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CÉLINA PILON: SPANISH FLU SURVIVOR | Laurentian Heritage WebMagazine
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The death toll in a pandemic can be staggering, but a supplementary measure of devastation can also be read into the stories of survivors.

Célina Pilon at the Murray Farm, 1954. (Photo - Courtesy of Gordon Rainey)After WWI, the Spanish flu hit hard and close to home, changing the course of lives near and dear. My grandmother, Célina Pilon, was born in 1883 and grew up on the farm of her father, Orphir Pilon, in Grenville, QC. In 1912, at the age of 28 she had met and married a distant relative, Philias Pilon in Montreal. In the fall of 1918, Célina was 35 and pregnant. In late 1918, Philias had occasion to go to the train station to meet comrades returning from WWI. From them he contracted the deadly disease and died a few days later.

The Spanish Influenza epidemic took more victims than the WWI battlefields. Estimates suggest over 50 million people died world-wide. Canada buckled under the pressures of the murderous virus, as 50,000 succumbed. By far the most destructive pandemic in history, it killed more than 2.5 % of the world’s population in just 18 months, dwarfing disasters like the Irish Potato Famine, and surpassing the toll, over centuries, of the Bubonic Plague in Europe. It’s timing compounded the bereavement of WWI.

The disease was first observed at Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 11, 1918 and may have originated in Kansas as early as January 1918. It became known as the Spanish flu because it was first officially acknowledged in the Spanish media in May 1918, and the Spanish were particularly hard hit, with over 8 million dead.

Many who died were healthy young adults, in contrast to typical influenza victims, predominantly elderly, or otherwise weakened patients. Subsequent research has indicated that the Spanish flu (similar to mutant strains of the H5N1 Avian flu virus) kills via a cytokine storm, which explains its devastating nature and the unusual age profile of its victims.

WWI did not cause the flu, but the close quarters and mass movement of troops quickened its spread. Soldiers returning from the war in Europe unknowingly unleashed this deadly scourge on friends and relatives in the cities and towns they returned to.

When Philias died, Célina was left seriously stranded, and returned to live on the Pilon family farm in Grenville, to await the birth of her child. Her father, Orphir, had died earlier and her younger brother, Orphére (32), was running the farm with his wife, Agnes (27). Living with them was their mother, Vitaline (54), and Célina’s youngest brother, Joseph (9). A daughter (my mother) was born to Célina on April 4, 1919, and she was named Violet Gerthrude Pilon. The sudden death of Célina’s husband, together with the birth of her daughter, had seriously altered her prospects.

The Murray family lived on the neighbouring farm. William Murray (41), a bachelor, was head of the household. William had taken over the farm from his aging father, Washington Murray (80), but William’s brother, Walter, and his wife, Hilda, also lived with them.

A close relationship developed between William and Célina. They had obviously known each other for a long time, since they had grown up as neighbours. It is likely that Célina was called upon to do housework and farm work on the Murray farm, and she used this as a supplementary means of supporting herself and her daughter, to become less dependent on her brother and his family.

William and Célina had two daughters together -- Alice and Ida. Possibly they did not marry sooner because of their different religions, Anglican and Catholic. During those times, such a difference could have been a serious impediment. The common law couple were finally married in the Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs Catholic Church in Grenville in 1932. My mother was 13 years old and was not officially adopted into the Murray family. She retained her Pilon surname and relations were strained with her step-father.

William Murray was a stern taskmaster and worked both his wife and his step daughter Violet hard on the farm. As time went on, he developed asthma and the farm workload increased on his wife, as well as his step-daughters and daughters. As his health deteriorated, it is said that he treated his wife and step-daughter more like servants or slaves, than respected members of his family.

I can understand the incentive of my mother to break free of that situation and become independent of her step-father, but that also made her vulnerable. In 1939, at the age of 20, she met and married my father Russell Rainey (28) who was then working on a neighbouring farm, the Ogilvie place. After their wedding, Russell got a steady job at the mine in Kilmar and he and Violet settled into rented quarters to raise their own family.

When William Murray died in 1945, at 67, he left his farm to his two daughters, Alice and Ida, leaving nothing to his wife, Célina, and step-daughter, Violet. During the WWII years, Alice and Ida worked at the munitions factory at Brownsburg, and became independent-minded women. Célina remained on the Murray farm, living with her two daughters. These capable women could do just about anything: harness a horse, butcher a pig, churn butter, make gooseberry jam, milk cows, bring in the hay, deliver a calf, knit socks, pluck chickens, cook tourtières… They had lived through the Depression and nothing was wasted. Every strand of string, for example, was carefully wound onto the appropriate ball and saved for future use.

My grandmother Célina (we called her Mamère) and aunts Alice and Ida needed a man on the farm. So in 1949, at the age of 6, I went to live with them. It was common practice in those days for larger families to lend kids to relatives with no kids.

I attribute many of my traits to the Pilon genes and to the decade of direct influence that my grandmother Célina had on me. Among other things, I would cite my work ethic, varus legs, sense of humour, the Pilon nose, patience, frugality, and the tenacity to stick to my guns, come hell or high water.

For ten years, off and on, I lived at my grandmother’s, initially with Célina, Alice and Ida, and later with Célina, Ida and her family. I was an only child for many years. What a jolt when I visited my family, to confront a growing number, eventually having to contend with 10 siblings.
Alice left to live in Grenville Village, when she married Aurel Boris. Ida later married Arthur McGill but remained on the old Murray farm. Their children were Sandra, Marjorie, George and Bernice McGill. By 1959, I was through high school and on my own way. Célina died in 1966, the year I graduated from university. What would have transpired if it hadn’t been for the Spanish Flu? One can only speculate…