My father was born at the start of World War I, in 1916. His father served at an Army desk job in Washington, D.C. while his mother – Grandma Hazel to me - stayed home with her new son in Chicago.
Toward the end of the war, something sudden, dramatic and unpleasant happened between husband and wife. I don't know what it was and anyone who could tell me is now dead. Whatever it may have been, it caused an irrevocable break between my father's parents.
Dad said the only time he met his father was when he was nine. He turned up at the house one day, gave my dad a quarter to go out for a soda and when dad returned, his father was gone. A divorce had been settled upon. I have no knowledge of this man, my grandfather, beyond his name. There is not even a photograph.
A year or two later, dad's mother sent him to Portland, Oregon to visit her sister, my great Aunt Edith, for what he was told was a summer vacation. He never saw his mother again. It is hard to know these things for certain – as in every family, there are secrets and questions were not encouraged. But apparently, Grandma Hazel wanted to marry Darby who was uninterested in having a kid around. Aunt Edith raised her nephew, my father.
Darby – he was always referred to by his last name - was an attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota. He and Grandma Hazel collected antiques and lived in a large home on a hill in that city. I don't recall – if I ever knew – when Darby died, but he was not a presence in my childhood, and Grandma Hazel was little more.
My brother was born after dad returned from World War II. Mom told me that she wrote to Grandma Hazel now and again inviting her to visit us to see her son and meet her grandchildren. Hazel said she couldn't do that - she couldn't leave her home unattended because someone might steal her antiques.
I sensed that my mother was miffed, but not so much that she made an issue of it – perhaps because she too had a distant, nearly nonexistent relationship with her family. Her mother had died giving birth to her and, as the family story goes, her father, not knowing what to do with a newborn, left her in the hospital for three months.
During my mother's childhood, her father married several more times and when a wife, like Darby, didn't want a child to care for, my mother was shipped across town to the home of one of her father's sisters.
My mother's ethnic background was Welsh (her mother) and Spanish (her father) and my mother's appearance took after her mother – mousy brown hair, fair skin. Her aunts regularly commented in my mother's presence that it was too bad Charlotte wasn't as pretty as her cousins with their olive skin and blue-black hair.
Although we occasionally visited her father, as far as I know my mother never saw her aunts and cousins after she left home following high school. I never met them.
I have sometimes wondered how it is that my mother and father, each abandoned by their only parent for being inconvenient, managed to find one another. And how strange it is to think, now and then, that if one or the other had been less emotionally damaged – which I would have fervently wished for both of them – they probably never would have.
What I mostly knew of Grandma Hazel growing up were the gifts she sometimes, although not every year, sent on my birthday and at Christmas. Always inappropriate, they became family jokes. I remember only one, a huge bolt of satin fabric, black with gigantic red flowers. It was as ugly as it sounds and, of course, a disappointment to a kid expecting a doll or a game or a book.
At mom's prodding, I dutifully wrote thank you notes to Grandma Hazel for these oddities. And now you know as much about her as I did. There were no letters or photographs, no stories about her life.
The gifts stopped arriving when I was in my mid-teens, but we exchanged cards – no chatty notes included, only signatures - at the holidays and Aunt Edith would remind me to send one for Grandma Hazel's birthday. I felt no attachment to her. She showed no interest in me and I reciprocated.
None of this seemed strange to me. With little other experience, children are accepting of what is and I don't remember thinking about Grandma Hazel except when I agonized over those damned thank you letters. It's hard to know what to say, when you're a kid, about a bolt of ugly cloth that is taller than you are.
Late in 1967, my husband and I moved to Minneapolis. After we found an apartment and were settled in, I telephoned Grandma Hazel and made arrangements to visit her in nearby St. Paul. I had no idea what I would say to her but now that I was in the vicinity, I was mildly curious and it seemed the right thing to do.
She lived in the large, two-story house on Winslow Avenue she had shared with Darby when he was still living. The lighting was dim and the lower steps of the staircase off the foyer were stacked with boxes and household items making it obvious that she lived only on the first floor. Most of the doors were closed as she led me down the hall, but I could see there was a bed in what would otherwise be the dining room.
Then 76, Grandma Hazel was tiny and fragile-seeming. I doubt she weighed 100 pounds. I remember only two things she told me as we sat together at the kitchen table that day: that she climbed a ladder to chip ice off the eaves of the house during winter and that she didn't eat much – two chicken wings were enough for dinner.
My general impression was that she was batty, but not dangerously so. My husband and I stayed less than six months in Minneapolis and I didn't see Grandma Hazel again.
One afternoon in December of 1984, I answered the door to my apartment on Bedford Street in New York City to find my neighbor, Mary, with a uniformed police officer. They asked to come in and after fumphing around for a moment or two, the young officer gently told me my grandmother in St. Paul had died.
Later, Mary said the officer had visited her first, wanting a friend to accompany him in case I collapsed at the news.
A St. Paul attorney, whose telephone number the police officer had given me, told me my name and address had been noted among my grandmother's papers marked, “in case of emergency.” She had been found in her home, he said, frozen to death.
It got worse from there.
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 2
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 3
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 4
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – A Followup
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mark Sherman: Memorable Lines