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Mittens and Gloves

This is a love story about Helen
and Michael. They were not in love
with each other. In fact, I'm quite
certain they never encountered
each other, and probably never
even heard of each other.
It's a love story, nevertheless.

I usually write about people
I know, intimately or in
passing. But I never met Helen or
Michael. I learned about them
only from one of the things
they had in common:
Each merited eighteen column
inches of obituary in
The New York Times,
Helen in March, 1996, and
Michael the previous June.

Besides sharing the posthumous
honor of being selected by
the times, they had a few
other things in common.
But first, the differences
between Helen and Michael.
And there were many.

Helen died at age eighty-six
and Michael at sixty-seven.
She was a Protestant who
spent most of her life in
Watertown, a small city in
upstate New York.
Michael was a Jew who was
raised in Brooklyn and
lived in Greenwich Village
for most of his adult
life. Helen married and
had three children, eleven
grandchildren, and ten
Michael was not married.

Two very different lives. Yet
their obituaries were strikingly
similar in an exceptionally
delightful way. It was their
nicknames. Helen Bunce was called
"The Mitten Lady."
And Michael was known as,
simply "Gloves Greenberg."

Mittens and gloves. That's
what Michael and Helen shared.
Mittens and gloves and a splendid,
limitless love for people less
fortunate than they.

Helen, her obituary explained,
started knitting mittens
in 1948, when a third-grade
Sunday School class at her
Emmanuel Congregational Church
began to collect clothing
for poor children. Her
anonymous donations of mittens
with matching hats and
scarves sometimes totaled
over two hundred sets a year,
and were distributed to
needy children all over
the world. She knitted for
forty-seven years, and
near the end, in a
nursing home, even taught
herself how to work
while lying down, in
pain from severe osteoporosis.

Michael distributed gloves
to homeless people in
New York City, drawing
his inspiration, his
obituary explained, from his
own difficult youthful years
and from his father's
wise advice: "Don't
deprive yourself of
the joy of giving."

For thirty years, between
Thanksgiving and Christmas,
Michael roamed through
skid row on the Bowery,
passing out gloves to
destitute people preparing
to greet another winter.

"The Mitten Lady."
"Gloves Greenberg."
She contributed anonymously,
but attached a handwritten
tag with the words
"God Loves You, and
So Do I" to each
gift. He preferred
face-to-face contact,
sometimes taking fifteen minutes
to persuade a person to
accept the gloves. He
set a price, too: a
handshake. "It's not
so much the gloves,"
he was quoted as
saying, "but telling people
they count."

After a while both
Helen and Michael began
receiving help in the
form of yarn and gloves
from people all across
the country. Helen
knitted until shortly before
she died, while Michael
distributed gloves until
1993, when the cancer
that eventually took
his life forced him to
discontinue his project.

This is a love story
about Helen and Michael.
Helen loved people and
Michael loved people.
It's that simple. It's
that elegant. Two
"little people" who made an
enormous difference, not
only in the lives of
those they served directly,
but also in the lives of
those around them, those
they inspired by their
selfless examples of
compassion and caring.
It amazes me how
different these two
people were:
woman/man, Christian/Jew,
married/unmarried, parent/childless,
anonymous/direct-and yet,
their beautiful hearts were
interchangeable. I suspect
that their stories, and
their similarities, are
far from unique.

We need to learn about
more people like Helen
and Michael if we are
truly to grasp the
nobility of human nature.
It's unlikely that
Helen Bunce and Michael
Greenberg ever met each
other. But if there is
a hereafter, a place
where people, or souls,
get a chance to gather
over a cup of coffee
and chat, I sure hope
that Helen and Michael
meet up with each other.
I think that "The
Mitten Lady" and
"Gloves Greenberg" would
have a lot to talk
about. And I know
they'd like each other.

- Robert Alper

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