Three families who lost a loved one look back at a year of isolation

  • Betty Breunig took a year off after her first two years at Radcliffe College and taught English in Japan, which was still under American occupation. Courtesy photos

  • Barbara and Fay Burnham in a 2002 photograph. The couple was married since 1954.

  • Juanita and John Claflin in an undated photograph. Married since 1956, the couple died within one week of each other earlier this year.

Valley News
Published: 3/9/2021 4:35:39 PM

Tammy Vaughan and her siblings headed south to Florida from central Vermont in mid-January to see their father, who was 90 and had been battling cancer.

While they were there, they helped their mother, Juanita Claflin, when she went in for knee replacement surgery. At 82, she was still sharp and the new knee would help her get around. The Claflins still lived in their own home, not far from one of their four children.

On Jan. 25, John Claflin died after years of congestive heart failure. He was 90. Two days later, after a stretch of coughing and difficulty breathing, Juanita Claflin, 82, was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“When they first told us, they didn’t give us a bright picture,” Vaughan said in a recent phone interview from her home in Newbury, Vt. 

But a few days later, Juanita’s condition appeared to improve. Her children were able to communicate with her using a tablet, but unable to visit her in the hospital. As a result, Vaughan, her brother Terry and his wife, Linda, rented a car and began the long drive back to Vermont.

“I think they called like five minutes after we left,” Vaughan said. Between the death of her husband and the grip of COVID-19, Juanita had had enough. She refused supplemental oxygen. She died Feb. 1.

“She didn’t want to fight,” Vaughan said. “She wanted to be with Dad.”

To a large degree, the Upper Valley has been spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. But families that have lost loved ones to the disease have seen the worst the pandemic has to offer. The children of three women who contracted COVID-19 during the fall and winter wave are caught in a welter of conflicting emotions.

In addition to Juanita Claflin, Elizabeth “Betty” Breunig died of complications from COVID-19 on Feb. 2 at Kendal at Hanover at the age of 93. And Wilder native Barbara Burnham, 86, died Dec. 13, a little more than a week after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.

“She had a positive test, but that’s not the main reason why she passed,” Burnham’s daughter Koni Fletcher said in a phone interview. “But that probably didn’t help matters.”

What might have been worse was her isolation, and, like Claflin, the death of her husband: Fay Burnham, to whom Barbara had been married since 1954, died in June.

Barbara Burnham moved into Hanover Terrace in May 2019, in order to recover from a broken bone, Fletcher said. Burnham had a lot of family in the area, and every day someone would stop by to visit her.

She had a hard time in her recovery and moved from being a rehab patient to a long-term resident. Still, the family visits continued.

“When COVID hit, that stopped,” Fletcher said. She brought her father to visit her mother on March 11, then on March 12, Hanover Terrace said “no visitors,” she said.

“When you see someone every day, some member of your family, when that stops, it was very difficult for her,” Fletcher said. “It was very difficult for us, too.”

Burnham was legally blind and losing her hearing, so virtual means of communication weren’t viable. Even when Fay ended up at Hanover Terrarce to rehab from congestive heart failure, the quarantine meant the Burnhams could see each other only from a distance. After Fay died, “from there it was pretty downhill for Mom,” Fletcher said.

One of Barbara’s grandchildren, Holly Burnham, worked at Hanover Terrace for a time and was able to look in on her, Fletcher said. “But other than that, we couldn’t, we couldn’t visit.”

A test came back positive on Dec. 5. “From what they told me, she didn’t have symptoms,” Fletcher said. But staff at Hanover Terrace couldn’t get her to eat and drink, she said. Burnham died on Dec. 13 of kidney failure.

Close-knit families

For much of her life, Barbara Burnham had been the person who knit her family together. She worked secretarial jobs while raising her five children, at Hillcrest Motors, on Route 120 in Lebanon; at Shepard’s Corp., a plumbing company; and at Dartmouth College’s Central Stores, which did the college’s purchasing.

Later on, she and her sister-in-law Dorothy Burnham researched family history together, going backward and then tracking all of the new arrivals, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are multiple books to go through, Fletcher said.

A bit of Barbara’s history is unclear, though: She never talked much about why she was raised by her Aunt Mary.

“I know that her mother was not in her life a lot,” Fletcher said. “When you look back on things like that now,” she added, “you should have been asking more questions.”

For both Barbara Burnham and Juanita Claflin, creating the fabric of their families was both metaphorical and literal. Burnham crocheted a blanket for each of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren with an image of a bear on it. “I believe the only one who didn’t get one was her last great-grandson, because she was at a point where she couldn’t do that anymore,” Fletcher said.

Claflin knitted a pair of socks or a pair of mittens for each of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren for Christmas each year, Tammy Vaughan, her eldest daughter, said.

She grew up in Topsham, Vt., third oldest among her 14 siblings, walking to one of the town’s one- or two-room schoolhouses. Her parents sent her to live with her aunt and uncle Edna and Fred Spooner in Bradford, Vt., so she could attend Bradford Academy. All of the children of Alonzo and June Spooner ended up finishing high school, Terry Claflin, the younger of Juanita’s two sons, said in a phone interview.

While she held a variety of jobs, Juanita Claflin’s main contribution was to her children, her community and to education. She became a school board member in 1968, when she’d have turned 30, and served for 10 years. That was an earlier era of school consolidation in Vermont, when towns were building central elementary schools and union high schools. Topsham and Corinth united to form the Waits River Valley Union District. She served another stint on the school board from 1983 to 1986 and was a longtime 4-H leader.

She was also a member of a club in the village, the In Betweens Club, a group of parents, mainly, who met regularly in each others’ homes for suppers and socializing.

Claflin had considered becoming a teacher, but she and John were married when she was 18 and he was just back from Army service in Korea. She stressed education to her children, all of whom attended Oxbow Union High School.

Zoom visits

Education was also central to the life of Elizabeth Breunig. Her father, Douglas Horton, became the general secretary of the Congregational Church, essentially the leader of the denomination in the U.S., when she was 10 years old, her son Charlie Breunig said in a phone interview.

That same year, her family bought a place in Randolph, N.H., in the White Mountains, after having first visited in 1922. The property became a kind of compound where the extended family would gather. It was a heady group of people, including fathers who were professors at Dartmouth, Brown, the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin, John Mudge, Betty’s cousin and a Lyme resident, said in an interview. Douglas Horton later became dean of Harvard Divinity School.

Betty, who was one of four children, went her own way. “She never really went to church as an adult,” Charlie Breunig said. “By the time she turned 18, I think she decided she was not a believer, or not religious.”

Her father was often absent when she was young, something she might understandably have resented. “I think she had mixed feelings about her father,” Charlie Breunig said. She loved him, but missed him.

Betty’s mother, Carol Horton, died of cancer when Betty was 17, and her father was remarried a couple of years later to Mildred McAfee, who had been president of Wellesley College and was the first woman to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve when she led the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during World War II.

After graduating from the Putney School, Betty spent a year at a school in Switzerland. She also took a year off after her first two years at Radcliffe College, where she majored in history, and taught English in Japan, which was still under American occupation.

After college, she worked two jobs in Washington: translating Romanian radio messages for the National Security Agency, then working at a department store, a job she either quit or was fired from. She waited on a Black woman on the store’s floor, rather than in a back room, per the store’s racist protocol. Her supervisor gave her a talking to, at the end of which it was understood that she was no longer employed.

Not long after that, she met her future husband, Charles Breunig, who was teaching history at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. A roommate of his invited a couple of women he knew up from New York for the weekend for a football game and party and Betty was one of them.

They were married in 1955, just as Charles was getting ready to take a job at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc., a city of around 50,000. The Breunigs stayed in Appleton for the rest of Charles’ career and raised three children.

“I think they thought that Dad would spend a few years teaching there and then sort of gravitate back east,” Charlie Breunig said. “But they put down roots and raised a family there.”

Every summer they spent six to eight weeks in New Hampshire and the Breunigs moved into Kendal at Hanover in 1997, when Betty was 69. Charles was 6½ years older.

“They wanted to be closer to Randolph, so they didn’t have to drive for two days to get there,” Charlie Breunig said.

When they moved into Kendal, they lived independently in an apartment. Charles died in 2003 and Betty continued on in the apartment.

“I think as long as 10 years ago, I was starting to get worried about Mom’s memory,” Charlie Breunig said. Her children prevailed upon her to stop driving, and Charlie and his wife moved to Greenfield, Mass., from Madison, Wisc., in 2014 to be closer to Betty.

“I went up to Kendal every two weeks up until a year ago, when the pandemic hit,” he said. Though Kendal stopped allowing visitors, Charlie could have visited his mother, but only seated at opposite ends of a long table while wearing masks and separated by a glass partition, he said. With Betty’s memory and hearing declining, “I thought that wouldn’t be very satisfactory,” he said. They were able to talk on the phone and in Zoom meetings.

“We knew that she wouldn’t last forever,” he said. “What really hurt us was that we hadn’t been able to visit her and talk with her in person for a year.”

The family held out hope that a vaccine would be out soon, that they would get past the novel coronavirus.

When she was diagnosed in the third week of January, Charlie, his brother, Tom, and sister, Martha, had a videoconference with her doctors. “The doctor said, ‘She might not make it. We don’t know.’ ” Tom traveled to Hanover and was able to visit his mother on Saturday, Jan. 30.

“She was unconscious by then,” Charlie said. Her COVID-19 symptoms were gone and had never been severe, “but it just weakened her to the point where she never had the strength to recover,” he said. He visited on Sunday, Jan. 31, entering the memory care unit through a side door next to her room and wearing a protective gown, mask and face shield.

“I told her I loved her, which is not something we really say in our family,” he said. She wasn’t responsive, but did respond to commands from nurses.

On Feb. 1, “my brother talked to the staff and it was decided that they would change her status to hospice.” She carried a “do not resuscitate” card. She died at 6:30 the next morning.

“Kendal did a great job with all their precautions in the last year,” Charlie Breunig said. “Despite all their precautions, they weren’t able to keep COVID out completely. That just goes to show you can’t be too careful, or cavalier about it.”

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