A husband’s melancholic tribute from 1857 reminds us motherhood can be a crap shoot and sometimes the best we can do is move on.
Mother’s Day can be a bittersweet time. Of course we wish all our Local moms a happy holiday! For many readers, though, the day brings pangs of loss and longing.
A Laurel Hill Cemetery monument known as “Mother and Twins” crystalizes these feelings, in a tale of heartbreak and enduring love. The gravestone depicts a young woman sweetly cradling two infant sons. The story goes that the mother and her children are buried here — the mother died in 1857, two years after both her sons died in a boating accident overlooking the Schuylkill River at the very spot their young lives were lost.
Sad, yes. But true? Not quite – the actual story though is just as sorrowful. Maybe more.
The monument was carved by Henry Dmochowski-Saunders, a Polish sculptor who fled Russian occupiers in his homeland to eventually meet his wife in a Philadelphia boarding house.
Helena Schaaff was an artist in her own right: she composed music, most famously “Doubler Marche pour Piano” and “The Bavarian Polka.” The couple was very much in love, Henry cherished his wife and, the rumor goes, was vocal about his preference that they remain childless. He wanted her all to himself! Also, giving birth back then was a huge risk. His worst fear was that his dear Helena was not physically suited for childbearing.
He was right to be worried. After a difficult delivery in 1855, the couple’s first son was stillborn. Pregnant a second time in 1857, Helena again endured a prolonged labor that ended in tragedy: both she and her baby, another son, died in childbirth.
Henry was devastated. For 18 months, he worked to sculpt the monument that now looks down on a peaceful bend in the Schuylkill River. Of course, there’s an inscription. Quite a few of them, actually – the grief-stricken guy had a lot to say, some of it in Polish. He even quoted a popular poem of the day, by English poet Philip James Bailey (1816 – 1902):
We live in deeds not years
In thoughts not in breath
In feelings not figures on a dial
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.
When he finished, he returned to Poland to join the army against the Russians and never came back to America again. He never married again, either.
Helena had been the love of his life, and the family they’d tried to create had been the death of them.
Passerby! If you lost everything you loved in this world
Your homeland, parents, friends, wife, and children
Shed a tear of sympathy for my darling Helena.
To all our readers who are missing someone this year, we stop to shed a tear with you. We honor the risks and challenges of motherhood, and all the moms who’ve made such a difference in our lives.
The monument to Helena and her children can be found in Section 7, Lot 375.
Laurel Hill Cemetery’s lovely grounds remain OPEN during the coronavirus crisis, providing over 75 acres of peaceful trails with stunning river views for visitors to relax and connect with art and nature. This National Historic Landmark is also a Level II arboretum, landscaped with rare trees and shrubs as well as native plantings — beautiful in every season (but wow is it pretty in spring!). Please maintain social distancing guidelines.
Gates are open 365 days a year:
From May 1st to Oct 31st: 7:00am – 7:00pm
From Nov 1st to Apr 30th: 7:00am – 5:00pm
Main entrance: 3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia (map)
This post was originally published May 12, 2019