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Memory of the 1918 Pandemic

Photo courtesy of Margaret Blanchard
By Ann Keller Blanchard, from My Life and Times, 1999

It was a gray and bleary evening with rain pelting the dirty window panes. Inside, the waiting room of the railroad station was equally dismal and forlorn with a small number of lackluster people sitting or wandering aimlessly. My mother stood staunchly (an adjective surely coined just for her!) holding a child by each hand, suitcases at her feet. Frank and I stared dully without enthusiasm until we saw our father striding through the door toward us. His welcome was warm and loving, although I think now the weariness must have shown in his face as it did in Mother’s.

This was Rockford, Illinois, where my young life nearly ended. We knew not a single soul, nor did a single soul know us. Dad had rented a small house for us there. It was miles from the army camp where he trained his men for combat in World War I, but the nearest he could find. How long we were there before disaster struck, I don’t know — not long, I think.

Both Frank and I fell victims to the raging, virulent influenza epidemic of 1918, which took thousands of lives. We were hospitalized, I not once, but twice. The doctor knew from the beginning that he could save the son whose case was lighter, but probably not the daughter. The day when he expected the crisis in my condition, Mother asked, “Shall I call my husband?”

“There is no way he can get leave to reach here in time,” the doctor replied. “Either she will turn the corner in the next few hours or she will be gone.”

Obviously, I survived.

All through these anxious days Mother’s heart ached for the doctors and nurses working tirelessly around the clock, often falling victims themselves to this scourge. When at last she had us both at home, I seemed to be worse again. She put in a call for the doctor. When he returned the call, his reply was desperate: “My God, I can’t do anything more!”

The next day Mother picked up the paper to read that the doctor — her doctor — had committed suicide.

I can now picture her desperate loneliness as Mother coped with our convalescence. Help came from an unexpected and heart-warming source. Neighbors came with chicken soup, custards, and hands outstretched in sympathy to this mother, stranger in their midst. Not one of us ever returned there in a lifetime, but the place was never mentioned among us without the warmest thoughts of gratitude to those beautiful caring neighbors of Rockford, Illinois.

As a postscript to this story, I recovered completely, but Frank was left with asthma, which haunted him all his life. For me this was a time of bewilderment and confusion. I knew nothing of the agony of that First World War, or of the celebration of the armistice ending it on November 11, 1918, when I was five.

Ann Keller Blanchard is the mother of Montpelier resident Margaret Blanchard, professor Emerita of Graduate Studies at Vermont College’s Master of Arts Program in Creativity.