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”
“I know I look like Gertie Hansen,” my sister said, “but why do I seem to be living her life, too?”
I remember wishing I had an answer when my sister asked that question during the worst week of our lives. It was August, a month that 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 Alice, to diphtheria. Just one month earlier, Gertrude’s husband Charles had died of lung cancer. (You can learn more about Gertie Hansen by clicking here. To read about Shirley, click here.)
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 will seem as if two people died, instead of one, and they sure don’t tell you that you will feel helpless to do anything at all 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 message each other, and 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 dreamt about it the night before.
We have an almost eerie sixth sense about one another, and it has 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’m lucky enough to have that bond. But words haven’t come easily during this month that marks the one-year anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death.
The only thing that caught my attention was a photo of Gertrude Baugh’s sister, Florence. 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 Florence and Gertrude were very close. I could sense that by looking at photos of the two of them, and as I got older, I realized that Gertrude and Florence 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
Born on 7 June 1890, Florence Luise Baugh was the second daughter of William and Melcena (Millison) Baugh . (You can learn more about William by clicking here. To read about the life of Melcena, click here.) Florence and her sister Gertrude were fewer than eighteen months apart in age, and even as children they had a close relationship.
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 on the South Side of Chicago . 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 worked as a secretary and stayed out of the spotlight . In an era when women faced limited career options, Florence made the most of her gift for language and listening, and she established herself as a successful Pitman shorthand stenographer .
“Oh, she was sharp,” mom 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 . 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 . Over the years, her surname shifted back and forth from Baugh to Eastman 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
I understand the bond that Gertrude and Florence shared, 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?
This week, for the first time, I wondered 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?
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 wondered if Gertrude answered Auntie as my sister answered me, and 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 the 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.
I wondered if Auntie dreaded 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.
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 did for each other. That bond is never broken.
From cradle to grave, it is never broken.
Author’s note and update:
My brother-in-law was an organ donor. In December 2021, my sister learned that his organs were used to produce 22 bone and tissue grafts that were distributed to facilities in seven states, Canada, and even South Korea. Additionally, his organs were used in the production of an astounding 62 specialty Vivigen grafts. Those grafts were distributed to 17 states, and will be used for “…repair or reconstruction of musculoskeletal defects.”
If you have not signed your organ donor card, please consider doing so. Your gift will save lives.
- “Illinois, Cook County Birth Registers, 1871-1915,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N7HN-8ZN : 10 Mar 2018), Baugh, 07 Jun 1890; citing v 22 e 671, Chicago, Cook, Illinois, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL microfilm 1,287,735.
- “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.
- “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.)
- “Public Stenographer,” Englewood Times, Chicago, Illinois, 6 Aug 1909, p. 1, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “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.)
- United States Census, 1920, Chicago Ward 32, Cook (Chicago), Illinois; Roll: T625_350; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 2005; Image: 683. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.