The coronavirus pandemic has established itself as the prominent headline and the subject of most news articles, and as much as we’d like that not to be the case, it is a fact.
As the situation has unfolded, I remember my own grandmother’s stories about the Spanish flu, a pandemic that invaded the world for many months, from January 1918 to December 1920. Grandma lived with her husband and their children in the cotton mill village just north of Dalton’s downtown. When the flu was at its worst, Grandma went door-to-door in her neighborhood, treating the sick and preparing the dead for burial. She escaped the flu herself and as I recall she seemed immune to all communicable disease. She believed the saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” came straight from the Psalms or the Sermon on the Mount. In 1918 she and Papa had four sons and a 2-year-old daughter, my mother. Grandma had no medical training but she somehow knew what to do in a sickroom. As far as I know, no one in her family became ill. The pandemic killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I, between 20 million and 40 million and perhaps more. Over 25 percent of the population of the United States was affected.
Woodstock’s most popular centenarian, Claud Barnes, Jr. shared his own memories of that flu season. Claud died in 2014 at age 101, but he left us with priceless stories about life in Woodstock’s early years. Born here in 1912, he lived with his family on their farm a few miles east of the town. They were active members of Little River Methodist Church where Claud Sr. served as Sunday School Superintendent. A photograph of the family in an “Images of America” collection shows the family on their way to church, posing in their buggy pulled by “Old Pat.” Little Claud was the baby. There would later be one more baby, born in February of 1918. In February of 1920, the flu invaded the household. Claud, at age 7, was the only family member not to be stricken. He was sent, on foot, to town to fetch a doctor. His father and the baby did not survive. His mother, commonly referred to as Miss Emma, would be left to raise her sons, Claud, James Newton, and Miller.
It seems a bit ironic that our present-day pandemic is occurring during the year of the Oberammergau Passion Play. The production, which runs May-October, has now been postponed until May of 2022. The play owes its origin to the 1663-1664 plague that swept through Europe. In the village of Oberammergau, Germany, population 600, a total of 84 citizens had died from the disease. Church officials met and decided that from then on, every ten years, the devout representation of the sufferings and death of Christ should be given, so that God would have mercy and free their village from the appalling sickness. The Vow was made, and from the very hour of the making of The Vow, nobody else in the village died of the dread pestilence. And for over three centuries, the vow has been kept with few exceptions. Easter has not been the same for me since I saw the play in 1984. Establishment of the permanent date had been set in 1680 at 10-year intervals, but to commemorate the 350th anniversary, an extra season of performances was offered in 1984. Oberammergau is still a small town, and its inhabitants remain devoted to the promise their ancestors made so long ago. At a time when many were illiterate, a passion play was a “poor man’s Bible,” telling this magnificent story to thousands who would not hear it in such detail otherwise.
When FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is … fear itself,” he was addressing the nation’s anxiety during the Great Depression. Although that may still be true today, it was not a physical sickness that caused the fears of that day. I like what Billy Graham says in a Daily Devotion publication, “There is no shame in being afraid. We’re all afraid from time to time.” He quotes from the Old Testament, “Fear not, for I am with thee.” He defines fear as a two-fold word. It can be an emotion, with dread and anxious concern. But it also means awe, and wonder, and profound reverence, inspiring trust and confidence. We are to have that kind of fear.
And along with both fears, we must use caution. We’re all in this together, students of circumstance, learning valuable lessons daily, often the hard way. I hope we are learning patience and practicing compassion. We are blessed with the ability to communicate more easily than ever before, staying in touch with kith and kin, encouraging each other. We share our fears of the unknown, hoping to postpone pushing the panic button. But we need to share that other fear as well, the one of awe and wonder and reverence. With all our many differences, it may be the only “tie that binds.”
Juanita Hughes is a retired head of the Woodstock Public Library and a local historian.