Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I had a little bird.
Its name was Enza.

In a small farmhouse kitchen near Mt. Morris, Illinois, a weary doctor motioned to two little girls huddled in the corner. The year was 1918 and the world was in the middle of the worst pandemic of the century - Spanish Influenza.

“Come with me,” the doctor told the children, as he led the way into the yard. Once outside, he leaned down to their level. “Do you girls know the neighbors?” he asked. The children, Nell and Harriett, nodded their heads, curls bouncing around their ears.

“Good, good. I need you to go to nearby houses and speak to the men there,” he said. “It’s very important to speak to the men. Tell them I said to go to your house as soon as they can. I need two men. When two men have promised to go, you may come back home. Do you understand?”

The two little girls earnestly nodded their heads again. “Good, good. Now go,” the doctor said. The children turned and, hand in hand, diligently walked down the road to complete the mission the doctor had assigned them.

Truthfully, the girls were happy to be doing something away from the farmhouse. The tension and tears inside their home were constant. Their baby sister’s screams hurt their ears. When she was silent, it was their parents turn to cry.

The first time the doctor had stopped by to see the baby, he told the parents that the child had Spanish Influenza, like so many of his patients, and would probably die. The father had said it was bad luck to name a dying baby after kin or friends. The rest of the children in the family were named after such people and this one would be also, he said, if she lived.

That little baby was my mother; those two little girls, my aunts. The men my young aunts walked hand in hand to summon came to the farmhouse and held my mother down on the kitchen table while the doctor cut into her back, without anesthetic, and drained the vile fluid from her lungs. My grandparents retreated to the furthest room in the house, pressing their hands against their ears to smother their child's screams.

The men who went to the farmhouse that day were fearful of the disease but they were also afraid of the doctor's wrath if they didn't show up. The doctor had requested men because he felt women would be too emotional for the task, as would be my grandparents.

Reports say hundreds of thousands of people worldwide died of complications of that flu. For years afterward children would jump rope and sing:

I had a little bird.
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.

But my mother lived, thanks to that tired country doctor.

True story.


  1. Amazing. Simply amazing. We are all grateful to the country doctor that saved your mother. And to your mother for having you! Well-written, Cher!

  2. Oh, my gosh, Cher! You may have fallen down, but you JUMPED back up! This is the best thing you have written! This piece needs to be published! Your words are beautiful...your story sad but amazing. The ending of your story is so beautifully written. Gosh, I am SO PROUD OF YOU! Thank you so much for getting out of your slump and returning in such a fantastic manner!


  3. Wow! The number I saw was 50 million deaths worldwide. Scary stuff! Good writing, Cher!

  4. This is why I watch for all your new posts. I never know which way you are going to go. This was spine tingling. I had goose bumps, afraid to read the ending. Only three words work here...FAB U LOUS!!!!!

  5. Truly amazing. You have such a great gift for imagery. Keep it up, Girlfriend! ox lulu

  6. Beautiful words, from a beautiful person!

  7. Chill bumps here....and such a timely story.

  8. What an amazing story. Women are so strong and by being strong, we teach our daughters to be strong.

    I enjoyed visiting,



  9. Interesting site for state-by-state news from the era of Spanish Influenza:


    Your story should remind us that we are
    (or were) made of sterner stuff than we realize. Just a couple of generations ago life was so much tougher, and there were no pills for the major stresses they lived with--much
    less a NAME for it.

  10. I stumbled across you today, and I love this. How timely.

  11. OH.MY.GOSH. Wow what a story. What our ancestors had to live through. No wonder they were so tough. We're such wimps nowadays. My grandmother used to tell me true stories like this that would make your toes curl.
    I love this story. Your mom was tough.

  12. I have been working non stop and haven't been able to get over here to enjoy your blog. I would have been so upset if I had missed this post. You are such a talented writer. Thanks Cher.


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