Some of us will never be ancestors. We have no descendants. We died too young, or we married too old. We stayed single and took care of our parents or stayed single just because. Or married and couldn’t or married and didn’t. For any number of reasons or none, we died childless. So, who will tell our story?
The fate of childless siblings
I will have no direct descendants using genealogy to restore the memory of me. We married late, Mac and I, and children weren’t an option. No whining. No poor me. Just the facts as they are and as they have been for hundreds of millions.
Given the tendencies of many who are building family trees, I can expect to be an empty silhouette over to the side of my three sisters, who between them gave the world nine beautiful human beings. I should then count myself posthumously lucky if my silhouette has at least been given a birth and death year. And I’ll be fortunate beyond most childless siblings, if one of my sister’s descendants adds my husband to the tree.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I doubt I’ll care by that time. I’m feeling sad for the family tree that has failed to acknowledge what’s missing from the story.
You see, childlessness aside, I am living a full and productive life. I am contributing to my world every day. I helped to raise those nine beautiful humans and will love and care for their offspring. To my parents, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, their story is not complete without me. And I’m hardly unusual.
I appeal to us all to honor the childless siblings of our ancestors. Don’t consider a generation’s genealogy done, because you have fleshed out the immediate facts of your direct ancestor in that generation. If you don’t know your ancestor’s siblings, you don’t know your ancestor.
Finish the story.
The childless Cox siblings
My Cox great-grandparents, George Lewis Cox and Tobitha Jane Burson Cox, are buried in Randolph County, Alabama, with five of their small children — most of whom never lived long enough even to appear in a census. If I content myself only with the burial records, these five would have only their birth and death dates and these minimal names to mark their time on earth:
- A. T. (son)
- E. J. (son)
- J. D. (son)
- L. F. (daughter)
- Hazzie B. (son)
And if that is the only thing the world kept to commemorate their time here, then it is all we can do. But if there are other scraps to fill in the story, we enrich the memory, do honor to the departed, and learn something vital about our ancestors. I have at least learned that E. J. was Elijer,the first-born who lived for six months. And L. F. was Laura Frances, the third-born who lived about five months. With these small details, the story becomes more real.
Thanks to a death certificate, I know that Hazzie B. was Tobitha’s son Hazel, who died at age 3 of typhoid fever with throat complications. My sympathy for Tobitha grows with each tragedy, and I know she carried the pain of five dead children for the rest of her short life.
But Hazzie’s story also tells me something I very much needed to know about my grandfather, Kaylor. At the age of 5, he watched his little brother die a miserable death and likely stood by as Hazzie was lowered into the ground at Big Springs Cemetery on a cold November day. You can’t know Kaylor without picturing a little red-headed boy trying to process that.
What about Kaylor’s siblings who grew up, lived, and died with no children of their own to preserve their memory? When Tobitha died at age 45 (the probable occasion for the above photo), the now-15-year-old Kaylor (top right) took responsibility for raising all four of his younger siblings. Only one of the four, Margie (bottom, second), would later have children.
Kaylor’s sister Stella (bottom left) died at 17 of pneumonia. Vernia (bottom, third) married at least three times, but never had children. Their brother Clarence (bottom right) never left Kaylor’s household, dying there at age 52 with no children.
What do we lose if Clarence becomes a mere silhouette on the family tree for having failed to reproduce? He was a silhouette to me until recently, when I asked my uncle what Clarence’s middle name was. (It was Wallace, it turns out.) Then the stories started.
My uncle tells me Clarence was a second father to them — a nurturing parent — as he shared their childhood home. A broken leg in his youth did not heal properly, so Clarence walked on crutches later in life. Every afternoon, he came to the school bus to greet my father and his siblings– his pockets full of candy for his six nephews and one tiny niece. My father and his siblings grew up with three parents, I finally realized for the first time. Clarence mattered to their story.
Kaylor and Eunice (Granddaddy and Granny) also lost three of their ten children as infants. Granny mentioned these children frequently, until old age took her hearing, and she stopped talking much. She did not want us to forget them.
Their son Robert Ellis Cox, a gung-ho U.S. Marine, died at age 28. Family lore says he once drove all the way from Camp Pendleton, California, to Calera, Alabama, without sleeping. A bonafide jarhead. While stationed in Japan, he fell in love with a local girl. When the fleet pulled out, he reluctantly left his love behind, convinced she would be mistreated back home in the post-WWII South. He never forgave himself for that. Her family arranged her marriage to someone else, leaving us to believe that Ellis left a child behind — a child who probably never knew his father’s name. Ellis died young and dear to us all, so much more than an empty silhouette. And while we eagerly wait for our Japanese cousin to find us on AncestryDNA, we will tell Ellis’s story to complete our own and to share with his own descendants someday.
All of Granny’s children were a vital part of her story and no family history is complete without them.
An appeal to us all . . . finish the story
To my sisters’ descendants, yet to be born, please know that I was a part of your ancestral story. There were four of us girls, not three and a silhouette. Whichever of my nieces or nephews you descend from, know that I cared for them, held them, sang to them, spoiled them with candy and gifts, and brought them to my house for much-coveted “Aunt-Donna-spend-the-nights.” Next weekend, I will be at the wedding of the first-born among them, and I will be a blubbering mess to see him take his vows to the best girl ever. It will be important to him that I am there. I will be there again when his first-born arrives. And second and third.
I was there for it all.
Genealogists, I appeal to you all to check your family trees. Have you left some childless silhouettes untended?
Finish your story.
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