Self-quarantine memories of my Father

My Father wrote this story about my Grandmother’s hair. The story began during the “Spanish Flu.” I’m sharing here mostly with family, but I think it’s a good story. My Grandmother lived in Middletown and Dover, Delaware USA.

In my Father’s words:

(In these days of pandemic, isolation and social distancing, I am reminded of my mother’s stories of a similar time in the past. I will try to tell the story based on some childhood remembrances, family history documents, genealogical research and my imagination.  I have included some snapshots that Mom had saved.  The people in my story are real.  Some events are historical, some my personal experiences, and some made up as I would imagine them.  I am sure that my older brothers have different remembrances and I would like to hear their corrections to my narrative.)

Mom’s Hair

My story begins in 1918 at the farm and home of Fred and Lydia Baker, their children and extended family.  This was a four-generation household including the parents, children, Lydia’s widowed mother, Mrs. Hester Shockley, and daughter Ethel’s toddler son, John.  Also living on the farm was a hired hand. Other workers would come and go as needed.  The two boys, Grover now 25 and Fred Jr., 20 had left last year for war in France and their letters home were exciting.  Grover, Mom’s favorite, had joined the National Guard in 1912 and served from 1915 to 1917 guarding the border in New Mexico against the bandit, Poncho Villa.  He was a wagon driver and was promoted to Cook in France.  Fred Jr. joined up in 1917 and served as an Army Corporal in France.  The four girls are at home:  Ethel, 24, Hester, 22, Bertha, 21, and my mother, Margaret, age 7.  Bertha will marry and leave at the end of November.

Grover Baker
Grover Baker
Hester and Fred Baker Jr. ( My dad wrote Bertha, but I think the photo says Hester)
Hester and Fred Baker Jr. ( My dad wrote Bertha, but I think the photo says Hester)

The family kept up with the news of the world, especially the progress of the war in Europe.  News then came that fall of a particularly deadly disease, the “Spanish” flu, sweeping the country.  Schools, churches and public assemblies were closed and everyone was urged to stay home and in isolation.  The Baker farm was 3 miles from town and one quarter mile from the nearest neighbor.  They were self-sufficient and isolation was the normal routine.  When the crops came in, they could be delivered and paid for with minimum contact with others.  There was no sickness on the farm.  Everyone rejoiced at the news of the November 11 Armistice to end the fighting of World War I.

Margaret Baker Leathrum before 1919 with her hair tied up in rags.
Margaret Baker  before 1919 with her hair tied up in rags.

1919 came with milder weather and less snow than a year ago.  The farm was looking forward to a prosperous year.  Then in the springtime came two events, joyous and devastating.  First, Grover and Fred Jr. came home from France.  Second, the flu pandemic was back with a vengeance.  There was a real danger of sickness on the farm and the house was quarantined.  Family members without sickness were displaced to the outbuildings and fields.  I don’t recall hearing about which family members were outside and which were quarantined or of the severity of disease.  None of the family members died.  In an effort to contain the disease or, possibly just to avoid caring for it, long hair was cut and heads shaved.  Mom, age 8. had her hair cut.  This was apparently a traumatic experience or she just did not like it that way, but it was not cut again for almost 80 years.

Mom’s hair grew and styles changed.  Before she married in 1933, her hair was dark brown and usually had a part and stylish wave in the front and was gathered into a bun in the back.  The bun became two buns, one on each side.

Mom (Margaret) and Aunt Bertha 1927
Mom (Margaret) and Aunt Bertha 1927
Margaret Baker
Margaret Baker
Margaret Baker 1932
Margaret Baker 1932

As her family grew, braided pigtails replaced the buns in Mom’s hair.  This basic style stayed with her for about 40 years.  As a boy, I remember watching her routine as she cared for her hair.  Washing and drying were major undertakings, drying as she combed it out while sitting in the back yard on sunny days or over the furnace register in the dining room.  When we got a new furnace with hot water baseboards, she had to buy an electric hair dryer which she never liked.  The pigtails were braided then wrapped around her head, first one way twice around then the other way twice around then the arrangement held with hairpins.  If she was going out, a hairnet covered the whole thing.  When I asked her why she didn’t wear her hair short and wavy or curly like other women we knew, she would tell me about the 1919 quarantine.

George, Jimmy, Margaret and George Jr. ( My Father was born a few years later
George, Jimmy, Margaret and George Jr. ( My Father was born a few years later)
Margaret 1960
Margaret 1960
Margaret and Amy (Dragonfly) 1969
Margaret and Amy (Dragonfly) 1969

By 1980, Mom’s hair had greyed then turned to a bright, snowy white.  Her hair was also thinner and finer and harder to braid into pigtails.  So, the pigtails were replaced by a big, swept up bun on top, held with hairpins.  A hairnet usually covered everything.

Margaret in 1980. She was incredibly good at crafts
Margaret in 1980. She was incredibly good at crafts
Margaret in 1985 on the front porch.
Margaret in 1985 on the front porch.

When Mom moved into White Chapel Assisted Living in 1998, her care givers and daughters-in-law convinced her that her hair would be easier to manage if it were cut.  So, her hair was cut, but not so short that it could not be collected and pinned up to the top of her head.

Margaret 1998
Margaret 1998

Mom died on Sunday. November 7, 1999.  When I was called to rush back to the hospital that morning, I got there just after she passed.  The nurses had straightened her bed, removed the IV’s, tubes and machines.  They had also combed her hair out straight and over her shoulders.  It looked so strange and they obviously had no regard for the eight-year-old girl in 1919.

-Roland Leathrum April 5, 2020