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Column: The story of the little ones

Posted: December 3, 2018 5:00 p.m.
Updated: December 4, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Tom Brokaw has given the name “the Greatest Generation” to those who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in WWII. Most of this generation was born into a structured family between 1916 and 1928. Authors seldom describe or discuss the family background of this generation when writing about them. A brief look at the family structure of this generation reveals much about them.

In South Carolina, most of the “Greatest Generation” families were large, lived in rural areas of the state and were farmers. Farms required many “hands” to perform all the work needed on the farm. Textile working families was the next largest family group. Consequently, most were farmers or textile workers at the time.

Medical science was primitive then compared to now. Doctors had no antibiotics or “wonder drugs” in their medical bags. As a result, many of the children in these families died at child birth or before they reached age 2.

What is the story of these “Little Ones,” who, along with brothers and sisters were members of the “Greatest Generation” families? Was a doctor present at their birth? What did they die of? Were they buried by undertakers? What kind of coffins did they have? Were funerals preached? What contributions did they make to society, if any?

Remembering and honoring the “Little Ones” as members of the “Greatest Generation” families, although they did not fight in WWII, helps answer these questions and helps to understand this generation better.

What prompted me to write this column is the fact I had an older brother who died in 1924. His name was Marshall Teal. I could not find a birth certificate for him but I did locate a death certificate in the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the State Board of Health. The certificate had my older brother J. R. Teal’s name on it but all the other information matched that of Marshall. No family would give two of their sons the same name. In any event, J.R. lived to be 69 years old.

According to that certificate Marshall was born on May 23, 1923, died on May 29, 1924 and was buried May 30, at Cedar Creek Cemetery. I had an unnamed brother who was stillborn on July 11, 1920, and was also buried there. My oldest sister was born on July 9, 1921, and lived to age 85.

Having lost two children between 1920 and 1928, my mother understandably had great concerns about my well-being prior to my birth on July 15, 1928. My condition must have been OK, since I am now more than 90 years old.

I can remember my mother frequently talking about Marshall. She related how he died of dysentery and she could do nothing to help him. Here was her child who was walking, was six days over a year old, was sick and she could not save him. She felt so inadequate. I have always remembered the depth of her grief even after the passage of many years. My other siblings shared my memories and feelings about Marshall and our mother.

In 1948, my mother buried my father beside Marshall in the Cedar Creek Baptist Church Cemetery in Chesterfield County. In 1956, we buried my mother with the two of them. When my son was born in 1959, my wife and I named him Marshall, in memory of my older brother. I regret that my mother and father had passed away and could not see their grandson, the next “Marshall” in the Teal Family. However, I have faith that they know about him.

After my wife died recently and we had placed a monument at her grave, my next thought was to place a gravestone at my deceased brother’s grave, since he did not have one. In the fall of 2018, members of the Cedar Creek Baptist Church completed a census of their cemetery which contains 726 graves. This census revealed that 78 2-years-old or under children were buried in their cemetery. This number is useful in judging the impact deaths of the “Little Ones” likely had on their siblings, their parents and the community of Cedar Creek.

For these “Little Ones,” a doctor may or may not have been present at birth. A large number of infants were delivered by midwives in the family home in those times. However, for Marshall’s and my stillborn brothers’ births, their death certificates indicate a doctor was present with my mother.

For some, a pastor may have preached a funeral but, for many -- especially the stillborn and unnamed ones -- no funeral was preached. I don’t know if my two brothers had a funeral, but I suspect Marshall did. In many cases, an undertaker handled the burial. Family friends often would open the grave and cover it. I heard my brother tell the story of digging the grave for a local family in 1958.

Some were buried in caskets furnished by a funeral home. Others were buried in homemade ones constructed of pine planks. My grandfather, John A Williams, died in 1929. Two older cousins related how they rode in the wagon with our grandfather in a homemade coffin to Patrick for his burial. Undertakers and funeral homes were less involved in funerals then.

At funerals for those of all age groups, friends played a prominent role in the event. The entire community banded together to support the grieving family with visits, food, cards, etc.

The circumstances and events of tough economic times, the Great Depression, the deaths of the “Little Ones” and WWII became the flaming forge and the sounding anvil on which these families were toughened, tested, tempered, formed and forged into the Greatest Generation.

The knowledge and the remembrance of the death of a little brother or sister were constant companions with members of this generation for the rest of their lives. Marshall’s remembrance was with my oldest brother at Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, and the Philippine Islands, with another brother in France two days after D-Day and in the hedge rows of Belgium where he was wounded, and with me in 1946-47 in Italy while escorting German prisoners of war back to Germany.

These deaths of the “Littles Ones” may in some small way also have helped prepare a mother to become a Gold Star mother when she lost a son or daughter during WWII. That’s how the “Little Ones” made a contribution to the Greatest Generation and are members of it.

Many members of this generation returned from WWII, took advantage of the G.I. Bill, went to school or college, and became hard working, law abiding, productive citizens and middle class members of their communities, state and nation. Such is the example the vast majority of this generation left for us.

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