Storyteller: Marilynn Sutherland
Location: North Dakota
As a child I was frightened and saddened listening to my mother, Marcella Bobzien, relate stories about how her family was affected by the pandemic flu of 1918. My mother′s stories were augmented by recollections from my maternal grandparents, Carmen Garske Bobzien and Otto John Bobzien, who were living at that time in rural North Dakota with Marcella and her siblings Millie, Bea, Florence, Dolores, Dick, Jim, Jack, Leon, Vernon and Robert. As an adult, I came to appreciate how truly devastating this epidemic was even for very isolated farming families, and I understand how much worse such an epidemic would be if repeated in urban America today.
Marcella lost two brothers, Robert (an infant) and Vernon (a toddler), to the 1918 flu pandemic when it swept through rural North Dakota that winter. When my grandmother Carmen subsequently became ill with the flu, the family was terrified that they were also going to lose her. Because in addition to Robert and Vernon, Carmen′s younger sister, Stella Garske Bobzien (Note: Carmen and Stella married brothers, Otto and Ferd), had also died from the pandemic flu, leaving three young children motherless. Carmen fully recovered from her illness. Her deceased sister′s children and her brother-in-law, Ferd, came to live with them in their tiny, sod farmhouse on the outskirts of Bismarck. Unfortunately, the arrangement didn′t last and all of the family felt guilty for the rest of their lives when Stella′s three children were placed in an orphanage for the duration of their childhood.
According to Otto′s diary, their close-knit farming community witnessed flu deaths in every family known for miles around, undermining the community′s capacity to bury their dead, let alone care for the epidemic′s dependent survivors.
I “visit” these memories as we in public health prepare for the inevitable next flu pandemic; grateful for how much better prepared we are now, but sobered and challenged by first and second-hand knowledge of the impact of these pandemics.