It’s been a little more than 100 years since the Spanish flu ravaged the globe, infecting about a third of the world’s population. And while most people from that era are no longer here to share what life was like during that pandemic, Mae Volpe, of North Bellmore, said she heard little talk of the influenza growing up.
“Nothing was ever mentioned about it — you just knew that it happened,” said Volpe, who was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the early months of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. “Years ago, the adults never talked about anything serious with children. They kept everything light, like a fantasy.”
On Aug. 1, Volpe will celebrate her 102nd birthday, and before her special day, she spoke with the Herald Life via FaceTime to discuss what it was like to experience two global pandemics separated by a century.
Volpe was one of 16 children, but only one of four to survive infancy. At the time, measles and whooping cough raged in tandem with the Spanish flu, but “you could put a band aid on them now,” she said. In 10th grade, when she was 16, Volpe dropped out of Eastern District High School to care for her mother, Ruth, who suffered a stroke in her early 50s.
“There was no such thing as Medicare — you either went to the hospital or you had a private doctor come to the house, and for that you had to have money. But who had money?” she said with a shrug. Volpe, however, had no reservations about putting her education on hold. “At that time, you did what you had to do, especially with somebody you love — you want them to get better as fast as they [can].”
Most of Volpe’s knowledge about the Spanish flu pandemic came from word of mouth, but she said the plethora of media nowadays has made it easier for people to get their hands on information concerning the coronavirus.
“Today, kids know information before the adults — they’re more savvy,” she said. “Years ago, you had to guess what was happening. A telephone was a luxury, even a radio was a luxury, and the radios we had had batteries. You had to go to the store to have them charged [and] have that nickel handy.”
Volpe met her late husband, Michael, in 1936, and they wed four years later when she was 22. After World War II, they had a son, Michael James, and established a home on 135th Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens. Volpe worked first as a switchboard operator and then as a clerical worker at J.P. Morgan until 1983. That year, at 65, she retired and moved to North Bellmore.
The fact that Volpe’s brother lived “a stone’s throw away” made the town more alluring than others, but the earnest relationships she developed with neighbors over the years only solidified the decision.
“She’s the kind of person who just screams friendship,” said Debbie Martorana, Volpe’s neighbor of 22 years. “When I was working as a teacher in the city, she brought in our cans on garbage days before we had even met.”
Martorana remarked Volpe is a “very giving” person — she sends birthday cards to each member of Martorana’s immediate family every year, offers to pick up groceries and even volunteered to watch Martorana’s twins on one occasion when she was in her 80s.
“Mae is everyone’s neighbor,” Martorana said. “She is friendly beyond belief, has always been positive, and when she’s thrown a curveball, she finds a way to make it better.”
While the Covid-19 curveball has kept Volpe away from most of her family, the soon-to-be 102-year-old said she hopes she can stay well enough until the pandemic is over so she can hug her relatives again. “You can’t hug a telephone,” she said.
On Aug. 1, Volpe’s nearby relatives will host a car parade in her honor. Her niece, Diane Cohen, of Oceanside, said the secret to her aunt’s long life is this: “Be your own person.”