That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

From Spanish Flu to Canyonlands National Park

In each installment of the National Park Mystery Series, author Scott Graham transports readers to a breathtaking national park. In this week’s That Thing With Feathers, Scott introduces us to his grandmother Hettie, who at age sixteen lost her parents and baby sibling to the 1918 influenza pandemic. One of Scott’s fondest memories of his grandmother? At a national park, of course.


In the winter of 1918, in their two-room cabin in the backwoods of northern Alabama, my great-grandparents and their six-month-old baby died within six weeks of one another of Spanish flu.


Left alive in the cabin were my great-grandparents’ other eleven children, ranging from a two-year-old toddler to my grandmother Hettie, then sixteen years old. Under the guidance of Hettie and the other eldest children, my future aunts and uncles lasted out the winter on the family’s remaining stores in the root cellar. When spring came, the eldest went to work on neighboring farms, earning enough to pay for the youngest to be housed and fed in the local Oddfellows orphanage until they, too, grew old enough to go to work in the surrounding fields.


“In one of the photos, Grandma Hettie has left the car to admire a massive, gnarled cottonwood, its leaves golden with autumn in the afternoon light.”


As an adult, while raising her children with my Grandpa Alvin, my grandmother worked as a seamstress in the alteration room of the O’Neill’s department store in downtown Akron, Ohio. Her siblings raised families themselves while working similar service and factory jobs in Alabama and Ohio. The sisters and brothers remained remarkably close their entire lives—so close, in fact, that I, a distant nephew from out West, came to know and be loved by every one of them during regular visits to their homes as a youngster.


The last two pictures I took of my grandmother were when she was in her eighties, during an October day spent four-wheel-driving over Elephant Hill and through the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park with my parents and my wife and me in our 1970 International Travelall. In one of the photos, Grandma Hettie has left the car to admire a massive, gnarled cottonwood, its leaves golden with autumn in the afternoon light. In the other, she is seated on the patio of the Monticello, Utah, motel where we spent the night, sipping a can of Coors Light through a straw.


I’ve been thinking of my grandmother a lot lately. She was one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. From her fortitude in the face of the Spanish flu as a teenager straight through to her unrestrained laughter as an elderly woman bouncing over slickrock in the passenger seat of the Travelall on Elephant Hill, she loved and appreciated the life she was given. As coronavirus ranges around the world in the weeks and months ahead, I intend to do the same.


Pictured above: Grandma Hettie and me, Canyonlands, 1985.

Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of the National Park Mystery Series for Torrey House Press. The sixth book in the series, Mesa Verde Victim, will be released later this year. More information at scottfranklingraham.com. ​



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