Remembrance of the Spanish Flu

rita 2

My father gave me two great gifts. One was a facility with numbers (you could give him a dollar amount on a loan, an interest rate, and a term, and within a few seconds he could tell you what the monthly payment would be). The other was a conviction that I was truly one very lucky ten-year-old.

He was lit when he told me this. He was often lit in those days. But his argument must have been compelling – something about when and where I was born factored into it – because I believed it then and have never had reason to doubt it.

But mostly I took after my mother, whose presence during my childhood overwhelmed whatever influence my father was capable of providing. My many cousins all adored their Uncle Charlie, and with good reason. They saw him only on happy occasions and never really experienced the brooding, self-anesthetizing man who seemed intent on trying to ditch his demons at the Triangle Bar & Grill while his family was eating dinner. He hit bottom when I was 15, soon becoming another of AA’s success stories, and, out of a shared gratitude for his recovery, we all enjoyed 20 great years together by never once revisiting his troubled past.

My mother’s relentlessly sunny disposition, like oxygen and the empty place at the head of the dinner table, was a constant. It was also an act of steely defiance in a life that had more than its share of pain and sorrow. Always content with a single evening cocktail, she chose to slay the various demons from her past by talking about them.

Rita Marie Kelly was born in October, 1918, one year after the Russian Revolution and at the very height of the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Unlike today’s coronavirus, the Spanish Flu did not discriminate by age. Rita grew up in Brooklyn, hearing all about her various relations who had been victims of the pandemic, including an aunt who – devastated by the horror of losing her children to the virus – had died from what her doctor diagnosed as a broken heart.

Rita died more than 20 years ago, as sunny as ever. I still think of her often, though probably not as frequently as I once did. Until the last couple of weeks, that is.

Now I can’t escape the thought of what fresh pain and sadness this new virus might bring, and all the heartbreak that may ensue. Today’s Americans seem woefully ill-equipped to cope even with minor inconveniences such as not being able to go out to the movies or to dinner. To think of how the worst possible scenarios might be received, especially here in the land of plenty, makes the mind reel.

When Rita was about five, she and her younger sister went out on their front porch on a Sunday morning to play with a book of matches. Rita lit one, and attempted to put it out by shaking it back and forth the way she had seen adults do. But her frilly collar (she was dressed for church) predated the era of fireproof clothing, and up it went.

A neighbor from across her Flatbush street saw the small, red-haired girl catch fire, and rushed to save her (he was known to be a drinker, Rita always said). The outlook was grim. But the hospital had a young doctor who had in recent years learned a lot about treating burns incurred from mustard gas. The scarring around her neck and right shoulder grew up with her, and remained a testament to her strength and pluck.

Maybe my father knew for a fact how lucky I was, and just didn’t really want to talk about all the reasons why. Maybe it takes something truly horrible to make you realize just how lucky you’ve been all along.

In the end, seven years after my father’s death, Rita’s scars were clearly visible along the wide, loose collar of her hospital gown. Through the cancer and the morphine, she no longer recognized me. If she was ever fearful, it never showed. And she always did like meeting new people. “I don’t know the face,” she smiled up at me, “but it’s a good one.”

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