In a recent column, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, an assiduous observer of our present plight, wrote that “this is the week when memories rush back from childhood.”
I’ll second that.
A particular memory from my own childhood is that of an oft-told retelling by my grandmother in her role as an observer of another national crisis a century ago. And as you can expect about any crisis, memories of death and dying are long lasting and have a way of sometimes erasing the happy memories of birthday parties, proms, and the like. Here’s my example.
Grandmother Frances, whose ancestral roots were strongly rooted in Ireland, was true to her heritage, a master of storytelling
and descriptive language. Whether you call it blarney or something else, she had a gift of the tongue that not only entertained but taught as well.
This past week, as Maureen Dowd invited us to look back, my siblings and I had several chats as we reminisced about our grandmother and the story she told us many times about what she remembered living in Philadelphia during the Great Pandemic of 1918.
At that time, World War I was still raging, and our grandmother related about how challenging life was during that scary period. She was recently widowed, the mother of six children, and her oldest, my father, was sixteen-years-old and already in the work force, helping to support his mother and younger siblings. My grandmother lived on another 40 years, and if she were alive today, this is the way she would have told her story in a unique, descriptive voice. As Vladimir Nabokov put it, Speak, Memory. Here is an attempt to channel my grandmother’s voice – and her memory.
What I can still remember are those street sounds in the early morning darkness, just before sunrise. In my neighborhood, any kind of sound would bounce off the narrow brick streets of the city, and the row houses in South Philadelphia had a way of taking that sound and keeping it going for a bit longer.
I recall that some people were already sick from the flu that year, but a lot more folks got ill after Labor Day, right after that big parade in Center City. The politicians wanted to show their support for the war effort and went ahead with that parade to promote war bonds.
Some folks said that more than 200,000 people were there for the parade, and nobody expected so many to come out. After a few days, many more people got sick.
I can still hear those sounds, the clip-clop of the horse pulling that wagon on those brick streets.
We saw the man on the wagon and a policeman with him. Then you heard the neighing of the horse, and then this voice:
“Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!”
There was something about that voice, maybe it was even musical. He was almost singing those words. It was horrible. On one corner there were bodies that were piled up like cordwood. Some houses had little signs in the window that meant there were dead inside. Those bodies that were on the corner were probably on their way to the morgue.
Yes, it was horrible. Your grandfather had died before all of this happened, but, like me, your father won’t ever forget any of this either.
No he didn’t, but he also didn’t talk about it. My mother did on a rare occasion. More on her experience below.
When you are going to school in a big city and growing up fast, there comes a point when you get a bit skeptical about some of the stories your elders tell you about what it was like when they were growing up. The legendary tales of those who lived “back in the olden days,” before the ubiquitous yellow school bus who had to tread miles and miles through snowdrifts to get to school, come to mind. After my grandmother passed, when I was about twelve, that’s how I felt about the singsong chant of …
“Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!”
That was until 20 years ago, when an incredible book, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, became a New York Times bestseller. This was the first instance where I learned that Philadelphia, my hometown, the place where my grandmother heard the hooves of horses pulling carts containing the dead, a city where some street corners became the gathering places for victims, was the city most affected by the Great Flu.
In the last two weeks, news outlets have been reporting about that earlier crisis and what happened in the City of Brotherly Love, a cataclysm made worse by a lack of leadership and decision-making on the part of city officials. When disease is rampant and has already been present for some time, you don’t invite people to come together and join a parade, no matter the civic or patriotic reason given.
There is a lesson there for us as we continue to wait for decisive, science-focused national leadership to help stem this crisis.
As I atone for my childhood skepticism about my grandmother’s tales and welcome all of the new reporting on what happened in 1918 and 1919, when the final flu wave ended, I learned only a few days ago from a sister about what my Irish mother, who was then twelve-years-old, had told her of a childhood experience in the middle of the Great Flu.
In that time long ago when pathogens challenged medicine and medical care, my mother insisted that the family’s regimen of whiskey, hot tea, and lemon kept her and a younger sister out of harm’s way during these woeful times.
Yes, I was skeptical about horse-drawn carts and bodies deposited on street corners, but at least I did know there was such devastation in 1918. Compare that to Donald Trump, who according to recent reports, said that he “didn’t know people died from the flu.” That included his own grandfather, who died in New York a few months before that big parade in nearby Philadelphia, a victim of the same pandemic that my grandmother told us about.
It is good to remember the past to help guide us today. And yes, let’s also learn from Trump: know your family’s history. It might help you in taking medical situations more seriously and thus inform the decision-making process.
We’re in for a wild ride the next few months. But we’ll get through this, in spite of people in national leadership positions who don’t even know their family history.
As I realize what I know now about my family history, I must share a favorite joke in this week of the great St. Patrick, the patron saint of the Emerald Isle.
Do you know why the Lord invented whiskey? To prevent the Irish from conquering the world.
A few Irish families in South Philadelphia, including my parents’ tribes, did not wind up conquering the world. But we can thank the Lord’s whiskey in keeping them alive and healthy in 1918.
Aye, I’ll drink to that – and to your good health.
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