The pandemic dominates our lives, and calls to mind my grandmother’s survival a century ago

Having a chronic condition and also recent surgery, I’ve even been concerned about going to physical therapy because of COVID-19.

These dispiriting days reminded me that 100 years ago this spring, my grandmother, Leora Wilson, was still suffering the effects of the influenza pandemic after the Great War. She said that if she had not had two small sons and a baby daughter to care for, she would have been glad to die.

Leora Wilson, age 29, had the flu. Just the flu.

We think of the flu as a nuisance. But Leora Wilson of Stuart, had survived the deadliest plague in history according to writer and researcher John M. Barry in his book. Before finally fading away in 1920, it had prowled around the globe and killed over 20 million people, even more than the bubonic plague.

Fever was among the first symptoms, then a wracking cough. Victims experienced dizziness, vomiting, sweating, achy joints, trouble breathing. Often pneumonia set in, overwhelming the sufferer’s ears, sinus, and lungs. Death usually came quickly.

More than 500,000 Americans died–6500 in Iowa–dropping our life expectancy a whopping ten years because young adults seemed especially susceptible to complications.

Children would recover, but their young, strong parents would not.

By the time Clabe and Leora moved to the three-story stucco house east of Stuart, she probably thought she’d escaped getting the flu.

Christmas 1919

But that December she looked forward to having Christmas in the parental Goff home in Guthrie Center, with a big dinner, her three brothers telling about being drafted and sent to France during the war, and always vigorous discussions about politics. Leora and Clabe would bundle up their three little ones and board the Liza Jane train, to huff and puff north up the Raccoon River Valley and through Windy Gap to Guthrie Center. Nothing short of a disaster would keep them from that wonderful day. But that’s exactly what happened the Christmas of 1919.

Leora was down with influenza.

Wilsons didn’t have a phone. On Christmas Eve, Leora’s brother, age 17, hiked down to the Guthrie Center train station when they heard Liza’s whistle. Their mother wrote her daughter a postcard: “Willis met the train last night and this morn when Liza whistled, thought sure she was bringing 5 of our very nearest relatives, but we had to give it up. Me, Pa, Willis. . . ”

Decades later Leora wrote: “We had flu the winter of 1919 and 1920–Delbert and Doris didn’t have it so bad, but Donald was a sick little boy. . . . I was much sicker than when [Clabe] had the flu in 1918. I got able to write and wrote the folks at Guthrie Center. We were getting over the flu but I was still in bed, doctor’s orders, and in a day or so my mother came down to Stuart from Guthrie Center on the Liza Jane train.

“It was after dark, icy, and she had crawled part way, pushing her suitcase along. When I saw her, I couldn’t believe my eyes, it seemed so impossible, she came to take care of me and my family. Bless her. She had taken care of my sister and brothers who had flu. She and Pa didn’t take flu, a God’s blessing.”

Her mother stayed several weeks, but Leora did not regain her strength until late summer. Even a year later, those who had survived the flu would say they still didn’t feel right or have their normal energy.

Young adults have the strongest, most effective immune systems. But according to John M. Barry in The Great Influenza Pandemic, especially at the beginning, the virus was often so efficient at invading the lungs that what had killed young adults, and orphaned so many children, was not the virus itself but the massive response of their healthy immune systems.

Barry wrote that the later the virus struck in an area, people did not become as sick, and were not as likely to die. 

Spring 1920

The Guthrian reported April 1, 1920, that “Mrs. Wilson is just convalescing from a severe attack of flu.” She remembered being ready to die, except that she had three small children to care for. And perhaps another on the way.

Leora may have also experienced a flu-related miscarriage. Barry said that pregnant women were more likely to die from the flu. And that about a quarter of them who survived lost the baby.

A clue to a July miscarriage comes from a postcard to Leora from her mother: “Sorry you were sick. Take good care of yourself.” Another from her sister: “You’ll just have to quit working too hard.” And Leora said that after both times she miscarried, her next pregnancy was twins.

Indeed, Dale and Darlene were born in Stuart in May of 1921.

LauraTwins
Twins Dale and Darlene with their Grandmother Goff, Stuart, Iowa

Leora lived to bear five more children, including another set of twins. She was a healthy, sturdy woman, still living on her own when she died at the age of 97–even after having lost three sons during WWII and her husband shortly after. It was said at her own funeral that she had had true grit.

She needed true grit to get through the deadliest pandemic in history. I can get through this one. 

Leora is the heroine in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II by local writer and historian Joy Neal Kidney. It’s the story behind the five Wilson brothers featured on the new Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn.

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Published in The Des Moines Register April 10, 2020.

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Also shared on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine April 27, 2020.

 

20 comments

  1. An interesting and thoughtful read. My paternal grandfather died in that early flu pandemic only a few months after my father was born.

  2. Again another fabulous posting, filled with first hand information. You’re an amazing family historian with an amazing family story to tell. I am so glad I found you and am following your blog. It’s been a blessing to get to know you. I just had a surgery in the hospital April 2 and it certainly is something going through medical situations during pandemic times. My heart is with you ~ Stay well and safe Joy

  3. This is certainly a story of ‘true grit’. It feels like history repeating itself in our own time…scary stuff. Quite the lady this Leora! Such an incredible thing…twins after each miscarriage. Wishing you well as you continue to heal!!!

    • She’s also the heroine of “Leora’s Letters.” An amazing little woman. So thankful she was my grandmother. Thank you for the well wishes. Think I hit the tipping point last week. Sure feels more hopeful, even on the days this arm/shoulder acts like a teenager who doesn’t want to get out of the bed on Saturday morning. ha

  4. Wonderfully written story, Joy. Leora really did have grit to deal with all that. How nice that she ended up having such a very long life. You have inherited her grit, too. Hope the rehab is going well.

    • Lump in throat. I’d never thought about having true grit as well, but completing week 10 of physical therapy, I noticed today that my therapist (who is now wearing a face shield!) was about to back off as I’d had such a painful day yesterday, but I wanted to try whatever he had next. It was hard but I did it! Want to open my own doors, now that I can, tie my own shoes, even took my weights to ask what I’m “legally” allowed to do. Surprised myself! Your encourage is so welcome, Eilene!

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