Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dream's End

View from Vincent's sanitarium window, Arles
Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

"Dreams are like stars...you may never touch them, 
but if you follow them they will lead you to your destiny."

I am one of five children. When I got married I didn't have extreme desires for children. I actually couldn't stand babysitting when I was growing up, and I didn't ever crave holding babies. They actually scared me!

So of course I ended up having nine children. What's more interesting is I can never adequately answer the question, "Why did you have so many?'

No one asks, "Why only one, two three or four?" But pass that magical number and you've traversed the Continental Divide between the normal and the not-so-normal.

Still, I have always relied heavily on my mother's experience with firsts such as projectile vomiting that scared the pants of me (not really) when my two-week-old daughter gave a smashing portrayal of the possessed girl in the movie 1973 movie, "The Exorcist" (never watched it...but heard all about it!), or full-blown temper tantrums that occur when you have a cart load of frozen food at the checkout of the super market. Her wisdom has pulled through every time!

Elizabeth Ann Wheeler had her first daughter, Elizabeth Ann when she was eighteen, two and an half years after her first child William was born in 1841. All together Elizabeth Johnson had nine children and was not as lucky as I have been. None of mine have died. But her daughter, her namesake had to have been taking it all in, processing, learning, and making decisions for her future based on her experiences while she was young.

My children have reported to me over the years that they aren't too sure about having children. Either that or they say, "When I have my OWN children they'll NEVER do That!" Yeah, I said that, too.

I love the, "When I have kids I'm going to:
  • let them stay up as late as they want
  • eat as much junk food as they want
  • NEVER make them go to school
  • NEVER give them chores
  • let them wear any style of clothes 
  • let them do whatever they want with their hair...."
  • ETC.

What no child ever thinks about is the inability to have children or the sacrifices they will be required to make just bringing them into the world.

I guess if they knew they'd never dream.

I wonder if Elizabeth Ann the daughter dreamed of having a family? She may have been just like I was, married to be married. If children came they came. If not, so be it.

She got married when she was 25, the same age I was when I tied the knot. Her husband, Theadore Lyman Palmer was just a few years older than she was and was providing for them both as a teamster in 1870, a year after they were married.

The next time I see them is 10 years later. No children had been born, but one was obviously on the way.

I know because I found Elizabeth, age 36, on a US Federal Census Mortality Schedule.

Cause of death? "Peurperal Convulsions" , aka Eclampsia, brought on by carrying and / or birthing a child. From what I've read there are warning signs of impending danger: headaches, swelling of the feet and ankles, and cloudy urine. These days doctors are so careful and can drive any woman crazy with all of the tests every month and eventually every week as childbirth nears. It can really get annoying. Now I understand better and I'm humbled. But these mild symptoms may not have worried Elizabeth or Theadore. Elizabeth had her mom, who'd had nine children. Perhaps there was no concern just excitement as her delivery date neared?

The end of that particular dream, if there had been one, ended tragically in January in 1880. Theadore is listed as "Widower" later that year in the US 1880 census. He's forty and still living in the same place six months after his wife passed away. Life went on for him, but I can't tell how. For now he has also been relegated to the RTE (Roaming the Earth) pile because I don't know where he went after 1880.

I had one more unexpected thought as I finished my research on Elizabeth's death. The physicians are listed by name on the Mortality Schedules. My heart broke for them. I never forget that there are always secondary people who suffer in a tragedy. These are the ones who have either caused an accident, directly or indirectly, or have been affected but forgotten while the primary players are comforted and mourned with.

What of the physicians? 

There were about 33 deaths in Melrose, Massachusetts as of May 31st ( can't tell exact amount because of cross-outs) with 7 (the handwriting is atrocious!) different attending physicians. That's an average of at least 4 deaths per doctor in  six months. Sure, they could walk away and go home and keep living.

I just wonder the cost.


  1. Hahaha..you know when your a Gramma you let your G'kids do all those things..and then send them home so they can say.."Well Gramma let me!"

    I can't imagine working in health care back in that time..it broke my heart to have to go work on wee sick ones in the Nursery or on Pediatrics..nd ER was even worse and we have so many tools and knowledge that was lacking then.

    Interesting and thought provoking..as always!


  2. Agreed, very interesting. I think we feel in this modern age that we are the only ones to have experienced illness, infertility, diabetes, etc. the truth is every generation before us experienced just the same. The difference is that we are fortunate to have treatments that are in the main effective.

  3. Yes, we are very fortunate to live in these times when science and medicine has come so far. My question sometimes is how our ancestors' strength born of grief may have helped the to stay humble, unlike us who think we can live as we please and fix the unpleasant consequences?

  4. You know, what really hit me in this post was the emptiness of not knowing what happens to a person when there are no more records. "Roaming the Earth" seems appropriate indeed. I can only imagine Theadore had to go through after that tragedy. And to think of all those deaths that day. It has me wondering about statistics at hospitals in this day and age!

  5. I never get used to it Samantha. It keeps me humble...or at least aware of my mortality and the unseen suffering around me. The lack of records also reflects my personal limitations and inexperience. There's almost always a paper trail that you can dig up with some knowledge and perseverance! Thanks Samantha!


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