Big Sister Without a Name

My father, Robert Milo Wallin (1923-1993) spent nearly all of his life thinking he was the oldest child in his family.  But things aren’t always what they seem to be, particularly in genealogy.

Dad was born in Nebraska in 1923, in a hospital rather than at home—very unusual for that place and time.  As the years went by, he was joined by Helen in 1926, Richard in 1927, and then little Janet in 1932.

From early childhood, a big part of Robert’s identity was his position as oldest child.  He was a typical firstborn—responsible, mature, hardworking, serious—a liaison between the adults and the younger kids, trying to set a good example.  (Those of you who are firstborn, as I am, know what I mean.)  He went off to World War II, writing letters home to his parents and younger siblings—reassuring his parents and sisters and trying to keep his brother from ending up on the front lines like he was. (story here)

The years went by, until Dad was a businessman in his sixties, applying for a passport so he could attend a conference in London.  Part of the process was obtaining a certified copy of his birth certificate—and when it arrived, there it was in black and white:  “Number of children of this mother born alive and now living -1.  Born alive but now dead -1.”

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38b Big Sister - Birth Certificate - Robert - 1923 (2)

Dad then remembered hearing long-ago whispers among his aunts about a baby girl who died.  And suddenly he understood the likely reason his mother went to a hospital when he was born (and a good thing, since he was a breach birth).  Why hadn’t his older sister ever been talked about openly as he was growing up?  Why wasn’t she remembered, and mourned?  Probably because it wasn’t the Swedish way to “dwell on the past” or “stir up sad memories.”  So, Dad let it lie, and now he is gone, too…  Recently I decided it was time to find out more, if I could.

Although my father died many years ago, his youngest sister is still alive.  I asked her what she knew about this mysterious child, and she said that she had heard whispers, too—but she had always been too hesitant to bring up the subject with her mother.  She asked that I let her know what I found out.  It seemed like I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know more.

Then I went to my favorite resource for vital records info ( and followed the instructions for obtaining old Nebraska birth and death records.  No luck there, however.  I was told that neither event was recorded—or if they were, the records are lost now.

I wish I could have discovered more about this little baby girl, who was my aunt.  But this is one sad event from long ago that seems destined remain a mystery.


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A few weeks after I wrote this, a generous volunteer named Kay Cynova traveled to Fridhem Lutheran Cemetery in Hordville, where I suspected the Wallins might be buried.  (I had tried to contact the church with no success.)  She found the graves of my great-grandparents, who were two of the charter members of that church—and nearby, in a second Wallin family plot, a small stone for Irene B. Wallin, 1921-1921.  I feel quite certain this is the one, as my father remembered the name “Irene” being spoken in hushed tones by his aunts.  At least now she has a name.

38c Irene Wallin, dau of Sture & Sara - Fridhem Cemetery - plot 50 - with Frederick Ray and family members

3 thoughts on “Big Sister Without a Name”

  1. My father’s youngest brother was born in 1934, died 6 months later in 1935. When I was a kid we always decorated his grave on Decoration Day. It was accepted that he was born and died and this is where he’s buried.

  2. Yeah, there were so many babies who died in those days, and too often they just weren’t talked about. You are so lucky to have found an obit (and photo). I’ve seen a few of those post-death photos… Thanks for sharing.

  3. My grandfather had a baby sister that passed at just 5 days old – Rosemary Nadine has always been common knowledge in the family, including her final resting place, but during my genealogy research I’ve never found any record of her existence. In the fall of 2013 I was put in touch with a cousin whom I’d never met but lived in the same city as me and had most (if not all) of what remains of previous generations of that side of the family. In one of the many scrapbooks there was an obituary for little Rosemary that had run in the local paper at the time and a photo of what I assume to be her, after death in a sort of memorial wake type setup. I’ll never be able to prove the photo is for sure her, but the obituary is priceless.

    I’m so glad you were able to find her!

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