Standing alone

The plight of the youngest

This photo, the one below, breaks my heart.

The people depicted are so very dear to me. From left to right, they are my Aunt Marianne, my Aunt Trisha, my grandmother Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, my Aunt Carol, my mother Hazel (called “Totsy”), and my Aunt Cladyne.

The Girls, they were called, always with the capital “G.”

My grandparents had six boys and six girls. They lost their firstborn baby girl, my Aunt Ruth, when she was only a few months old.1 They lost their seventh child and fourth son, my Uncle Donald, called Dooter, when he was only two.2

But they raised five boys and five girls to adulthood. And here you see the five girls and their mother.

It’s hard to look at that photo today. Yesterday, you see, was the 14th anniversary of the day we laid my mother to rest in the cemetery at Byrd Methodist Memorial Chapel in Kents Store, Virginia, in a grave next to her parents. And even all these years later the anniversaries are hard.

But what makes it all the harder is the knowledge that, of all of those beautiful women in that photo, only one is alive today.

     • We lost my grandmother in March of 1995; she was almost 97 years old, and didn’t make it quite long enough for there to be five living generations.3

     • My mother was the next loss, in April 1999. She was 73 years old, her life cut short by a lifetime of smoking.4

     • The next one we lost was Aunt Marianne, in September 2007. She too was a casualty to a lifetime of smoking; she was only 71 when she died.5

     • The oldest daughter, my Aunt Cladyne, was 88 when we lost her in November of 2009.6

     • And then last October we lost my Aunt Carol. She was two months short of her 81st birthday.7

And that… that left my Aunt Trisha. Of all those girls, she is now by herself. Standing alone.

And that just breaks my heart.

Trisha is the youngest of all my grandparents’ children. She never knew the two oldest siblings who died — both were gone before she was born — but in her lifetime she has lost both her parents, two of her brothers and all four of her sisters. And, as the youngest, it may yet be her lot to lose them all.

And I find that unimaginable.

I’m third of my father’s eight children, second of the seven born to my mother. My baby brother teases me whenever I give him grief on one of his birthdays by saying he’ll always be younger than I am. And I’m so glad that’s true.

As one of the older ones, I expect to be taking my revenge on my younger siblings by making them the executors of my estate. I’m supposed to go before the younger ones. I can’t even contemplate losing the two who are older. They are, all of them, part of my heart. Part of my soul.

Which is why that photo just breaks my heart. I have sisters, one older and one younger. Trisha today has no sisters left. I have all five of my brothers. Trisha is down to three.

I am one of the older ones. And I hope never to find myself looking at a photo like this one… and find myself standing alone.


  1. Dutton Funeral Home (Iowa Park, Texas), Record of Funeral, Baby Cottrell, 22 February 1918; digital copy privately held by Judy G. Russell.
  2. Texas Department of Health, death certificate no. 35631, Donald Harris Cottrell (1930); Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin
  3. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 95-011808, Opal Robertson Cottrell (1995); Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “Remembering Totsy,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 26 Apr 2013).
  5. See ibid., “Marianne,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 Apr 2012.
  6. “Cladyne Cottrell Barrett,” obituary, Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress, 13 November 2009.
  7. See Judy G. Russell, “The pain of another goodbye,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Oct 2012 ( : accessed 26 Apr 2013).
Print Friendly
This entry was posted in My family. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Standing alone

  1. Dave says:

    My maternal grandmother’s youngest sister, Aunt Ogretta, was the last one standing… among her family of origin–last of 10, including outliving her little brother–but ALSO her husband and two children. I remember her more than once commenting on how hard it was to be so alone. When she turned 80, we made sure to toss her an enormous party and reception at her church. She has always been the one who deserved a biography of sorts. Of course, now it’s my mother’s generation passing 80, and the older siblings and in-laws are gone. In that family, there are four women, two born in ’26 and two born in ’32, two sets of sisters and first cousins. Dementia is now stealing the oldest of the four, who has been my genealogy pal for nearly 30 years. My generation, among the first cousins, is still intact, but as the youngest, I don’t look forward to that long line leading me off to the other shore, either.

    A nice post, as always, Judy.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Dave. We’ve already started the losses in my generation — in fact, it was the long-ago death of my oldest cousin’s husband that prompted me and my cousin-genealogy-buddy Paula to get serious about our genealogy research. And each of these losses diminishes us so very much.

  2. John D. Tew says:


    A very well written, poignant piece. Thank you for sharing it!

    Your post also makes another point.

    I read somewhere recently, in the context of folks complaining about the accumulating little aches and pains that come with aging, that aging is actually a privilege in many ways because many people never get to experience the process of aging; your aunts’ siblings who died early being examples. There is some truth in that observation about aging, but it does not take away from the pain of the loss of loved ones. Those left standing (even those parents who have outlived their children against the natural order of things) have the possibility of reaching the point referred to in the anonymous quote below. AND, if they or their relatives happen to be genealogy enthusiasts, perhaps they get to share and pass on those precious memories of those who left before them — as you have done!

    “As time passes, gradually we move toward the day when the comfort of our memories is greater than the sorrow of our loss.”

    I posted on my blog this week about my great grandmother who lost three of her five children and her husband. They now all rest together with their spouses (those that lived to adulthood) in the same family plot and every time I visit the site it is heartbreaking to read the gravestones and know the story they tell. But, I am also lucky to have photos, and stories that preserve their memories.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      We can only hope that we all reach the point where “the comfort of our memories is greater than the sorrow of our loss”… but I think about my grandmother and how she mourned that first baby girl all the days of her life.

      • Paula Williams says:

        She always said that the only child who disappointed her was Billy R. Ironic, since he was professionally the most successful. It wasn’t HIM, but more the idea of wanting a small baby girl just like Ruth… And instead having this big baby boy! (I think she got over her disappointment rather quickly!)

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          You know she loved Billy with a fierceness… but it must have been such a surprise to have this big sloppy boy to deal with after her tiny girl!

  3. Paula Williams says:

    For the curious, that aunt standing alone will be marking her 50th wedding anniversary this coming week!

    And it is sad, not being able to celebrate with the missing sisters. It would be somewhat expected to not have Mama Clay – as she would be 115 years old this August! But the sisters…. Sigh…

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Sigh for sure… and I sure wish I could be there for that celebration! Give your Mom a great big hug for me, willya?

  4. Judy,

    What a wonderful tribute to both those who have passed on and those who are still living. My mom, Joan Wersel, lost one of her two sisters in 1996 and the second in 2006. On more than one occasion she’s commented about feeling ‘alone’ as well as how challenging it is being the youngest by over 9 years. Sadly, she even lost her oldest nephew, who at 9 years her junior was more a baby brother than a nephew. But time marches on…

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Your mom’s situation is so hard, Laura… so very hard. And yes, time marches on, no matter how much we all would like to hold it back… or turn it back.

  5. Kathy Nitsch says:

    Judy, thanks for this touching reminder that each of those names and dates on our family tree represents a real person and not just another record in a genealogy database.

    One of my great granduncles left our family a precious legacy in the form of a series of records about his family history. Because these records have been so essential in reconstructing the stories of all the siblings in his family, I’ve always been particularly fond of this man who died over a century before I ever considered researching my family history. He was the last surviving sibling in his family, but I’d never thought all that much about this. Then I noticed the date on one of his documents and realized that it had been the day following the death of his last surviving sibling when my great granduncle sat down and started to write. First he copied the information on the twelve siblings in his family from the pages of his family Bible and gave it to the children of his recently deceased brother. And then he kept writing.

    Before his own death (in a tragic accident two years later), he had also recorded what he knew about his family’s ancestry and he had written out the story of his life. It was this example that encouraged me to start writing up my family history research … even though my research is far from completed. Now, every time I consult the records he created, I’m reminded of how alone he must have felt. The process of recording the information about his grandparents, his parents and siblings, and his own life was doubtless comforting. If it accomplished nothing other than bringing him a bit of solace in a time of mourning, it would have been time well spent. But I also wonder if he could have imagined how much the later generations of our family would treasure the documents he was creating … or how hard we’d search to try to reconstruct this legacy in the years after those documents became separated.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Wow. Just wow. What a wonderful gift he gave to your family, Kathy… and what loneliness and “oh-my-Lord-I’m-the-last-one” feelings he must have had to inspire him to do it. Wow.

  6. No one wants to be the last person standing, I know. It’s as if the family has disappeared out from under you. I have lost both parents, all aunts and uncles, and a sister. RIght now our family is down to me, my sister, and the cousins who are left. Our son and daughter are still going strong, though, and we have a grandchild almost here (August).

    The family members who have passed away are still lively presences in my head. I dreamed of my dad last night, and I was talking to him as I woke up.

  7. LisaGorrell says:

    Your post was written so elegantly. Thank you. My grandmother is just like that–standing alone. She’s 99. She first lost her husband, then her only daughter, then her second husband, and finally each of her two younger brothers. She has had a lot of loss in her life–losses one would not expect to have. She does have six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren who visit her often.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thank heavens for those descendants, Lisa! I’m sure their — your — visits mean the world to her.

  8. Kaarin Brown says:

    Kathy Nitsch’s comments connect with my feelings so well. What a treasure her family has.

    I’ve come to appreciate the view of time expressed by many non-western cultures, and echoed in many parts of the Bible. Therein, time is not a straight line along which the past is past and the future unreachable; the past, the present, and the future are intertwined. For instance Moses speaks to the generation that was unborn at the time the Israelites passed through the Red Sea and tells them that they were there at that remarkable event. (read Deuteronomy) As genealogists and family historians we get to bring that sense of knowing people who have passed, and experiencing their stories into the lives of the succeeding generations. My daughters & my niece never knew my mother, but I carry Mom’s stories forward for them, and I reveal to them those little quirks and talents and foibles that my brother and I seemed to have reproduced from Mom. The girls come to know her; she is of the past, but here in the present and no doubt will shine in the future.

    This adds emphasis to the advice many folks give that it is not enough to write a family chart of names and dates, but we must also tell the stories of our ancestors. To a more or lesser degree, WE are the stories of our ancestors. And we are the stories of our descendants.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Kaarin, you say it so well, it’s worth repeating:

      To a more or lesser degree, WE are the stories of our ancestors. And we are the stories of our descendants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>