The young and the morbid?

Some of the most satisfying genealogy teaching moments I’ve shared with my kids involve the deaths of ancestral children.

I feel bad admitting this. It makes us sound like the Addams Family, which is way off base because:

(1) My girls are (mostly) cheerful kids.
(2) Our house is nowhere near as quiet as the Addams manse. (Perhaps because we don’t have Lurch to keep order.)

And yet:  My kids are hooked by genealogy stories of  the deaths of other kids. A few examples: My father’s sister Virginia, who died aged six months of the measles; my great-uncle Leo, who died of meningitis at age 3; and a great-uncle on their father’s side who died at age 2.

Recently, my  8-year-old peered over my shoulder at a U.S. census image I was re-reading: the 1900 entry for my great-grandparents, Peter Kelleher and Kate Carney McKenna Kelleher. Together we scanned across the line bearing my great-grandmother’s name. “What do those numbers mean?” my daughter asked, pointing.

“Those? Well, the first one is ‘Mother of how many children.’ “

“What’s the other number?”

“Um … that’s ‘Number of those children living.’ ” I braced myself.

“Mom! She had 13 children and only four were alive?! What happened?”

Sigh. There is no quick fix for explaining infant mortality to a vaccinated, Presidential-Fitness-Program-obsessed grade schooler of the 21st century.

Plus, she has already outstripped me at doing math in her head. “Mom! This means nine children died!”

Well, yes, I said, this was true. And then we did something else: We followed those two columns vertically, down and down the census page. Of the nine mothers on the page, only two were able to tell the census taker that the number of births they’d experienced equaled the number of their living children.

Which explained better than I could the challenges of raising a child to adulthood in a poor city neighborhood circa 1900.

No way around it: My kids are fascinated by sad stories of children dying young. I’d worry, but then I remember it was hearing about my young aunt Virginia that got me curious about family history in the first place. I guess as kids we inevitably connect with stories of other kids, even — especially? –  the sad ones.


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