My grandma used to talk about the Spanish Flu. I have a piece of mourning jewelry in remembrance of her fiancée. Grandma eventually married his brother. She had a worn photo…the family’s last remembrance of a child in a coffin. Occasionally my mom and I would sort through boxes of photos, sorting out the ones we needed to study and label, if we figured out who they were…and I’d find the photo. I had no reference, no understanding, for what I held in my hands. Mom explained about vaccines, and what they mean. That this, losing a child to a common illness, is a rare occurrence now. It wasn’t always so rare.
Once I came upon the photo of a child, maybe three years old. He had died of pneumonia, Mom said. She hadn’t been much older, in 1925. He was their neighbor, and one of Mom’s playmates. She recalled going to visit, he in a coffin on the living room couch, family seated nearby. He was strangely still and silent. Mom didn’t understand at the time. I don’t think anyone understands.
About the same time, a thousand miles away, my dad’s family said goodbye to Lillie, who was also three. She had died from pneumonia, too. There was no treatment then. Diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus ravaged families. Polio killed and crippled, and kept children home, inside, during epidemics and warm months.
If you ever wondered why the Velveteen Rabbit was in a pile of clothing and bedding to be burned after an illness, this is why. There was no treatment, no avoidance of disease.
I grew up knowing kids who had polio, and walked with braces and crutches. A neighbor had an iron lung stored in their garage. We’d see it when the garage door was open now and then. I never knew who had used it. We had a neighbor who used a wheelchair after recovering from polio. Neighborhood kids would pile into her car, because she could ride through the car wash, a thrill at the time. I remember getting the polio vaccine at the bank one day. Drops of miracle on a sugar cube.
I wonder what my parents and grandparents would say today?