This is not humanity’s first pandemic, and in all likelihood, it won’t be its last. As the wise among us are often heard to say “those who do not pay attention to history are doomed to repeat it.” In these times I often ask myself, “what are we learning?” Community? Responsibility? Obedience? Skepticism? Self-reliance? Gratitude? Entitlement? Inclusion?
Have we, as a global community, learned from the past? Or have the lessons of the most damaging of humanity’s recent global pandemics, the Spanish Flu Pandemic (1918 – 1920) become lost, now a fleeting chapter covered in history class? “Soldiers returned home from the first world war, many carrying a new virus. The resulting pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people, worldwide. More than the war itself. Then it went away. The End.”
As we in North America begin to re-open shops, cafes and hair salons, all the while wearing masks and liberally slathering our hand sanitizer, it pays to heed the warnings history affords.
Spanish Flu Pandemic, A Personal Account
In 1991 I bought a small lined illustrated journal called “A Grandmother’s Notes” for paternal grandmother, Evelyn Horton (nee Towns, 1907 – 2008). Our family historian, avid scrapbooker and artist-in-residence my Grandmother’s life was story filled and frequently shared. Some accounts I’d heard over and over form a young age, peppered with tiny nuances and embellishments. They were the fabric of many of a conversation and often further detailed in letters.
As the eldest grandchild, Grandma Horton and I had a 40 year history of written correspondence. The journal was a two-way gift to be filled, then in time given back. It was years before she began but in 1999, having been filled and complete, it was returned to me.
I’d imagined pages covered with random personal insights, the occasional memory and a recipe or two, but what I received was surprisingly wonderful. Vividly crafted stories of family history complete with names, dates, and places. Yet, here was a raw candour about it, as it was being written for my eyes only, a tone of truth and honesty.
It was in this little book that she shed light on her personal remembrance of the Pandemic of 1919 in small town Alberta. I’ve transcribed her memories, verbatim, below, and scanned the original document to an electronic file should you wish to view it, click here.
Life & Times
Born in Arkona Ontario in 1907, Evelyn Townes moved with her father, A. A. Towns, mother Ella and older brother Edgar to Haneyville, Alberta in 1909. They arrived, after taking the train across Canada, by horse & buggy and lived for a time in a small sod house on the prairie before moving into their new house in Coronation Alberta in 1911.
In 1936 she moved to Vancouver, BC. After marrying my Grandfather (Oliver Horton) in 1940 they moved to Quesnel, BC in 1945 where they had two children, my Dad (Oliver / Ollie) and my aunt (Carol). Then the family moved to Mission BC in 1957. After my grandfather’s passing, she made her last move to Falkland, BC in 1992 to be closer to family.
Growing up, I often felt she was my very own Laura Ingalls Wilder, complete with ribbons and bonnets.
When the World Changed
Her chapter on this part of her life follows the section on World War 1. It begins mid-page with the subtitle “Influenza”. As was common for her, the text is void of adverbs and makes sparing use of adjectives. She was, in many ways, a no-nonsense communicator; long on listening, short on lecturing. But it the simplicity of her message makes it all the more poignant.
By her own account she would have been 11 when the first waves of the Spanish flu first began, and 13 when it finally dissipated (though she has no recollection of how many months they were in confinement) That would make her about the same age as my step-daughter is now.
She writes of reading the Bible, all of Dickens and Thackeray of making masks with her mother and learning to sew. Her clearest recollection is of her father returning from taking the local doctor to outlaying farms by sled, then hanging his big buffalo coat outside before entering their home. In reading it again I wondered what the beautiful, often bored, 11 year old in my life might recollect in 70 years time.
The future is ours.
Influenza 1919 A Firsthand Account by Evelyn Horton (nee Townes) 1907 – 2008
After the First World War was over, the aftermath, influenza, swept ‘round the world. Soldiers, sailors and airmen going home to the many countries that took part in the Great War spread the germs everywhere.
In Coronation [Alberta], the school was made into an emergency hospital. Some of the teachers became Hospital Helpers or Nurses Aids. Father, as chairman of the School Board had a lot to do with decisions and general responsibility running of the school property. The Doctor often had to go out in the country to visit victims and father, taking turns with Uncle Byron and, I think, one other man, drove a horse and cutter for the Doctor.
Father had his old buffalo coat he wore as it was a very cold winter. When he returned from a trip, he hung his coat in the back porch. It must have been very cold to put it back on but he didn’t want to bring any possibility of germs in the house.
On these missions, if the Doctor, or Father, saw a farm with no activity around, they would drive in to see if all was right with the farmers, who probably had no phones to send for help. On one occasion they found the farmer had died and his wife ill – the animals not fed! On another, a bachelor, [who was] very ill.
As there was no school, I used my time to learn to cook and resolved to read every book in our two book cases. About a thousand books! I started reading the Bible from page one and to five hundred and eighty-two.
In between chapters I read Dickens, Thackeray, and all the famous authors.
Then I tried to read the Statistics of Canada and the Criminal Code that Father had in his office. Some offences [in the Criminal Code] I didn’t understand and the statistics were really boring. I gave that up and went back to Dickens.
I also learned to sew and of course I kept up with my school work, reading everything I was supposed to study. We were all supposed to keep up with our school work so as not to fall behind when school started again.
I helped Mother make our masks. Everyone had to wear a mask if you went outside to a store or office so as not to get or spread germs.
To make the masks we bought yards of “cheesecloth” – cut in pieces and folded them, several layers, into an oblong. Then we sewed white tape on the ends to make a mask covering the nose and mouth.
None of our family got the flu. Were we ever lucky. My step-grandmother had it and many people died. I can’t remember how many months elapsed before the epidemic died out. The school as fumigated before we went back to school.
– 30 –
Yes, times are different now than they were a hundred years ago. The economy has changed. A war fueled our last pandemic economy, while this one has seeded conspiracy theories, social unrest and brought forward a call to equality for people of colour. Our world will be different after this time of social distancing but will it change US?
Will we embrace each other again without thinking? Will we work together in confined spaces without masks? Will we look forward to long vacations on luxury cruise-liners where air is recycled? Or will we find a new way of living? One that is perhaps more in harmony with the cycles of nature and the needs of the planet and her people?
The Impact on Her Life
What’s most interesting to me now, as a parent, are those things left unremembered. There’s no mention of boredom (except the mention of her trying to read her father’s Canadian statistics and law books and finding them utterly dull) or fatigue from lack of social company. Currently we talk about “the new normal” while referring to physical distancing measures and the use of personal protection equipment, it’s worth noting that my grandmother didn’t spend her life behind a screen.
If I’m honest, while her home was always neat and tidy, my grandmother was far from a fastidious housekeeper. She preferred to be in her studio, writing, reading or painting or in the garden, enjoying a spot of shade. She was never, to my mind, germ phobic. She was however, big on washing hands, she insisted on clean hands when coming in from outdoor play and before meals.
The only time in my adult life that I can remember her referencing this period of her lived history out loud was during a telephone conversation in the 90’s when I relayed that I had been forced to return to work, despite having a terrible flu.
“That’s so irresponsible!” she cried. “All you’ll do is spread it to others and then everyone will be sick. I suppose I have a different view of these things having lived through the Spanish Flu Epidemic. We should know better!”
Yes, we should. But do we? Time will tell.