A Life: Claudine Mae Spencer; ‘She cared for them like they were her own’

  • Claudine Mae Spencer in front of her Plainfield, N.H., home in 1956. In the 1960s Spencer began caring for children in the house, sometimes up to 20 at a time. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Claudine Mae Spencer visits at the window with family during the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020 at Cedar Hill Health Care in Windsor, Vt., before outdoor visits were allowed. (Family photograph) Family photographs

  • Claudine Mae and Win Spencer, photographed at the annual Spencer family Christmas celebration in Plainfield, N.H., in 1986, met at Windsor High School and were married in 1951. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/12/2021 9:02:04 PM
Modified: 9/12/2021 9:02:06 PM

PLAINFIELD — When Janet Spencer thinks of her late mother, Claudine Mae Spencer, the phrase “The Magical Mrs. Spencer” comes to mind.

“She would walk down an aisle in the supermarket or wherever she was and kids literally would lean out of their grocery carts or their moms’ arms to just touch her,” Janet Spencer said. “She just had that way about her. I don’t know what it was. The kids just looked at her face and wanted to be in her arms. It was amazing.”

Spencer, who died at age 88 on March 9, 2021, was a long-time Plainfield resident who, as Janet Spencer wrote in her obituary “helped to raise dozens of children in the area” during the roughly three decades she babysat children in the family’s home beginning in the 1960s.

That was shortly after her oldest daughter, Patty Spencer, was born. Initially, Spencer kept her job at Goodyear Tire and Co. in Windsor and Patty Spencer was watched by a family friend. “I can remember going with mom to pick up my little sister who was really less than six months old and I remember my mother going ‘I can’t do this,’ ” said Win Spencer Jr., who is around nine years older than Patty. “She wanted to be home with Patty and be a homemaker.”

Spencer, however, wanted to run the idea of caring for area children at the family’s home by her husband, Win Spencer, who was concerned about making it work financially. The couple, who met at Windsor High School, got married in 1951. After a few years in Windsor, they moved to Plainfield. After Patty Spencer was born, the couple had two more daughters: Janet and Sarah Spencer, all of whom survive her, in addition to four grandchildren.

Spencer had always wanted a big family, having been one of seven children herself. Sometimes, she’d be caring for up to 20 children at a time and Janet Spencer recalled seeing rows of playpens in the living room for younger children. It might have seemed like a lot — this was back in the days when home day cares weren’t regulated — but Spencer knew what each child was doing and was able to report to their parents what they did at what time at the end of each day. Children were paired together in a buddy system and no one ever played alone.

“She cared for them just like they were her own,” Patty Spencer said. “They spanned all ages and they all got along, which was always amazing.”

Since her mother’s death, she has been looking through boxes and found paperwork and correspondence with the parents of the kids she cared for.

“She kept pictures the kids drew for her,” Patty Spencer said.

When Sarah Gillen returned to work after the birth of her third child, Mindy, Spencer watched her while Gillen worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

“I never worried about her with Claudine,” said Gillen. “It was a wonderful household.”

Gillen, who had three children in three years, would sometimes ask Spencer for advice.

“She always gave me helpful hints because I was a new mother on how to handle the kids in certain situations,” Gillen said. Some days when she would go to pick up Mindy, her daughter wouldn’t want to leave and would grow upset. “Claudine would pack up some Cheerios and say ‘here you can take these home’ so that gave her something to look forward to when she got home.”

The majority of the children Spencer cared for lived in Plainfield or the surrounding area. Parents paid what they could afford to.

“If parents were having a hard time ... we would have kids stay at the house for long periods of time,” Janet Spencer said. There were never any questions asked and no judgment was ever passed. “If the kids needed help and attention they were just part of the family.”

Kevin McNamara and his mother moved into a duplex on the Spencers’ property after his parents separated in the mid-1980s. He remembered afternoons playing cards and board games under Spencer’s care.

“She kept you really busy,” McNamara said. “She was very much so engaged in everything that we did.”

He never heard her raise her voice to anyone. If his mom was running late coming home from work, he’d be given a seat at the family dinner table.

Spencer drank coffee — always black and always with caffeine — around the clock. She loved to sing and was especially fond of harmonizing. When the extended family would gather over the summers, one of her brothers would play the guitar and she would sing along. Every Sunday, the family would drive to Windsor to visit Win Spencer’s parents and they’d take the back roads on the way home. Then, Win Spencer would turn off the headlights and they’d sing “If you go down to the woods today.”

She also took hundreds of photographs to document family events and was seldom without a camera. And she loved to sunbathe.

“She was a sun worshiper. No sunscreen. She would get so brown,” Patty Spencer said. “The rest of us if we went out we would burn. She just loved it.”

When Win Spencer Jr. was learning to play baseball as a child, Spencer was the one he played catch with. She was always patient.

“I was kind of wild and I’d throw it and wait until she couldn’t catch it at all and she’d retrieve it and go ‘try again,’ ” he recalled. “I broke a few windows and she was, like, ‘that’s fine.’ ”

Spencer was involved with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the Blow-Me-Down Beavers 4H Club, where she taught sewing and cooking.

Spencer gave up her home daycare in 1992 after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. By that point, she’d also had the joy of watching her grandchildren. She became a full-time caregiver for Win Spencer for the seven years before his death in 1999.

“She was very good at it because of her maternal instincts and she got him to do things that none of us thought possible,” Janet Spencer said. She got him to quit smoking the day he was diagnosed with cancer and to exercise.

After he died, Spencer lived alone for nearly two decades and was incredibly self-sufficient.

“You would go into the house and she would move all the furniture all by herself,” Win Spencer Jr. said. That included up the stairs or out to the barn. When he asked how she managed, “she would go ‘a little bit at a time.’ ”

Spencer also became devoted to email and corresponded regularly with family and friends. Every email she wrote or received she insisted on printing out and filing. Her printer always needed ink.

After a time, Spencer’s memory loss disorder advanced to the point where she needed 24-hour care and she moved to Cedar Hill in Windsor in 2017.

“We were all really concerned she would never come out of her room and it wasn’t a week after she was there, she was doing everything,” Win Spencer Jr. said.

She sang with other residents and became quite involved in Cedar Hill’s craft groups. She went on bus rides and trips to get ice cream. She had her art displayed in a gallery in Springfield, Vt.

“She never did that stuff when we were growing up. It was all about us. It was all about the kids,” Janet Spencer said. “It was all about us getting better at what we wanted to do and then finally she went to this place that allowed her to do some of this stuff and they were absolutely wonderful.”

A picture Spencer created with a friend at Cedar Hill sits on a prominent shelf in Janet Spencer’s home. Patty Spencer is working to document all the photographs she took, and Win Spencer Jr. lives in the house he spent most of childhood in. Spencer’s love of family — her own and the one she created through the children she cared for — was always at the forefront of her life. Decades after she stopped being a caregiver, she kept the memories of those children close.

“My mom remembered all of them,” Janet Spencer said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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