Climbing Family Trees: Foiling Old Fables by Catherine Foote Lynn

Climbing Family Trees

More great stories, poems, and helpful hints about genealogy and searching for your family's roots from the twin authors of "Climbing Family Trees: Whispers In The Leaves"

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Foiling Old Fables by Catherine Foote Lynn

“Foiling Old Fables”
Catherine Foote Lynn
Copyright 2001-2005

I was on a genealogy mission. I had traveled to North Central Iowa in search of evidence that my grandmother, who was adopted, had been taken as their own by another member of her actual birth family. I suspected that she was the birth child of her adoptive father’s sister and I wanted to find out all that I could about the Bickford family. My destination was the small and lovely village of Rockford, Iowa.

I had called ahead to the library in Rockford to find out if they kept any genealogy records, and I mentioned to the lady who was just filling in that day to help that I was interested in Bickfords. When I arrived about two weeks later, I was surprised that the whole library was only slightly larger than my kitchen! The regular librarian literally met me at the door. Her name was Rita, and she enthusiastically asked, "Are you from the Chauncy Bickford line?" When I said yes she nearly jumped for joy. She explained, “Seems the town lost all track of any of the Bickfords after 1951.” That was when my great-great aunt Mary Sido (pronounced Seedo) Bickford had died.

Rita had several things ready for me, including the obituaries for my great-great grandparents, Chauncy and Electa Bickford. I was really excited about that, but she kept asking what I knew about Mary and Sim, especially Mary. She was being a bit strange and after I had finished hand- copying the obituaries (because there was no copy machine, and I didn't want to seem too "big city" by bringing in my portable scanner and laptop), I finally just flat out asked what was the big deal about Mary (Sido) Bickford. Here's the story:

Rita was about my age, mid 50's, and she said she actually met Mary Bickford when she was a child, shortly before Mary died at age 76, in 1951. She said her mother took her along to Mary's house since she was making sure Mary had food and medicine. Even as a small, girl Rita seemed to know that her mother was the only one in town who cared what happened to Mary. I told her that last year I had found a living Sido relative, an elderly woman who is a niece of Mary's and who also lived in Iowa. I had called her, asking if she had any information on the Bickfords. She refused to talk about them. Rita said, "Oh no, of course she wouldn't. The Sidos virtually disowned Mary!" Remember that Mary was the wife of a Bickford great-uncle and not really an object of intense interest to me - until then.

So, I pushed further, which was not difficult since Rita was anxious to talk about it. I knew that Mary and Sim had two sons who both died in infancy and were buried in a single grave next to their parents. Rita told me that when the first baby died everyone said, "Poor Mary." But when the second baby died, "the same way", the town was suspicious. Rumor was that both babies literally “starved to death." She said she often heard people refer to Mary as "strange" and "crazy." Her mother told her that Mary wasn't crazy, just very sad and very bitter. I remembered having something about the boys in my files and looked to see if I had it with me - I did. Floyd County Death Index (which I had copied, also by hand, last year when I was at the courthouse) stated: Bickford, Melvin C., son of Sim and Mary, died age 23 days, cause of death "Marasmus" and; Bickford, Roy Arthur, son of Sim and Mary, died age 20 days, cause of death "Marasmus."

Now, I hadn't given this much attention and had no idea what Marasmus was. So Rita grabbed a medical dictionary and looked for it. Not listed. Then she went to another stack, pulled out an old tome, dusted it off, and looked again for Marasmus. This was a medical dictionary from the turn of the century (the 20th.) Sure enough, there it was, describing an unexplained malnutrition and wasting away of infants, predominately males, resulting in death between the age of three to seven weeks. Bingo! I had bells and whistles going off in my head. I told Rita to get the "newer" medical dictionary again and look up Pyloric Stenosis. She found it easily: a birth defect involving a partial to complete blockage at the pyloric valve of the upper intestine, which affects mostly male infants causing malnutrition, and if not correctly diagnosed, and surgically treated, death usually ensues before 8 weeks postpartum.

Since Rita and I were alone I stood, lifted my shirt, and pointed to the scar that runs down my middle from breast bone to naval. "That" I said, "is one of the first successful surgeries performed on an infant with Pyloric Stenosis. And that operation occurred in February, 1946, in Kenosha, WI. I was five weeks old and within days of death from malnutrition and “starvation.” I then told Rita of at least one other documented case of Pyloric Stenosis in my family. I had witnessed my sister Mary’s son wasting away until the right diagnosis was made and the needed surgery saved his life. It’s an interesting irony that his mother’s name was Mary! Rita was stunned. "Oh my heavens!" she said, "She didn't kill them after all!"

That night I couldn't get Mary Sido Bickford off my mind. I remembered a vague reference to her and Uncle Sim in a letter that my father had written to his mother, Lutie. My father was apologizing for being remiss in writing to his great aunt and uncle. I recalled that in my father's postcard album there were literally dozens of cards from Aunt Mary to her sweet little nephew and "Lover Boy," all of them expressing the sentiments of a woman who apparently adored this child, my father. I remembered that my grandmother, Lutie, though adopted, was listed on the 1910 census as the one living child of Anna Bickford. She also listed four children born to her, but not living. I dug through my files and saw a pattern: Sim and Mary Bickford, two infant boys died in Rockford, IA; Charles Arthur and Lillie Bickford, infant boy died in Rockford, IA and then they left town. Luther and Anna Bickford had at least three infants who died near Rockford, IA, and then they left town. I began to remember how my mother would avoid talking about "the Bickfords."

Just a year ago I asked my oldest sister why she didn't remember Uncle Sim. She said “The adults would shoo us away when they talked about them.” And then my own grandmother Lutie, who deeply loved her adoptive parents, was also very secretive about the Bickfords. I had read a letter that my mother wrote to my grandmother Lutie while I was in the hospital, recovering from my Pyloric Stenosis surgery. She wrote how I was too small and frail for anesthesia so the doctor gave me whisky. This has always delighted my children who couldn't wait to tell their friends that their mother was drinking hard liquor when she was only a month old! (No wonder their parents looked strangely at me!) This night I tried to picture grandma Lutie reading that letter from my mother. Was she too, finally making the connection? She never said a word to me, or anyone else that I know of but I always felt that there was something- something about me that she found uncomfortable. Was it that I lived? Was it just my imagination? It was a long and melancholy night.

The next day I was planning to spend in Marble Rock, IA doing research on another family line for a break. When I was putting on my sweater to leave the hotel that morning I noticed that the beautiful American Flag pin that had been on it was missing. I couldn't find it anywhere. I knew that I had worn it the day before, so I decided to stop by the two places in Rockford where I had been, a darling little combination restaurant and gift shop, and the library. I went to the restaurant first. No luck, but I left my card anyway in case the pin turned up. The lady, who had treated me like just another tourist the day prior, looked at my card and said, "Oh, you're the Wisconsin Bickford!" I chuckled and said I was a Bickford descendant. You could have heard a pin (but not my flag pin) drop in the middle of the restaurant. I walked across the street to the library and Rita was there, nearly ready to hug me! She was so happy. She said the whole town was happy. The fabled Mary Sido Bickford, "Poor Mary", was not a murderess!

Imagine, over a hundred years had passed since those babies died and the community was still mourning. But I wasn't. Not only had their mystery probably been solved but a big clue had been added to mine. If, in fact, those infants died from Pyloric Stenosis, and they were Bickfords genetically, and this genetic trait is in my DNA, then I was closer than ever to showing that Lutie had to have been a genetic Bickford.

On my way out of town, I pulled off the road and gathered up a huge armful of bright yellow, wild, Black-eyed Susan and Queen Ann's Lace. At the cemetery I waved to the elderly couple who were mowing the lawn on twin riding mowers. I knew them from my visit last year. He tipped his hat to me and she blew me a kiss, and they kept on mowing. I respectfully walked passed the graves of my great-great grandparents, Chauncy and Electa Bickford. I smiled and gave a little wink toward the tombstone of the "Merry Margaretta," as I think of her. I briefly wondered again at the many, worn and unreadable stones. Some were so very small in the Bickford plot and now I thought I knew why. I didn't stop until I came to the end of the row. I knelt down and put flowers on the freshly cut grass just beneath her name etched in stone, and said, "God Bless and finally, Rest in Peace, Mary Sido Bickford."

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