Lives Cut Short

Tom Poland

Posted 7/10/24

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer

I read something unsettling this morning. Prior to modern medicine, the death of infants was so common some folks wouldn’t name children until they had survived a year. But even then … This somber topic has been on my mind since I visited the ruins of Old Sheldon Church in Yemassee. There I came across an area where several infants had been buried beneath princely oaks. It reminded me that my father’s sister died around the age of two and my mother had a brother who died in infancy. Lives cut short.

My mother’s brother died in the early 1900s. My father’s sister died in the early 1920s. First to be born; first to die. It was commonplace back then. Today, over one hundred years later, it is not, and for that we are thankful. What sad times those had to be. I photographed one of the graves at Sheldon Ruins that held my eye. Atop the small stone was the word, “Baby.” On its front, “Born Sept. 23, 1915. Died June 6, 1917.”

An all-too common sadness many years ago. (Photo by Tom Poland)

That word, “baby,” spoke to me and I knew I would honor that child, Harold Miller Moffitt, and his stone with its tiny toys and three coins and a stuffed animal, a cow, leaning against it, left by respectful visitors.

When I visit graveyards, and I do so often, in the older ones I see infants’ graves. They always take me back to a great book that two men, Walker Evans, a photographer, and James Agee, a journalist, co-authored and first published in 1941.

Evans’s photos and Agee’s essay, “Shady Grove, Alabama, July 1936,” provide a poignant description of a cemetery in their classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee’s words reveal a mild kind of astonishment at poor people’s graves. “On others of these stones, as many as a dozen of them, there is something I have never seen before: by some kind of porcelain reproduction, a photograph of the person who is buried there; the last or the best likeness that had been made, in a small-town studio, or at home with a snapshot camera. I remember one well of a fifteen-year-old boy in Sunday pants and a plaid pullover sweater, his hair combed, his cap in his hand, sitting against a piece of farm machinery and grinning. His eyes are squinted against the light and his nose makes a deep shadow down one side of his chin.”

Agee described many types of graves: those of tenants, farmers, and the well off and those of lives cut short, such as this one. “Another is a studio portrait, close up, in artificial lighting, of a young woman. She is leaned a little forward, smiling vivaciously, one hand at her cheek. She is not very pretty, but she believed she was; her face is free from strain or fear. She is wearing an evidently new dress, with a mail-order look about it; patterns of beads are sewn over it and have caught the light. Her face is soft with powder and at the wings of her nose lines have been deleted. This image of her face is split across and the split has begun to turn brown at its edges.”

But the one that always gets me is that of an infant. Agee closes his description with the sentiment parents had engraved on the back of the headstone bearing their six-month daughter’s likeness.

“We can’t have all things in life that please us. Our little daughter, Jo Ann, has gone to Jesus.”

If you’ve not read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, you should. And those of you who come across an infant’s grave from long ago, send up a prayer for an anguished family a hundred years ago.

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