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, 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, grand-
mother, and older brother and sister. She recalls her surroun-
dings 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
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 ob-
tainable 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 bed-
room. 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 accumu-
lated 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
No. 140 May, 2010
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 onvenience of the internet at home. Visiting there provides a warmth and human connection no computer can boast.