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  • Maggie Wallem Rowe

When A Pandemic Becomes Personal

Her name was Rose. She was only 37. And she was ours.

The first rumblings of a pandemic are distant thunder. Viral rain begins to fall in far-off places - China, Spain, Italy – but you and me, maybe we don’t see the need for umbrellas yet. It might not touch us here, Lord willing, if that infectious creek don’t rise. But suddenly lightning strikes, and it aims straight for your very kin.

When I study her photos, I’m not sure which of the family Rose Maria Bachmann Berglund most resembled. Her abundant dark hair, now that could be my daughter. The kind, smiling eyes, my grandmother. The enigmatic half-smile, certainly my aunt, her namesake.

I’ve heard tender tellings of Rosie since I was a toddler. She was a devoted daughter to her widowed mother, Maria. A loving wife to her husband, John. An affectionate mama to her two young children, John Jr. and Verna. A mysterious great-aunt to me, the niece who knew her only through the grief her loss evoked.

I’ve now traveled 30 years farther into the future than Rose did. She never drew breath past her 37 years and 3 days of life. Rose will always remain young and lovely, a bloom clipped too soon, her memory a cameo framed in black with golden lettering.

Rose Maria Berglund was only one life in a pandemic that snuffed out 50 million, by some accounts. They called it the Spanish Flu but it didn’t come from Spain. A virus that infects one-quarter of the world’s population can only come from Hell.

A single person among my circle of friends is still alive who stayed so through that pandemic. Lou has fifty astonishing years on me, her strong heart still holding her here at 107 though her memories are now shuttered. Lou was five or six years old when a tsunami of sickness washed over the world – old enough to catch the fear, if not the flu, that permeated American life like a stench.

The same age my eldest granddaughter is now.

No matter what region we call home, how do we protect our children from living in the awful state of apprehension when schools are closed and mamas and daddies are out of work and trips to the store aren’t fun anymore? Where is the calm that steadies their small selves? The confidence that makes the weak strong?

When I was going through my own mama’s papers following her passing, I discovered a letter from Rose’s grieving husband John written in the flowing cursive of the period. The ink has faded and the pages are creased, blotted with tears, read over and over again and carried in a mother’s apron pocket, then passed down through three generations of mourners.

Dear Mother and Sister Elsie,
It was oh so hard to see Rose go, but it was God’s will that she should go home, and we that are left to mourn the loss will have to pray to Him for his blessings and that he will give us strength to bear the great loss.
I know that I will always miss my dear Rose as she always was such a good and faithful wife and mother and my poor little children have to be without their mother’s tender care. If it was not for the thought that she is resting in peace, and at home with the blessed ones, I do not know how I would be able to get over the awful shock and blow, but God has given me strength through his word in the best book, the Bible…
I am trying to cheer up for my children’s sake, but it is so hard. The climax came Monday when they took Rose away and I could not go with her to her last place of rest.
May God bless you all and give you, Mother, strength to overcome the sorrow and grief.
Love from
John & children

The letter is dated October 20, 1918.

My great-grandmother never got over her daughter’s death. Mothers don’t. My grandmother never stopped mourning the loss of her beloved older sister. Sisters don’t.

But the prayer that bled onto the pages of my Great-Uncle John’s letter was answered. Rose’s family did not get over their enormous loss, but they had the strength of their shared faith to overcome it.

A faith that knew the separation was only temporary.

The strength to engrave words of loving remembrance on a black card with golden lettering.

The same black card that my infant granddaughter, Rosie, clutches now in one baby fist while she waves the other at her sister, Elizabeth, our Libby. The year is 2020, the globe gripped once again in pandemic.

Baby Rosie with her great-great-great Aunt Rose's remembrance card

But someday we’ll tell our girls about the first Rose, the beautiful bloom clipped too soon, and about the sister who loved her so fiercely, their great-great-grandmother Elizabeth, Rose’s Elsie.

Over the sound of distant thunder, we’ll tell them that this world wasn’t made for forever, but they will have this life to love each other and the next one too.

Love is patient, looking forward to the day when sisters will rush into each other’s arms again, when mothers will mourn no more.

Love is kind, knowing that today is all we truly have.

Love is never truly lost when faith’s been found.


Born Oct. 9, 1881. Died October 12, 1918.

Copyright 2020, Maggie Wallem Rowe. Permission given to share with attribution.

Maggie's first book, This Life We Share: 52 reflections on journeying well with God and others, releases May 5 from NavPress. Pre-order wherever books are sold.



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