A Life: Gloria Thomas; A ‘great example for us as young girls coming up’

  • Gloria Thomas, center, is surrounded by friends at her 90th birthday, which was held at Kristine McDevitt's home in Hanover, N.H., in 2015. Thomas, who died in February 2022 at the age of 96, first came to the Upper Valley in the early 1970s to work as a live-in nurse for an elderly woman. She wound up staying, caring for others until her retirement and building a community that eventually cared for her in her home in Norwich until the end of her life. (Courtesy Kristine McDevitt) Courtesy Kristine McDevitt

  • Gloria Thomas, who died in February 2022, sits in a pew at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Norwich, Vt., sometime around her 92nd birthday in November 2019. Thomas, a nurse who was originally from Jamaica, made her home in the Upper Valley beginning in the early 1970s after first coming to Thetford, Vt., with an elderly woman she was caring for. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/15/2022 9:55:59 PM
Modified: 5/15/2022 9:54:12 PM

NORWICH — Some church-goers might shush children who interrupt a service, but not Gloria Thomas.

Instead, Thomas, a long-time parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic church in Norwich, welcomed the noise.

“She loved when the kids would kind of yell out,” Maureen Ripple, a friend and fellow church member, said. “She felt that was angels pinching them. Anytime a kid was screaming, she would just giggle. She wasn’t like ‘shh.’ She just found the joy in it.”

Thomas, who died in February at the age of 96, is remembered by friends and neighbors for her ability to find joy in church and throughout life. She expressed that joy through lively storytelling, dancing and vibrant attire, and by living life on her own terms until the end.

An only child born to Caroline and Frederick Blechington in Kingston, Jamaica on Nov. 2, 1925, Thomas found joy at an early age in challenging boys to races, playing marbles and sneaking out to take a boat to Havana to go dancing. Her father was a teacher and her mother a seamstress, who also cooked and ran a restaurant.

“Growing up in Jamaica was a beautiful time,” Thomas said in a transcript of an interview with her friend and fellow church member Kristine McDevitt this winter. “I was a tomboy but my mother wanted a princess. They were very loving parents. My mother did not spoil me. Oh yes my father did, but my mother would not let (the nanny) make the bed, or fold my clothes or clean my room.”

Thomas trained as a nurse in England in the 1940s, married Lloyd — one of the boys she played with as a child — and had two children before moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., for work in 1962.

She worked in various settings in the city before coming to Thetford in 1970 as a live-in nurse for an elderly woman. Though she initially planned to return to New York, she stayed in the Upper Valley because the community and place she found felt like home.

“I like a quiet life; that’s what attracted me to Norwich,” Thomas told McDevitt, a Hanover resident.

It was on a trip to Jamaica in the early 2000s with her longtime friend, Thomas, that Bonnie Kimmelman, a Lebanon resident, came to understand what it was that Thomas saw in Vermont.

“Topographically, Vermont looks a lot like the blue hills of Jamaica,” Kimmelman said. “If you don’t look at the actual plants, the topography and the feeling of the place is very similar.”

As a nurse, Thomas was in demand and had a reputation of going above and beyond for those in her care.

“People always wanted to know when she was available for the next gig,” Kimmelman said. “She took a lot of pride in the work she did.”

Though she loved the Upper Valley, Thomas told her friends of a couple of instances in the predominately white region when she felt she was discriminated against because of her race. One of the families she cared for refused to pay her social security after the patient died, said Ripple, a Hanover resident who attends St. Francis.

In another case, Thomas initially had trouble finding someone in the Upper Valley to cut and style her hair.

“I think her first experience was terrible,” Ripple said, noting that some of her hair was burned.

But following that initial mishap there “were some women in Norwich (who) got very upset and tried to help her,” Ripple said. She ended up befriending the owner of a Hanover salon, growing her circle of friends.

Such challenges weren’t a focus for Thomas.

“She definitely didn’t dwell on them,” Ripple said.

A fiercely independent woman, Thomas also didn’t dwell on past relationships. Her daughter-in-law Leonie Drummond and granddaughters Kamilah and Danielle Drummond said they thought Thomas had been married three times before she moved to the Upper Valley. Later, Thomas was estranged from her children, but played an important role in her grandchildren’s lives.

“Grandma’s a very good example of what it meant to be a woman who knew what she wanted,” Kamilah Drummond said.

Thomas was “confident” and “unapologetic about her Blackness and her beauty,” Kamilah Drummond said. In that way, she served as a “great example for us as young girls coming up.”

When Thomas had relationships “go sour” she would “pick up and do what she needed to do,” Kamilah Drummond said. “That was a very important example for us as Black girls.”

Kamilah Drummond and her sister, Danielle Drummond, grew up in and still live in the Boston area. They remember spending time with Thomas during her visits to see them and their stays with her in the Upper Valley.

Danielle Drummond called Thomas her “TV buddy.” When Thomas was around, Drummond said she could be sure she wouldn’t hear “you’ve watched enough TV.” They watched a wide variety of programs, some such as Matlock, a 1980s crime drama, were geared for adults.

As a child, Drummond said she watched while “tucked under (Thomas’) arm; curled up underneath her.” She enjoyed listening to Thomas’ commentary about whatever program they were watching. It made her feel like a “big girl.”

Thomas, who lived in a cape on Starlake Lane in Norwich after she retired from being a live-in nurse, drew people to her through her vibrant personality, but she also caught some eyes with the way that she dressed.

“I noticed her at church before I ever knew her,” said Ripple.

She had large collections of shoes, hats and dresses. Her wedding dress was modeled after Queen Elizabeth’s.

“Gloria just loved to get dressed up and she took pride in attending Sunday mass in her finest outfits,” Jean Essex, a friend and fellow church member, said in the eulogy she delivered on Feb. 26.

Thomas would collect fine and fancy cloth on trips, which she would then sew and embroider to make altar cloths for the church. For years, she washed, ironed and took care of the church’s altar cloths.

“She was very, very, very committed to the church,” Essex said.

Thomas held on to her love of fine things even when she could no longer go out in public in the last weeks of her life.

“All of her nightgowns had color in them,” McDevitt said. “Everything she had (was) happy and bright and colorful.”

She brought that same energy to some of her other hobbies, such as dance. Kimmelman first came to know Thomas through Haitian and Afro-Caribbean dance classes in the 1980s.

“Dance was a huge part of her life,” Kimmelman said. “She loved to dance and she was a fabulous dancer. She had a lot of rhythm. (She) loved the music/loved the drums.”

That love lasted throughout her life. As Thomas’ mobility waned, she would still attend performances in a wheelchair.

“She never stopped dancing,” Kimmelman said. “Even if she couldn’t dance she would come and sway.”

Thomas, Kimmelman and some of their fellow dancers also would gather periodically for “feasts,” Kimmelman said.

Although Thomas didn’t know how to cook when she first left Jamaica, she learned well. Some of her specialties included curried goat and jerk chicken.

“She could cook pretty much anything,” Kimmelman said. “She liked things spicy.”

Thomas’ granddaughter Kamilah Drummond remembers Thomas’ cooking differently.

“Her cooking was not what we were used to,” Drummond said. She remembered a particularly disappointing meal that involved tacos made of blue corn.

Regardless of how her family and friends felt about her cooking, they all seem to appreciate Thomas’ lively storytelling. No telling was precisely the same and details would change with each telling. Thomas used dramatic gesticulation to accompany her colorful words, said Leonie Drummond, her daughter-in-law.

“We enjoyed it,” she said.

Thomas welcomed family and friends into her home, and her home became a safe haven for many over the years.

“Her circle of people there were like family,” Kamilah Drummond said of Thomas’ friends in the Upper Valley. They “loved her very deeply.”

The community Thomas built came together to care for her at the end of her life. One friend, at her request, managed her finances. Others gave her rides to church and to medical appointments. Thomas stayed with Essex while her home was being repaired following a house fire a few years ago. Thomas also joined Essex’s family for holiday celebrations in recent years.

“She was a character,” Essex said. “She was independent all through. (She) wanted to be at home (and) stay in her home.”

She had enough friends surrounding her that she was able to die at home, Essex said. Those who cared for her at the end of her life said they weren’t sure exactly what caused her death. She had diabetes and eventually became bedridden. She went on hospice around Christmastime and gradually faded away.

“She just transitioned,” Essex said. She “loved life (and) lived it to the fullest.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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