In 2019, Lindsay Doran-Bonk received a scanned copy of an 100-year-old letter penned by her great-grandmother, Marion Elizabeth “Bessie” Forester.
When Doran-Bonk, a Thunder Bay Ont. resident, saw the letter, she viewed it as an interesting glimpse into the past, not realizing the significance it would hold for herself and for an online community in a year’s time.
In cursive writing over two pages of stationery from an Alberta hotel, the letter dated November 18, 1918, covers everything from the details of a family move across the country to sincere worry over “the flu,” or what was unfolding to be the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
“It wasn’t until we were in the middle of this pandemic where I thought about that letter again … so I went back and read it, and it really hit home even more than it did before,” explained Lindsay Doran-Bonk in an interview with the CBC.
Superior Morning8:07Letter from 1918 pandemic connects Thunder Bay woman to distant relatives, online community amid COVID-19
Doran-Bonk said the many hardships outlined in the letter suddenly felt closer to her own reality but also made her more understanding of how difficult life was for her great-grandmother, who eventually died of the flu shortly after the letter was sent.
In the letter addressed to her sister-in-law, Forester describes a turbulent time as World War I comes to an end and as their day-to-day life starts being impacted by the 1918 flu.
The letter was written as Forester, and her many children moved from Medicine Hat, Alta., to Thunder Bay or what was then Fort William, Ont.
“I have written Edith until I’m tired. We didn’t get our mail last week the mail carrier was sick,” reads the letter written by Forester.
These new challenges are some of the most interesting aspects of the letter for Doran-Bonk, along with the mention of handmade face masks and of her own grandfather, Clifford, as a young child.
“She was younger than I am, and she was, I think, 27 when she passed away. And that’s so young to have to deal with all the stuff that she had to deal with. Moving across the country, like with step kids and kids of your own, being pregnant,” said Doran-Bonk while reflecting on just some of the details of her great-grandmother’s life at the time.
Doran-Bonk’s newfound fascination with the letter has sent her on a hunt to find more information about her great-grandmother, prompting her to share the story more widely online.
“Maybe other people want to see what it was like in 1918 when they were going through a similar situation,” she explained. “So I decided to type it out, so it was easier to read and share it online … people seem to really latch on to it and really enjoy reading it.”
Sharing it widely online also helped Doran-Bonk to connect to distant relatives, who have offered up information about their shared family history from over 100 years ago. She said family members from across the country now have a dedicated Facebook group where they stay connected about their historical findings.
By connecting with relatives, Doran-Bonk has been able to piece together more information about her great-grandmother, including what her final days might’ve been like after the letter was sent.
“She, unfortunately, passed away a few weeks later, just a few days after giving birth to her youngest daughter,” explained Doran-Bonk. “So she succumbed to the flu, and her husband at the time, Andrew Forester, also got the flu.”
Doran-Bonk said her great-grandfather eventually recovered from the flu and their children went on to have families of their own.
“I don’t even know how many great-grandkids she has … I’m pretty sure they’re all across Canada now. So even though she lived only to 27, she has her legacy,” she said.
Read the full letter written by Forester in 1918 here.