I Waited and Dreamt that Life Was Beauty

Every day dragged by a month ago as we waited to find out if we had tested positive for the virus plaguing our country and world. Every day I waited for a phone call to tell me that my life could at the very least return to the watchful, careful precautions my husband and I have been taking since mid March to ensure we do not become infected with Covid. Those were better days, my friend, by a long shot than the nine days of hell waiting for the testing verdict.

An example of immense beauty: My night-blooming cereus that bloomed its fragrant, one-night-a-year flower on August 19.

Yet, we have been luckier than most, however, I know that. We were exposed July 19, and as of August 1, we had no symptoms. So supposedly if we made it to August 1, without symptoms, we would be fine even if we did not hear from the tests we had on Saturday, July 25. Yes, tests results here in this country can take so long as to be of little practical use. But when we learned we had been exposed at an outdoor family event in July, we quarantined ourselves, nevertheless.

During my wait for our testing results and in the time since, I have been trying to keep my mind off the fear and mayhem, by listening to music, sitting in the backyard with our cat Cadi Kitty, watching engrossing movies with my husband Kurt, and (of course) reading.

I slept and dreamt that life was beauty.

An excerpt from the novel “The Pull of the Stars” by Emma Donoghue, published July 21, 2020, by Harper Avenue

Sitting in my backyard among the dappled blotches of light and shadow, I am reminded of the possibility that life is beauty as imagined by the main character in the book I am reading. It is also easy to see that life is a call for forbearance as The Pull of the Stars tells the story of a nurse in an Irish maternity ward caring for pregnant women infected with influenza during the 1918 pandemic.

A 2020 novel about the 1918 influenza pandemic set in Ireland.

Four years before 1918, the world had been torn apart during World War I as Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) fought against Great Britain (which included Ireland), France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States (the Allied Powers). Twenty million soldiers and civilians were killed and another 21 million were injured during the war.

So a hundred years ago, not only did millions of people die in a senseless war, but millions of soldiers and civilians died during the pandemic as well. According to our country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the influenza virus in the pandemic outbreak of 1918-19. The number of deaths from the virus, which has been diagnosed as a H1N1 virus, was estimated to be at least 50 million around the globe with about 675,000 people dying in the United States.

I had no idea how this 1918-19 pandemic affected my own family, and I still do not know how my mother’s Tennessee kinfolk from 100 years ago fared. But a few years ago I was able to find my father’s long-lost maternal relatives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and learn how the influenza outbreak affected his mother’s family.

My father’s mother Darcus (second from left) around 1906 or 1907 with her brother Robert who would fight in the U.S. Navy during World War I, her parents Cordelia and John Montgomery, Eutaw Regina, on John’s lap, and Adrian.

How did we lose touch with Daddy’s mother’s family? Daddy’s parents Roy Hodge Allen of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Darcus Nickaline Montgomery of Kingsport, Tennessee, married in February 1934. After a few months of married life, Darcus was pregnant with my father.

When Daddy was born in April 1935, Darcus’s family said she was too ill to hold him. However, she had chosen names for him: Roy after his father Roy Hodge (who went by Hodge), and Rotha after a Mormon elder she admired named Joseph M. Rothe. Darcus’s parents, John and Cordelia converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1900 three years before Darcus was born, and Darcus was devoted to her faith.

Daddy’s parents Darcus Montgomery and Roy Hodge Allen, probably just after their wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1934.

Four months after Daddy’s birth, his mother died of pellagra psychosis, a severe nutritional deficiency that afflicted many poor Southerners of that time. Daddy, known as Rotha for most of his life, was reared here in Knoxville by his father’s side of the family who pronounced his name as Rothie. Although he saw his mother’s relatives a few times as a teenager and once when I was a small child, we lost track of Daddy’s mother’s family.

The early 1950s: Daddy (far right) at the age of 16 or so visiting his mother Darcus’s family: (left to right) his grandmother Cordelia, Cordelia’s sister Rowena Nichols Stillwill, and her husband Lee Matt.

How did we find Daddy’s family? Because his mother’s family were Mormons, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we were able to find my two cousins Jeanie and Linda, whose family members moved to Salt Lake City from Kingsport, Tennessee decades ago. A year or so before Daddy died in 2016–as his health began to fail, my husband Kurt and I began to search for Daddy’s family so we could tell him as much as possible about his mother and her family. Because Darcus was a follower of the Latter-Day Saints, tracking down her family was easier due to their reverence for family genealogy and ancestral history. In addition to our own genealogical work, we filled in many gaps from the work of Jeanie and Linda, as well as Jeanie’s grandmother and Darcus’s sister Eutaw Regina, and Linda’s father, Darcus’s brother, Steve.

Daddy’s mother, Darcus Nickaline Montgomery, was born in 1903, to Cordelia and John Montgomery and grew up on her family’s farm in Carroll County, Virginia. In the 1800s the Montgomery family held a large tract of land in the county. But with each successive generation, the family land was subdivided in order to give each child, usually their male children, a farm of their own. Even as a youngest son of a youngest son, Darcus’s father John, inherited in 1897 a good-sized farm of 35 and 3/4 acres in the rolling hills of Virginia–which is still fertile farm country today in the 21st Century.

Cordelia and John Montgomery’s first child, a son they called Adrian, was born in September 1897. Their second child, daughter Rose Elizabeth, was born on January 31, 1899, and died that same day. Son Robert was born in 1901, followed by Daddy’s mother Darcus in September 1903. Darcus’s beloved sister Eutaw Regina joined the family in September 1905, and they were by all accounts devoted to each other. Three years later in 1908, their sister Luva Vera was born, followed by brother Stephen in October 1910, and sister Willie Hazel in 1913–who died three years later on her birthday in 1916. Sometime around 1915 the family moved to a newly developed town Fries, Virginia, that had grown up around a new cotton mill. Their little brother Clarence was born two days before Christmas in 1916, and when he was nearly 2 years old, influenza hit the family in the fall of 1918.

Daddy’s mother Darcus (second from left) with her siblings (left to right) Steve, Eutaw Regina, and Luva, 1915, probably on their family’s farm in Carroll County, Virginia.

By the 1920 census, teenaged Darcus and Eutaw worked as spinners at the cotton mill, so it is possible they were already working at the mill when the new flu came through town. My cousin, Eutaw Regina’s granddaughter, Jeanie, told me the story of how my grandmother’s family experienced the flu epidemic of 1918 in Fries, Virginia.

Influenza hit the area hard and killed so many people that the flu wagon would come through town each morning to collect the dead bodies. My grandmother Darcus’s younger sister Luva, who they called Luvie, was 11 years old and had a heart condition so naturally their mother Cordelia was doubly concerned when Luvie became very sick with flu symptoms. Cordelia was sitting by her daughter’s bedside when Luvie made a noise as if she was trying to speak. It was what they called the death rattle, and Luvie was dead. When a person died in 1918 in Virginia, it was the custom of the families to use a wooden board to lay out the body of the loved one to stiffen it, so it would conform appropriately in a coffin. Cordelia placed the body of her beloved youngest daughter on her wooden ironing board.

Over the few years they had lived in Fries, Luvie had played with a little boy who lived next door to them who, as luck would have it, also had a heart condition. When she fell ill with influenza, so did he, and he died just as quickly. Soon their next-door neighbors were knocking at the door to ask if they could borrow the wooden ironing board so they could lay out their much-loved little boy.

I had assumed that Cordelia Montgomery–who would eventually have 10 children, five girls and five boys–would have become somewhat immune to the deaths of her children at this time before vaccines when infants and toddlers and older children died like flies of one childhood illness or another. By the time she lost Luvie to the flu, Cordelia had already lost two daughters: her second child Rose Elizabeth who died the day she was born and her eighth child, Willie Hazel, who died at the age of 2 in 1916 when a doctor prescribed too high a dose of medicine for a staph infection and she was poisoned. Cordelia had also taken in her oldest son’s little girl after he was divorced, and this little girl also died young. However, my cousin Jeanie told me that Cordelia never became inured to the death of her girls, and was devastated by Luvie’s death. She cried aloud with her grief and suffering. I can only imagine how bereft she was when she heard that my grandmother Darcus, age 31, had died 4 months after giving birth to Daddy. Of 11 children Cordelia bore and reared–6 girls and 5 boys, Cordelia had only one daughter, Eutaw Regina, who lived to reach old age.

Here I am in the fall of 2015 when Kurt and I finally found the small family cemetery that is located on land that was once my grandmother’s family’s farm.

In the year 2020, a hundred years later, here in the U.S. we do not lose so many of our children to childhood diseases such as measles, chicken pox, smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio, and streptococcus. However, it is not as if women in this country do not still lose babies in childbirth. And many Americans live in abject poverty and their children die in numbers not seen in other countries where health care is a given for every citizen living in a civilized, Westernized land. We do not have that luxury here, because we have a patchwork of health-care “opportunities”, and many families with children fall through the cracks of our loosely constructed safety net.

People are dying now of our new scourge, Covid-19. Currently 6.1 million people have been infected in the U.S., and at least 183,000 have died. These are probably conservative numbers because so many people get the virus and die without actually receiving a Covid test or proper diagnosis. Life is definitely not beautiful for people stricken with Covid who are breathing on venilators or who die alone in an ICU because their family are not allowed to be with them for fear they too will contract the virus. There are only so many ventilators in our country and only so many ICU beds, so we must ration them carefully since we have no national plan for keeping our people safe. What a travesty.

As for us, Kurt and I finally got our Covid test results back. After 9 days I had received no answer. When they gave me the test they said it was expected back in two or three days because mine was the “fast” test. Yeah. I called them 9 days later, and they finally were able to tell me over the phone that I tested negative. Kurt, who was promised he would hear in five days or so, got a call six days later and was also negative.

Phew! We were both glad to have dodged the virus we were exposed to in July. However, the virus is still out there, alive and hopping from person to person. It cares not whether we are ready for the virus, whether we have efficient and effective testing protocols, whether our schools are open with safe practices in place. The virus doesn’t care if bars are open, if parties are held on college campuses, or large numbers of people gather indoors for church services, weddings, or funerals. The virus does not care whether a political party decides to invite its top donors and most excited supporters to sit side by side as their leader reads a 70-minute speech. The virus will, however, by its nature be ready and willing to exploit the possibilities of superspreading events and lack of sufficient protocols and practices.

Last week my nephew Zach sent me the following quote that resonated for me when I first read it.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself only, what am I?
If not now–When?

Hillel, ancient Jewish sage, born 110 BCE, died 10 CE

This succinct Jewish wisdom comes down to us so clearly through the centuries. When Hillel says, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? I hear him saying, “If I do not take essential precautions and refrain from other actions to care for myself, then how can I expect others to risk their lives to save me?” For example: Yes on correctly wearing masks, washing my hands the appropriate amount of time, using hand sanitizer when I cannot wash my hands, and in general using common sense. No to gathering indoors especially, but also outdoors, in close promixity with people outside my family bubble, having sit-down meals in restaurants, or gathering for maskless get-togethers of any stripe. It is not just or in any way justified to ask nurses, doctors, and other health-care professionals to risk their lives to care for me if I have not taken common-sense steps to take care of myself.

When I read, If I am for myself only, what am I?, I clearly hear this salient truth: If I care nothing for my fellow human beings, and care only for myself, then I have no true honor, virtue, or humanity and am therefore a what not a who. I would then be an unhappy, pitiful creature, not a member of the human family. I would follow in the footsteps of a person of supreme selfishness such as the man who now leads our country with only his selfish whims and desires to guide him.

My beloved grandchildren, August 2020.

When I read, If not now–When?, I am certain that the time for action is today, our present day, our own present moment in time. When else do we have besides now?! We must stand up for the voiceless, especially for the children and adolescents who rely on us, the adults, to make their world safe enough for them to grow up in it. We must stand up for our country, so we can continue working toward a more just, less unjust, union. We must stand up for ourselves, and as they say on airplane flights (not that it is safe to fly now during a pandemic!): put the mask on yourself first before you put the mask on anyone else. For if you do not care for yourself, no one else can help you.

Who am I doing my best for? My two grandchildren who are beautiful and mean life to me. They need me to do my best for them, as my strong Virginia great-grandmother Cordelia tried to do the best for her five daughters and one adopted (grand)daughter, only one of whom actually made it past young adulthood. But still, she persevered. And so will I. And so should you.

~ Anna – 8/31/2020

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
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