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An unexpected encounter with Red Cross history

When assigned to my first disaster response to the Spring Floods 2010 in Massachusetts, I had no idea what other adventures were in store for me. True to form, as I’ve heard, you never really know.

On day four the local chapter informed us that the birthplace of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton was nearby in North Oxford, Mass. Eager to hunt down the story I set out on my adventure with Red Cross worker Alice Wilkerson from the Morgan-Lawrence County chapter in Alabama. In anticipation of our visit the museum manager kindly set up a surprise meeting with Ms. May White – the great grand niece of Clara Barton herself!

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Ms. May is 101 years old but you would never know it. I was enamored by her presence and story, so much so that I had to keep reminding myself to take pictures and notes. The experience was surreal – I was on my first Red Cross operation accompanied by Alice who was notching her 60th, sitting in Clara Barton’s childhood home while speaking to her centenarian great grand niece.

Ms. May shared stories of her grandmother Mary Barton (Clara’s niece). Mary traveled to Europe with Clara when she was 16 years old and shared may stories about her time with Clara with Ms. May. Clara enjoyed Mary’s company because she was so much fun. Mary was allegedly chosen to travel with Clara as the daughter of her favorite sibling David.

A grand heritage

As I listened to Ms. May’s past stories, I wondered how she remembered her encounter with Clara. After all, at the time she was only four years old. Ms. May explained that “in your life, you remember something” when it has importance. She visited Clara the summer before she passed when her mother, Gertrude Stafford, helped to nurse Clara. May and her sister Helen played in the quaint summer house (now privately owned) while Gertrude took care of Clara.

After our visit with Ms. May, we set off to find Clara’s gravesite in Oxford, Mass where Clara Barton Birthplace Museum Manager Emily Thompson was kind enough to give us a tour of Oxford en route. We persuaded her to take us by Clara’s former summer home where luckily the new owner was outside. Carlton Marshall is a sweet gentleman who shared his extensive knowledge of Clara – including having seen her ghost the day he purchased the house over 50 years ago. He chuckled as he added, “I might have had one too many drinks.”

As Carlton Marshall invited us inside I noticed Emily trying to hide the huge grin on her face. She had wanted to see the inside of the house for several years but never asked. As we toured the home Emily explained how unusual it was for Clara to own something so extravagant. “She was very frugal and simple. Often times when she traveled she would stay in more rustic inns and lodges” said Emily. Mr. Marshall took us to each room and level of the home.

As we neared the widow’s walk, Emily wondered why a home in Oxford would have one. These roof-top balconies are usually found in 19th century North American houses near the ocean. The name comes from the wives of mariners who would anxiously watch the horizon for signs of their husband’s return. Ms. May had shared the memory of her and her sister’s excited when they finally got to see the inside of a widow’s walk in Clara’s home. I thought of her at that moment and wondered in which corner of the walk she had played 97 years ago.

The day concluded by visiting Clara’s final resting place where Alice placed flowers from the operation staff. As we stood on the Barton family plot to take a moment to reflect the wind picked up and rustled our Red Cross vests. I wondered if Clara realized how important the American Red Cross has been for this nation. I like to think she was looking down on us and the wind was a pat on the shoulder from above.