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  1. Life & Culture

His mother was born at the height of the 1918 flu that killed pregnant women

This Mother’s Day, a writer reflects on existence and the stars.
Shirley Marino Clark shows her puzzled first born son, Roy Peter Clark. New York City in summer 1948.
Shirley Marino Clark shows her puzzled first born son, Roy Peter Clark. New York City in summer 1948. [ Photo courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]
Published May 7, 2020

We are stardust. Our moms are the stars.

My mom, Shirley Clark, would have been 100 years old this year. She died five years ago. The cause of her death? Living to the age of 95. I am 72, happy to imagine I have another quarter-century to go on this distracted globe.

At my age, with my wife Karen recovering from breast cancer, I can be forgiven for having intimations of mortality. Add a global pandemic, and existentialism no longer feels like French philosophy. What does it mean to exist? How did we come to exist? When our bodies return to dust, what then? Heaven, we hope, or annihilation, we fear?

If we can hope or fear, or, in the present moment, suffer, it means we are alive. That life we owe in large measure to our mothers. All of them.

Our first mother, Mother Universe, was born about 14 billion years ago with something called the Big Bang. Did God snap a finger? Did we just explode from nothing or some mysterious “singularity”? When the force of that event expanded and cooled, it created everything we now know about the physical world. We came from the same material that made the stars. Joni Mitchell was right. We are stardust.

I was created by another kind of Big Bang. It happened in June of 1947. My mom and dad, both more than a little squeamish about the human body, joined forces and conceived me, probably in a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City.

A single act of love produced me. But what are the chances of my being here? Or of you being here and reading this? Biology tells us it only takes a single sperm cell to fertilize an egg, but that one climactic moment can produce 100 million swimmers.

And then there is this mind-bender: I don’t exist if my mom does not exist, and her mom, back to the earliest moms, to the unfairly maligned Eve herself.

My mom’s existence arrived with a special set of challenges. Last week, it hit me like a blow to the solar plexus that my mom was conceived and then born during the height of the 1918 flu pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu.

Speranza Marino was the first-born child of a young New York City couple, Pete and Sadie. He was Italian, she was Jewish. Both had arrived near the turn of the century at Ellis Island, he from Naples, she from Krakow. As teens they met at a workplace, a printing shop, fell in love, and against all odds of cultural and religious difference, married.

Roy Peter Clark's grandmother, Sadie Marino, with her first grandchild, Roy. She carried her firstborn child, my mom, through the height of the 1918 flu pandemic.
Roy Peter Clark's grandmother, Sadie Marino, with her first grandchild, Roy. She carried her firstborn child, my mom, through the height of the 1918 flu pandemic. [ Photo courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

Little Speranza (meaning Hope) was named after her grandmother, but soon was given the “more American” name Shirley. Shirley was one of 35 Italian-American cousins living on the Lower East Side, most of them in some degree of poverty. None of those children, to our knowledge, was born in a hospital. They were born at home with the aid of midwives and family members. My Grandma Sadie often served the Marino family that way. It’s likely that my mom was born in a crowded tenement building, a walkup on James Street, not far from Chinatown.

The little-appreciated — until now — 1918 flu pandemic took close to 700,000 lives in the United States alone, with untold millions dead around the world. Some say 50 million. The virus may have infected a third of the world’s population. Over two years, life expectancy in the United States dropped significantly.

In places like New York City, the disease spread easily through crowded tenements, mass transit and soldiers returning from Europe after the Great War. There were antiseptics and efforts toward hygiene. Many workers wore masks in public. There were health departments and public service messages: “You Spit, We Die.”

There were no antibiotics yet to help the sick through secondary infections, and no vaccines.

The spread of the disease in the United States began in the late spring of 1918 (some say in Kansas) and extended into the early summer of 1919. The apex of the infection, the point of the greatest increase in infections and fatalities, was October 1918.

When I saw that date, my heart began to race, and I counted backward on my fingers. If mom was born on July 1, 1919, when might have she been conceived? June, May, April, March, February, January, December, November, OCTOBER!

We celebrate the date of our birth and enjoy greetings on Facebook. But given that the chances of our existence are so infinitesimal, maybe our creation day deserves at least a cupcake — and maybe a beer.

To use a term most associated with the conception of Jesus Christ, my mom became “incarnate” in October 1918, at the height of one of the world’s greatest pandemics. Not only that, but that flu, unlike COVID-19, took its toll mostly on young adults. According to historian John M. Barry, those most at risk from the virus were pregnant women. They were “those most likely, of the most likely” to die. The death rate among hospitalized women was up to 71 percent, and of those who survived, 26 percent lost a child. Maybe it was safer for Mom to be born at home.

Forgive this grandiose ending, but all you moms deserve it. Thanks, Grandma Sadie, for your journey to America, for your love of Grandpa Pete, and for your personal Big Bang that produced my mom. And thanks, Grandma, for encouraging your daughter Shirley — after she had a miscarriage — to try again. That is how you got me, your oldest grandchild. And what a joy I turned out to be!

And thanks all you mothers, even the ones who haven’t been that great at your mother work. Thanks, Mother Universe, and Mother Nature, and Mother Mary, and the laughing Sarah, Mother of the Jewish people, and the mother goddesses of all religions. You made us. We are stardust — all of us — and since I am safe at home, excuse me while I get myself back to the garden.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of “Writing Tools.” He does not want to forget to thank Karen, mother of his three daughters. Contact him at rclark@poynter.org.