Tag Archives: epidemic disease

“Like the Willow Tree – The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce – Portland, Maine, 1918” by Lois Lowry

Like the Willow Tree : Portland, Maine, 1918(CD-Audio) - 2011 Edition

This book, part of the “Dear America” series, was written for children ages eight through twelve, and was originally published in 2011. It has been republished because it deals with the impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on families. I found in slightly didactic, but didn’t stop reading.

Eleven year old Lydia and her older brother Daniel are suddenly orphaned by influenza, which could kill in less than 48 hours. Their nearest relative (an uncle) is unable to care for them, so they are taken to the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake. 

Historical background: The American Shakers were a Utopian religious sect. Committed to celibacy, the communities grew by accepting converts and fostering orphan children. In 1918, their numbers were declining, and there were more female than male Shakers. In addition to farming, they manufactured high quality furniture, wooden boxes, herbal remedies and clothing to support themselves. 

Lowry paints a positive picture of Shaker life at that time and place, and the fictional Lydia could certainly have faced far worse circumstances. The big shock for her was the almost total separation of the sexes in Shaker life. Lydia couldn’t visit freely with her brother. She adapted quickly to the Shaker lifestyle of simplicity, hard work, good food, worship and joyful singing. Daniel, however, ran away, leaving Lydia afraid for his safety. He returns during a blizzard, when the community needs help. An epilogue suggests Lydia left the community to marry at age 23, but Daniel was a Shaker all his life.

Only a few Shakers now survive, but “Requirements for Membership” are posted on their website. I found a news article suggesting a new member may join the group. Sabbathday Lake has become a retreat center, and is supported by an active “Friends of the Shakers” organization, consisting of people who value the spiritual and cultural heritage of Shakerism. Their worship (absent Covid) is open to all. I would like to visit them. 

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Personal History – Epidemics in my Life – COVID19 #1

I was (sort of) born during an epidemic. I was born in 1949. According to an article I found, polio (infantile paralysis) was rife in the 1950s, and there were 60,000 cases in the United States in 1952. Three thousand victims died. How many more were left unable to walk and dependent on wheel chairs, crutches, etc?

One of my earliest memories was the arrival at my home of school aged children for tutoring by my mother. These were polio victims on the road to recovery. Some wore leg braces. My mother’s job was to help them catch up on their school work. She enjoyed teaching them. I was supposed to stay quiet and out of the way.

In 1955, Jonas Salk introduced a vaccine and thousands of children became “Polio Pioneers”, the first large group to be vaccinated. My sister, three years older than me, was vaccinated at school. I was too young for that cohort. My parents were worried. They arranged (somehow) for me to get the shot from a physician married to a friend of my mother. I was driven to his house one evening for the injection.

So polio was not an issue in my life after age 6! Very fortunate, since we lived near a lovely public park with an enticing pool. I would happily have played there all day, every day. Over time, I spent MANY summer days there, eventually joining the swim team, marinating in the chlorinated water and earning money for college working as a lifeguard. Once in a while, my mother would remark that it could have been different. That we could have stayed home all summer, fearing polio. Perish the thought!

Our public schools operated on a schedule that was supposed to “break up epidemics”. Instead of a long Easter break, we got a week off at the end of February and another week-long break eight weeks after that. Sometimes it didn’t work. I remember concerns over Rubella, aka German measles, which led to high absenteeism when I was in middle school. I never caught it, but thought I must surely have had a subclinical case. Nope. Decades later, when I told my OBG I wanted to start a family, I was tested and found to lack immunity. I accepted vaccination before trying to get pregnant. I remember controversies (1981?) over County Public Health testing employees for immune status and requiring vaccination of employees who worked with the public.

Growing up, I seemed not the get influenza when it was epidemic. I had at least two cases, one around 1961 and another in the summer of 1969. One year in college, I was wandering, dazed, through endless registration lines when my path was blocked by a person with a clipboard, demanding to know if I was allergic to chickens or eggs. Startled, I denied any allergy. Bang! Shot in the arm. An early influenza vaccine!

I suppose many of us are using our time in COVID19 “social distancing” quarantine to ponder our health histories and how they might have been different without various medical advances. I’m so glad my children have been spared at least five diseases from which I faced risk.