Valley News

Carmen Walton: ‘Her Faith Is Really What Got Her Through’

By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer

Lebanon — At age 62, Carmen Walton learned how to drive.

It was a small but significant moment in her life; a chance to start again. Her husband suffered from polio for nearly 25 years, and after she cared for him, he had died suddenly from a heart attack a few years earlier. After his death she wanted to regain some independence, she told her family. Plus, on her own again, she needed to get a job.

Soon Walton was commuting to the clinic at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, her first job since before her three children were born. She cherished driving and the freedom of zipping around town in her little red station wagon. A history buff, Walton traveled the back roads of New Hampshire taking pictures of historical markers; she loved to invite friends out to lunch who had no transportation and she often picked up the tab.

“She was extremely determined,” recalled her longtime friend, Marilyn Garrow. “In fact she had to be in order to recover from all of her losses all the time.”

Her husband’s untimely death was far from the only loss that Walton experienced in her life; she was predeceased by two children and, in recent years, had limited contact with another. And earning her license in her seventh decade was not the first time she had started anew: At age 4, Walton traveled from her home in New York City to rural Enfield courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund, which connects children in congested cities with host families in rural areas for summer vacations. The following summer, her host family adopted her as their only child, with promises for a healthier future.

With a brief exception , Walton spent the rest of her life in the Upper Valley, cultivating mentors, meticulously maintaining her bustling home and treasuring a deep Christian faith that she depended on throughout her life’s many ups and downs.

She died July 2 at age 94 following a period of declining health.

“My grandmother had a life that was very challenging and she had to live through a lot of things, and her faith is really what got her through,” said her granddaughter, Joanne Walton. “Because if she didn’t believe and if she didn’t feel like God was literally holding her up, she would not have ever made it.”

Carmen Garcia Walton’s story begins in her native Puerto Rico — where she was born in 1919 to Carmen Colon and Pedro Garcia — but quickly turns north to New York City, where the family moved before she was a year old when her father took a job as an interpreter for the U.S. government.

In 1924, she was sponsored by the Fresh Air Fund to travel from her Queens apartment to the quietness of Enfield, 300 miles away. But her journey met an unpleasant start: Her appointed host family took one look at her dark skin, the story goes, and wanted nothing to do with her.

Joanne Walton, whose late father was Carmen Walton’s only son, said she remembered hearing the story of her grandmother’s journey into Enfield as a kid.

“She was kind of dirty, she only spoke Spanish, she had been on the train from New York City for days pretty much,” Joanne Walton said. “I can’t even imagine how that must have felt. … She was just glad that the other family (took her in).”

They were Frank and Maybelle Hawes, a Shaker couple in Enfield Center with no children of their own. They enjoyed hosting her for six weeks, until she returned to New York at the end of the summer. Back in the city, Walton experienced respiratory problems that continued to worsen.

Daniel Edwards, whose father was previously pastor at Walton’s church in Lebanon, interviewed and wrote a biography about Walton for a school project in the mid-2000s.

“She was taken to a doctor whose prescription was most surprising,” Edwards wrote. “He said that if Carmen (were) to grow up healthy, she would need to live in the country. Even though there was no scientific reasoning behind his remedy, the following summer, Carmen and her mother returned to Enfield.”

The young mother was skeptical that the Haweses could take care of her child, Edwards wrote, so she stayed with them for three weeks. But when Maybelle Hawes cried for days over the death of a parrot, that was assurance enough.

“My mother said that if (Maybelle Hawes) was going to be that upset over a bird, she will definitely take good care of her daughter,” Carmen Walton told Edwards for his project.

Walton quickly outgrew any Spanish she may have known, said her granddaughter, Joanne Walton, and adopted New England culture as her own while attending Enfield’s one-room schoolhouse. She also absorbed many of the Shaker attitudes and beliefs held by her new parents, especially a strong work ethic, an aversion to wastefulness that was strengthened by the Great Depression, and a desire to do things the right way, by the book , all the time.

Those qualities guided Walton during the summer of 1936, when the 17-year-old stayed home caring for her adopted mother until she succumbed to cancer in September of that year. Maybelle Hawes’ death devastated Walton, and she decided she wouldn’t return to finish her junior year at Enfield High School. But the school’s principal, Harold Moody, was able to change her mind, and used the New Deal to give her a job making $6 a month as his secretary.

She used those skills in her first job out of high school, working as a secretary for one of the most influential mentors in her life, Judge Hibbard , who kept an office in the Whipple Block in the area that is now called the Lebanon Mall.

Walton hitched a ride to Hibbard’s office and began chatting with the judge, sparking a working partnership and friendship that would last until his death nearly two decades later, in 1956. Her work ethic, already tougher than most, was solidified by the judge, Walton’s family said. And it was clear that he admired her as well, giving Walton a Lincoln era mirror and leaving each of her children a small sum of money in his will.

“No one can be sure what the judge’s criteria was for secretaries, but that conversation earned Carmen the job,” Edwards wrote. “There was no application and no formal interview, just a simple conversation between two strangers.”

By the time she graduated high school, Walton had already met the love of her life. Frederick Walton was a Lebanon High School student among the crowd at an Enfield Center Grange dance in 1935; Walton would later describe their introduction as love at first sight.

They kept in touch by writing letters. Some nights, they would sit in his car in his parents’ driveway, listening to the radio, maybe holding hands — maybe.

“As Mummy would put it, Daddy was the kind of guy that was very, very respectful, very shy,” said her daughter, Nancy Fleming. “As she would say, proper.”

They were married in 1943 and moved to Flushing, N.Y., where they lived throughout World War II. Unable to fight for medical reasons, Fred Walton worked in a defense plant, building gyroscopes for battleships. Sirens warning of possible Axis attacks became part of everyday life.

At war’s end, they returned to the Upper Valley and after living on Colburn Street in Lebanon for several years, Fred Walton built their new home out on Dartmouth College Highway, a white cape house with green shutters, near where the new Lebanon Middle School stands today.

They acquired the old information booth from Colburn Park and converted it into a small house in the backyard for Frank Hawes, Walton’s adopted father, who became known to the family as Grampa Hawes.

Dinners were a production, Fleming said, as “it was a big meal every meal.”

Fred Walton’s career eventually led him to a position at Thermal Dynamics and Carmen stayed home to raise three children. Frank, named after Grampa Hawes, was born in 1946, followed by Linda in 1949, and Fleming in 1951.

Her family didn’t have much growing up, Fleming said, but they did what they needed to do to get by. In summers, the family sold worms to pay their property taxes and gladiolus flowers from the garden for some extra cash. Fleming remembers the police chief would come by every week to buy a dozen flowers to bring home to his wife.

Money notwithstanding, it was a full childhood. The whole family was involved in nearly every aspect of home life, from cleaning — Walton accepted no less than perfection — to canning the blueberries that grew behind their home and brewing Walton’s homemade root beer (and real beer for Grampa Hawes, too).

“It’d be funny — every once in a while you’d be sitting eating supper, sittin’ there, and you’d hear this pop — and we’d run downstairs, you’d see a canning jar had popped for some reason, ‘cause it didn’t get sealed properly, or a root beer bottle had popped,” Fleming said, laughing. “That was a big thing as a kid, was to know when were going to make homemade root beer. We’d all help and stuff.”

Church and faith were of utmost importance to Walton and played a central role in family life, as well. Every Sunday, the family would attend Congregational Church in Lebanon, and Willie Newhall, the reverend’s son, was a regular at the kitchen table.

Carmen and Fred, so clearly in love, were nicknamed the “honeymooners” by their eldest daughter’s friends. Their one extravagance, if you could call it that, was treating themselves to trips to auctions when old farms were going out of business, or spending a weekend antiquing.

They didn’t buy much, but they transformed these simple outings into events.

“They’d have their little folding chairs, and they’d hold hands … in their lawn chairs,” she said. “My father always wore an engineers hat, white with the blue piping through it, and mum would sit beside him, and they had their little cooler between them with their lunch and things. That was their thing.”

In 1950, they were faced with their greatest challenge yet. They spent Thanksgiving together under quarantine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Carmen dressed in a plastic suit, after Fred was diagnosed with polio.

He was eventually released and thrived under Walton’s care for a quarter-century. But in 1974, less than two years after their youngest child had left the house, he suffered a heart attack and died.

The family was shocked. Walton, only 55 years old, was devastated.

“She stayed at her house for a while, a year or two, but it was too many memories,” Fleming said. “It was just too hard.”

She sold the house and learned to cope — getting her license, going back to work, lunching with friends — but tragedy struck again in 1993, when she lost her eldest daughter, Linda, to lung cancer. That same year, Walton had a lump removed after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

It didn’t stop: Her son, Frank, died suddenly from an undiagnosed infection in 2005.

Frank’s death struck his surviving family especially hard, Fleming recalled, and both Fleming and Walton struggled to cope. After Fred Walton’s death, Frank had stepped up to take care of the family. It was he who had bought his mother the little red station wagon; he who had guided them through losses before. Eight years down the road, it still brings tears to Fleming’s and her husband’s eyes.

“To this day, he’s been gone eight years but it’s like yesterday, and I can’t imagine what it was like to my mother,” Fleming said. “I really can’t. It’s a hard, hard thing to lose your husband and then two children. It’s awful.”

Fleming and her mother struggled with the ways that the losses affected their relationship with each other, as well, Fleming said. Prior to Frank’s death, they had been close. But for months afterward, she would ask her daughter, are you going to die, too?

“It just killed me,” Fleming said. “I kept saying Mum, I’m not gonna die on you, but look at this, we don’t know, we don’t know.”

It got to be too much for Fleming, who said their contact decreased to things like Christmases and birthdays over the past five years. And while she said she harbors some regrets, dealing with so much loss was complex.

Through it all, Walton leaned on the church, eventually transferring to the First Baptist Church of Lebanon, where she became close with the Rev. Dale Edwards, whose son wrote Walton’s biography.

“She told me, and I believe that it’s true, that she never could have gotten through those years without being a Christian,” said Garrow, her friend. “That was very important in her life.”

Naturally private, she learned to lean on her friends, too.

“She always did good deeds for people that were unfortunate,” said her friend, Jan Rostron, who met Walton in church and helped clean her apartment in recent years. “To me, she was just a dear little older lady, and she had an awful lot of wisdom.”

Walton never returned to Puerto Rico, although she maintained contact with many of her biological family members, especially a brother, Steven Garcia, until his death in recent years. But Fleming and Joanne Walton suspect that her love of Lebanon and statewide history may have had something to do with knowing very little about her own past.

And while her family history remained largely a mystery, she made up for it with a full life of her own.

“She was kind of spicy, with the Latin in her, she would say,” Fleming said. “She just kept you in line, whether you were little or you were 21. She loved being the housewife and the mother and things, she never regretted any of that.”

Daniel Edwards’ biography of Walton was printed in 2004. Roughly a dozen pages long, photocopies of the report show handwritten edits Walton made to the text, meticulously correcting names, dates and places.

“There are stories behind every life,” it begins, “each unique and memorable. Some are filled with laughter, others speak tales of mourning. … In the case of Carmen Garcia Walton, it is a story of a life, governed by faith, brought through the fires of despair and blessed by God. A young girl from New York, dropped into the woods of New Hampshire, she would suffer many losses, but gain so much more.”