The Grandmother I Never Knew
A legacy of the 1918 flu pandemic
She was christened Anna Elise Eidal but my grandmother’s friends and family knew her as “Lizzie.” Lizzie was one of eight children born to Kolbjorn and Kari Eidal, who emigrated from Norway in 1880. Their surname originated from the Eidal family farm, which is still inhabited today in Sigdal, Norway. Four children were born in the old country; only one survived infancy. The youngest four—including Lizzie—were born in Minnesota.
Lizzie’s family settled in Stony Brook Township near the Grant County seat of Elbow Lake, in west central Minnesota. Elbow Lake was a quiet but growing little community, steadily increasing its population thanks in part to the Norwegian immigrants who journeyed to that part of Minnesota because of its inexpensive, rich farmland. The sixth child in her family, Lizzie came along in 1890.
When I was a child, people told me no one was better liked than Lizzie Eidal. Nature blessed her with a bright intellect and sweet disposition.
One well-known story goes that upon high school graduation, she was offered the gift of a piano or a trip to Europe. The musically talented Lizzie chose the piano and became quite an accomplished pianist. She served her church as the organist for Ness Lutheran in Elbow Lake.
Lizzie spent all of her life in or near Elbow Lake, teaching at the same school she attended as a child. She married the town’s pharmacist, O.G. Hanson, in 1913, and settled into a home of her own. My father, Lyle, was born in 1916 and his brother, Warren, a year and a half later. At 28, she was happily married and primed to enter the best portion of her life.
The worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918 had other plans. The so-called Spanish Flu lasted from January 1918 to December 1920 and infected 500 million people—about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. Most influenza outbreaks kill the very young or the very old, but this particular pandemic resulted in a much higher mortality rate for young adults: As many as 50 million people died worldwide. One of them was Lizzie Hanson.
Her obituary from the Grant County Herald read, “She was worn and tired from caring for loved ones who were ill, when she herself was taken down with the disease. She made a valiant struggle for life, but the grim reaper was not to be denied, and the end came five days after the death of her sister, Clara.”
Lizzie’s brother, Lennie, my great uncle whom I remember well, was in Europe at the time, fighting for the Allied forces in World War I. To maintain morale, military censors often minimized or hid U.S. pandemic death reports from soldiers. But upon learning of the deaths of his sisters, Lennie sadly wrote in a letter home, “Here I am, fighting overseas to protect my family, yet back home they are dying of a disease.”
A few years later, my grandfather married Lizzie’s best friend and they enjoyed a good marriage for the next 52 years. I loved my step-grandmother dearly. Yet, I’ve always regretted that I never had the chance to meet the gifted and loving woman who gave birth to my father. Regrets are especially deep since I am Lizzie’s only grandson. Tragically, in helping others, she left our world far too early.
The catastrophic results from that flu pandemic continue to amaze me. Until now, I believed that because of modern medicine, the effects of such an event over 100 years ago could never be repeated. We can only hope that through God’s grace and all of us pulling together, it will not be.
Gary L. Hanson (B.A. ’71) is a retired Presbyterian minister and a third-generation U of M graduate. His son is currently a fourth-generation Gopher. He lives in Arden Hills, Minnesota. Contact him at email@example.com.