Last Wednesday, August 17, Elvina Allen, also known as “Honey,” passed away at her home in Guildhall at the age of 70, about a month after being diagnosed with leukemia.
I’m not sure my little town will ever feel the same to me without Elvina. I am grateful that I had the chance to sit with her, hold her hand, and hug and kiss her at her home about a week before she died.
When we moved here in 2004, Elvina was the assistant postmaster. A few years later, she was finally promoted to postmistress, after years of having much of the responsibility, but little of the pay or recognition. In a sense, she was the heart and soul of Guildhall. In small New England towns like ours, postmasters and postmistresses play an outsize social and cultural role, especially when towns are in decline and the post office is the only remaining place for socializing and communicating.
Here in Guildhall, the importance of the post office, small as it was, only increased after our general store shut down about five years ago. Unlike at the general store, there were no coffee and muffins, but the conversations at the post office were often of the same nature, as if we were sitting around one of the creaky tables by the wood stove at the store. A visit to the post office inevitably involved catching up with local goings-on and the lives of neighbors. (We all felt the pain when the USPS decided to reduce our post office’s hours, but we felt lucky that it survived at all, since for years, proposals to shut down po’s like ours have been looming.)
As a result, Elvina became an extraordinary (and discreet!) source of knowledge of what was happening in town. She was tuned in to the mood of the townspeople and of the voters, particularly when it came to controversies on the warning for Annual Town Meeting.
Elvina was unsentimental and no-nonsense, but she had a profound and unstoppable sense of fairness and justice. She couldn’t have cared less about social conventions or how people judged her, and she had lived her life with a female companion (Helen Silver,) during times when it was far less socially acceptable than now. I loved her for that.
She cared deeply about the town and at various times acted as assistant town clerk, cemetery commissioner, and justice of the peace. She wanted to bring culture and energy to town, and so was a major force behind organizing the Cabin Fever concerts at the Town Office. In 2012, she participated in a volunteer day in which about a dozen of us Guildhall residents cleaned up some of our remote Class 3 roads. Here’s a photo of her that day. I’ll never forget how she kept our spirits up, cracking jokes and telling amusing stories about the characters she used to know who lived on those roads up in the hills.
She ran the Guildhall Post Office with military precision and competence, but unstinting, even-handed fairness. She was the first in town to proudly display a Bernie Sanders sign on her lawn during the presidential primary–for many reasons, but not least because Bernie had fought so hard to protect small town post offices across New England, and because she loved his plan to assign affordable banking and check-cashing functions to those post offices. (When she put the sign up, Elvina also told me that she was “tired of the rich fat cats having their way with us.”)
In the aftermath of her death, many of us in town are feeling the loss. Yesterday, my neighbor and friend Alfred McVetty, who has known Elvina far longer than I, emailed me to say he was struggling to find the words to express how Elvina’s death affected him. “She was known by all and universally liked. For years, she carried the other postmasters and shined when she became postmistress. She never wanted to grab the limelight or brag about accomplishments. Elvina was just always there….the Town has lost a rock and a true friend.”
Rest in peace, Elvina!