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What the Flu of 1918 Can Teach Us Now

June 21, 2020

Another Way for week of June 19, 2020

Revisiting the Flu of 1918

I had an aunt who died from the Spanish Flu of 1918 at the age of 21. But that fact never became real for me until the Corona-virus pandemic of 2020 when I started reading how just like today’s battle with a major virus, citizens at the time wore masks, schools were closed, churches shuttered, businesses tamped down, and outdoor cemetery funerals were held, all in an effort to halt or slow down the spread.

In fact, apparently attending an open-air funeral for a teacher who died with the flu is how my aunt Mabel apparently caught it from others present. Mabel died of pneumonia a week after she attended her friend’s funeral.  

Of course I never knew Mabel nor another aunt, Mary, who died as a one-year-old child (not of the flu). But Mabel always had a visual presence with us through a framed, old-fashioned poem titled “The Absent One” which included a beautiful photo of Aunt Mabel as a young woman inserted with the poem. There was also a lock of her hair and a piece of fabric and button from one of her blouses. That framed poem and memorabilia still hangs in the guest bedroom at my mother’s apartment.

As a girl, with Grandma and Grandpa living in quarters attached to our farm home, I often looked at that poem, photo, and lock of hair when spending time with them. The hair in particular made her feel real. I’m sure we asked about Mabel, but I don’t recall anything Grandma or Grandpa might have told me. Our focus was on the marvelous large family that survived: Susie, Irma, Adeline, Elnora, Arlene and Truman, plus my Dad, the baby. He was only one-and-a-half when Mabel died. I can imagine Grandma’s deep grief not only in losing her first child at age one, but then losing beautiful Mabel in her prime. The heartache must have been heavy.

That pandemic seems to have spread towards the close of World War I; recently our local paper mentioned that two Virginia army camps had high numbers of Spanish Flu cases. By October 8, 1918, our paper noted that half of the students and faculty at the State Normal School (a women’s teacher training school which is now James Madison University) had the flu. Thus the college was closed along with city schools. The article stated that people speculated that students heading to school in September by train may have come in contact with infected troops. I found it interesting that over 600 miles away in northern Indiana, my aunt died October 11 during this same rampant time of spread.

College students in Virginia then returned to school again on November 6, only to be hit by a second wave of cases by Thanksgiving, which extended into February 1919. The article also states that the economic pressure to reopen businesses was very much in play, just like today. They had to do social distancing, masks and had much the same kickback. But the cities that stuck with the safety measures during the Spanish Flu, especially in the second wave had better outcomes with fewer illnesses and deaths. It’s an interesting article and should serve as a grim reminder of the things we keep hearing, to “watch out for a second wave” in the event that cases and deaths go on an uptick again (Daily News Record, May 22, 2020, by Jessica Wetzler).

I’ve visited my aunt’s grave at the Miller Cemetery near LaGrange, Indiana where my grandpa and grandma are also buried. They lived very long lives and I feel especially blessed to have spent the first 10 years of my life with both of them next door. I am indebted to my second cousin Melissa Mann, whose grandmother was my Aunt Adeline, for details from Mabel’s obituary she retrieved online (see below). The obituary says her last words were of hope, love, and everlasting joy “beyond the river.” My cousin Dennis Risser notes his mother Arlene was four when Mabel died, and remembers hearing that Mabel had probably taken care of her a lot when Grandma was busy with my toddler dad. Dennis also remembers his mother Arlene had an amaryllis plant that had been Mabel’s. How precious.

What will our children and grandchildren remember of this pandemic? What stories will they tell? I will wear a mask in memory of Mabel and will continue to do so as long as necessary, both to protect myself and others.


A bonus you’re getting on my blog, is a little deeper history than I found before I wrote and sent this to newspapers.

In addition to the photo above I had long seen in Grandpa and Grandma’s home, I just discovered a photo of the friend who died a week before Aunt Mabel, below.


Note typed in my Aunt Susie’s photo album, given to us by Susie’s daughter Joyce. I think it was typed by Aunt Susie at some point. They call it Asian flu here.

Here’s a link to the obituary that my cousin Melissa Mann found in Mennobits from Gospel Herald.

Miller, Mabel Edith, daughter of Bro. Uriah M. and Sister Barbara K. Miller, was born in La Grange Co., Ind., Dec. 11, 1897; died at her home Oct. 11, 1918; aged 21 y. 10 m. Death was caused by pneumonia following influenza. She leaves father, mother, 5 sisters, (Susie, Irma, Adeline, Elnora, and Arlene), 2 brothers (Truman and Uriah Vernon), an aged grandfather, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a host of relatives and friends. Her oldest sister, Mary, preceded her to their home in Glory 23 years ago. Sister Mabel left us a bright evidence that our loss is her eternal gain. Her last words were of hope, love and everlasting joy, telling her friends to prepare and meet her in that beautiful home which is waiting to welcome her in. Her only comfort was to have us pray with her and have the Word of God read to her. She accepted Christ as her Savior and united with the Mennonite Church while yet in youth and was a faithful member until death. Open air services were held at the home Oct. 13, by Brethren O. S. Hostetler, D. D. Miller, and A. S. Cripe. Text, John 16:16. The remains were laid to rest in the Miller Cemetery.

The Savior has taken our Mabel away;
But we know it is not forever.
“Come follow, come follow,” we hear her say,
“It is beautiful beyond the river.”
(Written by a sister.)

This photo also made Aunt Mabel more real for me. It shows her in the context of friends and family; Mabel is on the far left, and my Aunt Susie is on the far right. I have no idea what the occasion was but I’m guessing it could have been a baptismal group, or at least a church gathering, judging by the dressy dresses and shoes.


How is your family doing? How is your area — city, county, state, country — doing with restrictions still in place? Or not. I’d love to share ups and downs, hopes or fears.

Write to or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834, or comment on the blog.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication.  

  1. Beverly Silver permalink

    Thank you, Melodie. This is so beautiful and so beautifully written. I don’t remember anyone in my family even mentioning the Asian Flu. I knew or remember a lot of the sibs of my maternal grandparents, but wasn’t old enough to remember anything about the flu, if ever mentioned in my presence. I forward your blog to2 friends. I am sure it will be touching to them both.

  2. You have captured the heart and history of the Spanish flu and its similarities to our current pandemic. I know there were cases in the Longenecker side of the family, but right now I just can’t get my hands on the bits in Grandma’ diary to confirm it. I’ll share this on Facebook.

    I’m taking a blog break now and plan to return sometime in July.

    Grace be with you in the meantime. Thank you for another beautifully written piece, Melodie.

  3. Stories from the Longenecker family would be interesting I’m sure. And as I noted on FB, shares are always appreciated! Have a great break, we all need that. (And your voice/vote of confidence is sweet.)

  4. Elaine permalink

    This is so interesting, Melody and brings it all down to a personal level. I have never heard any relatives in my family mention anyone being affected by the flu of 1918. My grandparents were born in the late 1800’s and all passed on now. Even my parents are gone, so I can’t ask them either. Actually my mother passed away in October 2019 (age 95) and I am so glad she did not have to go through what we are experiencing.

  5. Glad you found this interesting. Thanks! I can affirm the thought of being glad your mother didn’t have to go through the difficulties that many are going through now–especially if needing to be hospitalized and separated from family etc. My mother is the same age as your mother was, turning 96 this summer. She HATES the masks, thinks she can’t wear them, but has survived getting her hair done with one on–something she was sure couldn’t be done. 🙂 We are also thankful that her hip break and first weeks of rehab were before everything got closed down for visiting etc. Sorry I’m rambling but just wanted to respond to a few of your thoughts here. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Excellent post, Melodie. It’s interesting to see how a current need sends us back into the past with new eyes. Your fascination with the lock of hair caught my attention. It was common in Victorian times to make art out hair:

    I was also struck by the value of living next to grandparents, and how that experience has enriched your life.

    • Yes, I’m sorry to have those new eyes but if we can learn from history, the benefits are obvious. I don’t think I ever read this about making art out of hair–unless I maybe heard you mention it on your blog before?? At any rate, again, interesting history.

      I didn’t know then how lucky I was although I think our cousins felt we were fortunate. We were blessed too that we got to see cousins and aunts and uncles more frequently because they stopped by to visit Grandpa and Grandma and we got to see the kinfolks probably more often than we would have otherwise. I can recognize that now. I can especially remember Grandpa’s smell, his shuffle, and watching him grade eggs in the garage next to the chicken houses. He helped on the farm into his 90s. Oops sorry, you took me down memory lane.

  7. Lovely memories. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Deanna Risser permalink

    I have a small quilt that was pieced by Mabel and given to me by my grandma Arlene, Mabel’s sister.

    • Oh my!! How very special, thanks for telling us! I would love to see a picture if you wish to share it. I asked Dennis and Doug about whether any special memories came to mind from what Aunt Arlene told them about Mabel, but neither of them mentioned this! I’m sorry for your family in the recent loss of Marion, I remember him from North Goshen. Again, thanks for chiming in here.

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