Some Things Never Change

The Early Lost

The shade of death upon my threshold lay,
The sun from thy life’s dial had departed
A cloud came down upon thy early day
And left thy hapless mother broken-hearted
My boy – my boy
Long weary months have pass’d since that sad day
But naught beguiles my bosom of its sorrow
Since the cold waters took thee for their prey
No smiling hope looks forward to the morrow
My boy – my boy
The voice of mirth is silenced in my heart
Thou wert so dearly loved, so fondly cherish’d
I cannot yet believe that we must part
That all, save thine immortal soul, has perish’d
My boy – my boy
My lovely, laughing, rosy, dimpled child,
I call upon thee, when the sun shines clearest
In the dark lonely night, in accents wild
I breath they treasured name, my best and dearest
My boy – my boy
The hand of God has press’d me very sore
Oh could I clasp thee once more as of yore
And kiss thy glowing cheeks soft velvet bloom,
I would resign thee to the Almighty Giver
Without one tear, would yield thee up forever
And people with bright forms thy silent tomb.
But hope has faded from my heart – and joy
Lies buried in thy grave, my darling boy.

On June 18, 1844, Susanna Moodie lost her beloved son, John. He was just 5 years old, and he drowned in the Moira River, just a few miles from where I live. She was devastated, and wrote this poem in his memory. Susanna Moodie is best known today for her memoirs, which describe life in early Upper Canada and her adjustment from a world of privilege back in England to “Roughing It in the Bush” in the wilds of Canada. Yet this poem illustrates something beautiful that seems to still be forgotten. Throughout history, even when child death was a common occurrence, women mourned the children they had lost.

We forget because women did not leave much trace throughout history. For generations, history was focused on what was considered to be the important world of men. Our private lives, our private losses, were not considered to be of much use. Yet a walk through a cemetery, or reading a poem like this one, can remind us of how valuable these children were to their parents. In years gone by, when entire families were wiped out by diphtheria, or measles, or influenza, each of those lives lost was a horrific tragedy to all who knew them. Each of those mothers wept just as we now weep for our lost children.

In the pages of her memoir that appear right before this poem, Susanna Moodie tells another sad tale of childhood loss. This story depresses me even more, because it shows how little things have changed in 150 years. I can think of no better time than Black History Month to tell this sad story of loss. My apologies for the language, I am quoting directly:

A little black boy, the only son of a worthy negro, who had been a settler for many years in Belleville, was not so fortunate as the Irishman’s cow. He was pushed, it is said accidentally, from the broken bridge, by a white boy of his own age, into that hell of waters and it was many weeks before his body was found; it had been carried some miles down the bay by the force of the current. Day after day you might see his unhappy father, armed with a long pole with a hook attached to it, mournfully pacing the banks of the swollen river, in the hope of recovering the remains of his lost child. Once or twice we stopped to speak to him, but his heart was too full to answer. He would turn away, with the tears rolling down his sable cheeks, and resume his melancholy task.

What a dreadful thing this prejudice against race and colour! How it hardens the heart, and locks up all the avenues of pity! The premature death of this little negro excited less interest in the breasts of his white companions than the fate of the cow, and was spoken of with as little concern as the drowning of a pup or a kitten.

She does not name the boy, or his father. I do not know whether this “accident” was ever investigated, although it appears it was not. 150 years later, and other than the language, this sounds as if it could have been written yesterday. Plus ça change….

This post first appeared on Still Standing Magazine.


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