Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“I would visit my mother’s grave and feel sorry for myself”

One of the first things Lydia’s dad told me about his family was that his mother’s mother — his Grandmother Brooks — had died in the flu epidemic of 1918-19.

All of us are descended from people who died. But sometimes there’s something in a death that makes it different from other deaths. Death in the Great Flu Pandemic was such a death.

Mae Bickford was born in 1887. She married Edwin Brooks and died, sometime before the first birthday of her third child Elizabeth, who was born in early 1918. My mother-in-law Betty never knew her birth mother and was close to six when her father married again.

When I used to meet single women lamenting because they couldn’t find a husband, I would think of Laura Benedict, that singular woman who married Ted Brooks, a widower with three little kids, and became from all accounts a wonderful mother to them.

What I found notable about Mae Brooks’s death was that I heard about it in the early 1980s, and I had never before talked with anyone who spoke of a connection to the great flu pandemic. I grew up in the Ohio village where five generations of my family had lived, and I knew century-old gossip about this local family and that — but no stories of the Spanish flu.

Where had it been hiding? I once walked through the Riverside Cemetery in Poland, Ohio looking for the tombstones of young adults who had died in those years and didn’t find anything remarkable one way or another.

Where the Spanish flu hides in Ohio’s folk legends I still don’t know, but a really interesting story is that of the virologists who found the virus, H1N1. Toward the end of the 20th century it became something of a hidden treasure, sought in exhumed bodies buried in the permafrost of Norway and Alaska. Medical detectives pored over old records looking for forgotten graves. That they found the virus is a scientific miracle!

My mother-in-law Betty confessed to me once that when she was a young teenager visiting Rochester, she would sneak off to the cemetery to mourn by her mother’s grave. “I don’t know what I was mourning for! I loved Mother [Laura Benedict] and it seemed disloyal,” she confessed.But now that I have seen my own daughter grow up, I can certainly mourn for Mae Brooks, who never knew that joy. In 1986, Ted and Betty and I took toddler Lydia to Mae’s grave during a visit to Rochester.

1 comment:

Mira Costa said...

My grandfather's aunt Dorothea was a teacher during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. She was married to the principal of the little school in Toronto. The had a son. The son and husband both died.
The way that my great, great aunt handled this tragedy is an important part of the lore of my mother's family.