My grandmother was a girl of eight when the Spanish flu struck in 1918-19. She was one of eight children born to a poor family in rural southwest Virginia. These old photos are from that time period, showing her on the left in a family portrait and then again a little older wearing a hat. Her dress looks clean if stiff, perhaps from hanging on the clothes line, and is stained.

How a poor family came to have their photograph taken is a story in itself and one I’ll never know. My grandmother passed away in 2007 at nearly one hundred years of age. I dedicated my debut novel The Frontiersman’s Daughter to her. How I wish I’d asked her more about that tragic time in which she lost three of her older siblings – Reggie, Gaye, and Stella, all in their teens. I recall Granny saying that only she and her father didn’t get the flu. I imagine they took care of all those who had it and watched them die. I can’t imagine the loss.

Not long after she went to work at the mayor’s fine home as a domestic servant and then a few years later someone arranged for her to go to Berea College in Kentucky, known for poor Appalachian youth. It seems a miracle she not only survived but made it to Kentucky through someone’s kindness and far-sightedness. I find a lot of hope in her story. She was an extraordinary woman who lived during an extraordinary time.

The poem below was written in 1869 by Kathleen O’Mara then reprinted during 1918-19 Pandemic.

And people stayed at home
And read books
And listened
And they rested
And did exercises
And made art and played
And learned new ways of being
And stopped and listened
More deeply
Someone meditated, someone prayed
Someone met their shadow
And people began to think differently
And people healed.
And in the absence of people who
Lived in ignorant ways
Dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
The earth also began to heal
And when the danger ended and
People found themselves
They grieved for the dead
And made new choices
And dreamed of new visions
And created new ways of living
And completely healed the earth
Just as they were healed.


Photo taken during Spanish Flu

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