Sunday, December 11, 2005

Yesterday's Children

The cold, bitter wind cut between the branches of bare trees and the stones scattered among them over the roughly mowed, undulating ground. Darkening oak and maple leaves long since fallen from their commanding heights now sheltered against the base of many a marble marker, seeking haven from the blowing frigid air. Pulling down my hat, I clutched the over-copied plot map that had led me to the general’s headstone. Having taken the photographs I wanted, I strode quickly back down the path to the anticipated comfort of my car. Scanning the fields surrounding me and then glancing down at the paper, I noted with a touch of sadness the disparity between the number buried here and the few deemed relevant enough for mention on the map. The important ones would receive the occasional appreciative visitor with only an intermittent indifferent glance going to the more numerous forgotten dead.

Gravesite of General George Gordon MeadeThe old Laurel Hill Cemetery along Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River serves as an eternal home to revolutionaries, political leaders, soldiers, professionals, laborers, and past citizens from the then young United States. Time had yet spared many of the 19th century gravestones which fared better than their older comrades with progressively illegible epitaphs. Thankfully, the markers on the Meade family plot remained clear. Union Major General George Gordon Meade’s simple stone stated for all who cared to visit, "He did his work bravely and is at rest". My camera would now hold this image safe from the wearing effects of the ages.

Hurriedly folding the map, I glanced down while stuffing the paper in my pocket. The cold air, the crude map, and all else faded from attention as I noted a small ground-level marker along the edge of the macadam path leading back to the cemetery entrance. The simple text read only:

Sarah Ann Hobson
1845 – 1850

Reuben W. Hobson
1850 – 1850

The meaning hit hard. In this one year, grieving parents lost their five year old daughter and infant son. Scanning the cold ground, I found the parents’ stone close by, plain in appearance like their children’s. The tragedy grew as their words added an impact all their own.

Thomas Hobson, MD
Jan. 8, 1814
Nov. 12, 1853

The father who lost two children so quickly died 3 years later at age 39. His wife Elizabeth, also noted on the stone, would carry on with their one remaining child, Jane, born in 1851.

Pausing to consider their loss, recent conversations crept into consciousness. "Life is so stressful today" I hear frequently as someone inevitably claims that what they now endure surpasses all experienced by those from any other era in human history. Parents rightfully work to protect their children from a "modern" society overrun with violence and death, fearing that exposure to tragedy may irreparably traumatize their children and damage their future. Yet somehow, the family resting at my feet suffered severe tragedy and then moved on, with Elizabeth living about 40 years after the deaths of her children and husband. According to her own stone, their daughter Jane would outlive her mother by another 30 years.

Gravesite of the Hobson ChildrenThe children of the 19th century had their own "stressors" with which to cope. Up to 25% of all children would die before their first birthday with the rate falling to a still tragic 1 in 10 for those who received the best care. In some regions of the young country, up to the same percentage of mothers would die during or due to complications from birth. Nineteenth century medicine would not uncover the role microbes play in disease until the 1870s with antiseptic practices only then becoming mainstream. Penicillin would first become available another 70 some years later. As a whole, life expectancy mid-19th century hovered around 43 years. The children of that day would then face the potential death of a parent or sibling throughout all of their young lives while continuously attempting to elude the specter of life stealing infectious disease.

During the Civil War years, children would lose 185,000 fathers, brothers, uncles, relatives and friends as that number would die in battle or because of wounds sustained. An additional 400,000 would perish from the infectious diseases which sliced through armies both North and South. Another 412,000 would suffer wounds but survive the war albeit no longer whole. Combined, casualties would surpass 3% of the United States' population leaving an even greater number of children to cope with the losses and scars of war. Countless untold others would struggle with deprivation and hunger with the freed slaves and those remaining in the devastated, smoldering South experiencing the greatest hardship.

Yet the young of that age endured and grew into adulthood, most having children of their own. The country would not only survive but thrive as it continued to grow both geographically, economically, and technologically. As time passed, the country’s young would endure the impact of two world wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, decades of racial tension, deadly outbreaks of disease, natural disasters, and a host of other more personal tragedies and catastrophes. And still, they endured.

After a respectful pause, I nodded to the stones in front of me and slowly stepped backwards, thankful for the greater confidence I felt concerning our children’s ability to cope. Turning, I quickened my step and strode towards the predictable warmth of my car.



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References for this article:
  1. Louisiana State University: Statistical Summary America’s Major Wars
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Public Health and Technology during the 19th Century
  4. Semmelweis: A Lesson in Epidemiology
  5. Anthrax Used by Koch and Pasteur to Prove Germ Theory of Disease in 19th C.

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