Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Grandmother & Great-Grandmother Lost Children, Too

It is easy to get lost in one's own grief and loss, to focus on it and feel it so deeply that one loses sight of the pain others have gone through or are experiencing. Sometimes it helps to remember that others have suffered in the same ways. A few days ago a friend, Darren, told me about the "SOS" (Survivors of Suicide) group on Facebook. I read some of the poignant stories there and I can truly understand how they are feeling.

Although suicide has it's own especially painful aspects, any way of losing a beloved son or daughter is a torment. I have thought many times since Leif's death about the loses my grandmother and great-grandmother faced. We never talked about those things. I never knew my great-grandmother, except in the stories my mother told, for she died in 1926, long before I was born. However, the story of her life fascinated me for many reasons, and since Leif's death, even more. She endured the loss of two of her children and her husband and lived to be 86. Her daughter, Issabella, who was less than two years old, died of "brain fever" in 1877, and eleven months later, when she was pregnant with her sixth child, her husband (my great-grandfather) died after he became ill from exposure in the Minnesota January while trying to help find the bodies of two young boys who had gone under the ice on a pond. To endure two such heart-wrenching deaths in less than a year must have been very hard, and how she managed bear her youngest child four months after he husband died and then to keep her family together by taking in boarders, is an inspiring story of courage. As far as I know, there is only one small tintype photo of the infant Issabella and I don't have it scanned.

Her children adored her. Her youngest son, Johnny, named for his father, was only seven when his father died. He went out west as a telegraph operator when he was still in his teens. Later, in 1897 when the Klondike Gold Rush started, he wrote a letter to her telling her that he was going to the Yukon but that he was coming home first to see his mother. He never made it. He was 26 years old. No one ever found out what happened to him, though his older brother who was a steward on trains going out West looked for him wherever he could.

Imagine the pain of not knowing what happened to her son, never having any kind of closure about his disappearance. She had a nice Victorian oak table that stood in the front bay window of her house, and on it was a kerosene "globe" lamp. She kept that lamp lighted every night so that in case Johnny ever came home, he would know there was someone there waiting for him.

I grew up with that story, and I found it poignant even as a child. I now have that oak table, and though I don't keep a lamp burning on it, I fervently wish I could do so in the hopes that one day my Leif might come home.

The top photo in this post is of my great-grandmother, known to the family by the Norwegian word "Besta" which is a nickname from "Grandma." Her name was Martha Sjursdatter Haugsjerd Anderson. The second photo is of her husband, John E. Anderson, who was only 37 when he died. He must have taken the death of his infant daughter hard, too. The photos are probably taken around 1877.

The third photo is the only photo I know of of Johnny. It was probably taken around 1881 when he was around ten years old and living in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

In those days, when a child died, it was common to name a baby born later with the same name. When her sixth child was born in September 1978, she was named Jeanette Isabella Caroline and called Isabella. She became my grandmother. She married Helmer Swenson, and their photos, taken around 1950, are the next ones. They had two children, their son Orrin and my mother, Marion. Although Helmer had only an eighth grade education and Isabella had the equivalent of some high school, they managed to send both of their children to college and they must have been immensely proud of Orrin, who went to medical school and during World War II became a flight surgeon for the Army Air Corps, serving in India. In 1943 when he was stationed in North Carolina, he somehow contracted gas gangrene and died within hours. He was only 30 years old and left behind a wife and five-year-old son. It must have been a terrible shock to his parents, to have such a young and up to that moment health son suddenly dead. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and they weren't even able to be present for that ceremony. A couple of years ago, when I was in the Washington DC area, I went to find and photograph his grave. I never knew my uncle. He died four years before I was born.

Although I grew up knowing these stories and I knew intellectually that such losses much have been devastating, I, like everyone else who has not experienced the death of one's child, did not in any way fully understand or appreciate what they went through. Now I do.

Many people have said to me that the reason it is so hard to lose a child is because that is not the "natural thing," that children are supposed to outlive their parents. That should be, yes, but it often is not. Before the advent of modern drugs and medical practice, many, many children died of childhood illnesses. Others were lost to accidents. It is only lately in the human story that we could even have an expectation that children would all outlive us, but that expectation is often not granted.

Were they able to get past their grief and remember the years they had with their children as the gifts they were? Will I?


My father committed suicide at the age of 46, but his parents were spared the grief of that loss. They died relatively young, in their mid-sixties, several years before he took his life.

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