Pandemic Perspectives:

Two Women in Montana, A Century Apart

Springtime in Montana — some views are still much the same as they were in 1918. (Photo by Susan Foster)

I’m musing about her again. A woman I have never met, but someone I’m sure existed. A woman who lived here in Montana in 1918; perhaps about my age at the time and a mother of grown children. I’ve been thinking about her for days, wondering in what other ways we are alike. Wondering how she coped, if she stayed healthy, and if she knew anyone who died from the virus that swept around the globe that year. I wonder what advice she could give to all of us, and whether we would follow her words of wisdom.

This time, thoughts of her have come to me while I’m outside gardening behind our house. My back and shoulders feel warm from the sun, but now there’s a chill in the air and it is overcast. I’m working smelly manure into the soil around my spindly rhubarb plants, hoping their stalks will grow thick enough to provide fruit for a pie or two. I notice that from my vantage point I see no other houses or people. Just a cloud-studded sky, a few evergreen trees, and prairie grass rippling in the breeze. It is quiet except for the tap — tap — tap sound of a new roof being applied to a distant neighbor’s house. Once in a while a bird chirps or our wind chimes trill.

Today I picture her under this big Montana sky, doing spring tasks in her garden. Did she also begin planting early, despite the risk of frost or spring snow, simply because she felt a need to act? Did she shelter-in-place or did she venture out to shop for food and supplies? What, if any, precautions did she take to stay healthy?

We have no chickens, but I suspect she did. With grocery items in short supply, we revisited a previous idea of getting some laying hens. Like so many things right now, that effort seemed too great and the idea remains dormant. Even without gathering fresh eggs, we’ve managed to avoid doing any shopping for a month. I feel lucky that we can afford to buy a month’s worth of groceries at a time, and that we still have a steady income. I wonder if, like so many people today, she may not have been so fortunate.

This woman first entered my thoughts last week, as I was ironing and cutting fabric for masks. In my mind’s eye, another scene emerged. I imagined that it was 1918. A hand different from mine was guiding a heavy flat iron in place of my Rowenta steam iron; smoothing gauze instead of my colorful cotton. A black and gold treadle sewing machine replaced my electric Singer Heavy Duty high-speed machine, threaded and ready to stitch the gauze into masks. How many masks did she make? Did she give them to a hospital as I have done, or just to friends and family? Did she also have doubts about the protective value of her masks?

Is her family with her or far away? Does she worry about the heartbreak she will feel if one of her parents or offspring gets sick, and she cannot go to them? Does she wonder how long it will be before she sees her loved ones, especially the ones who live beyond the borders of the USA; she probably still has relatives in the country from which her family immigrated? Is she mourning for a loved one for whom they cannot hold a funeral because large crowds shouldn’t gather? Perhaps she fears her son might not return from the Great War… at least I don’t have that to worry about at present.

When the Spanish Flu arrived in Montana in the springtime of 1918, its effects were mild. Did that pandemic cause her nightmares during those spring nights, as Covid-19 directs the plots of my dreams now? On a day in May, 102 years ago, did she suspect what was yet to come?

In August of that same year, the flu re-emerged with a vengeance in Montana, and our state became one of the four hardest hit by the pandemic. Did this take her by surprise? Did she survive? If so, in the aftermath, what did she and her community wish they had done differently? What can we learn from the successes and failures she witnessed?

Throughout this week I have compared our circumstances to hers. What role did politics and the economy play in the devastating second wave of the Spanish Flu in Montana? Was there a sharply divided opinion of precautions that should be taken? We suffer from information overload via the Internet, but how quickly did news spread of the virus back then? Which would be better — a lack of awareness or overwhelming reminders of what is happening worldwide? If I could choose one or the other, I’m not sure which I would pick.

The hum of an airplane overhead brings me back from 1918 to 2020. When will I soar above the clouds, en route to see loved ones or in response to wanderlust? Will Montana’s devastatingly high statistics of fatality in1918 repeat themselves? Are we lulled into a false sense of security? Have we begun reopening our state too soon, basing our decisions on the economy instead of human life? When will our state… our nation… our world… be okay? Will we ever be okay? Is the best way fix our future to learn the lessons of the past?

Susan enjoys life in Montana with her husband, a cranky old cat, and a pleasant, smart dog. Author of a lifestyle blog, she writes fiction and non-fiction.

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