The ultimate survivor

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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 December 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.

“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.

This December 30, 2019 file photo shows Lucille Ellson celebrating her 102nd birthday. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

It starts, for her, with a delayed wedding. She was supposed to marry Floyd Ellson in July of 1942. Then came the December 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.”

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 US 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.

Floyd was honourably dis-charged on December 20, 1945. “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?”