My Mother, the Flu and I


     My mother, Sarah Calato, experienced two influenza pandemics in her lifetime. She was eighteen when the first occurred, by far the worse. It started in 1918, continued into 1919 and overlapped with the Great War, now known as World War One. Sixteen million people died in that conflict. The soldiers in the trenches of France faced death not just from the weapons of the enemy, but also by the illness, which killed an estimated fifty million worldwide. It was called the Spanish Flu because Spain, the only major European country not a combatant in the war, was the most important nation reporting on it. The censors in the warring states chose to ignore it, as it might show a sign of weakness to their opponents.      


     Sarah, the eldest daughter of Sicilian immigrants, was born in Buffalo, New York, in the first year of the twentieth century. Both the war and the pandemic were ongoing during her last year of high school. She had friends and family that either went off to fight in France or became infected by the virus. The hospitals became so overloaded with influenza patients that the authorities resorted to closing schools and using their gymnasiums as clinics.


     Young adults, like Sarah, were the primary targets of the flu, which was insidious for it attacked the immune system, the body’s main protection against infections and which is most developed in young people. Thus, it became an existential battle between the virus and its victim’s immune system. Only one could survive.


     It was a fearsome time and I believe it had a long term impact on my mother. I base this on the effect the Covid virus recently had on today’s students. Schools were also closed and times of celebration like proms and graduations were forever lost.


     Starting in 1919, the flu eventually became less lethal, tapered off and disappeared, like every great contagion before it. After four horrendous years, the Great War also ended and left the world to recover and adjust to a dynamic new period, known in America as the Roaring Twenties. It was as if the country had heaved a sigh of relief, shook off the past and went on a binge.


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