Friday, November 13, 2009


    Some years ago, as my Aunt Helen lay dying, she told me many family stories, and one was of my grandfather, whom I had never known. He had died in 1918, 22 years before I was born.
     The Great Influenza Pandemic had struck that year. In my grandfather's own neighborhood, whole families were seriously ill and helpless, and he was going to their doors and speaking from his distance into their interiors to find out what help they might need... food, medicines, errands... 
   He would hear their needs, and he would write them down and see that they were taken care of. He would set the needed foods and medicines at their doors or just inside, without coming close.
    He was roundly criticized by some. After all, he could catch the flu and bring it to his family. Was that not irresponsible?
     But my grandfather told his family a person was obliged to help friends and neighbors who were down and helpless. He assured his family he was being careful not to get close and catch the illness.
     Grandfather did catch the flu, and so did his family, but he was the only one at his home who died of the disease, or came close to dying. Who could know whether he had caught the virus at the doorway of his friends who had not come close to him in his mercy missions; or whether he had been exposed through his work that took him through the city everyday?
     Grandfather suffered mightily, with complications including meningitis, as I later learned from details on his death report. I decided his commitment to friends was a legacy he had left for us, and I felt somehow closer to this man I'd never met.
      Later in the genealogy room at Morley Library, I ran across a front-page item in a December 1918 Painesville, Ohio newspaper. On a late-November morning, a man beloved to the town had died of influenza. He was the assistant superintendent of the city's water plant, active in his community and church, and known to all. He was my grandfather!
     It was sad for me to read there had been no public service for him. Friends and relatives grieved privately because all members of his family were ill, and the pastor of his church, St. Mary's, had banned all public services because of the contagion.
    Now when serious flu seasons roll around, I think about my grandfather, who died in a time when we had not yet developed, or even thought about, the arsenal of medicines we would later have on hand to fight the complications of the flu. 
     And I feel great pride in my dear grandfather, who was among the many people of that time, whose sturdy ethics of neighborly friendship and commitment were not tossed aside when he was tested in that great worldwide pandemic.