In this recollection, our member Peggy Sakow shares the story of her grandfather’s experience with the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and how it shaped them both.


When a dear friend told me that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, it made him feel close to a beloved aunt who also had the disease and had recently died. I found the solace that my friend took from their shared fate touching but, I could not fully appreciate it until this winter.  In February-March, we learned of a pandemic: COVID-19.

Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org

My grandfather, Edward Francis Coffey, lived in his birthplace of Manhattan during the1918 Spanish Flu. He was a young man in his late teens. The Coffeys and Beehans left  Ireland during The Starvation of the mid-1850s. Like most of the immigrants arriving in New York, they had nothing but their hands with which to work and hope to raise children that would have a better life than the one they experienced in Ireland. The Coffeys had their tenement home in Hell’s Kitchen with the customary outhouse in the alley between two buildings. A recipe for contagion.

As children my sister and I would laugh at Grandpa’s quirky way of washing his hands. He would arrive from work and go directly to the sink. No stopping for hugs or kisses. He would methodically roll up his sleeves to the elbow and then start the process. With lots of soap he would spend 5 to 10 minutes (an eternity in child time) lathering, scrubbing, weaving fingers together, soaping up to the elbow. Lots of water for the final rinse. Once the ritual ended he would roll the sleeves back down and hug and kiss us. He also had another strange habit of washing his coins. He always had exact change for the bus and subway and those coins from his pocket were clean!

When my grandfather spoke of the flu that he survived, he described horse-drawn carts piled with the bodies of those who had succumbed. One of those was his sister. He did not speak of much more. I can only imagine the trauma of that time. Now we can bear witness to the trauma of our time.

I never stop missing my grandfather but, the pandemic has brought him closer to me.  I follow the guidelines he set. His hand-washing and coin cleaning were habits he acquired during his pandemic. They don’t seem so eccentric now and with every scrub I realize that his rituals were to protect himself and others. This became a lifelong habit that is my teacher today.

Peggy Sakow