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Comfort from a 102-year-old who has lived through a flu pandemic, the Depression and WWII

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/5/2020 Jesse Dougherty
a young boy standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Lucille Ellson is shown in this undated family photo, c. 1935. (Family photo) © Family photo/Family photo Lucille Ellson is shown in this undated family photo, c. 1935. (Family photo)

At Lucille Ellson’s home, inside her brimming drawers, are hints of how the present mirrors the past.

Ellson is 102 years old. She was born on Dec. 30, 1917, right before the Spanish Flu spread through military camps in Europe and the United States and became a global pandemic. She was a baby then, unaware, but heard stories of how her uncle contracted the flu while serving in World War I; and how her father got it so badly that he took time away from the family farm outside Laurens, Iowa.

Neither died. Ellson’s mother would remind her of that, too. But it wasn’t Ellson’s last time living through a historic crisis. She was a teenager during the Great Depression. She was a school teacher and young wife during World War II. And she’s reflected on that as the country faces another pandemic, this one from the novel coronavirus.

Ellson has been going through the letters, newspaper clippings and other stuff — she calls it “mumbo jumbo” — she’s kept over a century. It all reminds her of what’s gripping the country now, the feeling of being stuck inside, a bit scared, and not knowing what the future holds.

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a woman sitting at a table with a birthday cake: HANDOUT - Lucille Ellson on her 102nd birthday December 30, 2019.  (Photo by Jane Pickle) © Jane Pickle/Jane Pickle HANDOUT - Lucille Ellson on her 102nd birthday December 30, 2019. (Photo by Jane Pickle)

“I know a lot of people are in a panic about their weddings because they have to cancel them or postpone them,” Ellson said this week from her home in Orlando. “Well let me tell you about my wedding …”

She can only draw faded lines between the coronavirus and Spanish Flu, since all those stories are second-hand. The lines get thicker between today and the Great Depression, spanning 1929 and 1933, with millions applying for unemployment and the economy faltering. But Ellson sees today and the World War II period as true parallels.

It starts, for her, with a delayed wedding. She was supposed to marry Floyd Ellson in July of 1942. Then came the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. She and Floyd knew what that meant. He had a low draft number. Their marriage would have to wait. He was soon enlisted in the Navy, sent away for training, and Ellson stayed home in Iowa, teaching, while panic reigned.

Plumbers were out of work, she remembered, because all metal was directed to the war effort. A few local heating businesses closed for the same reason. People left her tiny town and rushed west, hoping for jobs building ships in California or Washington state. There was a shortage of teachers, and the school system begged her brother, who had fallen sick and was discharged from the Army, to come use his college degree in their classrooms.

“I spent so much time reading the ration book,” Ellson recalled. “The grocery store shelves were empty. It wasn’t quite like now, because you were allowed outside, but there was the same fear. That we didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow.”

Owen Brewster standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Lucille Ellson and her husband Floyd, when she and Floyd were dating. (Family photo) © Family photo/Family photo Lucille Ellson and her husband Floyd, when she and Floyd were dating. (Family photo)

When she and Floyd did have their wedding, about a year later than expected, they weren’t gifted any metal dishware or table cloths. Those materials were still needed in large bulk by the U.S. military. She left teaching for a desk job at the Great Lakes Stable train station. He was away for 17 months as a gunnery officer. They were lucky and lost no relatives or close friends in the war.

Floyd didn’t make it home for Christmas in 1944. But he did send a letter to Lucille, who would soon give birth to their first child, a baby girl named Jane. They loved writing to each other. They would later write a book together, titled “My First 100 Years,” an effort Lucille finished after Floyd died at 104 in 2012. They had been married for 69 years.

“Darling I really love you,” Floyd penned to Lucille in a letter dated Dec. 25, 1944. “Everything you wrote & each little package just brought out to me your really true colors. You made this a very pleasant Christmas in such a way that I cannot be bitter. I can only hope we can be together next year & we can demonstrate to each other only what we can feel now … I will sign off now and dream of you.”

Floyd was honorably discharged on Dec. 20, 1945. He made it back to Iowa for Christmas with Lucille and Jane.

“I’ve been through so many things,” Ellson said. “To cope with this virus, and all that’s going on, I would tell people to not get stressed about planning far ahead. You can’t do it. A long time ago, I started making a list every morning of what I had to do. It was the only thing I could control, and I stuck to it, you hear me?”

Those lists now are similar day to day: check in on family with her iPad. Do Zoom video calls with her kids, and their kids, and their kids. Make meals and bake desserts to leave on the front porch for her son who lives nearby. She cooked for 25 people in February. She calls that preparing “a little something.”

a person wearing a blue dress standing in a room: Lucille Ellson her home June 2019, before she turned 102. (Glenn Hettinger) © Glenn Hettinger/Glenn Hettinger Lucille Ellson her home June 2019, before she turned 102. (Glenn Hettinger)

Ellson has few infirmities for her age, wearing a hearing aid, taking thyroid and blood pressure medicine. She still walks unassisted when inside. She otherwise uses a rollator for balance and storage. She calls it her “buggy.”

Latlely, she’s been focused on organizing the drawers that show a life in full. She is sorting the mumbo jumbo into categories. One is for when her house will be sold, a pile of neighborhood regulations, the property deed, and old contracts that Floyd signed. Another is for receipts she doesn’t want to throw away. Another is for her kids, with the first grade report card that shows she received a “D” in deportment, and more letters from the war.

This is not her way of wasting time. She wishes she had more of that. But what Ellson wants people to know — “if I can preach for a minute,” she requested with a laugh — is that this, like everything else, will pass.

“I learned that from living, I guess,” she said. “You see a lot when you get to 102.”

Read more Retropolis:

She’s 105. He’s 106. The world’s oldest living couple celebrates 80 years of marriage.

How did America’s oldest World War II veteran live to 112? Cigars, whiskey and ice cream — every day.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have been married longer than most presidents were alive

‘You were the reason’: Barbara and George Bush’s love story remembered at her funeral

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