‘It is Getting Better Now’: Family Letters from the Deadly 1918 Flu PandemicBreaking News
tags: pandemics, primary sources, influenza
Bobby Clifton never thought of his mother as someone who lived through a pandemic.
Even as the novel coronavirus brought the world to a halt — as it became clear that he, like Annie Donahoe Clifton, would witness a globally catastrophic outbreak of disease — he failed to draw the parallel. It took an emailed suggestion from his niece before Clifton, 75, entered his bedroom, opened the cedar chest at the foot of his bed and paged through the faded letters, exchanged in 1918 between his mother and her brother, then fighting overseas in World War I.
Preserved in paper, he found a teenager troubled by the shutdown of movie theaters, businesses and schools.
“Brother, Norfolk is some dull now,” wrote 16-year-old Annie Clifton on Oct. 21, 1918. “All of the moving pictures and theatres are closed on account of the Spanish flu. … I’m not working now [and] school … had to close, too.”
Bobby Clifton was struck by the similarities. It was late March, and schools, restaurants and shops were just starting to shut down all around his home in Virginia Beach, where he’d been spending a quiet retirement with his wife, Linda Clifton, until the virus hit. Everything had become so uncertain — and now, standing in his bedroom, he gripped the letter a little bit harder.
He hadn’t known society shut down in 1918. He hadn’t ever thought about it. And he’d never asked his mother, who died of dementia in 1986 without once broaching the pandemic with her son. Annie-of-the-letter spoke to Bobby Clifton in a much younger voice, not the matriarch he knew. But it felt, he said, like his mother was guiding him through the crisis.
“It makes you think, ‘Okay, we’re not the only ones,'” said Valerie Fisher, the niece who recommended he look for the letters.