old. She had lived to be a great grandmother but had, I’m sure, never stopped being a mother to that schoolgirl, forever nine years old in her memory.