Fearless Females, 3/11: Died in Childbirth

A response to the 3/11 Fearless Females prompt by Lisa Alzo at Accidental Genealogist: Did you have any female ancestors who died young or from tragic or unexpected circumstances? Describe and how did this affect the family?

Anna Held Forster, my maternal great-grandmother, died in childbirth. It’s sad to think how common that phrase is to students of genealogy.

My grandmother Eva, her oldest daughter, was about 18, so by my mother’s reckoning, this happened about 1915.

The baby was perhaps an hour old when it happened. As my mother heard it from Eva, both a doctor and a midwife were on hand – pretty good for that rural corner of Germany. But they could not agree on what to do when the hemorrhage started, and while they debated tactics, my great-grandmother’s time ran out. Her infant daughter survived, along with a widower and eight other children.

Wrenching as it must have been, my great-grandmother’s death was just the first blow. Within the year, my great-grandfather Jakob died and the family dispersed. The oldest son inherited the house and land; the children who could support themselves went their ways. Some of the younger siblings became farm help in exchange for their keep. Two of my great-aunts ended up with the nuns and later took vows themselves. My grandmother eventually met my grandfather, Johann Rudroff, who was intent upon emigrating to America, where, after some hesitation, Eva followed him and married him.

Beyond the details I hope to verify and the dates to double-check are questions I can never imagine the answers to. What was it like when a mother was literally here one moment, gone in another? What did they do with the awful fear of what might come next? Could you convince yourself that eventually everything would be all right?

Decades later, I was in a car meandering the roads near my grandmother’s home village with my mother, my sister and one of my mother’s first cousins, who was driving. We passed a turnoff with a sign pointing to a village whose name I’ve long forgotten. My cousin slowed the car and nodded toward the turnoff.

His father had worked on a farm there once, with one of his sisters, my cousin said.

How old were they, my mother asked.

“Little. Six, seven.” He shook his head. “Not a good time. It was very hard.”


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