14. Spanish Flu

IN THE AUTUMN of 1918, though, several of the neighbors fell gravely ill, some dying within days. A few of the stricken moms who survived the affliction were left too weak to nurse their young. The chill of October 1918 had brought to Lehigh Row the pandemic of Spanish flu.

Worldwide, the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 would bury twice as many people as did World War I itself. And like the war, the flu preferred young adults as victims.

The 25-year-old Maria fell victim when she was in the eighth month of another pregnancy. She kept trying to get out of bed to cook and clean, but each attempt debilitated her only further. The child in her womb was not as incapacitating as the illness that wracked her body. Beyond the conventional flu symptoms of fevers, headaches, chills, constant coughing, a sore throat, a drippy nose, complete exhaustion, and aching back and legs, Maria also found it difficult to breathe.

A doctor came to the house late in the afternoon. He approached Maria and observed the pallor of her skin. He listened to her lungs with a stethoscope. Keeping his opinion to himself, he turned to Serafino and spoke very few words: “Make sure she gets a good night’s rest. I’ll be here in the morning.” The doctor then left.

Serafino knew that doctors made house calls only in the direst of situations. Nobody knew of a cure for Spanish flu. Its victims either survived or succumbed. And the doctor seemed to be preparing for the worst.

Serafino prayed harder than he had ever prayed in his entire life. “How could I possibly raise all these kids on my own?” he pleaded to Saint Anthony in silence, kneeling at Maria’s bedside with his face in his hands. “How could I bring her all the way to this country only to lose her now when I need her more than ever?”

Serafino finished his prayer by making the sign of the cross very slowly. He rose from the bedside and turned toward the basement. He could think of only one treatment that might help Maria rest and perhaps even fortify her: his homemade beer. Unlike his wine, his beer had been brewed nearly into a meal, so thick with yeast and barley malt that a deep layer of the granular sediment collected at the bottom of each bottle. Maria had lost the strength to consume solid foods, but maybe she could consume this.

Once in the basement, Serafino spotted two bottles standing on a wooden shelf, the last two bottles from his most recent batch. He grabbed one of the bottles, carried it upstairs, and opened it. He poured the contents, unfiltered yeast and all, into a glass.

He brought the glass to Maria and set it on a table beside her bed. He propped the pillows behind her so she could sit up and drink.

She lifted the glass from the table, but her hands shook so badly from the chills that she couldn’t hold the glass steady upon her lip. Serafino balanced the glass as she sipped. When she finished the liquid, he spoon-fed her both the froth clinging to the edges of the glass and the yeasty dregs swirling at the bottom.

That was her dinner. She slept soundly.

The next morning, Maria awakened with a revitalizing stretch of the limbs and a reassuring hint of vigor. “Damme più,” she told Serafino. “Give me more.”

He retrieved the last bottle from the basement.

This time, she fed herself. She sat upright in bed, quaffed the full glass, and scooped the mealy remains. She licked the malty moustache from her lip and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She was regaining her appetite, her energy, and her impatience with being confined to the bed.

“You rest,” Serafino pressed his hands toward her. “Just a little longer.” He kissed her forehead, cradled her body, and eased her head back down onto the pillow.

There was a knock on the front door.

Serafino answered it.

“How’s she doing?” the doctor asked.

“Better,” said Serafino.

The doctor looked puzzled. He went to Maria’s bedside, took her pulse, and placed his hand on her forehead. He listened to her lungs once again. “I expected to find you on your deathbed, young lady,” he glanced toward her swollen womb. “But I think you’re going to be fine. I wish I knew your secret.”

The doctor glimpsed the empty glass on the table. He reached for the glass, examined the film coating on the inside of it, and took a whiff, rearing his head backward. He shifted his gaze toward Serafino, who said nothing.