I am a bit of a genealogy buff - not so much because I enjoy long lists of “begats” but rather because I love learning about how our ancestors participated in the larger sweep of human history. What a difference, for example, between the English heritage of my maternal grandmother, whose forebears made the treacherous journey to colonial Massachusetts in 1638, and the English heritage of my paternal grandmother, whose father had to foreswear allegiance to Queen Victoria in order to become a U.S. citizen more than two centuries later.
This hobby, both through tracing my own and my husband's lineage online and through our DNA matches, has brought me into contact with relatives who have recounted fascinating and sometimes tragic tales about our forebears, as well as about the daily details of their lives. One of my ancestors, for example, was a sailor who fell overboard and drowned. Apparently he was typical of seamen of his day who never learned to swim; and even if he had, his heavy clothing and shoes would probably have made it impossible for him to stay afloat long enough to be rescued.
I recently heard, from descendants of my husband’s maternal great grandparents, a very poignant story about my mother-in-law’s first cousin Annie. Annie played the piano in a silent movie theater near her home in central Canada, and her music books are still in her family's possession. Annie later went to work in a lawyer’s office, and one day her boss asked her to translate for a client named Joseph, who spoke only French. The conversation must have continued after hours, because Annie and Joseph fell in love and were married in October of 1917.
A year later, on October 26, 1918, as the influenza pandemic raged outside its doors, Annie gave birth to their daughter Anne-Marie in a nearby hospital. Within a few days Joseph had died of the flu. Annie, by now gravely ill herself, was not told of Joseph’s death, but two days later, according to family legend, she murmured, “I see Joseph. He has flowers.” Those were Annie's last words.
Several lives were changed utterly on that bleak November day. Annie's and Joseph's were cut short just as they were launching their own family. Anne-Marie, orphaned at the age of ten days, would never know the parents who had so recently been anticipating her birth. Her grandparents unexpectedly found themselves with a newborn infant to raise.
This story of death and disruption was repeated millions of times during 1918. Few families were left untouched. We've been told that more people were killed by the flu than by World War I, but sometimes it takes a narrative like the story of Annie and Joseph to bring home the toll of human suffering and loss summed up in this grim statistic.
Just three years earlier, in 1915, the Canadian poet John McCrae penned what is probably the best-known and perhaps most moving war poem ever written, “In Flanders Fields.” Though it decries the senseless carnage of war, its sentiments apply equally well to victims of the pandemic that was wreaking so much havoc at the same time:
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”
If only a flu vaccine had been available to prevent the disease or attenuate its severity, it might have made all the difference for Annie, Joseph, and little Anne-Marie.