By J. L. Starkey
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?
In truth that she learns, or in time that he cried.
In bridges he burned, or the way that she dies.– Jonathan Larson
The photo of Little Miss Shirley was beautiful, and her parents were happy to show it to family and friends. The well-meaning friend may have spoken without thinking when she said that Shirley had angel wings in the photo, and didn’t the family know that those wings meant that Shirley was going to die soon?
My great-grandmother was undoubtedly shocked by the comment, and I wonder how she refrained from giving that friend a piece of her mind. But as I reflect on it now, those prophetic words give me chills. Because within twelve months after that comment was made, Little Miss Shirley would, indeed, pass away.
It would be the final tragedy during the worst twelve months of Gertrude Hansen’s life.
First, the joy. Then, the crash.
The twelve months from October 1929 to 1930 began with new life and renewed hope for my great-grandparents, Gertrude and Charles Hansen. On 20 October 1929, they welcomed their ninth child, a daughter named Gladys . Gertrude was no stranger to sorrow; her first child died soon after birth, and eighteen years later, her eighth child also died in infancy . By 1929, she knew that life, while filled with joy, could also be filled with unimaginable pain and sorrow.
And yet…she still had hope. Surely the family was due for a bit of happiness now.
Perhaps it was an omen of what was to come when, just four days after Gladys was born, the Crash of 1929 began. The event that would signal the start of The Great Depression also served as the start of that most horrible of all years for Gertrude.
Joy and Sorrow
Springtime in 1930 was bittersweet for Gertrude and Charles; their oldest daughter got married and began a new life just as their youngest daughter was beginning to crawl . I wonder how they smiled through it all, but somehow, they did just that.
In the months leading up to his daughter’s wedding, Charles Hansen became ill. He was in a great deal of pain as he walked the floor night after night, clutching his chest. He and Gertrude knew what they were facing, but the word was not spoken. In 1930, that word was never spoken.
Charles Hansen had cancer.
Gertrude had just turned 40, and she was facing an uncertain future with seven children to support. According to many family members, she was never one to shy away from problems, so perhaps she was the one who planned a June 1930 trip to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic.
On 1 July 1930, a local paper reported that the Hansens had returned from Rochester. Nothing was said of Charles’s health, but Gertrude knew the real story . Did she wonder if they would get their miracle this time?
This time, the answer was no.
Just six days after the article announced his return from Rochester, Charles Hansen died of lung cancer at the age of fifty. He was buried on 9 July 1930 . For his widow, the mourning began.
Or did it?
Mourning would have to wait. In a terrifying turn of events, Little Miss Shirley became ill shortly after her father’s funeral. A news article on 15 August 1930 provided an update: Shirley was a patient in Chicago’s Municipal Contagious Disease Hospital.
Sadly, that article ran one week too late .
On 8 August 1930, Shirley Hansen died of complications from diphtheria. Death came quickly for the little girl with the light blond hair and the beautiful smile. She would have no obituary, and she would be buried on August 9, 1930, exactly one month after her father’s funeral .
In just 43,200 minutes, Gertrude’s life as she knew it ended forever.
A Tragic Death Leads to a Lasting Impact
The months leading up to the first birthday of Gertrude’s youngest child were certainly a blur for the family. Gertrude faced with the prospect of returning to the work world after two decades of raising children. Undaunted, she shaved a few years off of her age to make herself more employable in a tough job market. Her daughter Mary quit school just shy of graduation to take care of her siblings while Gertrude was at work. The Great Depression had begun in earnest; families did what they needed to do to survive.
Shirley’s death would have a profound and lasting effect on the family. Eight years after Shirley’s death, her sister Mary would name her daughter after the beloved little girl who was taken from this world much too soon.
Little Miss Shirley continues to influence my family to this day. Although it is almost unfathomable to imagine losing a child to a vaccine-preventable illness in 2019, attitudes are changing. Today, some parents choose to say “no” to vaccines for their children.
I am not one of those parents.
Shirley’s influence be felt more at certain milestone moments, such as my son’s two-year well-child checkup. It was our first appointment with a new pediatrician, and vaccines were on the schedule. The doctor was ready for my arguments. As he handed me an information packet, he said, “Now, I know there is some controversy – “
I stopped him immediately.
“Doctor, my parents grew up during the polio epidemic…and my great-aunt died at age seven from diphtheria.”
The doctor sat back, blinked a bit, and finally said, “Then you don’t need my speech.”
“No sir,” I said. “Not even a little bit.”
It was the worst year of my great-grandmother’s life, that year that she lost so much. I wonder if she knows how those twelve months affected her descendants. Her pain and sorrow? It was not in vain.
Thank you, Gertrude Hansen. Hug Shirley for me, and tell grandma that I miss her more than I can say.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes…
How do you measure a year in the life?
How about love?– Jonathan Larson
- United States Federal Census, 1930, Chicago, Cook, Illinois; Page: 20A; Enumeration District: 0713; FHL Film: 2340182.
- Illinois, Cook County Deaths 1878–1922. Index. FamilySearch, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2010. Illinois Department of Public Health. “Birth and Death Records, 1916–present.” Division of Vital Records, Springfield, Illinois. (See also: Undertaker’s Report of Death, Florence Ernestine Hansen, 25 Jul 1909, Certificate No. 6187, State of Illinois Department of Public Health – Division of Vital Statistics. Genealogical-purpose-only copy in possession of author; and Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916–1947. Index. FamilySearch, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2010; and Birth Certificate, Robert Hansen, 29 Aug 1927, Certificate No. 39919, State of Illinois Department of Public Health – Division of Vital Statistics. Genealogical-purpose-only copy in possession of author.)
- “Miss Hansen to Marry Tomorrow.” Suburbanite Economist, Chicago, Illinois, 18 Apr 1930, p. 10, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Suburbanite Economist, 1 Jul 1930, p. 9, col. 7. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Charles H. Hansen.” Suburbanite Economist, 11 Jul 1930, p. 2, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Suburbanite Economist, 15 Aug 1930, p. 7, col. 8. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Death certificate, Shirley Alice Hansen, 8 Aug 1930, Certificate no. 21903, State of Illinois Department of Public Health – Division of Vital Statistics. Genealogical-purpose-only copy in possession of author.