My Grandmother Lost Her Mother in 1918 Flu Pandemic

April 23, 2020

6 min read


She is blazing a path for me during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My great-grandmother, Nechama Horowitz, died in the flu pandemic of 1918. She was pregnant at the time and the baby died along with her. She left behind five orphans, my grandmother, Rose, among them. The children were farmed out separately to various relatives, as my great-grandfather was overcome with grief and needed to cobble together a livelihood to support them.

My grandmother never spoke of her childhood, but the pain must have been searing. Her family finally got back together after many years, but her childhood was spent alone.

What’s remarkable about this story is that the predictable bitterness and melancholy that would accompany such a person was completely absent. To the contrary. My grandmother was a burst of sunshine everywhere she went.

The bitterness and melancholy that would accompany such a person was completely absent. My grandmother was a burst of sunshine everywhere she went.

I remember waiting in a long line at the grocery store when shorter lines were available. I suggested we move over, but my grandmother told me that this was her cashier’s line. As we loaded our groceries onto the counter, they had an intimate discussion, catching up on their personal lives. One summer vacation, on the tram at Disneyland, she doled out long string licorice to all the grandkids, and then gave a piece to everyone else there, including the driver, who seemed choked up by the gesture. He wasn’t invisible. Somebody cared.

My grandparents

In this current pandemic, I look to my grandmother to figure out how to better respond to this crisis. I have many people close to me who have lost their jobs, lost their family members, or face terribly frightening unknown futures. Their anxieties and worries are deep, with no end in sight. My neighbor lost her husband just before Passover, no funeral, no visitors, and solitary confinement at her Passover Seder, alone.

The gap between what I’m doing and what I feel I should be doing is vast. I did reduce my complaining to my husband (at least a little), I did become our stand-in housekeeper, and I even cooked and delivered meals for people since I didn’t have young kids running around. And as directed by our Rabbis, we did start learning the laws of refraining from gossip every day.

And just like the rest of the world, I’ve had to figure out ways to get goods into the house safely. I’ve had to learn to navigate keeping up with the news without ratcheting up my anxiety to an unbearable level. I’ve had to pace myself in reading my texts and emails to steel myself for the losses. I was on edge for weeks waiting for the latest bit of news about a dear friend on a ventilator (he survived). I do feel good that I didn’t lose my temper with my family all cooped up together, but is that my big triumph at this historic time?


As I’ve had to stare my own mortality in the face, or that of my beloved husband’s, it has brought one poignant question to the fore. That, God willing, many decades from now, when I’m lying on my deathbed, what will I wish I had set out to accomplish in my life?

In effect, how can I reverse engineer my life? How can I come up with a goal to bring out my greatest self, and determine the exact order of steps necessary to produce that result? Somehow, in the midst of this crisis, it feels as if God has given me this moment to reflect. To think. To plan.

I already do have a mission volunteering my time to teach marital harmony. But there is a deeper mission, one brought down by many Jewish sources, and for that, I believe, I may be falling woefully short. I’m haunted by the thought that I may be getting things terribly wrong.

This ultimate mission, to which I most certainly aspire, is to maximize my own potential. Our sages explain that at the end of our days, we will not be compared to any other person. However, we will be held up against the person that we could have become if we had just set our hearts and minds to it.

I’m ripping a page out of my grandmother’s notebook and making a concerted effort to show people that I care.

I can’t help but feel that this crisis is my wake-up call. I’m not positive what I’m meant to do differently – I’m just certain that I’m meant to do it now. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it has a lot do to with trying to be as much like my grandmother as possible.

Jewish tradition teaches that it’s better to take on one small thing and to keep it, rather than taking on too much and end up accomplishing nothing. In that vein, I’m going to create a new normal for myself. I’m ripping a page out of my grandmother’s notebook and making a concerted effort to show people that I care.

The author with her grandmother

So when someone calls, and I’m right in the middle of doing something else, I’m going to try to give them the time and attention that they need. When someone walks into the room, making yet another request of me, I’m going to try to be more helpful with a better attitude. When I feel overwhelmed and am not in the mood to show caring, at least I’ll try not to show irritation.

When I’m talking to a stranger, I’m going to try to be friendlier and treat them better. And if someone has been through something tragic, I’m going to get over my own reluctance and make that phone call. I’m going to try to be more present with people and try to really listen.

I’m going to try to be less impatient with people who aren’t doing things the way I think they should be done. I’m going to take a minute longer than I normally would, even at my own inconvenience, to not give the impression that I don’t care. I’m going to check in with more people, even if it’s just to leave a message.

And rather than asking people if they need anything, hoping they’ll say no, I’m just going to act. Like dropping off treats at someone’s doorstep, or phoning from the grocery store to bring something for an elderly friend. I’m going to call someone who has kids at home and tell them they are heroes and what a great job they’re doing.

And most importantly, in the midst of this terribly stressful time, I’m going ask my husband to please forgive me for all of my petty frustrations and outbursts during this challenge. I’m going to tell him that he means the world to me. And then, I’m going to focus on showing him how much I really care.

What's your new normal going to be?

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