Living through a pandemic

A book recently written by Denise D’Angelo Jones recounts the challenges the 11 members of the Zapf family faced during the times of the Spanish Flu. Above is a photo of the family, which includes Jones’ great aunt Hilda. (Courtesy photo)

'Spanish Influenza: Nineteen Days in 1919' details life during Spanish Flu

ROCHELLE – A woman with deep family ties to Rochelle and northern Illinois recently wrote a book sharing her family’s experiences living in Mendota during the Spanish Flu of 1919.

The book, Spanish Influenza: Nineteen Days in 1919, written by Denise D’Angelo Jones, is a real-life account of an 11-person family and its daily struggle of survival during the Spanish Flu. The book documents 19 days through the eyes of the family’s 19-year-old caregiver, Jones’ great aunt Hilda Dorothea Zapf.

Zapf lived in Mendota from 1899-1994 and went to school through fourth grade before becoming the household caregiver, looking after the nine children. From 1911-1989, Zapf kept very detailed, handwritten diaries recounting all of her life events, including many entries on the Spanish Flu written just hours after they occurred.

“She was very detailed with her writing, even to the point that she would write down dialogue from the doctor or nurse as well as the family’s temperatures and disease progression,” Jones said. “I have even had people tell me after reading the book that they felt as if they went back in time and were in the room with my aunt Hilda.”

Jones was very close with Zapf when she was young and Zapf was still alive. When Jones was 6 years old, she became pen pals with Zapf until she passed away in the ‘90s, writing letters every couple of weeks under the one condition that the other wrote back.

Jones and Zapf became very close over the years, and when Zapf passed away, she left her diaries to Jones’ mother, Shirley Conner Baxter. In 2010, Jones received a box in the mail sent from her mother filled with volumes of Zapf’s diaries.

Jones lived with her mother for five years until she passed away in 2019. During the last year of her mother’s life, Jones read through all of Zapf’s diaries with her, and when she did, Jones felt the need to share her family’s stories with the rest of the world.

“My mother was bedridden the last year of her life and she found great comfort in having me read my aunt Hilda’s diaries to her,” Jones said. “Ironically, the stories she took the most interest in were the ones about the Spanish Flu, and at this time, we all had no idea COVID-19 was going to hit the following year. After reading through them and seeing how detailed they were, I just thought to myself that I have to share these with people.”

One of her mother’s lifelong wishes was to compile Zapf’s diaries into a book. As a way to fulfill her mother’s dream and share hope and inspiration for life after the current pandemic, Jones began writing her book. Jones started writing the book at the end of March, sent the final manuscript to her editor in June and did re-writes and edits throughout June and July.

Jones wrote 12 hours a day, even getting up in the middle of the night to make corrections or add information anytime an idea came to her. The book was officially finished and released on July 23, her mother’s birthday. While Jones was completely consumed by the Spanish Flu and Zapf’s diaries, the entire experience was very rewarding.

“I have been living 100 years in the past for the last six months and it got to the point where my husband had to make sure that I was eating,” Jones said. “Now that my aunt is gone and I am reading through her diaries, she almost comes back to me, like she is in the room with me. It has also been incredibly comforting during the grieving process of missing my mother and it almost felt like she was there with me too, helping me write this book.”

Jones’ book details the accounts of her 11 family members and their struggles surviving during the Spanish Flu. It talks about mask wearing, handwashing, sweeping the floors, sponging down sick family members’ bodies and nurses living in the home with the family. The book even describes visits from Dr. E.P. Cook Jr., the physician at the time.

The book also compares similarities and differences to today, local gossip from around the town and many light hearted and funny experiences from Zapf and other family members. It also dives into the family’s hope for the future, no matter how bad things looked at the time.

“Along with sharing my family’s history with the world, I also hope this book reminds people that there is life after COVID-19,” Jones said. “If you look back at history, we can see that there was life after the Spanish Flu. We had the roaring ‘20s, a lot of good things happened after the flu in the ‘20s. When we are in the middle of something, it looks like it is the end of the world, but it really is not. Life will be even better because there will be innovations we can’t even imagine.”

Since the book’s release, Jones has received many phone calls and emails from her readers with nothing but positive feedback. The one thing she heard most from her audience was they wanted to know more about Zapf and her family.  

“I really didn’t know what to expect, I just knew I was completing something that was my mother’s dream and something I wanted to do,” Jones said. “But what surprised me the most was that people didn’t want the book to end. One woman told me that she didn’t even want to leave the house when she was reading.”

Now that the book is finished and has received such a positive response, Jones is in the middle of writing her future books. One is a science fiction novel about a very religious Christian farmer from Wisconsin, who finds extra-terrestrial squatters on his land, that is set for release in October.

Jones’ other book, which only needs a few final touches before being completed, is The Lady with the Purple Hat. The book is about dementia communication and is based off the experiences Jones went through with her mother when she had dementia. The final book Jones is working on is an extension of the Spanish Flu novel she recently finished.

While Jones continues working on her future books, she will also be achieving one of her lifelong dreams of living in England. Her husband recently got a job teaching at Oxford University for six months, so they will be moving to England during that time. Recently, Jones’ sister set up a desk at the original Mendota home where Zapf wrote her diaries, a home in which Jones would be content spending the rest of her life.

“My younger sister knows how much I love the closet where aunt Hilda did all of her writing, so she put a desk there, right where she sat,” Jones said. “I would love to spend the rest of my life going back to Hilda’s house and writing more and more books.”

For more information on Denise D’Angelo Jones and her book, or to purchase a copy, visit her website at https://www.denisedangelojones.com/more-info.

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