Flu and Funerals

July 8, 2007

When I was a young boy, I was fascinated by death. I read a great deal about war, torture, gladiators. Given my bent, I listened raptly to any family stories having to do with death and dying.

My mother told me this one: When she was a little girl, an older relative died and was laid out in the front room. As a precaution, one of the men in the family held a mirror to her nostrils, and observed two small patches of steam. She was carried back into her bedroom, and tucked in. I asked if the woman came back from the dead and lived many more years with a great story to tell. My mother said, “Oh, no. She died again three days later, and they moved her back into the living room.”

And this one, too: During the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918, when people were dying in droves, my grandmother, Cora Braun, would sit by the front window of her home in Buffalo, New York, and watch the funeral corteges pass by. One day, at the height of the epidemic, the wagons and mourners rolled by without interruption from sunrise to sunset, quite literally from first light until darkness forced them to stop for the day.

On the other side of my family, my grandfather, Clair Winship, was himself stricken with influenza in 1918. He told the story at his 50th wedding anniversary, as a way of trying to describe his wife’s devotion. I still remember him standing at the table, saying, “I had the fever, but what saved me was that I could sweat. I sweated until the sheets were yellow. And Abbie never left my side for three days.”

I have thought of that last story many times, a benchmark for loyalty and caring. I am not surprised that it was Abbie Belinda Winship who set it.

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