42… 10… 47… 13

Scary, sobering, sucky numbers.

This morning, I had a sobering thought, and it has haunted me all day long.


I had a follow-up doctor visit today to discuss some routine blood work I had drawn a few weeks ago. The appointment was no big deal, just normal stuff. Actually, the test results prove that I’m perfectly healthy and just getting older and that nothing is medically wrong with me—which is pretty darn good—though it might have been nice to hear that something other than laziness and nachos is the root cause of the extra few pounds that I just can’t seem to lose.

But I digress.

My doc and I started chatting about family history, and it was then that a fact of my genetics hit me like a bullet between my eyes—both of my grandmothers died while they were in their 40’s. Way, way, WAY too young. Way too young.


Pauline, my father’s mother died at the age of 47, and Julie, my mother’s, died at 42.

Like most women, I ignore my age. Once you hit the major milestones—16 to drive, 18 to vote, 21 to drink, and then whenever you get married—there’s just no reason to keep track anymore (unless you are trying to get pregnant after 40 or you’re trying to get a senior discount wherever they still give those). But when I told my doc that my mom’s mother died at the age of 42, it hit me squarely between the eyes.

I turned 42 in January.



Thanks to stupid, scary, sobering, sucky cancer, I never knew either of my beautiful grandmothers. Both of my parents were left without mothers when they were just little kids. My mom was ten and my dad was thirteen. Ugh. TEN and THIRTEEN. Right now, I am 42 and my daughter is 10. In five years when I am 47, my middle son will be 13. That is what scares me the most. I can’t imagine leaving my daughter at this age. I can’t imagine leaving my sons either. Ugh. What they must’ve gone through.

Scary. Sobering. Sucky.

42… 10… 47… 13

I simply can’t imagine.

My grandmothers’ lives were so different from one another here on earth, yet they both had an equal hand in making me the woman I am today. From the pictures I have seen of them, I can’t help but think they might have had a pretty good time together. They both seemed to have had pretty fun personalities. Julie’s photo albums are a riot, and from the few pictures I have of Pauline, she looks like she knew how to have fun too.


Pauline was a German immigrant who came to America through Ellis Island in 1926. Her older sisters came before her and worked to save money to buy Pauline a 2nd Class ticket to spare her the discomfort of steerage. She lived in New York where she married a fellow German immigrant and had two sons. She and her husband, my grandpa George, saved their money and bought a house in Long Island and gave my dad a pony for his birthday one year. My Grandpa George died when I was about five. I still remember little things about him, but not many.


Julie was the daughter of an affluent railroad man who’s family had been in America since before the Revolutionary War. She was well educated, well traveled, and from the pictures I’ve seen, had one hell of a sense of humor. She married my grandpa Jim, had two daughters, and the family built a beautiful home in the San Francisco east bay area. My Grandpa Jim died two days after my 21st birthday. I remember so much about him, and I think about him a lot.

Pauline and Julie were so different in so many ways, but they had one crappy thing in common; they both battled cancer, and they both lost.

I am not sure what kind of cancer either of them had, but I really should find out and make sure I keep an eye on myself. In the few questions I have asked my parents, I know that the kinds of cancer they both had are now treatable. I do know that my mom and her sister are in their 70’s, and they’re both quite healthy. My dad and his brother are in their 70’s too, and they’re pretty healthy as well. Regardless, those numbers still sting.


If you’re a follower of It’s a Beautiful Tree, you’ve probably figure out that once I’m done with the section on my great-great grandmother, I’ll be dedicating time to each of them soon. I just had to write this little piece to get these crappy numbers off my chest.

But, before I go, I want to share with you what I did, and in some small way, it made me feel a small bit of peace.

Throughout my ancestry journey, I have utilized Find A Grave. There’s a whole network of amazing people out there who contribute to this wonderful site, creating pages to commemorate the lives of people they don’t even know. When I got home from the doctor, I went to Find A Grave, and for $5 each, I “bought” my grandmothers’ pages. (Here is Julie’s and Pauline’s.) It’s a one-time donation to help with the upkeep of this massive site, and it removes the ads from your loved one’s memorial page–forever. For anyone doing ancestry research, I can’t recommend this highly enough. Sometimes when I’m at Target, I’ll pick up a prepaid Visa for $20 and keep it by the computer so that I can charge little things like this without jacking up my credit card. With the $20 I had on this prepaid card, I bought all four of my grandparents’ pages. It was just a little gesture, but it made me feel better.

Whenever I am over at Find A Grave looking for various dates or people, I can easily pop on over to a specific gravesite and leave some flowers and a note. Now I get to take care of them for awhile. Check it out. It’s worth it.

And, as I always say– get those old family photographs into a good, archival storage system. Thanks to the photographs I do still have of my grandmothers, they will always be young. They will always be 42 and 47. And even though I never met either of them, they will always be loved.
© Julie Dirkes Phelps

Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller.

© Copyright 2015.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask.