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Constance Alexander: Pandemic leaves legacy of loose ends and unanswered questions

The only photo we have of my maternal grandparents is typical of the Victorian era. Sitting ramrod straight in an ornately carved chair, my grandfather, Sydney John Kelly, is decked out in his Navy uniform. My grandmother stands beside him, solemn and stalwart, her right hand on his shoulder.

Her hat features a stylish tilt to the brim, and she wears a brooch on the lapel of her fitted coat. In her left hand, barely visible, she has a firm grip on her purse, perhaps testimony to something my mother always said about her: “Mama knew how to squeeze every penny.”

Against a background that resembles a splash of cloud on a stormy sky, they gaze directly at the camera, unflinching and unsmiling.

(Photo provided)

Mother was eleven when her beloved father died in 1919. She called him Papa, and whenever she spoke of him it was with great tenderness. When she mentioned her mother, her tone was quite different. It was clear that mother and daughter, both named Emily, observed an uneasy truce.

To this day I am not sure why.

Until recently, I did not know that the flu epidemic of 1918 was a major factor, if not the cause, of my grandfather’s death. I do remember Mother briefly sharing her recollections of the epidemic. She said entire families died in her New York borough of Brooklyn. She recalled shrouded bodies stacked up on neighborhood stoops, awaiting transport to the morgue. Her understanding was that her Papa had gotten pneumonia while on duty on a mine sweeper during the war, and that he died at home, but she never made a connection between him and the Spanish flu.

My enterprising cousin, Michael Baumann, another Navy man, has done research and discovered official documentation regarding my grandfather. According to the Navy’s Board of Medical Survey Report, Sydney Kelly “had come down with a case of the flu in November (1918) and was severely weakened…”

In January 1919, his cough became more severe and he was transferred to the Naval Hospital in Brooklyn with acute bronchitis. On February 14, he was released from the hospital and sent home, where he died on March 13, 1919, at 2:40 a.m. The primary cause, according to the death certificate, was cited as Pulmonary Tuberculosis.

After he died, the family struggled. The two oldest boys had served in World War I, but the remaining five kids – one boy and four girls – were still at home. Pennies were pinched even harder than before.

Over time, my grandmother wrote letters and filled out official Navy paperwork to secure payment of my grandfather’s insurance and her widow’s pension. In the years following, there was more letter writing to clarify his military record and obtain a clear statement of his service during the Great War.

In spite of the monthly pension and my grandmother’s parsimony, the Kellys had a hard time making ends meet. When my grandmother got a job, she sent my mother and her sister Irene to live with relatives on a farm outside of Pleasantville, New York. They went to high school there, but Mother quit at sixteen because she felt obligated to get a job and support herself.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

The Kellys were tight-lipped about the ins and outs of family matters, so all I know about my mother’s stint upstate is that she made lifelong friends there. She was chums with Imelda Cook, and Imelda had a crush on Charlie Wicks, who actually had a car and could drive the girls places. Imelda and Charlie married a few years later and raised their family in Westchester County.

Ever after, we received a Christmas card signed Charlie and Imelda until one year it was just Imelda. And then nothing.

One-hundred-and-two years later, families are again confronted with the loose ends and incomplete legacies of a pandemic. There are empty chairs at dinner tables, lives forever altered by death and disruption. The difference between then and now is that today there are more pictures, including candid shots, and endless online posts commemorating the losses.

I wish my mother had talked more about the impact on her family, but she resisted answering questions about the ways her family fragmented after her father died. She did tell me that the night after his death she could not sleep because she was plagued by one thought.

“He hated to be cold,” she said. “Especially his feet.”

So an eleven-year-old girl, devastated by her father’s death, crept down the stairs of 87 Adelphi Street in Brooklyn, avoiding every place that creaked so as not to alert her mother or siblings. She sneaked into the parlor where he was laid out and mustered the courage to peek at his feet, to see if he was wearing shoes and socks.

It has been so long since I heard that story, I can’t remember what she told me.

“This Passing Fever” by Melanie Faith and “Kyrie” by Ellen Bryant Voigt tell poetic stories of the 1918 pandemic. Horton Foote’s play, “1918,” also deals with the so-called Spanish Flu and its impact on one family in rural Texas.

Stories about current families and Covid are available at khn.org.

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