This isn’t the first time people in the United States have worn masks to protect themselves during an epidemic.
A month or two ago, as the incidence of CoVid-19 increased sharply, I wrote about my grandmother’s memories during the Spanish Influenza. I was delighted to find that remembrance, one among the eight reminiscences that Rachel Corbo Pascale penned. But I recently found another fragile and worn page that described, in some detail how she or my grandfather, Rev. Benedetto Pascale, would be summonsed by a physician to translate during the doctor’s home visits to treat influenza patients in 1918. They saw themselves as caregivers — spiritually and physically — for the members of their small Baptist congregation and in the community beyond.
Remarkably, she and grandpa wore masks. They were made from multiple layers of gauze or using linen cloth from my grandmother’s sewing cabinet — a big cabinet that was still around and still full of threads and cloth more than 40 years later when I explored it.
The masks she described had no elastic or attached ties but were secured to their faces with pieces of twine tied at the back. When I was about eight or nine years old I remember discovering an unusual looking big ball of worn and frayed twine in the basement at my grandparents’ house — they never seemed to throw anything away — and when I asked about it, my grandfather said it was for masks. I never understood what he was talking about until now. I so wish I find a family photo with one of them wearing a mask!
Interestingly, during a period when people, especially in the immigrant community understood little about infections, my grandparents had the good sense — or had been told — after each visit, to throw away the gauze or the inside layer of fabric. From grandmother’s journal entry, it appears that they were called out almost every day, and often multiple times. It turns out they had a medical student in their congregation who later became a family physician for years after that.
Social distancing did not seem to something they knew about or understood, though they did understand why stores, movies, concerts, churches, including theirs, and other places were closed.
Many people in their little Silver Lake Baptist Church and many, many people in their community died, but my grandparents did not despite repeatedly entering the homes of very sick people. They were fortunate, and those masks must have helped them survive.