My maternal grandmother, Bessie J. Mayer, was a source of wonder to me. Born in 1900, she lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, the loss of her husband to cancer before she turned 50, the suicide of one of her brothers, and other setbacks large and small over her 92-year life span. Yet she remained relentlessly optimistic in the face of it all. She often told me, “You do what you gotta do.” She raised two daughters including my mother, Ruth, was elevated Worthy Matron in the Order of the Eastern Star, served as an elder at Lawndale United Methodist Church, and looked 20 years younger than her age until she declined at the start of her 10th decade.
Another ordeal that my Gram survived was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, now much on our minds as we struggle to deal with the worst global outbreak of disease since that time.
In 1918, still just a teenager, Gram took a factory job at John & James Dobson Carpet Mill, a textile complex on Ridge Avenue in East Falls. Dobson Mills’ specialty was churning out blankets for the military. Business was booming due to the Great War, and Gram thought it her patriotic duty to go to work in support of the war effort. Gram rode the No. 60 streetcar on Allegheny Avenue across town to get to work from her family’s home in Kensington.
Just two weeks after she started, Gram got sick. It was the Spanish flu. She never went back to work. And she never was paid for the two weeks she did work at Dobson Mills.
Years later, when I was a child I would grill my grandmother on life in the “olden days.” She told me her Dobson Mills story as she recounted the many people she knew who succumbed to influenza during that terrible year.
Fast forward to 1990. The developer Willard Rouse was well on his way to converting Dobson Mills, which had closed in 1928, into rental apartments. I noticed an ad in the Northeast Breeze newspaper stating that Rouse Company was looking for people who had worked at Dobson Mills to participate in an upcoming dedication ceremony for the new residential complex. I phoned the company’s office and told them about my grandmother’s story. They loved it. When dedication day rolled around in April of 1990 they sent a limousine to pick up Gram in Lawndale, her home for 55 years. She was whisked over to Dobson Mills, now rebranded as “The Chelsea.”
Gram, approaching 90, was all dressed up, her hair dyed chestnut brown as always. She donned sunglasses as she mounted the stage to address the assembled crowd. She looked like a million bucks. Everyone leaned in as Gram told her story about commuting from Kensington on the trolley, toiling at the Dobson Mills, then getting sick with Spanish flu and never going back. And never getting paid. Bill Rouse then joined her at the podium and produced an enlarged check made out to Gram for $33. He said it represented two week’s wages for a textile worker in 1918. My Gram, always good at math and wise to the ways of the world, took one look at the check, looked up at Mr. Rouse and said, “What, no interest?” The crowd roared with laughter, then uproarious applause. The newspapers covered the story the next day, with photos of my beaming grandmother next to a smiling Bill Rouse. And she never did get any interest on her way-back pay.
Gram faced more than her fair share of tough challenges throughout her life and overcame them all, including the Spanish flu.