It was January 2nd, 1919. A seven-year-old boy approached the room where his mother lay in bed glistening with sweat and shivering. “She has been stricken with the Influenza,” his father, Dr. Malcolm MacKay, had whispered to him. The word had only recently turned into a common term.
He walked a little closer and she turned her head on the pillow to face her son. “Johnny, can you bring me my green sweater?” she asked, her voice raspy and barely audible. Johnny ran off to collect his mother’s sweater and quickly returned to the room and tried to drape it around her shoulders. He sat on the chair beside the bed with arms folded and feet tucked up on the rungs. Within moments his mother took her last breath and was gone. Just 38 years old, she would leave seven children behind; Robert, Catherine, John, Mary, Ainsle, Anne. Her youngest son, Frederick, was a baby of 8 months.
I would often sit at the table and listen to my father tell me this story and many others. He was born in June 9, 1911, a year before the Titanic sank, so there was nothing he recalled of it, but he could tell me about the Halifax explosion, how the windows in the house shook; the roaring twenties and the dirty thirties; the stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed. I am sure there were embellishments – he was a good storyteller – but he always kept me entertained. However the Influenza pandemic tale affect him differently. When he finshed telling me of his mother’s death he would stare off out the window, his cigarette would lay burning, untouched, in the ashtray, a stream of smoke wafting upward. Sometimes a tear would well up in his eye.
He had told me about joining his father on house calls. Dr. MacKay would wake him in the middle of the night and ask him to harness the horse. Sometimes he would stay outside holding the horse in the carriage, other times his father would ask him to help with a birthing, or suturing cuts but during the pandemic, which lasted from 1918-1920, he had not been allowed to join his father as often even though family and neighbours were ill.
He would recall to me to how Clairabee, the family horse, was called upon to pull the funeral carriage. Bodies would be loaded on a wagon covered in a cloth and taken away. He was too young to know what the impact of it meant, but social distancing, as we call it today, was the norm. He had not been allowed to visit his grandmother and grandfathers for months even though they lived just across the road. The Influenza had been there too and had taken his grandfather, his mother’s father, Captain John MacInnis, in 1918 and her brother- his uncle, Robert MacInnis as well.
The chaos and fear. “It all seems like something that should of happened in 1718 not in 1918,” he would say. But here it is 2020, and it is back again. Take heed.