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Pandemic

Pandemic

“Mommy,” I called out. “Mommy?” I heard her walking with deliberation toward the Master Bedroom where I was in the “big” bed. Coming to the side of the bed she asked, “Yes? Did you need something?” “Mommy, what did you do with my other half minute?” She answered without skipping a beat, “I used it to make up your bed, why?” she asked in her calm, reassuring, mommy voice. I rolled back over, facing away from her and said to my “friend.” “She used it to make my bed.”

Mommy and me in Buffalo 1957
My mother, Margaret Lee Williams and me in Buffalo. NY, 1957.

It was 1957. Frankly, I’m not sure what month. I think school was open, but I’m not sure if it was open, or was about to open. I just don’t remember that. I do remember that conversation as if it was yesterday.

It was supposed to be a fantastic day. I was getting a new bedroom suite. I was so excited. I was getting a full-size bed with bookcase headboard. There was also a dresser with three sets of drawers, two sets of moderate sized drawers flanking a set of smaller sized drawers. The dresser had its own full-size matching mirror. It should have been the best day. It wasn’t. Overnight I spiked a fever. It was very inconvenient timing.

I couldn’t stay in my old bed. It had to be dismantled and moved out, along with my other furniture. The new furniture was coming, that day. So, my parents moved me into the Master Bedroom. Now, it’s important to understand that for a house built in Dutch Colonial style in 1920, Master Bedroom meant nothing more than it was the largest bedroom. It was located on the front of the house. My room was the middle bedroom, both in location and size, the “back” bedroom, which overlooked the backyard, was once my nursery, now a guest bedroom when needed, but was primarily my mother’s sewing room. Next to the back bedroom was the bathroom. In other words, the Master Bedroom was all the way at the other end of the hallway from the bathroom. Not a great location for someone who was sick, including being nauseous. There was a solution, of course. My parents brought me a bucket of some sort. I believe it was a metal waste basket that could be easily cleaned.

Hallway to Bath view
View from Master Bedroom to Bathroom. Other bedrooms along hall to the right.

I was sick. Very sick. I believe my fever must have approached 102. My mother was constantly running in and out of the room checking the thermometer. I was vomiting. She was dutifully emptying and cleaning the pail, then returning it to my bedside for the next unsettling event. She would wash my head, arms, and hands with cool washcloths. She would encourage me to suck on ice chips to keep from getting dehydrated. She would tell me to try to rest while she went off to attend to getting my room ready for its new accoutrements. Periodically, I would call her to ask if the furniture had arrived. “No, not yet,” she would say.

Doctors made house calls in those days. My pediatrician came early in the day. I adored Dr. Rosen. He was the best person, the best doctor, and seemed like another family member. He came, making the half hour drive from his offices. He checked my temperature, he listened to my lungs, he announced that I had the Flu. I don’t remember my mother’s comment, but her face looked concerned. However, she was always cognizant of how her reactions could affect me. Dr. Rosen basically said to continue doing what she was doing: aspirin, cold compresses, liquids, call him if there was any change. With that my mother thanked him for coming and began to usher him out. She told me she’d be back.

As the day went on, I developed a new symptom. I started to become delirious. I didn’t think it was so bad. I had a “friend,” an imaginary friend. We had fun talking and laughing. At some point, she “asked” me what happened to my other half minute. I told her my mother probably had it. That’s when I called her to ask. Apparently, Mommy was not enjoying my question. Alarmed, she called a neighbor, “Aunt” Perlene Dedick. Aunt Perl and my mother were close as sisters. She came over to see how I was doing and calm my mother’s fears. She suggested witch hazel baths. She was certain if my mother did them a couple times an hour that it would bring my fever down. So, they began.

Aunt Perl and me 1957
Aunt Perlene Dedrick and me, 1957

Finally, mid-afternoon, the furniture had arrived. Mommy really was making up my bed and reassembling my things in my room. With the bed now made up and my fever beginning to break, I was finally feeling better. After my father got home and they had eaten dinner, they came to move me into my new bed. Sick or not, I was very happy.

Mommy-Daddy-Me 1956
My parents (Margaret Lee Williams & Herbert Randell Williams) and me, Summer 1956

My mother (and my father) continued to be attentive as they cared for me over the next few days. My fever finally returned to normal. I stopped vomiting. I was no longer delirious. Life returned to normal. I still have my furniture.

Bookcase Headboard (3)
My bed and bookcase headboard

Years later I was talking with my mother when I had an “ah ha!” moment. I realized that the reason she was so distraught, though composed, was because she was having flashbacks, to 1918. In 1918, her mother had died in the “Spanish Flu” Pandemic. Seeing me delirious sent her right back to her four-year old self, watching her mother sick with the Flu and delirious, insisting that her own mother, my great grandmother, bring her her nine-month old baby, my aunt. Not long after that she was dead. My mother and her baby sister were orphaned. That event would color her entire life and even impact mine.

Louse Smitherman Phillips and Elinora Phillips Lee circa 1915 (2)
My grandmother (standing), Elinora Phillips Lee and my great grandmother, Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram, ca 1916

My mother was gripped by the fear that she would die before I was grown. Flu season brought additional fear and anxiety and flu shots became a part of my life. On the other hand, I was not afraid that I would not live to see my daughter grown, but I did make her aware (when she was old enough to understand) that there was always the possibility that something could happen to me. I worked hard to help her learn how to be self-reliant, but always know and remember that I loved her. She was taught relatively early, especially as the child of older parents, that death was a part of every life. Unfortunately, she saw a lot of it as she grew up.

Margo & Turquoise Williams 2009 (2)
My daughter, Turquoise and me, 2009

My grandmother died on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day. For the rest of her life, that date, 11 November, would bring back those memories for my mother, causing her great sadness. Even as I moved away to college and later left New York, where my family lived, moving to the Washington, D. C. area, we always talked on 11 November. She would always relive those last moments.

Margaret & Verna Lee circa 1920 (2)
My mother, Margaret (L) and her baby sister, Verna, circa 1920

“I don’t know why she insisted on doing it, but she got out of her sick bed to do some laundry and proceeded to hang it on the line outside. The next day she was clearly worse. She was delirious, but I think she knew she was dying because, suddenly, she got up and dressed in a new, all white suit she had recently made and then got back in bed. I crawled in the bed next to her. She asked for the baby to be given to her. A short while later she was dead.”

Doc 19-Elinora Phillips Lee Death Cert
Death Certificate of my grandmother, Elinora L Phillips Lee, 11 November 1918
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