The Rev. George Parsons was my great-great-grandfather. His life spanned most of the 19th century and, as a minister, he lived and served in many places.

There is a Maine connection.

He taught high school at Clinton Academy and met his first wife there. He passed away at nearly 90 years of age on May 7, 1900. I never knew anything about his life until, while going through some old books in our library the other day, I found a well-worn, coverless book that apparently had belonged to my grandmother, Helen Parsons Steiner. (George Parsons was her grandfather.)

This book held numerous old and deteriorating newspaper clippings that had been taped to the pages of the book probably by my grandmother. (There were also several obituaries for her father, Rev. Charles Wesley Parsons, a famous Methodist preacher from the late 19th century.) The title of the book is “The Mother’s Assistant and Young Lady’s Friend.” An author is not listed but it was published in Boston in 1843.

Several of these clippings were obituaries for Rev. George Parsons but the one that really caught my eye was entitled “Bereavement of Rev. G. Parsons.”

This is the first paragraph: “Died at Ames, on the 27th Oct., Ann Eliza, aged 8 months; also, on 29th Oct., Clarissa Maria, aged 3 years, 4 months, and 21 days, daughters of George Parsons of Oneida Conference, both of whooping cough. On the 30th, the funeral was attended, when the bodies were conveyed to the family graveyard in Sharon, and deposited in one coffin and one grave, there to await the general resurrection. Lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.”

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Further digging from these fascinating but heartbreaking historic accounts revealed that Rev. George Parsons was living and serving in Ames, New York, between 1845 and 1846, so I assume that must have been where his little girls tragically died. There is a town called Sharon southeast of Ames.

There’s more. I read through the clippings realizing that they are primary sources to many events in my family’s life from more than 175 years ago. As I paged through the book, I came upon a loop of soft brown hair, hand-sewn to a tiny blue ribbon. It was between the pages of a chapter titled “A Mother’s Love” and had a paper label that said “Sister Clarissa’s Hair.” Had she survived whooping cough, Clarissa would have been my grandmother’s aunt.

My heart ached as I read these stories and held Clarissa’s hair. Losing a child before their time is a parent’s worst nightmare. I could feel my ancestors’ anguish and sorrow.

At the same time, I feel immense gratitude to live in the times that I do and for being able to raise my children (and watch my children raise our eight grandchildren) without the fear of losing them to a contagious, devastating disease such as whooping cough, now so easily preventable with childhood vaccinations.

Maine’s older cemeteries are filled with tombstones of young children from the 1800s who died far too young. Although causes of death are not generally listed on tombstones, we can be sure that, like Clarissa Maria and her sister, Ann Eliza, many died of what are now preventable diseases.

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