Tag Archives: personal history

Cancer, Covid and Guns – The Worst Winter of My Life

In February, my husband Jamie died of bladder cancer. Covid made everything harder. But guns?

Yes, guns. During Jamie’s treatment, armed security guards wearing bullet proof vests supervised my comings and goings from the hospital. Generally, one hospital employee used a computer to screen and identify visitors. The process had glitches, so sometimes a line backed up. Usually, I was admitted within five or ten minutes. Generally, there were a few additional people working at the desk, often wearing name badges suggesting they were there to help, but, without computer access, they could only handle very general questions. Three or more armed guards watched. I don’t remember use of a metal detector. My bags weren’t searched. 

When I expressed surprise about the “armed camp” feel of the hospital entrances, I was told “something” had happened, and security had been increased. A brief Google search turned up the headline “Hospital Worker Armed With AR-15 Rifle Kills Co-Worker, Shoots 2 Cops”. The date was three months prior.

I wondered about the security guards. They weren’t police officers, whom I saw in the hospital only occasionally. They must have been hospital employees, or staff from professional security companies. I wondered about their training and experience. Some looked very young, but almost everyone looks young to me.

Security was much more stringent at the Emergency Department, which I haunted for three long days while my husband was waiting for a hospital bed. I was not permitted to see him. The closest I could get was the Emergency Department lobby, accessed through a checkpoint with “airport” type security, including metal detectors and x-ray equipment. And three or four or five watchful, heavily armed guards. I couldn’t fault their watchfulness. The atmosphere was grim. People were sick, some in pain, and some looked desperate.

So.. guns. Lots of guns. Entering the hospital, I resolutely ignored the obvious possibility that something could trigger violence, that I could get caught in crossfire without a moments warning. I’m good at ignoring what I can’t fix.

For a month, my husband was in and out of the hospital. I visited daily. Then the gun issue got personal. On the cancer floor, a family member may stay overnight with a patient, and I asked for that privilege, filling out some paperwork. I thought it was approved. I wore a sweatsuit and brought my toothbrush. My husband’s cancer had been declared untreatable, and I wanted all the time with him I could arrange.

At 9:30 pm, I was told to leave. I protested that I had no car and no place to go. I said I had permission to stay, but was told the paperwork hadn’t been signed, and could not be signed at night. Did they plan to put me out in the February cold? I got stubborn, and politely told them I wasn’t leaving unless security escorted me out. I didn’t mention the guns, but that was the point. I’ll leave at gunpoint. (Pardon the drama.) I organized my backpack, coat, hat, gloves and tried to explain to my husband that I wanted to stay but maybe I couldn’t. He was so sick I don’t know if he understood at all.

I heard voices in the corridor. Security? Some discussion. A single person entered the room and identified himself as a doctor. He told me I had to leave. We talked. Without comment, he changed his mind. He asked about my husband, his prognosis, his treatment. He offered advice, both practical and personal. He helped me arrange the chair for sleep, and he wished me well. (I hope he lives forever.)

And now, many weeks later, as gun violence breaks American hearts once again, I think about how differently that winter night could have ended. Of course, I most likely would have left quietly and walked safely enough to a familiar, overpriced hotel. I might have been able to call a friend. The odds were that I would manage to stay safe.

But I know very well that you don’t always get the “reasonable” odds. Sometimes you get the “worst case”.

So…what if? 

What if a guard had entered the room, instead a doctor? What if (in my fatigue and distress) I had argued? What if I panicked? Shouted? What if the guard was having a bad night or hated bossy old women or hadn’t been well trained in escorting uncooperative old people to the exit? If someone had laid hands on me, might I have fought? 

What if I hadn’t been white and old and looked grandmotherly and spoken good English? 

There were so many ways the situation could have ended badly. 

Think about it… a hospital is a place where everyone is under severe stress. Everyone. Adding more guns to make the place safer is both logical and illogical. Let’s just say it is not optimal. The healthcare system has terrible problems (understatement), most of which aren’t improved by lethal weaponry.

When I tell people about this incident, I can make it sound funny. I can joke about playing the “helpless old lady” card. But it was dangerous. I’m now even more afraid of guns. I’m afraid in places that need to be kept safe with guns. I’m afraid of people who think they can only be safe carrying a gun.

And now, I’m afraid of supermarkets. Citizens of Buffalo, survivors of the Tops murders, I am so sorry for what you have suffered.  

Originally written May 19, 2022


“Suicide by Botany – A Rant and a Prayer”

I found the wild blue irises growing in a certain roadside ditch. 

I’m not a “real” botanist.

I knew I took a chance, near homes full of guns. Hostile signs threaten me. 

I don’t trespass, but I fear I might provoke gunfire.

I imagine a confrontation in which I say, “That’s okay, I’m a bit suicidal, so go ahead and shoot me.” 

Feeling sarcastic, I imagine saying, “But you’ll have to clean up the mess, and take care of the paperwork. You probably can’t just leave my body on the roadside…”

I only encounter a polite homeowner who asks if I am “okay”. That’s code language for “Why are you looking at my ditch?”, but I’m good with that.

I’m grateful for my calm neighbor. He was willing to assume I was harmless.

May his day and mine be filled with flowers. 

Remembering September 11, 2001

On September 11, I took a picture of the contents of my pockets. Three items. A mask. A rubber glove. Crumpled tissues. This sums up my experience of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

THE MASK: Covid is surging again. The joyous “breakout summer” we hoped for turned into one visit (from my sons) and two road trips (MI and VT) for me. All good. I’ve started testing occasionally. I wear a mask for any indoor activity that might include an unvaccinated person or someone who is particularly vulnerable. I worry about “breakthrough” infection. 

9/11 cost us about 3000 lives. The number of lives lost to Covid is so high. We lost 671 people this year on 9/11. Our Covid total is approaching one million, if you factor in some uncounted deaths, like those of people who postponed medical care. The official death toll is about 700,000. We’re numb from loss.

THE GLOVE: Early in the Covid shutdown, we wore rubber gloves because we feared contact infection. That turned out not to be a big problem. I now have a small gash on my thumb from carelessness in the kitchen. I’ve got a huge supply of gloves from earlier. I protect my hands from dishwater, dirt, etc. This is about getting old. The skin on my hands is easily nicked. I’m grateful that I can use rubber gloves whenever I want. 

THE KLEENEX: I’ve been weepy. I listened to the Verdi Requiem live streamed from the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday evening. The wrath of God. The pictures of the 9/11 memorial, with the lights on. The names of those who died. A woman’s name followed by “and her unborn child”. I cried. I just learned of another (non Covid) death, my good friend’s aunt, last of her generation. Funeral preparations. Covid interrupted our patterns of grief and commemoration, but I think this recent death will be ritually marked according to the traditions of the family. 

So that was my 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. 

“Faith, Grace and Heresy – The Biography of Rev. Charles M. Jones” by Mark Pryor (2002)

Faith, Grace and Heresy: The Biography of Rev. Charles M. Jones

Here I go again, writing about a book I haven’t read. But the story of Charlie Jones (1906 – 1993) is so far under the radar that I feel obliged to write about it now. Charlie (Preacher) Jones was an early participant in the Civil Rights struggles of post-World War II America. 

I don’t ever expect to read this book in its entirety, since it includes a detailed discussion of Jones’s (theological?) battle with the Presbyterian Church. But I’m interested in his life for personal reasons as well as concern over current issues of racial justice. 

I sometimes describe myself as “Southern by marriage”. Raised in New England, I left home in 1967 with a snobbishly negative attitude about the American South. Eight years in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Europe mellowed me a little, but when I first visited North Carolina, I felt cautious. Gradually, I got to feel comfortable in Chapel Hill and I learned a bit of its history, along with the history of the family I married into.

My husband and his four younger siblings attended an unaffiliated Community Church in which their father held a position of responsibility, as an “elder” or “deacon”. What does it mean for a church to be unaffiliated? Believe it or not, Wikipedia tackles this subject in a short article titled “Nondenominational Christianity”. AFFILIATION means that a church belongs to a recognized denomination, like Baptist or Episcopalian, and gets credentialed ministers from that parent organization. The Community Church had separated from Presbyterianism and “Preacher” Jones was its spiritual leader. It was a completely independent organization.

How did this happen? The long story is recounted in Faith, Grace and Heresy

Charlie Jones was a radical social reformer inspired by Christian values, and he agitated vigorously for racial justice and women’s rights.

Both the Presbyterian Church and the US War Department considered Jones dangerous, and the Presbyterian Church decided to silence him. Unwilling to admit that Jones’ civil rights activities were the problem, they accused him of HERESY. Eventually, Jones and his congregation turned away from Presbyterianism and the independent Community Church was formed.

I’ve oversimplified this, but it will have to do for now. 

Twenty plus years later, in the 1970s, I visited Chapel Hill and learned that the Community Church had a problem. After Charlie Jones retired, they had trouble maintaining membership and finding someone to replace Jones as minister. Affiliation with a recognized protestant denomination was discussed. When my father-in-law learned I had grown up in a Unitarian Universalist Church, he asked me many questions about it. Eventually, the Community Church joined the Unitarian Universalist Association, and there it remains. Memorial services for three beloved members of my family were subsequently held at the Community Church. 

Faith, Grace and Heresy was written after Charlie Jones died, by his grandson Mark Pryor. I regret that I can find no further writings by Pryor, and I don’t know what path he may have followed in life.

Charlie Jones exhibited extraordinary leadership, the kind we need in our troubled times.

Eighty degrees – the temperature of my childhood

Eighty degrees Fahrenheit was the most important temperature in my childhood. My mother decreed that if it was 80 degrees outside, we could go SWIMMING. I loved swimming beyond any other pastime, but it required both parental consent and (usually) transportation. My sister and I would gaze intently at the red column in the thermometer on the back porch, willing it to rise beyond the 80 degree mark. We may have tried to breathe on it or use our hands to warm it, but I don’t think my mother was ever fooled.

Going swimming involved one of several possible destinations. 

One was a small lake a few miles from our summer cabin in the woods. The water was shallow and warm, the lake surrounded by trees. Unable to actually swim, we wore bright red life jackets and were forbidden to go deeper than armpit depth. No matter! We loved it, splashing for hours. 

Another destination was Fernridge, a public park less than two miles from home. Initially, we used the wading pool, a shallow concrete cavity with a fountain spraying in the middle. This unfenced feature was “guarded” by an employee (who interfered with any roughhousing) and was drained at the end of each day. Mothers sat on benches around it, chatting. 

There was another pool at Fernridge, a real pool left over from a WPA project. I called it “the blue watered pool”. How I longed to go into the big pool! Alas, it was restricted to those age 8 and up. We moved away at just the wrong time, to my intense disappointment.

But our new home 100 miles away had a public beach on Long Island Sound! The “80 degree” rule still applied. I think we made it to the beach about once a week, sometimes taking along a friend or two. The ocean was exciting, and cold. I was a skinny kid, and delayed coming out of the water until I was blue and shivering. I’d lie down on the blanket and my mother would layer on dry towels and another blanket. The whole pile would shake. I loved it! I still wasn’t really able to swim, so the beach was a little risky, but nothing bad happened.

Two years later, we moved back to our house near Fernridge, and I finally got swimming lessons. I was two years older than most of the other kids in my class, always the tallest, and I learned quickly and easily. At age 12, I passed Junior Life Saving and decided to swim competitively. I loved racing! There followed several years during which I “lived” at Fernridge all summer. I would arrive in the morning at 8:30 for team practice and come home after dinnertime at 6:30, with 3.5 hours of swimming and diving practice (and even some synchronized swimming) under my belt. When we weren’t training, we taught little kids to swim, fooled around during public swimming hours and worked on our tans. A great life for teenagers! I was an average team swimmer and an incompetent diver (but I managed to avoid injury). One of my proudest moments was when I won the “Most Improved Swimmer” award. 

When I joined the swim team at age 13, the 80 degree rule vanished. The team practiced and competed in almost any weather, limited only by the unwillingness of our coaches to work in pouring rain. August could be chilly in Connecticut. My parents were baffled by the emergence of an athlete in the family, but they supported me in my summer aquatic activities.  It paid off later, when I earned college money as a locker room attendant and then a lifeguard.

Once in a while, a report that the temperature is 80 degrees triggers in me a thrill of excitement, and I remember all that swimming – the play, the practices, the meets…

Peace Pilgrim and her sister – Rest in Peace, Helene Young (1915-2021)

When I last wrote about Peace Pilgrim (May 15, 2017), it was in recognition of her election to the NJ Hall of Fame.

The (largely unrecognized) subtext to the Peace Pilgrim story is the vital role of her younger sister, Helene Young. Peace Pilgrim (Mildred) took to the road and (unintentionally) achieved considerable recognition. Helene stayed home, providing a private, safe haven for Peace Pilgrim, handling her correspondence and (with help from her husband Eugene Young) carefully documenting her sister’s extensive travel and heartfelt message of inner peace.

Peace Pilgrim died in 1981 at age 72. Helene lived to be 105, 32 years older! Those years brought challenges and many losses. After Peace Pilgrim’s shocking death in 1981, Helene lost her beloved husband Eugene, her daughter Jeanne Fisher, and I don’t know how many other family members and friends. 

It was my very good fortune to know Helene during her last quarter century. She loved music. We attended concerts at Stockton University. I took her to see a Stockton performance of Messiah at a casino in Atlantic City. The walk from the parking ramp to the auditorium was ridiculously long – across a “sky walk” from the garage, through long corridors and across the casino floor. The “average” 90+ year old might have faltered, but not Helene.

Helene came to parties at my house, once sitting down at the piano and playing exuberantly. I went to a “Friends of Peace Pilgrim” potluck at her home, with a funny consequence. I had cooked a vegetarian casserole which included nuts, seeds and raisins… very popular! I left the excess behind for Helene. Unfortunately, returning to my kitchen, I realized that one ingredient had been infested with meal moths, including their ugly little worm-like larvae! Ack! Completely harmless, but gross… I felt duty bound to tell Helene. “Throw out the leftovers! So sorry!” She took the news with total calm. We discussed her problems with keeping a clean kitchen when legally blind, and her worries that she might once have put moldy bird food into her feeders. A conversation unique in my experience!

I shared Helene’s enjoyment of bicycling. She went out in colder weather than I could tolerate. I would encounter her at the cemetery where her sister was buried, and in Cologne. Eventually, she was so blind she couldn’t recognize me across the street, but she saw well enough, with her gaze on the shoulder, to pedal around the familiar streets safely.

During one of my last visits, in the midst of a discussion of our common German heritage, we burst into song! “Du, du, liebst mir im Hertzen…” Old German “oompah” music, possibly a drinking song. Helene loved to talk about her childhood in Egg Harbor City. I think she spoke German before she entered school.

Covid struck when Helene was 104, so our relationship was reduced to phone calls.

Helene’s interest in books, people and events did not wane. In September of 2020, she told me she wanted to live to see Donald Trump out of the White House and the Covid pandemic defeated. I regret that she witnessed the terrible events of January 6, 2021. She spent her last months carefully quarantined by her loving family and died quietly of old age (not Covid) on January 14, 2021. Rest in peace, Helene!

PS: Recently, I’ve been party to discussions about death. Americans “don’t like to talk about death” and use a variety of euphemisms for the word. During her last three years (at least), Helene looked death in the eye, calmly. She discussed death freely, especially after she got hurt and was unable to continue her bicycle outings. She bought a dress to be buried in. She spoke of death as “turning up my toes”.

“Students for White Community Action” at Michigan State University, 1968. Personal history.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. It was (I think) ahead of its time, and taught me important things. 

I can’t remember when SWCA emerged. Possibly it was just after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered in 1968.

I had radical friends, members of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). One of them told me they were forming a new organization, Students for White Community Action, to deal with the fact that racism in America is fundamentally a WHITE problem. This was contrary to my assumptions. I thought that Black Americans were poor and uneducated, and needed (white) teachers and social workers to help them rise to “mainstream” social and economic status. My radical buddies enlightened me about the Black professional class, cultural values and (to some extent) the accomplishments of Black Americans.

I don’t know what happened to SWCA. Perhaps a few meetings were held? I was struggling to keep up in my chosen academic major (chemistry) and didn’t indulge in much outside of studying.

Why was my viewpoint on race so limited? I grew up in a defacto segregated suburb of Hartford, Connecticut. The “North End” of Hartford, home to its African American population, was perhaps five miles from my house, but it might as well have been on the far side of the moon. By the time I was a senior in high school, a tiny bit of communication had been established by teachers and church leaders. One friend of mine went to the North End weekly, to tutor. Eventually, we had one “cultural exchange” – choir concerts! We were bused into the North End and performed at a high school, which reciprocated. 

Michigan State University was almost as white as my hometown, but the winds of change were blowing at gale force. Possibly the Civil Rights movement in the South could have been ignored, but the “long hot summer” of 1967 culminated in the terrible 5-day Detroit Riot which left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 7,200 arrested and 2,000 buildings destroyed (Wikipedia).This took place one hour’s drive from the campus I entered in September of 1967. MSU had been used as a staging area for the military assault on Detroit. The University was not, that season, a stable institution. No wonder I remember my college years as “turbulent”. 

More than 50 years have passed since then. I’m still learning…



I used to complain about careless language…nothing happens “between” January and February. But pandemic time is distorted… I don’t know how to use it.

I used to walk freely. Now I’m careful. I carefully try to walk two miles each day.

One mile south takes me across one dangerous road, to the corner of a large blueberry field.

One mile north takes me past a cemetery, across one dangerous road, to the corner of a vineyard. If I enter the cemetery, I can walk 2 miles without crossing a dangerous road.

In the cemetery, I see an open grave. With today’s cold, rain and sleet, the burial is probably postponed. I see plywood, slush, mud. There’s nothing to tell me who died.

I stop at a familiar gravesite, where a neighbor’s family rests. It looks unkempt, but I don’t attempt to tidy it. I speak, passing along news. Why? No one is there to listen.

I nod to my favorite statue, a graceful angel. She looks her best in the snow. Her extended hand offers a candle holder, but there’s no candle. What is she seeking?

My parents are buried far away. I don’t visit graves, don’t sense presence in cemeteries. I don’t feel certain that well-tended graves reflect more love than those left alone.

Most of my living loved ones are far away, too. Fear and danger fill the distance between us. I feel cold.

I walk home, carefully. 

Alice Gitchell – February 3, 2021 – May be reproduced with proper credit.

Museums in my life – a very selective account!

Roebling Museum

A Facebook friend recently posted a wonderful question! “Did the town you grew up in have a museum?” Thank you, Lynne Calamia! You can’t imagine how many memories this shook loose. Yes, my town had a museum.

What I remember: The Children’s Museum (of Hartford, Connecticut) was located in a big old brick Victorian house just near enough for me and my sister to walk to. Near the front door was a swan, beautifully mounted, in a big glass case. I loved it! So beautiful and so lifelike, with its wings raised. The swan was the symbol of the Museum. I believe it was a trumpeter swan, which has a ten foot wingspan!

I don’t remember much else about the Museum. I think it had dioramas, like most museums at that time. But what did they show? No idea.

By the time I was ten years old, the Children’s Museum had grown and moved, and was closer to me. My mother signed me up for a workshop on growing plants. We mixed our own potting soil. The swan was still on display (I think), but the Museum had a new symbolic animal, a whale. They built a huge model whale outdoors and children could climb in and around it, getting a feel for its enormous size. Fun!

Years passed and I returned to the Museum with my sons. Lots to see. Good family fun, but we lived 200 miles away. Clearest memory: the Museum had a live monkey, which predictably fascinated my two year old son. He and the monkey came face to face through a glass barrier. The monkey made an aggressive grimace! My son, terrified, forgot his ability to walk, dropped to all fours and scuttered away as fast as he could move! I scooped him up for reassurance. It didn’t seem to reduce his interest in animals or museums.

Through their growing up years, I took my sons to various museums. I like SMALL museums. If I go to a huge one, I’m likely to pick one floor or exhibit, rather than walk myself to exhaustion trying to see “everything”. 

My sons and I especially enjoyed house type displays. For example, the Mark Twain House in Hartford was a real hit, with its porch balcony the resembles a Mississippi steam boat. An the famous fire place with twin chimneys on either side of a big window, so residents could watch snow fall into the fire. So was Thoreau’s house at Walden Pond. It isn’t the original house, which was judged too remote for a public exhibit, but an excellent reproduction. Very appealing! My sons wanted to move right in. But very best of all were the 1903 Camp Buildings at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Again, not original structures, but a beautiful, detailed reconstruction. There wasn’t much “civilization” on the island of Kitty Hawk when the Wrights chose it for its open space and steady wind. They brought most of their own supplies and lived simply. Children love the idea of camping out! Roughing it! My sons spent more time studying the Camp Buildings than running along the 852 foot flight line that shows where the Wrights accomplished their amazing feat.

So, if someone asks what museums are for, I say they are for families to share. Now my most frequently visited museum is the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Medium sized, and home to the American Entomological Society and a world class collection of insects. Don’t miss it! Families love it. 

I hope to visit the Roebling Museum in Roebling, New Jersey, soon! The Executive Director is Lynne Calamia, mentioned in my first paragraph above. It’s a museum of history and technology, now closed for Covid but maintaining an active on-line presence. 

Why I read military history

When someone asks why I read military memoirs, I generally say that I’m a citizen and a taxpayer, and I want to know what’s being done in my name. But there’s another reason.

Memorial Day is when Americans plan to visit cemeteries, to honor the military veterans of our wars. But I ended up at my local cemetery recently, on the eve of Independence Day, standing at the grave of a 19 year old soldier who died eleven years ago. He was a neighbor. He went to high school with my son.

There are many ways to die in military service:

  • Combat
  • Training
  • Disease
  • Friendly fire
  • Suicide

I don’t know exactly what happened to my young neighbor. He was an Army Private, at the bottom of the military hierarchy. He died in Tallil, Iraq. He worked in the Military Police and, according to his family, had been considered for officer training. I searched the local newspaper for further information.

I read in order to learn. I want to understand war. The Middle East is a conspicuously complex part of the world.