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Uncovering family history sometimes sad

My nephew, A.J., and his wife, Trish, are the proud parents of their first child, Bentley. He weighed in at birth at 10 pounds and 12 ounces — but that’s an OMG for another column.

The point is, becoming a father has sparked a genealogy interest in A.J. Naturally, he turned to me for information as I am the oldest kid in our family, the smartest and let’s face it, the bossiest. I’d be irritated if he’d asked anyone else.

I know a lot about my dad’s family because my cousin, Patty, passed on to me a lot of his mother’s photos and documents. I grew up knowing Nana and Grandpa lost their first child to pneumonia but I never put it into perspective until I perused the baby book she kept for him.

His name was Jean William Autry and he was born Aug. 23, 1927. The book is in good condition, considering it is 86 years old, and looks like it may have been one given free to new mothers by The Borden Co. Specifically, it promotes Eagle Brand milk, which is still on the market.

Inside, the book is illustrated by John Rae. A fill-in-the-blank underneath a drawing of a nurse in a pre-Depression era uniform, declares “It’s a Boy.”

Nana and Grandpa, known then as Esther and Frasier, married the year before. He was 20 and she was 14. He was born in Cleveland, Ga., the youngest of 12, including a set of twins. His father was a Pentecostal preacher who bellowed fire and brimstone from the church across the road from the family home.

Frasier and a couple of brothers took off to St. Louis, Mo., in search of a better life. It was there he met and married Esther Lorraine Baldwin. He became a stone mason and built a house in a St. Louis suburb, Overland.

In 1927, it was just Frasier, Esther and Baby Jean. That’s what Nana called him until the day she died. He was her baby for just four months and two days yet she talked about him for the rest of her life like he was in the next room.

According to the book, he weighed 4.5 pounds at birth. At 3 months, he weighed 14.5 pounds. At 10 days, he was 16 inches long. Esther commented, “He had small bones but he was fat.” At that time in history, fat babies were treasured as a sign of health and stamina.

Turning the page, I discovered three black and white photos — one of Baby Jean by himself, one of Esther holding him and one of her mother holding him. She recorded his first journey as one to “See Aunt and Uncle Herbert and Mildred.”

Baby Jean laughed at 6 weeks.

That’s where the recordings end. A page for “Prophecies Concerning Baby” is blank, as is the one on which to record “Red Letter Days.”

I teared up when I read what Nana wrote on the page titled, “Baby’s Doings and Sayings.” He was only with her 4 months, old enough to coo and jabber but not much else.

It was enough, though, to make a lasting impression. She wrote, “He laughed and played. But he died when he was 4 months and 2 days old” — Christmas Day, 1927.

It’s not what you expect to read in a baby book. My own babies’ books are chock-full of details about their growths, doctors visits, immunizations, first days of schools.

When I opened Baby Jean’s book for the first time, a piece of paper torn from a lined notebook fluttered out. On it, Nana had written the name of the St. Louis cemetery where he is buried and the exact location of his grave.

I was overcome with emotion and suddenly realized what it must have been like to be a very young wife and mother — and then to be only a very young wife with no children after just four months. I was lucky enough to have four healthy children, including my own set of twins, so I never experienced that kind of loss.

Esther and Frasier went on to have three more children: Lois Erlene, born two days after the 1-year anniversary of the loss of Baby Jean; Bobby Dean, born June 11, 1933, and my dad, Donald Lee, born Aug. 18, 1939.

Thankfully, prenatal health care has come a long way in 86 years. Infant mortality rates are about 6 per 1,000 births with most deaths reported in premature babies, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In other words, Bentley has an excellent chance of living to a ripe old age.