A Life: Norma Adams, 1929 — 2013: ‘An Integral Part of the Fabric of This Community’
Norma Adams, second from right, in a group photograph with her children. From left are Philip Adams, Melinda Kendzia, Mary Lou Jillings, Jennifer Tilden and Steve Adams. (Family photograph)
Norma Adams in her high school graduation photograph from 1947. (Family photograph)
White River Junction — Before the interstate there were the woods, and Norma Adams would make a point of taking her family there often.
Her five children would spend plenty of time in the woods on their own, but there was no shortage of family hikes and picnics in the natural expanse, a space now partially covered by the various on- and off-ramps of I-91 and the more than 15,000 motorists that use them daily.
Eventually, the byways would be built. The pace of village traffic would increase. The space covered by the woods would shrink. But Norma Adams would stay where she was.
She lived in White River Junction her entire life, quietly working and volunteering and contributing to the community, affecting the town without necessarily shaking her fist.
On April 17, she died while visiting a daughter in Virginia. She was 84.
“I knew Norma, but I never really ‘knew’ Norma, if you know what I mean,” Ken Parker, a selectman and lifelong White River Junction resident, wrote in an email. “She was seemingly always an integral part of the fabric of this community; someone I knew to be respected, involved in quiet ways with the people of Hartford, and someone who just plain and simply did good things without seeking praise, the limelight or recognition for the contributions she made.”
“That would be her,” said Steve Adams, Norma’s oldest son, when presented with Parker’s message.
Because even though Norma Adams herself never lobbied for a position on the Selectboard or School Board, for instance, she spent a lifetime participating in quieter exploits.
She was born on March 21, 1929 in White River Junction, just up the street from where she spent the final half-century of her life. She went to schools in the village, and graduated from Hartford High School in 1947. During her tenure there, in band class, she met a man named Conrad who played the trombone. He lived across the street from her. They married in 1948 and remained together until his death in 1994.
For a while, the pair lived with Norma’s father — her mother died when she was 7 years old — a short walk from the house they bought in 1962.
“Her entire life was spent within a quarter of a mile,” Steve Adams said.
She became a fixture in her church, the United Methodist Church in White River, if only because she showed up every Sunday for decades. She’d sew matching outfits for her and her daughters to wear during holidays. The family would go to church, return home at about 1 p.m., and eat a large roast meat lunch. (The kids would have to fend for themselves when dinner rolled around.)
She served as the “Welcome Wagon Hostess” for Hartford, while the position existed, putting together baskets full of local merchants’ gift certificates and other complimentary items and delivering them to new residents.
She sung in the local chorus of Sweet Adelines International. She was a member of the Freemasonry-based organization, the Order of the Eastern Star.
And she spent years working as the “TV Lady” in the former Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in downtown Hanover, the woman who brought televisions to renting hospital patrons in the years before the devices were ubiquitous, rolling in the small screens on carts and adjusting the rabbit ears.
Many who didn’t know her intimately didn’t know any of that. Lory Van Norden, a co-pastor at the church for six years, was taken aback by the eulogies given by the children of the family at the funeral several weeks ago.
“What a live wire she was,” Van Norden said. “When I met her she was very sedate, very quiet, very proper in her mannerisms. And when I listened to her kids talk about her, I was amazed at how active she was, and the kinds of things that she did, and the way that she worked.”
According to three of her five children, sitting around their mother’s kitchen table last Wednesday:
“She quietly went about her business and she wasn’t flamboyant,” said Steve Adams, 64, a former state representative who currently lives in Hartland.
“Whatever she did, she really did it with her all, and she did it with pride,” added Jennifer Tilden, 44, a nurse at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital who lives in Orford.
“And she wasn’t outgoing, so, reticent of praise, reticent of being in the limelight,” said Mary Lou Jillings, 62, who is retired and currently lives in New Zealand.
She spent much of her time taking care of her children, only occasionally accepting paying jobs to help the family financially. For a time, her husband worked as a route salesman for the former Twin State Electric company, which kept him away from home at least four days a week. At the time, four of the five Adams children had been born, and Norma Adams often had to take care of them all herself.
That resulted in the general parental tests of responsibility — making sure the kids did their homework and got to school on time, for instance — but also a few that were more specific.
“She patiently taught me how to take care of myself,” Steve Adams said. “That was part of her parenting style. Patient. She never got flummoxed with us, I don’t believe.”
He remembered her teaching him the very basics of cooking, like preparing eggs, but also more specific things, like testing sugar levels while making candy apples for Halloween. Melinda Kendzla, another Adams daughter who lives in Doswell, Va., remembered buttering her hands to make homemade popcorn balls for the holiday.
“That was a big treat, to go to the Adams’ and get popcorn balls,” said of Dorcy Isenor, of Hartland, who grew up next door to the family.
But perhaps Norma Adams’ own favorite hobby was gardening, her children said, and it reflects in her house’s decor. Besides the flower arrangements that dot the space, a large amount of the house is floral in some way, from the pattern on the couch to the kitchen walls and drapes. She grew various perennials and annuals outside; her personal garden became a must-see attraction for neighbors.
“It was just a beautiful yard,” Isenor said. “She kept it so nice all the time.”
Meanwhile, the family would take frequent camping trips, often up to Lake Seymour in Morgan, Vt., just minutes from Canada . In 1968, when Steve Adams was in the U.S. Army, he received a letter from his parents saying they had bought a campsite on the lake for themselves. He figured the property was probably worth between $3,000 and $5,000, a small number that was nonetheless a financial strain on his parents, but one they deemed worthy.
“They didn’t even come look at it,” Steve Adams said of the bank, which his father approached for a loan. “They said, ‘For that price? On the waterfront? We’ll give you the money.’ ”
Soon, the family put up a structure on its campsite property. Jillings called it a “shack.” She also called it a “treasure.”
“It was a shack with a leaking roof,” she said. “When it rained we would have to find all the big pots we could around the camp, which could be 10 pots, to catch all the drips off the roof.”
But that wasn’t necessarily a negative.
“It was fun,” she said. “It was still fun to collect the water in the bucket, and hear the rain.”
Finally, in the early 1980s, the family pitched a roof, and the leaks ceased. As the children aged, they still attempted to visit as much as they could.
“Camp was important to mom,” Steve Adams said.
It wasn’t the only place where the family’s outdoors spirit took charge, though — decades ago, when not taking the nearly two-hour drive upstate, the Adamses would venture to other rural locales to pick berries, walking around with tin shortening cans attached to hangers that hung from belt loops. They’d bring the fruit back their house on Wilder Street.
They’d also occasionally bring back large rocks. Some of them became a short stone wall outside the Adams’ house. One stone, its middle eroded by eons of rushing water, became an improvised birdbath.
But, for the kids, the most memorable attraction was right at home, in the woods that became a highway. Specifically, deep into the forested area were the “fairy rocks,” a rocky ledge with jagged edges and a quartz streak running through the middle. It began with a series of small steps, and led into large slabs of rock — where, maybe, the mythical creatures lived.
“We were convinced that fairies really did live up there,” Jillings said.
“You could sit up there, on top of that ledge, and just watch all the goings-on of downtown White River,” Steve Adams said. “We spent a lot of time up there.”
“And, probably, our parents introduced us to it,” Jillings added.
Jon Wolper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.