In the late winter of 2019 as news of a highly contagious virus started making headlines, I didn’t need to look far to understand the devastation to human life a worldwide pandemic could wreak on not only daily activities but also on family life as well. You see, I lost three great grandparents during an earlier pandemic leaving both of my grandmothers’ families forever changed. The Spanish Flu of 1918-19, the “Mother of all Pandemics”, infected nearly one-third of the world’s population and resulted in nearly 50 million deaths worldwide. While influenza strikes normally the very young and the very old, healthy adults ages 20- 40 were the group most affected by the Spanish flu. My home state of Pennsylvania was one of the hardest hit with over 60,000 deaths.
My Grandmother (‘Mom’) Kenny was the baby of her family when her mother died and her father given the responsibility of raising seven young children. My Grandmother Flanagan, a toddler and second oldest of four children, lost both parents and she, along with her sister and brothers, were taken in by family to be raised until they reached adulthood. Even though my grandmothers had limited memories of their parents, both made sure to remember them regularly, particularly every Memorial Day when they visited their parents’ graves.
Their lives and the families they created later in life diverged greatly. Mom Kenny raised four children, worked outside the home, co-shared the running of a family business, and created family meals that could be considered ‘loaves and fishes’ miracles as she welcomed all to her kitchen. Avid reader, competitive card-player, and pinnacle caretaker to her husband in his final years were other roles she assumed throughout her life. Conversely, my Grandmother Flanagan devoted her entire life to the raising of her only child, my father. From typing his school papers, creating archives of all his accomplishments into adulthood, and cooking nightly meals for him (even into his 30s and 40s since his work office was close to her home), my father was her universe. In her last conversation with him from her hospital bed, she instructed him to go home and get a good night’s sleep because he had work in the morning.
In part thanks to their love and encouragement, my grandmothers helped form the woman I am. When my parents’ professional lives were busy, both grandmothers opened the doors to their homes to me with comfortable beds and my favorite meals. Their presence served as a constant, stabilizing force and their spirits developed an influence of devotion to family and traditions. I don’t think the Spanish Flu formed the personalities of my grandmothers but I think it added the qualities of perseverance and a respect for the fragility of human life. In hindsight, I wish I had been more inquisitive about how they coped in their early years and asked more questions.
Is there a correlation between the Spanish flu of 1918-19 and COVID- 19? For me, the lesson is to study the past and to learn from history; I actively take all the precautions suggested by medical professionals- wear a mask, stay socially distanced, vaccinate. And, I pray to both Mom Kenny and Grandmother Flanagan to look over me, my husband, and children as we wait to see the end of this pandemic.