Grace Thomas (1916-1999) was my grandfather Fred Thomas Jr’s sister. Her story has a fairly tragic beginning, like my grandfather’s. Her mother Delia Bacon Thomas died in the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic in Burlington, Vermont. Between 50 and 100 million people died of the epidemic worldwide, conservatively 3% of the world’s population, and nearly 27% of people worldwide were infected.
Among those killed, as I said, were my 2nd great grandmother Delia Bacon Thomas (1885-1918) and her mother Cordelia Olivier Bacon (1850-1918) died from the same flu four days later. My 2nd great grandfather, Frederick Clifford Thomas Sr., was so ill from it that he could not even attend his own wife’s funeral.
Unable either physically or emotionally to care for his two children, Frederick Sr. sent his daughter Grace to live with his sister Anna Thomas McBride (1876-1971) and her husband William McBride in Colchester, Vermont. She was not quite two years old. Her brother Frederick Jr. was sent to live with Delia’s sister Oliva “Eva” Bacon Halloran (1878-1938) and her husband James Halloran in Burlington. He was only two months old. The fate of both siblings will have to wait for another time, because it’s quite a remarkable story in itself.
My father recently told me some things about Grace, and I wanted to put them down here. It’s not really a story as much as it is a collection of thoughts, but I found it moving emotionally and gives you a glimpse of the woman.
My Aunt Grace and my Uncle Jim [McDonald] were real close to our family and particularly when I was in college. They were real good to me. Frequently if I was at the university on a Sunday for example they’d invite me down there for Sunday dinner and then we’d watch the Giants’ game on TV. And my Uncle Jim was a huge Giants’ fan because the Giants’ training center was at St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont, so every afternoon he’d go over there to watch them train. And he knew all the players by name and he knew all of the staff, and he was very impressed with Lombardi who was their offensive coordinator. When he went to Green Bay my Uncle Jim says “you watch this guy Lombardi, he’s going to make a name for himself. A real credit to his home people.” <laughs>
The name McDonald is Scotch. His father had been a stonecutter in the quarry in Barry and apparently his mother was Italian because he had a lot of Italian relatives. See Barry attracted a lot of Scots and a lot of Italians because both countries had been in the quarrying business for centuries. Stone quarrying was a big thing in Italy hundreds, maybe thousands of years before the birth of Christ.
Grace died of lung cancer. She was never a smoker either. It’s something she got through secondhand smoke. My Uncle Jim was a heavy smoker. I don’t remember if he died of lung cancer or emphysema. But with his dying breath he asked for a cigarette.
I last saw her alive in a nursing home in Williston, Vermont. She had a tough time of it towards the end. She was going down to visit Martha [McDonald, her daughter] in New Hampshire and she was driving down the Interstate and she had the car on cruise control and either lost consciousness or fell asleep at the wheel. And of course when it happened the car didn’t lose speed, she got into a horrendous wreck. And one of the consequences was it smashed her ankle all to bits and she was lucky enough to get a surgeon who managed to salvage her ankle without having to amputate her foot. During her treatment for this accident they discovered she had lung cancer. So she died within two years of that accident.
I saw her about a year before she died. At the time she was in what they call an assisted living unit where you have kind of your own little apartment in these things. You’re well enough off you can pretty much take care of yourself. You can fix your own meals if you want to or you can go down and eat in their dining hall. That was kind of sad. My dad and I went down to visit her and I think she couldn’t get up out of bed on her own and she had to go to the bathroom. She signaled for the nurse to come and help her and nobody came to help her and she signaled again and nobody came, and eventually she wound up wetting the bed. Well, just about that time my cousin Bruce [McDonald] arrived and he had been a captain in the Vermont State Police and those guys are trained all their life when you come up on a situation you immediately take control of the entire situation. And he gathered together all of the people in the nursing home and he made it clear to them what kind of care he expected from them. And it was all done very tactfully, no hard feelings, no hurt feelings, but everybody understood their role. It was amazing to watch.
That’s when I discovered that his real name, first name, is not Bruce, that’s his middle name. His real name is James Bruce McDonald because he gave me his business card and I guess I had known that but I had forgotten about it. His business card, he was working part time for an investigator for a law firm in Burlington. He worked as a detective part time and then in the winter he was full time on the ski patrol in Bolton Valley. Bolton Valley is one of these places where they have a pro patrol and he was head of the patrol. And he was doing that since he retired and he retired, I think he retired before he was even 55.