This pandemic is not the first crisis in modern times. As Barbara Winard of Jersey City, New Jersey, writes, many baby boomers’ lives have been shaped by crises that came long before this one.
My life was changed by people I never met.
My grandfather died in the Spanish influenza epidemic— 100 years ago— and my two brothers died of polio in the 1940s. So far, my large and widely-dispersed family has had no experience with Covid 19 but, like many others, we are waiting fearfully to get through this pandemic.
Like most baby boomers of the 20th Century, the lives of our parents and grandparents were altered by disasters: diseases, mass emigration, the Depression, and two World Wars. I was born in 1948, 30 years after my grandfather died, but just three years after my brothers died during the same week, at the ages of 7 and 3.
It took most of my life to find out about my grandfather. He was felled by influenza in his 30s, just six months after his family arrived in America from abroad. My parents never talked about where he was buried or very much about him at all. That was how families coped in their day: with silence. But the cloud of loss touched everyone around them.
My cousin and I searched for my grandfather in the old Jewish cemeteries of Newark, New Jersey, many of which have been abandoned, with toppled gravestones and weeds sprouting between them. I finally found my grandfather’s ohel, a small building that had been broken into again and again and filled with garbage and drug paraphernalia. I raised money from my relatives across the country to rebuild his final resting place.
For much of my life I also didn’t know the location of my brothers’ graves— or about their existence at all. I found the graves when I was 50, when I received a bill for their upkeep after my dad passed away. Now I visit both my brothers’ and my grandfather’s graves every year and say the Jewish prayer for the dead, the kaddish, for them.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how deaths like these affect a family’s course. The death of my grandfather when his five children were young sent them each off into different paths in their lives. The death of my brothers shadowed my own life because my mother never really recovered. She constantly feared that something terrible would happen again. Her tight reins steered the lives of both of her children, mostly towards rebellion. Because of her, I raised my own daughter to have the freedom and independence that I was denied.
Now, Covid 19 has struck thousands of individuals and families. I imagine that these fears, illnesses, and deaths will spark trickle-down depth charges that may impact our lives for generations. Most of us will survive. We will get back to work, hopefully; we will raise families or not, find love or not, find peace or not. But I suspect that this pandemic will live within us, and we will pass down our changed views of the world and our places in it for generations.