A while back I posted about the end of a branch of my family tree, a great-great uncle or some such who had one child with each of his two wives only to have each child die young and childless. Many people, however, live relatively long lives without having children.  Most of us who do genealogy research have seen something like this:

(d) Libbie M., born June 13, 1859; married Dec. 19, 1901, James L. Utter, died Oak Hill, N.Y., June 16, 1904, son of Isaac and Mary A. (Niles) Utter; no issue.
This post, inspired by a discussion in the comments on my earlier post, is about the fairly large number of people in my family who left “no issue”: they didn’t have children.

Without wandering any farther afield than my parents’ first cousins (all of whom I know fairly well), I have five people in my family over the age of 60 who for various reasons don’t have children, and another five between 35 and 59 who don’t have children either. Of that younger group, I’m the only one with any kind of plans or desire to have kids.

But this post and its companions to come won’t get into living people (and I won’t name the living people peripheral to the story). Instead, I’d like to remember relatives who are now gone and who left no descendants behind.

There are plenty of people to talk about, even though I’m limiting myself to relatives I’ve personally known, or siblings of my parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. In fact, this turned out to take up many more pages than first anticipated, so this installment tells the story only of people from my Grandma Joan’s family. At some point I’ll have separate posts for my grandfather Jim’s family and, of course, my father’s side of the family.

Without further ado, and without whitewashing, here goes:

“Jimmy”: Jimmy was my second cousin, the son of my mother’s first cousin, and he was wonderful to me. When my mother was a small child in Brooklyn, Jimmy’s mother (their mothers were sisters) lived with her family for a number of years. Only a year apart in age, they were constantly together and almost as often bickering. In the mid-1950s she and her mother moved to Florida. Some years later my mother’s cousin, still young, had a baby: Jimmy. That same year she lost her mother to cancer and, with Jimmy, moved back in to my grandparents’ house. They lived there five years before finding an apartment nearby.

Jimmy at age 11
Jimmy was a handsome, athletic, outgoing, type with a penchant for running with the wrong crowd. More than a decade separated us, so I saw him as a larger-than-life figure. Tall, fit, confident, and stylish. Jimmy was the first person I ever saw with acid-washed jeans (hey, it was the 80s) or roller blades. He always played and joked with us and gave us great presents on our birthdays, which he never forgot.
Jimmy feeding my brother. A few years later he had shorter hair, but a beard.
The year I was 13, we saw Jimmy and his mom as usual at Thanksgiving. A few days later I came down for school and my mother broke to me the news that Jimmy was dead, found shot in his apartment. The investigation revealed that a “friend,” someone I’d seen him with, had killed him. Needless to say, this has been the central tragedy of his mother’s life, all the more so because he was her only child. All of us took it hard, and I think of him often to this day. It’s hard to believe he’d be middle-aged today.

“Adam”: Adam was my maternal grandmother’s oldest brother, who died only a few hours after he was born in August 1913. His story is told in the post “A Most Interesting Cemetery.”

“Johnny”: My grandmother’s younger brother, the only child in the family younger than she, “Johnny” was only 18 when he joined the Navy, well in advance of the U.S. entry into World War II. During the war, his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic during winter. Johnny was in the cold water for more than a day before being rescued, which led to severe rheumatoid arthritis.

A dapper Johnny on leave from the Navy, 1940s
He was sent home to Bethesda Naval Hospital, then transferred to Virginia Beach, but his arthritis severely limited his physical activity. The Navy sent Johnny to San Diego, and the symptoms improved significantly. So great was the difference that, after leaving the Navy in 1953, Johnny lived in San Diego for the rest of his life. Whenever he did come home, the humidity and change in weather made it very difficult for him even to walk.

Johnny’s in this post because he never had children, but that doesn’t mean he never married. Oh boy, did he marry! His first marriage was to a lovely woman from out West that everyone in my family liked. A decade later, he had an affair. His wife divorced him and he married the “other woman.” That marriage was so short that none of us ever met her, though that might be in part due to a “Johnny boycott” – his family took his wife’s side in the matter.

The early 70s brought another marriage, of about two years’ duration. Johnny rarely came back east due to his condition, but during this time my grandparents made the cross-country trip to visit Johnny twice (my grandmother was a teacher with summers off and my grandfather retired in 1971). He lived about 8 blocks from the Mexican border and used to spend every Sunday at a restaurant on the Baja coast where he loved to take my grandparents.

Johnny rings in 1971 in Baja California
As an East Coast kid, my main personal recollection of Johnny concerns his Christmas Day phone calls. We’d each get on with him, though we hardly knew him, and he’d regale all of us with his talk of grilling in shorts in the backyard on Christmas. In the early 80s I recall a lot of hubbub about Johnny getting back together with his first wife. They actually remarried but it only lasted about five years. Though he never lay a hand on anyone, Johnny’s temper and drinking were too much for her to take. I remember vividly that, on one of Johnny’s rare visits to New York, my grandmother pulled out all the stops: She even had her bedroom painted fresh so he could stay in it, and she was bitterly hurt when Johnny spent most of his visit getting sloshed in the bar around the corner.

For Johnny, the fifth marriage was the charm. He married a much younger woman (almost 30 years younger), who made him clean up his act and took good care of him.  They visited New York once more and Johnny behaved.  They were only together three years before Johnny died in late 2000, but his fifth – and final – wife still lives in his house.

“Anna”: Anna was my grandmother’s first cousin (their mothers were sisters who emigrated together), and a fixture in our lives. Her father was shot when she was only 4 and died tragically when she was 12, and she had a very nervous temperament after that. She did find love, with Willy, a fellow almost as high-strung as herself. They married in the early 1940s, and the sweet letters we found in her things later gave me a very different idea of Anna than what I thought as a kid.

Anna and her husband Willy in the late 1940s
In about 1950 they bought a building in Queens with a convenience store on the ground floor, two apartments above, and garages in back. They lived in the second-floor apartment with Anna’s mother, and rented the top floor (to a woman who became a good friend) and the garages. It turns out the store wasn't in conformance with the zoning code, but it had been there long before Anna and Willy and it was grandfathered in. They ran it for decades and it's still there today, the only store for a few blocks.

I never really knew Willy; he died before I turned two. But Anna I knew well. She never drove, so when we were at family gatherings in Brooklyn, my grandmother would go pick her up and bring her home. While we were finishing dinner, Anna would be nervously angling to go home. She was petrified, in the New York of the 80s, of crime. I always liked to go for the ride, and she and my grandmother would point out the Statue of Liberty from the Gowanus Expressway and tell me how their mothers saw it when they arrived in New York in 1911 to start their new life.

Although she decided to rent the store out a few years after Willy died, Anna never moved. Her apartment, where she lived alone after her mother died in 1982, was neat as a pin. About 15 locks on the door, which I always found amusing, and a pewter bowl with butterscotch candies on the table. Lord, did my grandmother’s family love butterscotch candies! Until some awful-looking condo was built across the street in the late 80s, the view of the Manhattan skyline from her windows was amazing.

Each summer, my grandmother drove Anna to visit her brother John in Maine. On the way back, they stop to visit us in Massachusetts. Again, Anna would be worried about getting home after dark. My brother and sister pretty much ignored her, so she’d always say to me, “You’re nice, but the others don’t like me. That’s alright, they don’t want to listen to a boring old woman.” One day I told her, “You’re not boring,” and she just about melted.

But she wasn’t boring. She knew a lot of things, and she knew how to do a lot of things. She was uptight, without a doubt, but if you listened to what she had to say it could be fascinating.

The end came for Anna quite abruptly. In 1995, when I was on a college trip to Asia, she felt chest pains, a mild heart attack. At the hospital they told her she was at risk for a more severe heart attack and not to engage in any physical activity. Her first day home, she decided not to listen. She went downstairs and around back to put out the garbage cans for the building.  On the landing, coming back up, she had another heart attack and died. Her neighbor and friend, hearing her fall, called 911 but it was too late. She was not quite 80.

She left her estate to my grandmother, prompting threats of lawsuits from her late sister’s kids in Maryland who hadn’t been heard from in 20 years. In the end there were no lawsuits and my grandmother sold the building to the immigrant family who rented the store. They still live there and run the store today, and occasionally I would stop in and say hello when I lived in New York.  Anna was buried with her beloved Willy and her parents only a few blocks from where they lived.

Anna's family in 1940. She's on the left in the darker dress. Her brother John, discussed next in this post, is on the right in the Navy uniform. Their mother is holding the baby, with its parents (Anna and John's younger sister Mary and her first husband Allan) on either side.
“John”: John was Anna’s brother, two years younger, and thus also my grandmother’s first cousin. Like Uncle Johnny, he joined the Navy young, and he made a career of it. While stationed in Washington in the 1950s, where he worked in military intelligence because he could speak Ukrainian and Russian, he met a pretty and charming woman from Virginia, Aida, who became his wife.  In 1961, John was promoted to captain (a much higher rank in the Navy than in the Army) and given command of a large ship. A large contingent of my family went down for the ceremonies.  He retired from the Navy in 1967, after a 30-year career, and settled in Virginia Beach, near the large naval community in the Hampton Roads area.
John in 1961, the year he became a Navy captain

John was a huge reader, especially anything to do with history.  He had so many books he ultimately added a room onto the back of the house to hold them all (a man after my own heart!). Aida was an artist, a painter of considerable local renown. To hone her skills she made copies of famous paintings; she gave my grandmother her exceptional reproduction of Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

My grandmother and Anna drove to Virginia Beach annually to spend a week with them, until John and Aida started spending summers in Maine so Aida could paint the coast. A kid always looking to go somewhere, I visited them with my grandmother and Anna in Maine and in Virginia Beach. You could not ask for nicer people and more gracious hosts. Nobody could recall John ever losing his cool, and his neighbor (a fellow retired Navy officer) told us the sailors erupted in cheers when they found he’d be taking over their ship.

John in Virginia Beach with his wife Aida on the left and his sister Anna on the right, 1980s. This is how I remember them. My grandmother probably took the photo.
In 1994 Aida died after a brief illness. Her absence, and Anna’s death a few months later, took a lot out of John. He died in 1998, a few days after his 81st birthday.


I’m happy that all of these people on my maternal grandmother’s side of the family live on in memory (mine, at least) though they didn’t leave descendants behind. I wrote these recollections down for the benefit of my (future) kids, so they'll know a little about the people behind my huge collection of old photos.

How about it? Who do you remember in your family who’s gone now and didn’t leave descendants behind?

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