This is a true story as told to me by my mother. It's about another pandemic, the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 and the tragic effect it had on her family. My mother is 12-year-old Jessie in this story and her sister, Selma was 14 at the time. I wrote this about 2 decades ago. Everything in the story is true however I wrote it in a creative form to give voices to the real-life characters. At the time I wrote it, my mom was no longer here to correct me with names and ages and the proper sequence of the events, but the angel in the room seen by her sister made an everlasting impression on my mother and on me as she told me the story. The story is a little rough around the edges. I like to think I've learned a little more about writing since then. In light of our own pandemic of 2020, I have revived the story and will share it now since history seems to be repeating itself. My mom's life was forever changed by the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
Angels in the Room: 1918 – The Year of Influenza
Jessie turned two of the kitchen chairs around to face each other. She sat down on one and propped her feet up on the other. She would catch a quick wink before she laundered the fever-soaked sheets from her sister Selma’s bed. Just as she felt herself slip into a lulled sleep, racking coughs and gasping sounds came from the bedroom she shared with Selma and her younger sister, Pearl. As Jessie jumped up, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror above the fireplace. Her slight frame and pigtails were a stark contrast to the furrowed brow and dark circles under her eyes, revealing the worry, stress and responsibilities weighing heavily on the shoulders of the twelve-year-old child.
The year was 1918. World War I had just ended, and something far more terrifying had put fear in the hearts of the people of rural Union County. For them, the war had been a remote, far off war that had taken away some of the local boys and spit them out on foreign soil with a dozen or so them never to return home again. North Carolina lost approximately 1600 men in the war. In contrast, the tragedy that was happening now would claim the lives of over 13,000 men, women and children in the state alone and more than 675,000 in the United States. It was a flu epidemic and it had hit Jessie’s family of twelve with brute force. The first to get it was young Woodrow, who had just turned 4. The other children followed quickly. Jessie's mama had nursed them through it until she and Papa came down with it. Only Mary Lee, 6 months old, had escaped being sick and was sent to an aunt who was nursing her own child and had plenty to spare to nurse Mary Lee.
The younger children had bounced back quickly, but the others weren’t so lucky. Their fevers would spike and break, then spike again.
And the persistent, non-stop coughing seemed as if it would take their breath away. Grandpa Will brought over some whiskey and mixed it with honey which helped a little with everyone except Selma, and Selma was the one Jessie worried over the most. Of course, she was worried over Mama and Papa, too. They were talking nonsense, but Grandpa Will said it was normal because of their high fever.
Besides Mary Lee, Jessie was the only one spared from the illness and in her young mind, it was because God had intended for her to be the one to care for them. Papa said that she was named after Jess Watson, a circuit rider; a saddlebag preacher who rode on horseback through the country preaching the gospel and saving souls. She may not be able to save souls, she thought, but she could work hard at trying to save lives, so she worked night and day caring for her family. This was her third day as the lone caregiver, and she was bone-tired.
She checked on Selma, but she was now asleep. The steam from the water she was boiling to do laundry seemed to have calmed her coughing for the moment. She was alarmed at how pale Selma was and how thin her little arms were. Although two years younger than Selma, Jessie had quickly outgrown her. She had learned early on to carry the load of both their chores because Selma couldn’t keep up. The two were inseparable. Not only were they sisters, but they were best friends. Jessie really didn’t understand what a “heart condition” was, but she sensed her older sister’s frailty and she vowed to always take care of her.
Jeremiah Starnes had built a big house in anticipation of a large family after his marriage to Jenny Griffin in the beginning of a new century, 1900. There were three bedrooms, a big kitchen and a sitting room. The boys all shared a room and the girls shared another. Mama, Papa and the baby slept in the other bedroom. Their little farm had thrived and with all the children pitching in, the crops had been harvested and a little money set aside for provisions would last until the pattern began all over again in the Spring. They were a happy family. They worked, played and prayed together and their life was good.
The younger children had been unusually quiet all day. Pearl and Eli were playing with marbles on the kitchen floor. Roy was out splitting wood and milking the cow. Billy brought in wood to keep the fire going. Jessie poured water from the stove into a metal tub and quickly washed the sheets from Selma’s bed. She hung them from a makeshift clothesline hung from one corner of the room to another. They would freeze stiff if hung outside. It was the middle of December and an unseasonably harsh winter where the days were short on sunshine and long on cold. Inside, the heat from the woodstove would dry the sheets quickly.
Jessie had no idea what they would eat for supper. They had eaten three meals off the soup Grandpa had brought over on Sunday. Usually, neighbors pitched in and helped each other when there was sickness in a family, but trouble was, all the neighbors were sick too. The ones who were not sick were too afraid to venture into a home filled with raging influenza. She supposed they could eat some cornbread and side meat with a cold glass of buttermilk, so she went about warming up the skillets on the cookstove and sent Billy out to the icehouse where the milk and buttermilk were stored. She never once complained nor thought that the responsibilities she was undertaking were anything but normal. She was unaware that in households both near and far away, people were dying of the very illness that had taken over her home, and she had no idea that it was taking the lives of the young children, the weak and the elderly. If she had, her little heart would have been heavier than it already was.
After they had eaten, she finished up the supper dishes. She fed the children their cornbread and buttermilk and had boiled a few potatoes and onions she found in the cellar to make a broth for the sick ones. Mama and Papa had eaten it but Selma would only drink water. She put the little ones to bed and curled up on a blanket on the floor beside Selma’s bed and finally went to sleep.
Sometime in the night she heard a stirring and Mama came into the room with a lamp. She could tell Mama’s fever had broken because her eyes were clear and sharp. She put her hand on Selma’s forehead and listening to her labored breathing, turned to Jessie. “You’re tired, little one. Go on to bed. I’ll take over here.” Jessie was too tired to protest. Her burden was suddenly lifted, and her eyes filled with tears of relief. Her body shook with emotion as she held her mother tight. She woke up the next morning to the aroma of biscuits baking and the younger children chattering. Mama was better and the world was a brighter place.
She saw that Selma was awake and she ran to her side praying that she was well. Selma seemed to have less fever but was so weak she could barely lift her arm to touch Jessie’s face. But she was smiling!
“Jessie, I saw Jesus last night,” she said excitedly. “And angels! Why there’s an angel in this room right now! He’s right there,” she said and pointed to the far side of the room. Jessie looked but saw nothing.
“Selma, you’re just seeing things, like Mama and Papa did when they were talking out of their heads!”
“No, I’m not. He’s all dressed in white and I can see him plain as day. Jessie, surely you see him! There’s light all around him like the sun is shining on his face. Talk to him, Jessie. Find out what he’s doing here. I’m too tired to talk.” At that, Selma went back to sleep and seemed to be breathing just a little better.
“Mama, Selma said she saw Jesus and some angels when she woke up. She says there’s an angel in our room right now,” Jessie said as she walked into the kitchen. Mama was still pale and at Jessie’s words, a fearful look came over her face. Her knees were weak and almost gave way under her as she made her way around the kitchen getting breakfast ready.
“Mama, please sit down. I’ll finish up. You aren’t well yet.” The last thing Jessie wanted was for her Mama to have a relapse.
“No, I’m fine. I’m just a little weak. You’re going to be sick too, child, if you don’t get some rest. I don’t know how you did it. You kept up with the chores and waited on all the rest of us.”
Mama’s praise made her blush as the other children looked on. She’d only done what needed to be done. The others had shared in the chores. She was about to say so when Papa walk into the room.
“Look, Mama! Papa’s better too,” she said excitedly. She ran over to hug him and was shocked at how thin he was. He was a small-statured man anyway, but now she could feel his ribs when she gave him a hug. It seemed to take a huge effort for him to walk across the room to the table.
Mama told Papa about Selma seeing Jesus and the angels as they ate breakfast. Papa frowned and he and Mama exchanged looks. “I’ll go check on her, Jenny,” he said and got up from the table. A moment later, she heard Papa cry out, “Jenny, come quick!”
Jessie fell right in behind Mama as she made her way down to the girls’ room. The child on the bed was pale and breathing shallowly, but she had a look of joy on her face as she reached one arm and then the other up into the air. “I can almost touch Him, Papa.”
“Who Selma? Who is it you’re trying to touch?”
“Why, it’s Jesus! Don’t you see him?” She turned to look at Papa as if willing him to see the same thing she was seeing. “And the light, Papa! Can’t you see how bright it is? Jesus and the angels are calling me to go with them. Can I go, Papa?”
Jessie didn’t understand why Papa was crying and holding onto Selma’s hand so tight. “No child, don’t go just yet. We want you to stay here with us.” Selma looked disappointed.
“I love you, Papa. I love you too, Mama. I want to stay with you, but I think I’m supposed to go with them. Jessie, come here. Maybe you can see them.” Jessie walked over and sat on the bed with Selma. She held her other hand and looked in the direction Selma was looking.”
“Yes, Selma – I see them!” She didn’t, but it made Selma happy and she gave Jessie a weak hug and settled back on her pillow.
“I’m so tired,” she said. Jessie could hear a rattle in Selma’s chest, but she was no longer coughing. As she watched, the breathing became shallower. Mama and Papa knelt down to the bed and Papa put his head on her chest. Mama was crying softly. Jessie got up so they could both get closer.
Papa spoke. “You can go to be with Jesus now, baby girl. We will all join you someday.” The young girl on the bed took one more shallow breath and slipped peacefully away. Mama’s shoulders shook as she sobbed. Papa held her tight and motioned for Jessie to join them. “She’s well now, Jessie. See the peace that’s come over her face. God is the giver of life. When we’re born, He breathes our first breath into us, and when we pass on, He takes our last breath into His own and our spirit goes to be with him.” Their tears spilled down and blended in with the tears that were flowing freely from Jessie’s eyes.
She sobbed uncontrollably. All she knew was that she had lost the one person who understood her every thought – her best friend and sister. Papa pulled her to him. “Jessie, honey, our Selma will be running and playing with the angels. She’ll have a healthy heart in Heaven.”
His words fell on deaf ears. She thought only of her loss as she walked back to the bedside. “Bye, bye, Sis,” she said and gave her sister one last kiss.