With most of the pieces in place I feel myself being pulled into the lives of my ancestors on that first day of January in 1916. Spirited back nearly a hundred years into the past, the weather is icy cold. A blanket of snow lies on the ground. An epidemic of the grippe and pneumonia fill nearby hospitals to capacity. While The New York Times heralds record breaking crowds in Times Square with celebrants having paraded up and down Broadway to bring in the New Year, hundreds of poor children receiving gifts, pastors praying that the war would end by the close of the year, Lulu Caraccioli lies in her bed at 383 Avenue E in Bayonne, New Jersey sick with the grippe and waiting to give birth. Her family hovers nervously, concerned that she has little strength to bring this child into the world and survive. No doubt her sister, Eva, whom Lulu’s first child was named after, is present to assist. Was this second child to be a son…a son to carry on Edwin’s name and legacy? A daughter, a son, a beautiful wife whom he loved to share all of life with…what more could he ask for? But as he looks upon Lulu’s pale face, drained from the hours of coughing, the reality of that storybook life comes into question.
Little Edwin A. Coley enters the world on New Year’s Day, but Lulu only knows her son for a few hours…or is it only a few moments? Exhausted from incessant coughing, her last breath is acknowledged and confirmed by her doctor as “acute cardiac dilatation following grippe” before noon the following morning. He scrawls the words almost without having to look. One could only imagine that this wasn’t the first grippe death he has witnessed recently. With Edwin by her side, Lulu struggles to breathe as her throat constricts and chokes out the ability to take another, fulfilling the definition of the sickness noted on her certificate. The story passed down was that she died of pneumonia, but at this moment, deciphering pneumonia or influenza doesn’t matter, Lulu is gone…her exhausted body finally at rest.
I hold a gold locket in my hand that has been given me nearly a century later. On the back the ornately engraved initials of Lulu and Edwin speak of love. Was she wearing this when she died? Most likely a gift from Edwin, I have not seen a photo of her without it hanging on a delicate chain for all to see. I clutch it as my mind returns to Avenue E. Not far from Lulu’s peaceful body, only hours old and tucked in his bassinette, Edwin A. lies sleeping…or crying for the mother no longer able to bring him comfort. An eerie stillness hangs in the air amidst the perfume of birth and the stench of death. In an instant a husband, turned widower, sits exhausted from hours and hours of worry, now distraught and in shock. Was it then that the past raced through his mind? Was it then that he recollected hundreds of happy moments that could no longer be considered endless? Was it then that he felt dreadfully alone? I recalled my mother describing the tears that welled up in his eyes fifty years after Lulu’s death. No doubt on that day…and days following, he drained every tear from his eyes; the anguish squeezing his body until he doubled over in pain, his heaving chest giving way to a hollow silence.