Surviving the Real Thing

Viva and Edgar 1942

Grandma and Grandpa Boulter

I was Teghan’s age when my Great-Grandma Boulter died. I had been to her home on several occasions, but I’m not sure we ever had a conversation. The only thing I could have told you about her was that her birthday was on Christmas. That was an interesting fact to me back then.

Of all my family history projects, her story has been the most detailed, and complicated. I would love to have a conversation with her now but I’m not sure she would give up all her secrets. I have no intention of telling her whole story here, but there is one part of her history that I think of often.

As a mother, she endured losses that are foreign to me. If not for an interest in genealogy, I may never have even known about it. I knew her as Grandma Boulter, but her given name was Viva (something else I never knew as a kid). And Viva had ten children in her lifetime. My grandpa was number four, from her first marriage. That marriage ended in 1931.

There is a baby book she kept for her sixth child, Lillian.

Lillian was born on January 15, 1937. The book documents her milestones. Viva mentions moments of her daughter’s first smile in the bath tub, along with concern for her health. The love she had for her daughter is obvious. Lillian died that September. 

Another daughter, Gertrude, was born on March 8, 1939. She passed away a few short weeks later. Following this second death, Viva uprooted her family and moved them from Ohio back to Michigan. In the process, she was forced to leave her fifth child, Joe, when his father would not give him up so easily. When she came back to get him he was already gone. She never saw Joe again.

Viva and Joe.

Viva and Joe.

Years after her death our family had a reunion with Joe. The family had finally tracked him down and filled in the blanks he had been searching for all his life. I was at that reunion, but had no idea what it really meant. I was still trying to figure out how my grandpa had the same name as his brother. That’s a story all its own.

One thing that genealogy has taught me is that I have no idea what suffering is. We have the unique opportunity to look back and see our ancestors’ entire lives, from birth to death. Truthfully, they handled death a lot better than we do. They had no choice. Most of us are so far removed from a world where children are dying around us on a regular basis; we have no idea how to cope with any event of its kind.

But in 1939, this was an unusually tragic story. Viva was just twenty-nine years old with four other children to care for. How did she carry this with her? Losing three children in less than a year and a half? It seems impossible to carry at all. She went on to marry the man I knew as Grandpa Boulter, and had three more children. By the time I knew her, she was already forty years into her new life.

Stories like hers remind me that I am capable of handling more than I know. Generations have been proving it again and again. We are seldom stretched to even a fraction of our limit, and we whine and complain because we are so out of practice. Lucky us.

We all have days, especially in this community, when we believe we are being stretched too far; when we feel overwhelmed with our unchanging circumstance, or we allow ourselves to drown in a million scenarios of the future. We probably just need an adjustment in our mood or perspective.

But sometimes it’s the real thing. Actual gut-wrenching tragedy that knocks us down in ways we never knew were possible. And if it happens, we will figure it out. We will have to. And, like every other example before us, we will come out okay on the other side, or die trying. I suppose we do have a choice.

It will become a part of our history that we always keep close, but it will be in us to face that challenge. The evidence is all around us, and in our very DNA.

(For those of you who enjoy stories like this, I also wrote a post a while back on another great-grandmother, and what I uncovered about her. Along with reasons to share family history with your children. You can find that here. But let’s face it. I write about family history a lot.)


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