Karen C. Hall – Sept. 8, 1943-Oct. 3, 2022
Karen Frances Margaret Marie Carey Hall died on Monday October 3, 2022, in Pittsburgh after spending eight decades answering the question “Is life great, despite its tragedies and difficulties?” with a resounding YES. Her celebration of life-slash-Irish/Jewish wake will be on Sunday, October 30, at 11:30am at the Freyvogel Funeral Home in Shadyside, continuing immediately afterward with coffee and snacks around the corner at First Unitarian Church.
Karen was born in Santa Barbara, California at the height of World War Two, in 1943, the same year that her favorite movie, Casablanca, was released. Her dad, Jack Carey of Boston, Mass., was in India helping to build the Ledo Road. Her mom, Grace (Jones) Carey, originally of Balboa, Panama, welcomed their third child in a beachside military hospital.
As a breech baby, Karen suffered birth injuries that left her with lifelong physical disabilities. She wore leg braces as a child, had hip surgery at 13, and later developed syringomyelia, a neurological disorder, from the spinal injury.
Karen’s physical challenges did not stop her from working, as a college student, with her University of Michigan roommate to fundraise and send supplies to civil rights-era freedom riders in the South.
They also didn’t stop her from moving to New York City at age 19, where she worked selling insurance and encyclopedias by phone while taking classes at Columbia and the New School for Social Research and writing short stories in her rat-infested Lower East Side apartment. She was even able to march in the March on Washington, although she fainted from heat exhaustion and listened to Dr. King’s historic speech from a medical tent.
Physical disability also did not stop her from moving to California in the mid-60s, where she studied to become a Montessori teacher and lived, with her cousin Danny and her future husband, in a Haight-Ashbury commune around the corner from both Janis Joplin and the band The Grateful Dead.
And it certainly did not stop her from becoming, as her two kids, Matt Hall and Daleth Eliza Hall, emphatically agree, a truly excellent mother.
In 1968 she and San Francisco native Bob Hall sent out vividly colored wedding invitations stating, “Come Brothers, Come Sisters, Find Love in the Highest, Join Us in Peace,” and were married at the Unitarian Church in San Jose. Two children followed over the next several years.
After taking their toddlers to various west coast peace marches protesting the Vietnam War, they divorced in 1976 and Karen raised her kids in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had grown up there herself, since her dad was a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, and raising her kids there meant they were abundantly supplied with their grandparents’ love and support as well as her own. It also enabled frequent visits from her beloved big brother, John, and his family.
As a university town, Ann Arbor had a vibrant cultural scene and immense resources, all of which Karen made available to her kids: martial arts lessons, ballet classes from a Russian ballerina, Montessori school, and foreign languages for kids at the University’s International Center. If a Ukrainian dance troupe, a feminist folk musician, or thirty Taiwanese acrobats jointly riding a single bicycle appeared on campus, Karen and her kids were there – by taxi cab, since she didn’t own a car.
Karen often took her kids to see movies on campus, including classic Hitchcock films and everything Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, and Mel Brooks had made up to that point. Her second-favorite movie, The Blues Brothers, as well as Monty Python, Richard Pryor, and Gene Wilder – on whom she had a powerful crush, rivaled only by her crush on Alan Alda – were staples of their childhood. She also took them to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show when they were 6 and 8, a perhaps questionable parenting decision that nevertheless thrilled her kids.
The kids often spent the night at their grandparents’ house, where they saw relics of Karen’s youth, including a cardboard box on which a teenage Karen had scrawled “Please let me go to the Elvis concert” – a request her parents cruelly denied.
At home, Karen allowed the kids a menagerie that included several cats, a basset hound/German shepherd mix named after 13th-century Scottish heretic Duns Scotus, numerous guinea pigs, a rat, and multiple generations of a large mouse family.
Karen funded all this by using the only vehicle she owned, a very old, very loud moving van, to operate the Hall Moving Company out of her home. Although this clearly violated the local zoning code, and probably other laws too, her neighbors liked her and didn’t complain. Her conversational and telephone skills were unparalleled – in a 5-minute phone call, she could convince anyone to cheerfully do anything she asked – and her skills as a judge of character served her well as, over the years, hundreds of potential employees trooped in and out of her home for interviews.
Her skills as a boss, which included not only fair pay and good cheer but also deep conversations to help resolve any personal problems or life questions an employee had, meant that every good employee she hired ended up recruiting their friends, siblings and/or cousins too, so Hall Moving was never short staffed.
Watching her work, Karen’s kids learned life skills and fundamental ethical lessons. Even when the financial wolves were at the door, she never exploited anyone. She started her employees at triple the minimum wage, and she never tried to sell anyone anything they didn’t need. Many times, her kids watched her answer a call from a potential customer, ask questions about their move, and then tell them that they didn’t really need a moving company; instead, she instructed them on where to get boxes for free so they could move themselves.
As an employer, Karen ran her company like a mini civil rights movement. It was her conviction that men needed to get used to having female bosses, and that white people should get used to Black supervisors. To that end, she assembled crews carefully, using her sense of who would or wouldn’t get along to put together teams that sounded weird on paper – four hillbillies led by a butch lesbian? – but worked so well together that Hall Moving Company became a University of Michigan preferred provider.
In addition to her business skills, Karen could have taught a masterclass in free-range parenting. She let her kids embark on several unsupervised entrepreneurial ventures before the age of 10, including maximizing their geometry skills by parking as many cars as possible on the lawn on football Saturdays, and using their allowance to buy donuts and apple cider, shlepping a folding table two blocks away to capture maximum foot traffic, and selling snacks to people headed for the university football stadium.
At 37, when her kids were 8 and 10, Karen suffered an accident that resulted in a long hospitalization and the loss of her ability to walk. She came out in an Amigo scooter and continued running her moving company, which she expanded by adding cleaning services. She operated her business from her kitchen, often answering the phone with her black cat, Bagel, snoozing on her shoulder.
During this period, the Reagan administration’s campaign against America’s poor forced Karen to spend less time running her business in order to manage the years-long series of five lawsuits she had to file against Medicare (all of which she won) to obtain the healthcare she needed.
She also had to fend off attempts by local social services to remove her children from her home on the grounds that a single mom in a wheelchair couldn’t possibly be a fit mother. Her children argued cogently otherwise, convincing at least one social worker to back off, but the family could not have done it alone; Karen became a passionate supporter of the disability-rights lawyers and legal organizations that helped people like her protect themselves and their families.
Since being in a wheelchair meant Karen needed assistance from home health aides to get up in the morning and go to bed at night, she expanded her armchair-psychologist role to include her aides as well as her movers. She listened to their problems and did everything in her power to help them figure out how to solve them. She inspired a number of aides to go back to school to become nurses, and helped them navigate relationship woes and child-rearing challenges.
In one striking incident, Karen met a new aide, instantly befriended her, and learned that she was an adoptee who had spent the past couple of years unsuccessfully looking for her birth mother. Karen picked up enough information from their conversation to find the birth mother herself and then, after talking to her to ensure she would welcome contact, when the aide returned the following week Karen pointed to the phone and said, “Would you like to talk to your birth mom?”
One questionable parenting decision for which Karen’s kids are forever grateful came in 1984, when she allowed them – then aged 12 and 13 – to see Prince in concert on the Purple Rain Tour at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. Perhaps recalling her own parents’ refusal to let her see Elvis, she sent them off with one of her home health aides in what her children vaguely recall was a Chevy Chevette, and they arrived in Detroit to find over twenty thousand people gathered to adore His Purple Majesty.
Shortly after Prince hit the stage, Karen’s daughter ditched brother and chaperone to take off for the main floor, using the diminutive size that she had inherited from Karen to evade security. She made it to the 17th row, where Parliament/Funkadelic’s George Clinton himself, resplendent in bejeweled dreadlocks and towering over her in white platform boots, smiled down at her like a very puzzled uncle wondering what the hell this white CHILD was doing by herself at a Prince show.
Decades later, Karen’s children – by then parents themselves – asked her in amazement why she had let them go see Prince, with his raunchy lyrics and enormous crowd, 50 miles away when they were so young and cell phones didn’t even exist.
She said, with a philosophical shrug, “I thought it would be an interesting experience for you.”
She was not wrong. When it came to parenting, she almost never was. That said, her confident pronouncement – to her cousin Danny in the 1970s – that “my children will never be bourgeois” turned out to be incorrect in that both her kids went to law school and became big-firm lawyers. About that, she was both very proud and massively amused.
After launching her kids, Karen retired to Clearwater, Florida to live next door to her parents in their declining years.
When they died, she moved to California to be near her son and his family. Her years in Walnut Creek were some of the happiest of her life, since she had a beautiful view of mountains and got to see Matt, his wife Erica, whom she adored, and their daughters Elena and Kaija on a near-constant basis. Nothing pleased her more than watching beloved children grow.
Starting around that time, her health began to worsen, and more or less every winter she landed in the hospital, often with pneumonia. Despite the pessimism of doctors, who sometimes called her kids to her bedside in case they needed to say their goodbyes, she rallied miraculously every time.
Again, these challenges did not dim her spirit. When her son got a tenure-track job as a law professor in Georgia in 2009, she moved across country again, bringing numerous boxes that she had packed a decade earlier and not gotten around to unpacking in either Florida or California. For six years, she lived 3 blocks away and got to watch her granddaughters grow up. In 2015, the same never-unpacked boxes accompanied her to Pennsylvania when she moved in with her daughter, her son-in-law Jesse, and their one-year-old twin boys.
For three and a half years, despite intermittent hospitalizations, she enjoyed life with her daughter’s family. She loved to watch her grandsons ride their tricycles around her bedroom, which she decorated with cards and drawings that they made for her, and the rest of the house.
Karen’s lifelong interest in Judaism led her to use her free time to begin the conversion process, corresponding with a humanist rabbi in New York who sent her study materials. She continued serving as friend and armchair psychologist to her healthcare aides and nurses, and also advised her daughter and son-in-law on their child-rearing questions. On her 75th birthday, in 2018, her children, grandchildren and other loved ones gathered at her bedside with party hats, cake and balloons.
In early 2019, another wintertime illness sent her back to the hospital, this time in respiratory arrest. She was intubated, and again, the doctors – this time at UPMC Presbyterian – advised her kids to say their goodbyes. Once again she miraculously survived, but she remained intubated. Although she used an alphabet board and facial expressions to communicate with her kids – and to crack jokes, inventing a new genre of comedy in the process – that mode of existence was intolerable to her until she got a tracheostomy. That restored her ability to speak, and since talking to people was her favorite activity, she adjusted to life on the vent.
She was never able to come home from the hospital, however, due to a combination of medical problems, home staffing issues and counterproductive Medicare/Medicaid rules.
While in the hospital, she was delighted to discover – with the help of a 23 and Me DNA test and some genealogical sleuthing by her daughter – that she was almost certainly descended from the Añes family, Sephardic Jews who had fled the Portuguese Inquisition for London and the county in Ireland where many of Karen’s ancestors were from.
When the pandemic hit, visitors were barred from the hospital, so Karen spent the better part of a year and a half unable to see her beloved family and friends. As ever, she befriended those around her: nurses, respiratory therapists, hospital rabbis and chaplains, doctors, and many others who cared for her. She got every vaccination and booster the moment it was available, determined to avoid COVID and eventually come home, and despite her extreme medical vulnerability, she managed to avoid getting COVID.
Since late 2021, she had been staying at UPMC Cranberry Place nursing home while working with the Pennsylvania Health Law Project (PHLP.org), fighting to get the care she needed to return home.
In late September, she went back to the hospital. On the morning of October 3, at UPMC Presbyterian, with her daughter holding her hand, she died as she had lived: on speakerphone with half a dozen family members, all of them telling her over and over how much they loved her.
Karen was preceded in death by her parents, Jack and Grace Carey; her sister, Sharon (Carey) Jones; her cousins Bobby and Jimmy Carey, and many other people she loved. She is survived by her children, Matt and Daleth Eliza Hall; their spouses, Erica Gilbertson and Jesse Easudes; and her four grandchildren, Elena and Kaija Gilbertson Hall and Zephyr and Griffin Easudes. She is also survived by her beloved brother John and his wife Mary (Camp) Carey; her dear cousin Danny and his wife Mary Jane (Hopkins) Carey; her treasured ex-brother-in-law John Hall and his husband Aaron Wappelhorst; her ex-husband Bob “Eli” Hall; several nieces and nephews (Mina, Annie, Mike, Molly, and Sharonda) and their families; and friends who were basically family, including Mary Susie Knauss, Vanessa Wilson, RuthAnn Brazdova, Warren Jones, and more.
The family thanks everyone who gave her joy in life, including the many nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, hospital rabbis/chaplains, and others who cared for her in her final years, her lawyer Marissa LaWall at PHLP, and all the artists she loved: the comedians mentioned earlier; singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Cris Williamson; opera singers like Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill (“Pearl Fishers” was a particular favorite); and writers such as Agatha Christie, Robert Ludlum, and the authors of the many weighty tomes she read on US history and politics, the Holocaust, and women’s rights.
Karen Carey Hall, a “five foot two, eyes of blue” ball of fire who brought warmth and humor to every room she was in, is gone. She devoted her time on earth to teaching, amusing, and elevating those around her. We are all lucky to have had her in our lives as long as we did.
Karen’s celebration of life service will be at 11:30am on Sunday, October 30, 2022, at John A. Freyvogel Sons, Inc.(freyvogelfuneralhome.com) 4900 Centre Avenue at Devonshire Street, Shadyside, led by Rabbi Eli Seidman. Immediately afterward the family will welcome visitors with coffee and snacks at First Unitarian Church, 605 Morewood Ave.
In lieu of flowers, Karen would appreciate donations to the Pennsylvania Health Law Project, which may be made in her name at https://www.phlp.org/en/donate
“When I’m dead
Please don’t philosophize or feel regret
Just remember me when I said
I had one hell of a life.”