The one we called Auntie

By J. L. Starkey

The men in your life may leave you, children grow up, parents pass away.

The only ones who are there for you, from cradle to grave, are your sisters.

– Beatrice Reed Ventnor, “Sisters”
Florence “Auntie” Baugh, ca. 1910 [Family photo collection]

“I know I look like Gertie Hansen,” my sister said to me during the worst week of our lives. “But why do I seem to be living her life, too?”

I remember wishing that I had an answer for her question when she asked last August. That particular month is cruel to my family, or at least it seems that way.

In 1930, it was the month that my great-grandmother Gertrude Baugh Hansen lost her daughter Shirley to diphtheria. Just one month earlier, Gertrude’s husband Charles had died of lung cancer.

In 2018, it was the month that my sister’s husband died. His passing came suddenly, with no warning signs or symptoms, and it left a void that will never be filled.

The experts don’t tell you what to expect when your sister loses her soul mate. They don’t tell you that it seems like two people actually died, instead of one. And they sure don’t tell you that you will feel helpless to do anything to ease your sister’s pain.

No, they don’t tell you any of that.

My sister is my best friend. There is not a day that goes by that we don’t text or email one another. We can almost read each other’s minds at this point. When my son was born, I called her with the news, but I really didn’t need to do that. She already knew, because she’d had a dream about it the night before. We have that type of a sixth sense about one another, and have been that way for years.

We’ve been through all of life’s ups and downs together, but never – not ever – has a year been so difficult as this one.

Based on all of that, this week’s 52 Ancestors prompt should have been easy. I understand the amazing bond shared between sisters because I am lucky enough to have that bond. But words have not come easily during this month that marks the one-year anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death.

The only thing that really caught my attention this week was a photo of Gertrude Baugh’s sister, Florence. I’ve shared it at the top of this post. Doesn’t she look amazing? If 1910 had an It girl, that girl would be Florence Baugh, hands down.

When we were children, mom told us that Florence was “the one we called Auntie,” and that she and Gertrude were very close. I could sense that by looking at photos of the two of them. As I got older, I realized that they weren’t just sisters. They were also friends.

Come to think of it, they were a lot like two other sisters I knew. Wow – they really were!

Suddenly, there were words..a lot of them. My focus was clear. I just needed to run it past my sister.

I may have been looking at a photo of Auntie. But deep down, I saw myself.


The Life and Times of Auntie

Florence Baugh, ca. 1893 [Family photo collection]

Born on 7 June 1890, Florence Luise Baugh was the second daughter of William and Melcena (Millison) Baugh [1]. She and her sister Gertrude were born less than eighteen months apart from each other, and even as children they had a close relationship.

Auntie and Gertrude, ca. 1891
[Family photo collection]

The Baugh sisters probably did not have an idyllic childhood, and they were probably cared for by extended family members at times. In 1900, their father was living with a roommate while he managed a saloon [2]. Their mother was not living nearby, and she actually never appeared in a census with them. Records indicate that Melcena and William probably separated at least twice while their daughters were growing up.

Regardless of the challenges they faced, the Baugh sisters made the best of things. Florence spent her teenage years taking part in social organizations such as the Fern Dells and the Osgood Social Club, while Gertrude found work as a secretary and stayed out of the society page spotlight [3]. In an era when career options were limited for women, Florence made the most of her gift for language and listening, and established herself as a successful Pitman shorthand stenographer [4].

Gertrude and Florence Baugh, ca. 1900
[Family photo collection]

“Oh, she was sharp,” mom often said of Auntie. Pitman shorthand was complicated to learn and difficult to master. The method, which was “based on the sounds of words (i.e., the phonetic principle) rather than on conventional spellings,” made use of dark versus light pencil marks and a complicated system of dots and dashes [5]. Florence excelled in her career, but unfortunately, she faced difficulties in her personal life.

By 1911, Florence was married to Arthur Eastman and was raising her only child, a son named William [6]. Over the years, her surname seemed to shift back and forth from Baugh to Eastman and back again as she changed residences, hinting at a troubled marriage. Fortunately, Gertrude was there to offer advice and support.

It’s what sisters did for each other, after all.


The Bonds We Share

Gertrude and Auntie 2.0?
My sister and me…a few years ago!

I understand the bond that Gertrude shared with Auntie, because I share the same bond with my sister. But it wasn’t until this week that I felt a sort of kinship with Auntie. If my sister felt like she was living a parallel version of Gertrude’s life, did that mean that I was more like Auntie than I originally thought?

Me and my sister

This week, for the first time, I wanted to know how Auntie reacted when she learned of Charles Hansen’s death. I wondered if she felt like she couldn’t breathe at first, and if she replayed the news over and over in her mind. Was her first thought to rush to her sister’s side? Did she do just that, only to realize that she had no idea how to comfort her sister?

I wondered if Auntie sat with Gertrude, but said nothing except, “I’m sorry…I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.” I also wondered if Gertrude comforted her by saying, “It’s OK…I don’t know what to say either.”

In the days following Charles Hansen’s death, did Auntie help Gertrude plan his funeral? Did she stand back to give her sister some privacy as a grave site was chosen? I wondered if she struggled to hold back tears as her sister pointed to the perfect site and, with a small nod, said, “This one.” At that moment, perhaps she wept with Gertrude as the two of them struggled to make sense of the unfairness of it all.

Did Auntie dread August of 1931 as much as I dreaded August of 2019? Maybe she and Gertrude marked off the days, all the while remembering exactly where they were on those days during the previous summer. I pictured them telling each other that if they could just get through the next day, the next week, the next month, that maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.

My sister and me…friends for life

If I could, I would ask how Auntie and Gertrude got through it all, but both of them would probably tell me the same thing.

How did they get through it? It’s what sisters do for each other. That bond is never broken.

From cradle to grave, it is never broken.

Author’s Note:

My brother-in-law was an organ donor. If you have not signed your organ donor card, please consider doing so. Your gift may change someone’s life.


Citations

  1. “Illinois, Cook County Birth Registers, 1871-1915,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N7HN-8ZN : 10 March 2018), Baugh, 07 Jun 1890; citing v 22 e 671, Chicago, Cook, Illinois, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL microfilm 1,287,735.
  2. “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MS7H-KRD : accessed 10 August 2019), William Baugh, Precinct 20 Hyde Park Township Chicago city Ward 34, Cook, Illinois, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 1093, sheet 1A, family 8, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,240,289.
  3. “Osgood Social Club Events,” The Englewood Economist, Chicago, Illinois, 4 Jun 1907, p. 3, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: Suburbanite Economist, Chicago, Illinois, 6 Nov 1908, p. 5, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
  4. “Public Stenographer,” Englewood Times, Chicago, Illinois, 6 Aug 1909, p. 1, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
  5. “Pitman Shorthand.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 Apr. 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Pitman-shorthand. (See also: Hope, William, and Clement Carrington Gaines. Simplified Phonetic Shorthand: An American Exposition of the Isaac Pitman Phonography. New York, N.Y., 1896. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/simplifiedphonet00hopeiala/page/n7?q=pitman+shorthand.)
  6. United States Census, 1920, Chicago Ward 32, Cook (Chicago), Illinois; Roll: T625_350; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 2005; Image: 683. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.

6 thoughts on “The one we called Auntie

  1. This is so touching. Very lovingly composed for both generations of sisters. Hats off.

    Like

    1. I wish I had met them. My mother has told so many stories about them both!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m sorry you are going through this season of grief and mourning.

    Tears… you speak my heart. I only have one sibling, a sister. With all the deaths I’ve been going through these past 2 years, the reoccurring thought is just don’t let it be my sister.

    Like

    1. I know that feeling. It’s the worst kind of fear, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Laura Mattingly August 11, 2019 — 9:53 pm

    You’ve written so beautifully the same helplessness I felt when I lost a nephew, and later a niece. The bond between you and your sister is a wonderful thing, and I’m sure that helps. My condolences to you both.

    Like

    1. The helpless feeling is just horrible. I am so sorry for your loss!

      Like

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