Grace Coolidge: youngest son’s death

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(Host) This week, commentator Cyndy Bittinger is sampling a collection of the private letters of Grace Goodhue Coolidge. The letters were recently given to the Coolidge Foundation in Plymouth by her family and are being made available to scholars and the general public for the first time.

Grace Coolidge was a Burlington, Vermont native who became First Lady when her husband Calvin Coolidge, a native of Plymouth, Vermont, became the 30th President of the United States.

Today, we hear how Grace Coolidge coped with the tragic loss of a son.

(Bittinger) In July of 1932, while on vacation in Plymouth with her husband, Grace Coolidge walked their dog Timmy to the cemetery where their late son Calvin Jr. was buried. Later she wanted to share her thoughts of that occasion with their remaining son John and his wife, Florence – both in their twenties. Grace wrote:

“I think of Calvin’s smile – somehow, this morning it seemed very vivid and I thought of the last afternoon, eight years ago, when I leaned over his bed knowing that he was fast slipping beyond the reach of my voice, perhaps even then would not hear, and I said, ‘You’re alright Calvin,’ as I had said it so many times in the days when he was troubled about some little matter. Without opening his eyes, he nodded his head, ever so little and the flicker of his old smile came and was gone. Then, they began giving him oxygen and kept his heart beating but his spirit had slipped away.

“All the afternoon, dark, awe-inspiring clouds had rolled across the sky, the lightening was almost constant and thunder followed it in mighty roars of majestic power. Calvin’s delirium seemed to be apart of it all and, for a long time, he seemed to be on a horse leading a calvary charge in battle.

“He called out, ‘Come on, come on, help, help!’ And, for a time, he thought he was sitting backwards on his horse and asked us to turn him around. Father put his arms under him and tried to persuade him that he had turned him but he thought he was still wrong side around. Finally, he relaxed and called out, ‘We surrender, we surrender!’ Dr. Boone said, ‘Never surrender, Calvin.’ He answered only, ‘Yes.’ And some how I was glad that he had gone down, still fighting.

“After it was all over, Dr. Coupal broke down and cried. I found him at the window and I put my arms around him and told him that everything was alright that he and the other doctors had done everything within their power and we must comfort ourselves with the thought that courage such as Calvin had shown us all must now be our example.

“I have written all this down for you, this morning, because I want you to know that death seems to me a very natural, even a very beautiful transition, a passing from life here, interesting though it is, into a more abundant life.”

Grace Coolidge’s strong faith kept her going. She wrote this to her surviving son while her husband was napping. “He went to service last Sunday and will today. He looks better day by day and is regaining some of his lost pounds.” Some historians believe her husband, Calvin, had a long bout of depression after their son’s death. Grace signed off her letter with her usual affection, “I wish you knew how much I love you. Perhaps you will, some day. Devotedly, Mother C.”

This is Cyndy Bittinger documenting the Coolidge legacy in Plymouth Notch.

Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Wednesday in this series, we’ll hear about Grace and Calvin Coolidge’s ties to Vermont in general, and Plymouth in particular.

Related links:
Other commentaries in this series
Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation

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