In early February, when All This began pulling its long shadow over our lives, I joked to my husband that I might be particularly well-equipped to handle the situation.
I’m a homebody by nature. All my hobbies are domestic, or can be done at home. I can already make bread or provide a decent chicken soup for the invalid. And I’ve read plenty about the influenza epidemic of 1918. I was made for this, I told him. We both laughed.
What we didn’t say, didn’t have to, was why I did that reading.
I’ve mentioned my great-grandma Elise on this blog already, and I expected I would discuss her more — I just couldn’t have imagined these circumstances. As we adjusted to living in this new half-lit world, I thought of her nearly every day.
And the funny thing is: I don’t really know her. But my sense of connection to her…
Left: The author at 7. Right: Elise.
So, by way of fuller introduction: Elise Augusta Brunjes was a true daughter of Brooklyn, and (aside from a short spell in New Jersey) lived there nearly her whole short life. She was born in 1892 and died at only 26, during the influenza epidemic in late October 1918. She left behind a grieving husband and two small daughters, aged 5 and 6.
That’s nearly everything I know. You could fit it on an index card.
I’ve said that those who die young don’t leave much of a record, and never was it more true. Elise only made it into two censuses. There are no passport applications for her. She never got her own name in the phone book. I’m not sure she ever traveled west of New Jersey. I don’t know her favorite color, what music she liked, or really anything about who she was.
The first time I saw her photo (above), I was 11 — probably near Elise’s own age when it was taken. Until I spotted her portrait on my grandmother’s (her daughter’s) dresser, I didn’t even know she had existed. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about her. For the rest of that visit, I would make sly trips back into the bedroom just to gaze at her face. It was her face, but also almost my face, looking back at me in period dress. I was spellbound.
My grandmother wasn’t a sharing person, and I wasn’t old enough to understand what I should ask. By the time I had questions, lots of questions, grandma was years dead and her stories went with her. All she left behind were a few photos, and a lot of questions.
* * * *
I used to imagine that if could pick a decade to live in, “Fantasy Island” style, I would choose the 1910s. Where the 1920s seem glib and easy (and no, I know they weren’t), the 1910s have always been so much more interesting to me. Labor strikes, war, Palmer Raids, suffrage, influenza — it’s the 20th century inventing itself.
Of course, I now know that this is a child’s game. When you pick a decade to live in, you assume you would enjoy it. You assume you would fare well.
You assume you would outlive it.
The story, as told by my mom, was that Elise “got sick with the flu after helping a neighbor.” She died within a day of becoming ill. My grandmother (then five years old) remembered banging on her mother’s bedroom door, and that no one would let her in to see her.
Some of that might be true. Some of it isn’t. I now have Elise’s death certificate, so I know that she officially died of pneumonia — a common result in 1918. The flu itself left you so weak, you couldn’t move, and days of inactivity led to fluid buildup. A great many flu deaths were actually pneumonia.
The certificate also says that she was under a doctor’s care for seven days, not just one. That gets me in the throat a little. A week in bed is long enough to know you are very sick. As the wife of the house, with small children, it’s enough time to understand what you are missing. It’s long enough to be aware that you might not make it.
Did she hear her daughter’s small fists?
The door stays shut.
* * * *
So when All This came into our lives, all of THAT was in my head. Genealogists make it harder for themselves. Historical parallels loom in your head, unbidden and unwanted. You make the mistake of trying to imagine how people reacted then, and judge your now-self against your imagination.
But when you’re scared, you reach for what you know. I did it, too. I thought about Elise, and wondered how she had approached her own pandemic. (How is a pandemic also something we share? The world is a mystery.) Had she been scared? How did she care for her family? Was she filled with dread? Or did the realization of her pandemic experience sneak up on her gradually?
The door stays shut. My cues would have to come from elsewhere.
So I thought about 1918, and about photos from then. There, people are at ballgames, in hospitals, on street corners — all of them with half-faces. They needed masks, which means we’ll need masks, I thought.
I started searching for masks online in early February. I felt both prescient and ridiculous — the government was still telling people they were unnecessary. And then I saw that commercially made masks were out of stock and would take a month to arrive. I felt a chill.
I would have to be resourceful. What else did they have in 1918? Handkerchiefs. Those weren’t out of stock. Paired with elastic cord, I was pretty sure I could cobble together some masks. But once the handkerchiefs and cord arrived, I set them aside for weeks. I couldn’t deal with their reality. Perhaps I didn’t want to live in the 1910s after all. Perhaps I was not, in fact, made for this.
Necessity intervened: We had to have something to wear outside.
I broke out the ironing board and the sewing kit. I ironed pleats to mimic masks I’d seen online, and fussed over how and where to sew. My straight stitches are rudimentary at best, like staples done in thread. The first ones pulled apart easily. I tried to remember what a basting stitch looked like. Those are meant to be temporary, right? They hold things together for the moment? Elise would know, I thought. I’ll bet her stitches were not crooked.
Probably not, but I didn’t have to heat up my iron on a coal stove: Advantage me.
The resulting masks were plain but wearable. We’ve since bought some made by people who know what they’re doing. But in the interim, I was able to make the thing that got us through. The stitches held.
Today I looked up the stitches that I did end up using. They’re called overcast.
That seems fitting. ☗
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