Childless siblings & empty silhouettes

Childless Siblings & Empty SilhouettesSome 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 CChildless Siblings_five-children-of-gl-and-tj-coxox 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.

Childless siblings among the children of George Lewis Cox and Tobitha Jane Burson Cox, ca 1922What 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.

Childless Siblings_clarence-wallace-coxWhat 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.

Childless siblings_Robert Ellis CoxTheir 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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12 thoughts on “Childless siblings & empty silhouettes”

  1. Donna–this is awesome! You were and are such an integral part of our kids lives. How neat of you to encourage other geneologists, in their zest for developing a big family tree by adding descendant after descendant, not to neglect the family members, who were just as vital and important to the family, regardless of whether or not there are any boxes listed under their name.

    1. Thank you so much, K. Our family never for a moment made me feel less for having taken a childless path in life. In fact, you all made me feel special for having the time and love to give our blessed nine. And I suspect the same is true for many if not most of the childless siblings who have ever lived. It is only in the long-term genealogical memory that we’ve dropped them from the story. Thanks so much for being a sibling who gave me three babies to love with all my heart. I love you!

  2. What a lovely and thought-provoking post. Thank you. I must admit that I’ve, more often than not, felt frustration over the never-marrieds and otherwise childless persons in my family tree, because they generally left relatively few records detailing their lives. Your post reminds me to be respectful of them and to look for ways they contributed to their families and communities, sometimes in unexpected ways.

    1. Thank you so much, Wanda. And that is the really hard part. When you have no children, your documents and photos tend to be discarded — and your memory with it. And of course, if you die as an infant, there might be nothing at all. Perhaps what we can do to honor these underdocumented ones is to include a note on their records about the places we’ve searched for information. I’m sure many have looked for information on the childless ones, but finding none, the silhouette stayed empty. If we note our search, they’re not an empty silhouette any more.

  3. Is the goal to construct a family tree, or to find the story of the family? The family story needs the whole family.
    Here is one sample ancestor showing what we would miss if we focused only on tree building. (Apologies if this is too long!)
    George B Searls (1844-1902) was born in Connecticut, a son of Henry Searls and Elizabeth Underwood. Later he moved to Massachusetts, where he married and raised 3 children.
    Here is just a part of what is missing:
    –George, the second child, had 4 childless siblings. His oldest brother enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War in 1862 and died a month later, at the age of 20. His next brother died in 1869, also at the age of 20. Following the death of his paternal grandmother in 1873, his parents moved to Worcester MA, where his mother died in 1878. Henry, George’s father, subsequently married the woman who is listed in the household as a domestic in earlier censuses. Maybe she was the remaining person who had been close to him through this string of losses.
    –By looking at multiple family members, we can also see the New England economy shifting away from the farm. When Henry moves to Worcester he becomes a driver for a horse drawn street car. When George moves to Massachusetts he becomes a machinist in a factory making cotton mill equipment. Later his sister and brother in law support themselves selling sewing machines.

  4. Do you know about the Guild of One-name Studies ….
    They dedicate themselves to study of one surname everywhere and have the facility to preserve the information beyond their lifespan. They collect and put together everything. …pictures…stories….documents…etc

    1. I had not heard of it, Marie, but it sounds intriguing. I see how this can take better account of those without descendants, since it’s about documenting a surname. Thanks!

  5. Donna, what a thought provoking article – I loved it! I am like many and sort of ignore the childless ancestors, but not now!! I always feel a twinge when I find someone who has little history to find, I always want to know more and promise to keep digging! I am still working on our Alice Virginia mystery and have an almost working theory but still need to do more research before I share it….my only enemy is time!!
    Keep up the good work kiddo!!!

    1. Thanks so much to my California cousin! Your tireless work on the Alice brick wall inspires me, and I can’t wait to hear the theory. Glad you liked the post! Talk to you soon. –Donna

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