Sometimes Kathleen Widmer will be walking along – at her grocery store’s senior hour, on the blocks surrounding her home in Evanston, Ill. – and bam, there will be a piece of her own history walking toward her.
“Oh, my God, it makes me so happy,” Widmer, 68, told me recently.
Widmer is a quilter.
“Now, a quilter is different than a seamstress,” she explained. “Quilters are like a different breed, especially those of us who’ve been doing it for so many years.”
(She’s been doing it for 30.)
“When it comes to fabric, we have something called a stash,” she continued. “We buy fabric, but we don’t use it. We collect it. We put it on our shelves and it’s beautiful. It’s really very weird, but that’s how most of us feel. And a lot of our fabrics, they have stories behind them.”
A few weeks ago, Widmer opened her stash cabinet and started making masks for family and friends.
“I probably made a couple hundred,” she said. “I was going to try to scale back, but once you start you can’t stop. There’s such a need.”
Widmer noticed, on her occasional outings, how many people weren’t wearing masks. She knows they can be hard to find and, when they are located, outside of people’s budgets. So with the CDC recommending cloth masks in public settings and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mask requirement set to take effect Friday, Widmer decided to start churning them out for strangers.
She made a few dozen and put them in individual Ziploc bags, which she placed in a container on her porch. A friend of Widmer’s sent an email around to a neighborhood group to let people know the masks were free for the taking.
“The response was amazing,” Widmer said.
She leaves the container on her porch and replenishes it as needed. People ask if it’s OK for their friends to come grab them from other neighborhoods, other cities, even. Of course, Widmer tells them.
And that’s how she has come to see her life story, the highlights mostly, walking all around her.
Widmer has made quilts for newborn babies, including her own granddaughters. She has made memorial quilts for friends and neighbors who’ve lost loved ones, stitching the clothing of the person who passed away next to other fabric she’s collected.
She always ends up with a little extra fabric. Now those extras, along with some favorite fabrics from her stash, are masks.
“Seeing my fabrics on the faces of people walking around is just really cool,” she said. “I’ll be walking along and think, ‘That was the binding on a quilt I made! It just makes me really happy.”
Widmer works as a traffic safety manager for the Secretary of State’s office, but she used to be a nurse.
When she moved to Illinois from her native Pennsylvania, she worked at Michael Reese Hospital, the research and teaching hospital in Bronzeville that closed in 2009. When her daughters were young, she worked as a school nurse at Chiaravalle Montessori, where both girls attended. She left the field 20 years ago for her current career.
“I feel guilty for not going back,” Widmer said.
In March, Gov. Pritzker put out a call for retired health care workers to return to the workforce. “We’re in the middle of a battle and we need reinforcements,” he said at the time. State officials said 180 people applied to have their medical licenses reinstated in the first 24 hours that the process became available.
But Widmer knows her age puts her at greater risk of developing serious complications or dying from COVID-19 if she contracts it. Her family discouraged her from returning to nursing. She’s honoring their wishes. It still tugs at her conscience.
“Making the masks helps me feel like I’m making a difference,” she said.
I understand the tug, and I applaud the courage and commitment of the brave souls in health care – previously retired or not – who are rushing toward the danger and death this virus is doling out. But I don’t think Widmer, or anyone, should feel guilty for choosing not to re-enter the field during a pandemic, particularly when the federal government isn’t providing enough of the personal protective equipment that nurses and doctors need to do their jobs safely. Their jobs are heroic; that doesn’t make their lives expendable.
Widmer brought the container where she keeps her masks inside the other night, afraid that animals might chew it apart thinking there was food inside. When she didn’t put it out right away the next day, she started receiving emails wondering if she’d run out of masks, whether her gig was over.
It’s not. She plans to replenish it as long as she needs to. I told her I thought that was a wonderful contribution to the community. She shrugged off the compliment.
“I’m the worker bee,” she said. “So many people are doing so much more than me.”
Every bit of good, every gesture of generosity and assistance and connection matter tremendously right now. They are our lifelines, reminding us that in our valiant efforts to protect and save lives, we can also look for ways to protect and save our humanity.