Susan Slotnick: Then and again

My grandfather whose name I do not know, sold small trinkets in a storefront in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Like most newly arrived immigrants who were poor, lived in overcrowded tenements and had little access to good health care, he and his family day by day barely survived disease and hunger.

Only one picture of my mother remains from her childhood. A pretty forlorn little girl in a burlap dress with a soup-bowl hairdo is hanging on the hem of a somber-looking women who was dressed entirely in black.

My grandfather died during the flu epidemic of 1917 when he was 36 year old. He contracted pneumonia before the advent of life-saving antibiotics, which were not available until 1930. There were no vaccines. The Spanish influenza pandemic struck terror in the hearts of millions as they watched beloved friends and relatives die. The epidemic left a lasting imprint upon the collective memory.


Fifty-million people, primarily children and young adults, perished during the contagion. My mother, who was seven when my grandfather died, told me many times her father’s death was the worst moment of her life, her primary wound from which she never fully recovered.

Her story

“My father was the only person who was kind to me. No one else loved me.  We were very poor. But when he sold a mirror, the most expensive item in his store, it was the only time anyone in my family smiled. While he was dying, the deathbed vigil lasted several days. I was banished from the room until the end. We children were brought in to say goodbye and witness the death. I wandered among the adults, unnoticed, pulling on their clothing to get attention. I thought, “Tell him he sold a mirror today and he wouldn’t die.” I was positive that would keep him alive, but no one listened. I could not be heard over the wailing of the grown-ups.”

My mother’s psychic injury was handed down to me and became a defining aspect of who I am today. My mother was resilient and did the best that she could, but she suffered with repercussions from the death of her father throughout the rest of her life, therefore so did I.

How many wounds and blessings will meander through the generations from the pandemic of 2019?  Worldwide, five-million people have died and six-million children have been orphaned. With unpredictable variants likely to come, as yet there is no end in sight.

Children’s lives are permanently changed by the loss of a mother, father or grandparent who provided their basic care and as well, life-affirming love. Losing a parent in later life is linked to mental health problems, shorter schooling, lower self-esteem, risky behaviors and increased possibilities of substance abuse, suicide and violent crime.

How many traumas will our children carry into the future generations? I believe this will depend on our example.

At the onset of this pandemic, a long 18 months ago, I wrote this rhyme:

My life was born from my mother’s story

That’s no surprise. It’s often that way.

 Her life was at times a sad allegory,

When a pandemic caused so much dismay.

One hundred years later, what is the truth?

How to keep this one from hurting the youth

It all depends on how we treat each other

What good from this can we discover.

I think I know, so I’ll give it a go:

As we live in this world dystopian,

With all our childhood demons intact,

We will wish for a future utopian

Our good heart now is packed.

With fear and sadness, which overflow

Breaking the seams of love’s deepest core.

This is a time that kindness can grow,

When a heart breaks know for sure

Love and compassion can spill out everywhere.

So embrace your broken heart with grace

Don’t push away or indulge this time of despair.

Just love this imperfect flawed human race.

Have a better year.

Let’s be kind to each other.

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