George Graham, the Spanish Flu, and Now

I’ve been thinking a lot of my grandfather, George Patterson Graham. He was born in 1898 in New Glasgow, N.S., and was 17 when he was shipped to France to fight in WWI.

3 soldiers in WWI dress on leave in Paris

(That’s George on the right)

My paternal grandmother was my grandfather’s second wife; his first died of kidney failure in 1930. Most people ask “don’t you mean your grandfather was in WWII?” (my maternal grandfather was in the US Navy in WWII). No, it’s just that George was older when he had his second family. Because of his age, his life provides, for me, an amazing window into the early 20th century, and the privations that he went through.

My dad and sister collected his letters home from WWI, and they paint an amazing picture of that period of his life. He enlisted in 1916, and was sent to Ottawa for training. In Ottawa one of the first things he had to do was fight the fire at the Canadian Parliament buildings.

From there, he shipped off to France, where was a sapper attached to an artillery unit. The letters are censored, both by George and the Army, so it’s difficult to place where exactly he was in the war. We know that the entire Canadian Corps was at Vimy Ridge in 1917, and George’s letters obliquely refer to this.

After 20 months in the field, George was granted a leave back to England, where he caught Spanish Flu. His description of the flu is not one of difficulty or a near-death experience. My grandfather viewed it as a blessing; the armistice was signed while he was convalescing, meaning he missed some of the most brutal fighting of the war. George’s view was one of luck – he survived both 20 months of WWI and also what would be the deadliest outbreak of 100 years.

I think a lot of what happened then, and then also what he did when he came home. He went to war at 17, survived, then survived the flu, lost his first wife during the Great Depression, remarried, had his second set of children during WWII (my dad was born in 1943), lost his second wife, and eventually succumbed to ALS before I was born.

My dad keeps saying his generation had it easy, or at least he and my mom did. They grew up in the 50s and 60s, got jobs, had a family. Maybe the 70s and 80s were rough economically, but they muddled through. My dad keeps saying my sister and I have it worse. We’ve had terrorist attacks and two economic breaks in the last 20 years.

But I keep coming back to George. Maybe it’s was the fashion of the time to just suppress your feelings and have that stiff upper lip. But I think of how he lived, and my dad and uncles and my cousins, and all the good that he brought into this world by just getting through.

I’m in a fortunate place to “just get through” this pandemic. My sister is just getting through in a small apartment in Brooklyn with two kids. But I do feel we’re lucky. I just have to keep asking what would George do?