Monday, October 17, 2016

"A Poem on Little Russell's Passing" (October 17, 2016)

Florence Leonette ("Nettie") Flagg 

Nettie Cooke [nee Flagg] -- b. May 13, 1870 - d. July 20, 1904

Next month is the "Eighth Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge" conceived and hosted by Bill West of West in New England blog. Under the Challenge rules, a poem submitted for inclusion in the Challenge can "be a poem you or one of your ancestors have written." This post is my submission for the Eighth Annual Challenge and it publishes a poem written by my great grandmother, Florence Leonette Flagg (pictured above as a young teen and as an adult). "Nettie," as she was always called, is the mother of my maternal grandmother, Ruth Eaton [Cooke] Carpenter. I posted previously about Nettie where I included another one of her poems, which can be viewed here.

Nettie had a short life that in many ways was tragic and I believe she turned to poetry to try to express her pain, her hope, and her discovery of respite and beauty when and where she could find it. She wrote numerous poems that are mostly sad, but they must have been cathartic for her given her experiences. I am very lucky and privileged to have several originals of her poetic writings and a few others that were transcribed by her eldest child (my grand aunt, Helen R. [Cooke] Roberts) from now lost originals. The poem in this post was written about 1894 when Nettie was twenty-four years old and as the images of the poem below show, this is one of the original poems in her handwriting that I now have in my collection.

To understand where Nettie's poem originates, it is necessary to provide some brief context and background about Nettie.

Nettie was born in 1870 to George W. Flagg and his wife, Mary J. ("Jennie") Eaton.  When Nettie was just two and half years old, her mother died at age 26. And then Nettie's father died at age 35 of "phthisis" (an archaic name for tuberculosis) when Nettie was barely nine years old.

By the time of the 1880 federal census, Nettie Flagg was living as a "boarder" in the home of Susannah Stanley (age 69) and her daughter Frances Stanley (age 30) in Attleborough, Massachusetts. She apparently lived with the Stanleys until she married Walter W. Cooke in August 1891 in North Attleborough. She and Walter had known one another since they were children and they were both 21 years old when they married.

Leonette ("Nettie") Flagg and Walter W. Wilson

Soon after Nettie and Walter married they had their first child, my grandmother's oldest sister, Helen Raeder Cooke born February 21, 1892. Helen was followed by five additional children -- two boys and three girls. Russell was born in 1893. Lois Vinal Cooke was born in 1894. My grandmother, Ruth Eaton Cooke, was born in 1897. Dorothy was born in 1899 and Russell Church Cooke was born in 1902. 

By the time my grandmother was ten years old, her mother and father had lost three children. Russell died about a month shy of his first birthday. Dorothy, who was a special favorite of my grandmother's, died just a month after her sixth birthday of typhoid complicated by a severe ear infection. Russell Church Cooke died just over two months after his second birthday of meningitis. I never heard my grandmother ever mention the fact that she had two brothers and she never told me she had a younger sister named Dorothy. My mother did tell me well into my middle age that her mother always said she would never name a son of hers Russell because both her brothers were named Russell and they died very young. [When my grandmother did have a son, she named him David and I got my middle name after him.]   

My grandmother, Ruth Eaton Cooke (left) and her younger sister Dorothy Cooke (right)

The original handwritten poem below was written in 1894 just after the death of Nettie's first son, Russell Cooke. The poem is now 122 years old. It was preserved by my grand aunt, Helen [Cooke] Roberts, in the envelope shown here. It is inscribed by Helen to explain when the poem was written and why.

Here is Nettie's untitled poem that I have begun calling "A Poem on Little Russell's Passing." It is transcribed immediately after the images of the original handwritten poem. To my knowledge the poem has never been published before or shared outside the family . . . and few in the family have ever seen it before.

A Poem on Little Russell's Passing*
                           By Florence Leonette "Nettie" Cooke (1894)

                                               I sometimes grow weary of waiting
                                               And long for the time to come,
                                              When I shall see my baby,
                                              In that beautiful far off home.

                                              Sometimes when I feel discouraged
                                              And my life seems full of care,
                                              I wonder how long I shall have 
                                             to wait
                                             Before we meet over there.

                                             I wonder if he is happy, 
                                             My dear little baby boy.
                                             If he thinks of Father & Mother
                                             And wants us to share his joy.

                                             At the gate of the beautiful city
                                             In that bright and Heavenly home
                                             Will he be watching and waiting
                                             And longing for us to come?

                                             He was beautiful when he left us,
                                             But will he grow more fair?
                                             Will he grow in Heavenly beauty
                                             And will we know him there?

                                             I wonder sometimes why my baby
                                             Was taken away so soon
                                             Was it because I was straying away
                                             Into the darkness and gloom?

                                             Was the Shepherd trying to call
                                              me back
                                             And I heeded not his cry
                                             Until he took my little lamb
                                             To the home beyond the sky.

                                             Was it in love that He took him
                                              To draw me back to the fold
                                              Because I had grown so careless
                                              And my heart seemed bitter and 

                                              Ah yes, the lesson was hard to learn
                                              And my heart seemed crushed
                                              with pain
                                              And the time seemed longer than
                                              I could wait
                                              Ere I should see him again.

                                              But one time, ere I closed my eyes
                                              in sleep
                                              I looked out into the night.
                                              And gazing up into the darkened sky
                                              I saw a misty light.

                                              And in the midst of that one bright
                                              A little star twinkled and shone.
                                              And it seemed to me like a guiding
                                              To lead to that Heavenly home.

                                               And in fancy I saw that little
                                               Was held by my baby's hand
                                               To safely guide me through the darksome
                                               To that home in the spirit land.

                                               And in it I read God's lesson to me
                                               That my work is not yet done
                                               So I'll gladly wait
                                               Till someday, sometime
                                               My God and my child will welcome me home.

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All photos are scanned from the originals, which are in the collection of the author.

*Nettie did not provide a title for her poem, so I have taken the liberty of providing one 122 years after she wrote these poignant words. I hope she would approve. 

There are actually two handwritten copies of Nettie's poem following little Russell's untimely death, but one is inexplicably missing the last lines of the next to last stanza as well as all of the final stanza. I have chosen to follow the verse structure and punctuation of the version with the missing lines, but I provide images of the complete poem. For this reason, the transcription does not follow exactly the structure of the complete poem depicted above. 

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Copyright 2016, John D. Tew

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing this poem, John. Very poignant - so hard to lose a child, at any age.

    1. I have no idea how she got through it all . . . losing both parents by the time she was 10 years old and having no living grandparents and then she loses three of her six children! Thank you for your comment.

  2. I love the poem, and your entire presentation. You had lots of documents to show, and photos. The original poem in her handwriting is the icing on the cake!

    1. Thank you Heather for your kind words.

  3. I just wanted to say again how much I enjoyed reading this post.I It's such a poignant story, and seeing those photos make it even more so. Thanks for sharing them and the poem with us.