Sunday, September 13, 2015



    Some years ago, as my Aunt Helen lay dying, she told me many family stories, and one was of my paternal grandfather, whom I had never known. He had died in 1918, 22 years before I was born.
     The Great Influenza had struck the year he died. Whole families in his neighborhood were seriously ill, and they were helpless, and he was going to their doors and speaking from his distance into their interiors to find out things they might need... food, medicines... errands... He would find out what their needs were, write them down, and see that they were taken care of. He would set their needed foods and medicines at their doors or just inside their doors, without coming close to them.
He was roundly criticized by some. After all, he could catch the flu and bring it to his family. Was that not irresponsible?
     But no, my grandfather told his family. A person was obliged to help friends and neighbors when they were down and helpless. He assured his family he was being careful not to get close enough to catch the influenza.
     Grandfather did catch the flu, and so did his family, but he's the only one at his home who died of the disease, or came close to dying. Who would 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 learned last year on his death report details. 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.
    Last year, I was in the genealogy room at Morley looking up some of my husband's family history, when a helper/librarian handed me a Page One item about my own family, from a December 1918 newspaper. A man beloved to his town had died on a late-November morning. He was the assistant superintendent of the city's water plant, active in his community and church, and known to all.
    The story caught my eye, and as I read it I discovered that man was my grandfather. It was sad for me to read that there would be no public service for him; mourners would grieve privately because all members of the deceased man's family were ill, and the pastor of his St. Mary's Church had banned all public services because of the contagion.
      (One of grandfather's sisters died of influenza in a neighboring state that same day, on her birthday).
    Now when serious flu seasons roll around, I often think of the world-wide flu pandemic of 1918--a time when there was no serious arsenal of medicines to fight the complications. And when I think of the hardships of those earlier times, I salute my grandfather for his sturdy ethics of friendship and commitment, which he didn't toss aside when tested.
     I wonder if the fear our media stirs up so readily these days---including fears of all sorts of things that MIGHT happen---would keep our people from doing what they could for helpless friends and neighbors.

R.A.T. (Rose About Town) signs off, reflectively. She accepts comments at