Friday 8 May 2020

Letters from Lockdown

Remembering Irene

The biographer Anne Sebba lost an aunt, her father’s eldest sister, to the flu pandemic of 1918-19. That loss is still felt

As we settle into the second month of the new normal, the big question is what happens when it’s over?

We may easily learn to live without 36 varieties of rice or tomato sauce, but will we seriously learn to spend less money on clothes that are barely worn, or to care for the planet and travel less? I am not sure. A way of life fuelled by constantly rushing around may slow down for many months until we feel more confident that there is a cure, or a vaccine. But my fear is that there will be many negative consequences of this long period of isolation and suffering, which may only become clear in the years ahead.

I speak from experience. My aunt, my father’s elder sister, died, aged eight, in the 1918-9 flu pandemic, then called the deadliest plague in history. It killed as many as 100 million people and may have infected 500 million, a disproportionate number of whom were previously healthy young people. It hit with such devastation that a fit young man could drop dead in the street without any warning and the medical profession was at a loss without the drugs and antibiotics of today. Some who survived remembered being told to drink a lot, but precisely what they drank varied from whisky to paraffin oil or milk.

My aunt was called Irene and, in the only photograph I have of her, looks a sweet-faced, little Edwardian sailor girl with thick, chestnut-coloured bunches held by big bows. This sepia image, probably taken a year or so before she died, has been on my kitchen wall ever since I can remember and so l look at her almost every day, constantly thinking of what might have been; a life unlived, the unborn cousins I never knew.

All three children in the picture are wearing sailor suits, including the eldest sister Rachel who, aged around 16, must have hated having to wear clothes matching her much younger siblings. She certainly does not look happy about something. My father, Eric, probably aged five I think, is standing next to Irene, his right arm defiantly turned and held tight behind his back in a most awkward position. He was clearly not going to be persuaded to hold his sister’s hand.

To say that family life was never the same after Irene’s death may seem trite, but it was pulled out of shape in ways that were not so obvious. From then on, Rachel – or Ray, as she was known – not yet 18 at the time of the tragedy and just entering what should have been the most exciting time of her life, was now made responsible for looking after my almost seven-year-old father. I only know my father’s highly coloured version of events many years later. He loathed having his grown sister as a nursemaid and devoted his childhood years to trying to annoy her or give her the slip. A story he liked to tell throughout his life was how he enjoyed lying in wait for her to turn a corner so he could thwack her with a lavatory brush. Other times he complained that she never gave him enough pocket money.

Surely, I think now, there must have been other, kinder memories he could have left me with? As a biographer, I know there must be another side, but even Ray’s granddaughter told me, “I’ve always wondered if Granny Ray’s often rather bitter personality was due to unresolved grief over her loss…. we will never know.”

My grandparents both had roots in the same town in Lithuania although they had been introduced in England (a matchmaker, perhaps?). My grandmother, Sophie Jackson (once Zacherevitch), was one of twelve children all born in England in the second half of the 19th Century and was quite assimilated by the time she married my grandfather, Moses Rubinstein, who left Plunge (Plungyan) as a young man full of hope but no qualifications.

Moses went first to Ireland, where he pushed a barrow, then Newcastle where he started opening a small group of furniture shops in different towns in the north-east of England. Irene and Eric were both born there, and I can only imagine that the large gaps in between these three children were because my grandmother suffered miscarriages. But this was never talked about and certainly not in front of my father. Finally, with some success as a small businessman, and now renamed Morris, he moved to London. By the time my father was growing up in World War One, the story of the aspirational Rubinstein family was replicated by Jewish immigrants to Britain a thousand times over.

But then, towards the tail end of the war, worried that the new German threat – Zeppelins, which often dropped bombs notoriously wide of target – posed a danger for his family if they remained in London, Morris Rubinstein decided to move his family to a place of greater safety and settled on Hove, near Brighton, where there was sea air, gentility and a small Jewish community.

What he did not know was that the mis-named “Spanish flu” – a sickness characterised by shivering, headache, sore throat and fever, although given its name by the British Medical Journal because it was first recorded in Spain – had nothing to do with Spain. Probably the epicentre of the virus was a military camp – either in Kansas, or Étaples, northern France. Large numbers of troops being transported around the world increased the transmission rate and many of the ships carrying the virus, either on men or produce, docked on the south east coast of England. There was a particularly virulent wave in the autumn and winter of 1918, and it was that one that carried Irene away suddenly on 7 November while the family were living in suburban Hove. She was, as the small announcement of her death noted, “deeply mourned by her heartbroken parents,” a phrase of such palpable understatement that a lump still rises in my throat as I read it today.

Death was never openly discussed by anyone in those days. Thousands of families had lost sons in the fighting during the four brutal years of World War One, which was not yet over, and there were no bereavement counsellors. I know that my grandparents, utterly devastated, were not helped to grieve but shrank into their lives and away from all other society and their surviving children. They soon moved back to London, but Irene is buried in Brighton. I never knew my grandmother but I remember my grandfather, a once religious man who totally lost his faith and belief in any form of deity overnight, and by the time I knew him had become an irascible old man.

A poor sibling relationship is a common enough occurrence for all sorts of reasons, but I fondly imagine that Ray and Eric, in spite of the age difference, might have formed a bond together after the loss of Irene, had they been helped and not forced on each other. Or perhaps Ray had good reason to feel aggrieved, since my father, good looking and blue eyed, sporty enough to play squash for England and county cricket, might have been spoiled as the longed for son after two girls and twelve years of marriage.

Our family always remembers Irene at this this time of year, as my father was bequeathed Irene’s silver mug, which she was given on her birth and which he gave to my first daughter to celebrate her birth in 1980. It makes an appearance every Passover, only this year was different – and I missed it as well as my annual reflection on Irene, which using it always prompts.

But reflecting on it now has led me to think of the fallout from Covid-19, which, as we still struggle to bring under control, we cannot begin to measure. Long periods of loneliness inevitably lead to depression and even suicide as many people will have lost their jobs, livelihoods or loved ones.

Some children will emerge from this time with happy memories of having family meals with parents working from home. Other people, too, may discover that the extra hours gained from not commuting make such a difference to quality of life that they will seek ways to continue working from home.

Perhaps some of the community initiatives and WhatsApp groups looking after lonely or older residents will continue. But others, trapped in unhappy relationships or those with no access to outdoor space, may be scarred in all sorts of ways for years to come. I only know what happened in my own family, and writing this is my way of reaching out to them across the years.

 

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