It’s no secret that I have an interest in genealogy and history (you can learn more here). It is also the one topic I can discuss with my father-in-law. I don’t need to spend any time researching Teghan’s paternal side of the family tree, because we have volumes of it. It’s amazing.
Usually we get a new binder filled with family history for Christmas. One of the most interesting installments came a few years back. It was filled with correspondence from Dave’s maternal family tree, and half were just letters. Most of these were letters from Dave’s great-grandfather to Dave’s great-grandmother. The letters began before their engagement and continued throughout their marriage (he traveled for business). The dates are from the late 1890s through the 1920s.
I will admit, the part that amazes me the most is how my father-in-law typed all these up from the handwritten versions. I know from experience that this is no easy task.
He even created a topical index.
Their names were William and Ruth. They had nine children; the oldest (Dave’s grandfather) was born in 1900, and the youngest was born in 1919. During those years quite a lot happened to Will and Ruth. William went from working in his father’s shoe store to owning his own envelope company. They lived in several houses throughout New Jersey and Brooklyn. They lost two children.
The letters give you the sense that this was a happy family; Will was definitely a man who loved his wife and children. I am working on another blog which features these letters and this family’s story (I will keep everyone updated for those who enjoy this stuff as much as I do).
But the reason that I am mentioning it here is that for the first time I really started to think about William and Ruth’s fifth child, Jack.
We don’t know a lot about Jack. He was born in 1908, and died in 1925. We know that he had a developmental disability. We also know that he spent only three years in school, and then his mother taught him at home for a while. He was thought of fondly by his siblings and seems to have been included in all the family activities. His brother said that Jack was always happy, and fun to be around.
In 1913, when Jack was just five years old, William writes, “I am wondering how all my dear ones are tonight. Have thought quite a lot of Jack and hope to hear tomorrow that he is better. He is such an odd little specimen- understands but can’t express himself. It pains me to see him in distress.”
How could I not start thinking about Jack?
I want to know more than what the letters will give me. What was he like? When did his parents realize he was different, and how did they feel about it? He was only seventeen when he died. How did it impact the family? I don’t know. No one wrote it down to my satisfaction.
I have said how lucky we are that we were dealt autism (and epilepsy) now and not a hundred years ago. We have all heard stories about children who grew up in a time when they were misunderstood. When they were put in institutions, hidden, and often treated poorly. But here was a child born one hundred years before my own daughter (okay, 99.75 years), and he didn’t seem to have had it so bad.
Did he have all the resources available that Teghan has now? No way. Were outsiders all that interested in how Jack’s mind worked? Probably not. Did Ruth have all the support she needed? Maybe. Between older children and extended family, she may have been at an advantage, even (not factoring in the lack of modern conveniences and entertainment, of course).
Would I trade places with her?
No, I wouldn’t.
But so often we ask ourselves if we are doing enough. We feel guilty about what we aren’t doing and start believing that somehow we are responsible for every disadvantage our children will ever have in life. And then, when we come back around to reality, we start thinking that maybe the only thing that matters is how happy our kids are.
I think that is true. I think most of us know that is true, don’t we? And I think something about Jack’s story is evidence of that truth. I believe he had a family that loved him and accepted him– and that made all the difference.
One hundred years later, isn’t that still what makes the difference? A hundred years from now, what will people see who bother to look at our photos (or other pieces of evidence we leave behind)?
Jack’s life was too short….
but I think it was a good one.