Caregiving in the Time of CoVid-19, #5: My Grandmother & Church Caregiving During the 1918 Influenza

Value or Worthless LivesI was so grateful yesterday as I attended a remote worship service broadcast from my church, Rock Spring United Chruch of Christ. This was caregiving at its best, during bringing light and hope to our CoVid-19 social distancing days. Given the number of people who attended our service and the many others around the country, many other people felt the same way. The worship reminded me of some memories that my grandmother wrote down about her life as a minister’s wife in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza.  

A number of people have written about Italian American immigrants who kept journals of their lives or who wrote autobiographies, and I’ve read several books on the topic. One, On the Value of Worthless Lives, by Ilaria Serra, describes how frequently people did write about their experiences. The author shares portions of the immigrant autobiographies, many in rough form and often discovered in attics and basements. These documents, usually written toward the end of their lives, described perseverance as well as the hardships and frustrations of the immigrant experience.

So when I was going through some of my grandmother’s papers, I discovered a dozen essays about her life with descriptions about childhood, early adulthood, music training, marriage, family life, and many disappointments. Rachel Corbo Pascale was not an immigrant, but she was born shortly after her parents, Rocco and Maria Corbo, left Calabria, settled in New Jersey, one of four children to survive to adulthood — out twelve. She was well-educated with a high school diploma and extensive training in music, and as a young adult was involved in church music programs.

pascale silver lake dining room

My grandparents, my parents, and me in 1952 at the dining room table in the parsonage.

She married my grandfather, Benedetto Pascale, a young Baptist minister, who had been in the United States for less than 10 years and spend the rest of her life directing church music at his church. Silver Lake Baptist Church. (To learn a bit about how a young Italian immigrant became a Baptist minister read this post.)

During Spanish influenza, the church was an important caregiving anchor, just as we discovered it is today when we all attended church remotely.  Of course, in 1918 they did not understand that it was not the best thing to visit face-to-face, so my grandparents spent a considerable amount of time trying to help and comfort others, especially when it came to translating physician instructions.

Grandma wrote the following about the 1918 Spanish Influenza.

In October of 1918, the Spanish Influenza broke out. My husband and I were exhausted, kept busy from early morning to very late at night going from house to house, visiting the sick. They were not all from our church, but we were glad to help where ever it was needed.

Quite a number of these very sick people could not speak English, so we were sent for as interpreters. The same doctor would be called in the neighborhood, and I remember that, many times, I or my husband would drive with the doctor from one patient to another…

To stop the spread of the influenza, all public buildings were closed. This included churches. The young men who usually attended Bible study on Sunday mornings were lost without church activities. The first Sunday our church was closed, I went out for a walk around our garden, and when I came to the front of our church, there were our boys. They seemed dejected.

We spoke to each other, and I asked them what their plans were. They shrugged their shoulders and remarked that they could go nowhere since every place they liked was closed.

“Well,” I said, “the parsonage is not closed. I know the Reverend would be happy to have company, and so would I. Come on.”

They looked at each other, slowly made up their minds, and followed me to the house.

These young men were diehard fans of the New York Yankees and became known in the church as the Yankee Eight.

My grandparents did not become ill, but they spent many hours helping others who were sick during the pandemic. However, in 1919, they lost their first child, 18 months old, to pneumonia, likely as a result of influenza. I’ve located the baby’s grave in the children’s section of a cemetery in Bloomfield, New Jersey. They had two more children, and over time cared for and helped raise six other children at various times after family deaths.

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