by Stephanie Heigh
My mother Edith was a very young child when the raging influenza epidemic of 1918 assailed our country. This horrible health crisis emerged as the worst of its kind in American history. In ten months 675,000 lives were lost to Spanish Influenza. This number is larger than the total deaths of four of our wars combined.
It all began in Fort Riley, Kansas, when one Army private fell ill with a sore throat, headache, and fever. More victims quickly followed, and in one day over 100
soldiers were affected. From there the highly contagious illness with its horrific symptoms spread like wildfire and engulfed the entire nation. Far more extreme than the initial signs were the ones which soon developed in most patients, ultimately causing death. These people suffered from labored breathing, projectile nosebleeds, and violent coughs. Their lungs became filled with bloody fluid, fevers soared as high as 107 degrees, delirium abounded. A plague was sweeping America.
In New York City over 3000 residents became ill in a single day. On October 23 over 800 people died. These numbers surpassed those of many other cities; as a result New York became known as one of the deadliest places in the nation. In January 1919 the death rate began to climb higher. It was during this month, in the Borough of Brooklyn, that my mother's memories are focused.
Young children did not actually understand what was happening, And so it was with Edith, who lived in a walk-up apartment, known as a cold water flat, with her parents, grandmother, and older brother and sister. She recalls her surroundings quite vividly, including the kitchen, the warmest room in the dwelling because of the coal stove, which was used for cooking. It provided the only source of warmth for the family, but very little of its heat extended beyond the kitchen door.
On top of the stove sat a constantly steaming tea kettle, and almost daily there were evident the aromas of delicious home cooking and baking. My grandmother
and great grandmother used the best ingredients obtainable at the neighborhood grocery, butcher shop, and produce stands. Included among these were the
freshest and most potent bulbs of garlic they could find. It is this pungent herb that Edith claims saved her father from coming down with influenza, although he was regularly exposed to it as he rode the subway to his job as a tailor.
However, it is not the health benefits of garlic that are to be credited, but rather the unmistakable smell. According to my mother, my grandfather had asthma, and as a result exhaled heavily with every breath. Thus, his fellow subway riders instinctively moved away from the source of the odor. No virus ever came close enough to infect him.
Meanwhile, Mom was not so lucky as to have escaped becoming ill. The family doctor, who of course made house calls, declared that her case was not serious. Poor Dr. R. seemed almost to appear slightly jealous that the members of my grandparents' household had remained almost unscathed. For his own sister had just succumbed to the flu. Doctor or not, there was nothing he had been able to do to save the young woman.
My grandmother insisted that her youngest child remain confined to her bed in the large, cold front bedroom. So obediently Edith huddled beneath the quilt, feverish and cranky.
Every so often her mother would come in and anxiously feel her forehead to see whether her fever had risen, and to administer to her with hot liquids. No solid food was permitted, as it was presumed to raise the temperature during such a nasty illness.
Eventually my grandmother found it necessary to go out shopping, and my great grandmother was left in charge of my ailing mother and her brother and sister. In a split second little Edith sprang out of bed, disregarding how feverish she was, peeked into the kitchen, and saw that the coast was clear. Her grandma was off in another room. She scurried to the table and quickly broke off a piece of the hard crust of a freshly baked rye bread. This had always been her favorite food, and she was not to be denied.
Gobbling the delicious treat as fast as she could, she cuddled back under the cozy quilt, a handmade one which had been stuffed with chicken feathers … hand
plucked and saved. When enough feathers had been accumulated they became part of a most desirable gift for any new bride. My mother's quilt was one my grandparents had received for their own wedding.
The window next to Edith's bed was completely frost covered and icy to the touch. But she was bored, and once the last of the bread had been gulped down, she began with her cold little fingers to scratch away some of the icy covering. Finally she was rewarded with a small circle of clear glass, which afforded her a view of the street below.
The sight she recalls most vividly, one which has never left her memory, she has described to me many times over the years. As she peered out with wide
eyes, she saw a horse drawn black wagon proceeding slowly past her house. Behind it walked several people in sorrowful poses. Heads down, sobbing and holding one another, they followed the dray to the cemetery where their loved one would be buried.
This scene was one that was to be repeated countless times in as many places. For the next several days, during my mother's illness, she was witness to this somber, tragic tableau over and over.
Puzzled and strangely uneasy, she questioned her mother about what she had seen. My grandmother, Fanny, explained that the people in the wagons had been very
ill, and that they were being taken somewhere that would ease their way to heaven. The explanation satisfied her, but the images of those many funeral processions remain with her to this day.
Now, when winter is upon us and flu shots are widely available, the disastrous epidemic of 1918 is a chapter in history. But to a small child who lived through it and survived, it was to remain an unforgettable life experience.
copyright 2010 by Stephanie Heigh
Stephanie Heigh is retired and has lived in Sullivan County, New York most of her life, along with her husband Robert, a retired elementary school teacher. Writing, as well as reading, has been her passion since she was old enough to read cereal box labels. Among her other interests are music and her 11 grandchildren. The most beloved job Stephanie ever held was in her small hometown library, where she had the pleasure of recommending books to the many patrons who asked. The best perk, however, was having first access to any publication while it was hot off the press. The library is still somewhat of a second home to her, despite the convenience of the internet at home. Visiting there provides a warmth and human connection no computer can boast.