I am pretty sure that if not for Aunt Edith's continued urging in regard to Grandma Hazel's antiques and if not for having a brother willing to help, I would have sold the house as is for whatever pittance it would have garnered, thereby avoiding the need to enter it again. In fact, I might have given it away.
The shocking circumstances of Hazel's life have, with time, overwhelmed my memory of the days following my brother's arrival in St. Paul. Although I don't recall, I doubt we told Aunt Edith about the condition of her sister's home. The two women wrote many letters to one another and I believe they spoke on the telephone regularly. Did Hazel mention her garbage problem? Or that the toilet didn't work? Or that the furnace was broken?
Did Aunt Edith have any inkling of how her sister lived? I don't know.
With instructions from Aunt Edith on what to look for, my brother and I carefully picked our way through the freezing squalor of Grandma Hazel's house. There is no telling how long the kitchen faucet had been leaking, but I nearly slipped and fell on the sodden newspapers, a couple of inches thick, that Hazel had placed on the floor in front of the sink to soak up the water.
There was too much junk piled up to be able to enter the bathroom, but we could see a filthy, clogged toilet and grimy bathtub neither of which had been used recently. There were pots of urine and feces throughout the house.
We took frequent breaks in the rented car outside to relieve ourselves of the smell and to warm up for a few minutes.
The small bedroom behind the kitchen where Grandma Hazel had died was remarkably free of the detritus that packed the other rooms. Nothing much there except the bed. What we thought was a closet door turned out to lead to the cellar and another shock.
More trash bags, hundreds of them, filled the cellar nearly to the top of the stairs. No wonder the furnace had not been repaired. By the time it stopped working – it had to have happened that year since she had not frozen to death the previous winter – no repairman, if one had been phoned, could reach the furnace.
My brother and I pondered how this could happen. There must have been a day two or three years before, we decided, when Grandma Hazel, feeling too weak or tired to drag a bag of trash 20-odd feet to the curb, had tossed it down the cellar stairs thinking she would retrieve it on a better day when she had more energy.
And then, well, that day never arrived and one thing led to another until there was hardly any space left for an old woman to live in. Maybe she had thought, at her age, she would die before the cellar filled up.
Given our shared, mordant sense of humor, my brother and I laughed in a grimacing sort of way. It probably had started small with only a couple of trash bags – no big deal - and just got out of control, no doubt to Grandma Hazel's surprise when it was too far gone for her to face the effort a cleanup would involve.
A family of mice complained when I opened a dresser drawer in the second bedroom. Somehow, they had not destroyed a lovely little collection, wrapped in plastic, of velvet and satin evening purses, silk scarves and a pair of white leather, opera-length gloves so tiny I could not get my hand in the widest part of the cuff.
Memories of a better, different life decades earlier.
In another drawer, I found a never-used, hand-made, patchwork quilt, probably sewn by Grandma Hazel in her teens, as girls born a hundred years ago did for their trousseaux. It is a remarkably modern design for its time (Hazel was born in 1892), and I've kept it. Early on, I thought I'd use it on my bed, but cats and antique quilts are not a good mix. So, as in Hazel's home, it sits folded in a drawer.
The garage was a ramshackle building with broken windows and doors which had been letting in rain and snow for years. It was filled with cartons that had obviously not been unpacked since Grandma Hazel had moved into the house, and had deteriorated from the weather.
Several oriental rugs, rolled and left on the floor, were moldy and damaged beyond repair. As expected, the boxes were filled with delicate porcelain vases, crystal glassware and an astonishingly large collection of Meissen china – well more than 200 pieces painstakingly collected, Aunt Edith explained, one-by-one over many years.
Due to the condition of the boxes, it all required repacking for shipment to our homes so my brother and I bought all the necessities, hauled everything from the garage to our hotel rooms and spent the next day or two carefully packing it all.
We found a treasure trove of letters from Grandma Hazel's first husband, our grandfather, carefully preserved in a drawer in date order, covering a period from 1915 or 1916, when he began serving in the Army in Washington, D.C. through sometime in 1918. There was a letter almost every day with the warm and lavish sentiments you would expect from a young couple in love.
Beginning in April of 1918, there is a gap of three months, followed by a few more letters that are mean, nasty and hateful - that guy was one angry dude - but with no indication of what had happened to cause such a dramatic reversal of affections.
Was there silence for three months from my grandfather? Given the vitriol of the last letters, I doubt it. Did Grandma Hazel, perhaps thinking of posterity, destroy those letters? More likely, but there is no way to know these things.
Wondering about it now and then over the years, I have invented only two explanations, neither of which feels solid since I don't know the beliefs, character or ethics of the two people. Because my grandfather was the aggrieved party, did Grandma Hazel perhaps have an affair back in Chicago while he was away working for the war effort?
Or, making the mysteries of my family more convoluted than could ever be sorted out at this late date, was he not my dad's biological father? Could Hazel have given birth to another man's child and passed it off as her husband's until he somehow discovered the deception? It would explain the man's absolute disinterest in my father.
But if true, it would sure complicate who I think I am.
To be continued – one more part on Monday...
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 1
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 2
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, Lyn Burnstine: Nine to Five