Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Many Bruises, Sorry, Children Do You Have?

A 1900 Census Worker (Image via tn-roots.com)
My husband asks, "Where'd you get THAT bruise?!" I ask him, "Where? I didn't know I had one!" And for the life of me I can't remember where it came from or how long it has been there. I move quickly and rarely stop even if I get hurt. Are you like that?

But ask me how many children I have, where and when they were born and I can tell you. I can tell you about birthing them, getting their names mixed up (for years I'd call two girls Ke-Lauren) and how they radiate when they smile.

Parenthood, whether you planned it, are hoping for it, grieving for your barrenness or are in the beginning, middle or later stages of it, affects us in such a profound way sometimes words are lacking.

Let's role play for a minute if you will. 

It's 1900 and you GOT A JOB! You are a census worker. Your job is to find people, hopefully whole families, ask them questions, write down their answers, and turn in your report. 

I'm the woman who answers the door when you knock. I'm Anna. I'm 47 and have lived in the US for 29 years. I left Sweden a year after my husband. We were looking for a better life in America.

All goes as planned. You've asked me my name, date of birth, birthplace, parents' birthplace, and my occupation. I already answered the same questions for my husband. I'm needing to go and start wondering how much longer this is going to take? 

Then you start asking about the children. I'm glad I answered the door. I'm not sure Hubby would have remembered when and where they were born.

I'm shocked with the first question about my children and don't quite know how to answer.

You, not knowing how loaded your question is, are poised to write my response, looking down at your paper.

"Ma'am? How many children?" And you wait as I fidget for a fraction of a second. "Any children?"

"Yes. Ten." There. It's out. You smile and say, "Got your hands full, don't you?" I smile and nod. He doesn't understand nor notice my quiet sigh.

Next question. "How many living?" You shrug and sigh. "Gotta ask, Ma'am. It's my job."

"Four", I say, meeting his eyes for a split second as we exchange that look that hurries the interview to  a close with a "Thank you," and a "Good day"  muttered with a nod and tipping of his hat.

Back to the present. Kelley, 17, plops into the chair opposite mine, excited to talk about what she's learning in her college psychology class. I whip my finger in the air, signaling her to wait.

"What'd ya find?" she asks, knowing I've been researching some documents of her great great great grandfather Charles Carlson and his wife, Anna Sophia. 

Take a second and look at what I was looking at. This is a preview of the 1900 US Census. A copy of the original for free was a click away as well.

And this is a copy of the original.

I'm stunned. She's 11 spaces down from the top. See the 10 and 4 to the right of Anna's name? That's #of children, and #of living children side-by-side on the census record. Over 2/3's of her children are dead by 1900. Did they die in Sweden before they came in 1871?  Were they victims of malaria, cholera, small pox, or influenza? 

The facts will come together as I do some more digging. But the conclusion will be the same.

Anna Sophia Carlson stands at her front door reducing her 24 years of life since marrying her husband in Sweden to a few names and numbers. 

If paper could talk what witness would it give of those five minutes of record-keeping? Would anyone ever know the impressions those six children had made on her life?

Would she always say,"I have ten children" to honor their place in her family?

Or would she keep it to herself knowing full well that unless someone has experienced her kind of grief, it's best to let it alone.

Would she consign her self to denying their existence and say "four"? 

That would be a way to avoid the well-intentioned but uncomfortable "Sorry for your loss", "At least you have four!", "It was God's will", or "They're at peace, now."

I can't get the image out of my mind. And the feelings are now firmly planted in my heart. Feelings of compassion.

I saw the names and the dates and all of the other facts. But I didn't have to live them. I'm in awe of the woman who kept going. 

Did she consider herself a woman bruised by life? I wonder...


  1. My maternal grandpa's mother had 17 children. When I first heard that years ago I could make no sense of it. 17??? That meant for most of her adult life she was pregnant?! My mom is one of 6 and my dad one of 9. I'm the oldest of 3 and have no children of my own.

    Just as technology has change, so has family structure. I'm sure this is a rabbit hole that would take up some time if we started to explore!

  2. HAHA! Sandi, 17 is a lot. I'm sure it became a way of life for her. It's amazing that we each choose to do with our lives what we will...and then life does with us what IT will! Your post today was great BTW!

  3. That is such a sad statistic, and unfortunately I have seen so many like it in the 1900 and 1910 censuses.

  4. Hi Greta!
    And to think t has taken me so long to see that statistic on that census record! I've been looking at the other 1900 census records of my ancestors and I've found at least one other family with 11 children, five living. It was harder to live back then than I'd imagined. I take a lot for granted. That's for sure!

  5. Very touching post. My Grandmother had eleven children. She buried five before they reached adulthood. When I think times are tough her strength is my strength too! Thank you for sharing.

  6. This was very nice Betsy, as always! I can't imagine losing so many children! Just can't imagine it! Even losing one would be so hard to bear. Were they made of tougher stuff back then?

  7. Hi Lori, Makes me very grateful for the advances in science and medicine!

  8. I have to wonder Cindy if she shared any of her feelings with you. Those kinds of experiences, as painful as they are, can help so many people as they struggle and grieve.

  9. This is a fascinating story. I can't imagine such a life - with such loss. Wow.

  10. Ameena! What a surprise! Thanks for coming over. I know what you mean. I can get myself all worked up thinking about just ONE of my children suffering, never mind dying. Probably everyone's worst nightmare. (BTW, I love your artwork!)
    Thanks Ameena!

  11. Betsy, stories like this sure give you perspective, don't they? One of my best friends is one of 13 kids, but only 6 lived to adulthood due to a genetic illness in their family. So it wasn't too long ago that this was still happening.

    I asked her if it was difficult to lost so many brothers and sisters and she said they got used to it as kids. Isn't that very sad?

    Luckily, she did not inherit the illness as a carrier. All three of her children are healthy and fine.

    I'm thinking with modern medicine and genetic testing, future generations won't experience this amount of loss.

  12. Thank you Carolyn!
    Another thing for me to think about: the surviving children and the emotional toll it takes on them. Can you imagine having to come to terms with your inability to control your little universe? Moving around a lot teaches you that, too. But experiencing so many losses of loved ones has to be extremely humbling!

  13. Betsy, aloha. What a very beautiful and touching post. In this day and age, that's a question not usually thought of, much less asked. How fortunate we are.

    The "good old days" weren't necessarily the good old days.

    While I am not a fan of allopathic medicine, it definitely has its place and effective use of antibiotics can save so many lives.

    Betsy, it's hard to imagine what it must have been like for mothers back then.

    Thank you for reminding to appreciate all that we have available to us. Aloha. Janet

  14. One thing's for sure, Janet: my romantic view of my ancestors' lives has changed a lot.since starting my research. I'm very happy living in the present!


What do you think? I'd love to know.