Dealing with a mother's death usually falls to a grown child, but my father had died two years earlier. In a telephone consultation with Aunt Edith, then in her late 80s, and my brother, both in Portland, Oregon, it was decided I would go to St. Paul to handle the details of Grandma Hazel's terrible demise.
Aunt Edith said there were valuable antiques to be collected from her sister's house and garage – Meissen china, oriental rugs, crystal, probably some beautiful, old furniture. My brother asked if he should go too, but I felt confident that I could arrange shipping, find someone to cart away what remained and handle what little else there would be to do.
In the intervening years between my visit with Grandma Hazel in early 1968, and her death in 1984, she had sold the house on Winslow Avenue and bought a much smaller place in a less grand neighborhood. I assumed she needed the money from the sale but as I indicated, not much personal information passed among the members of my small family.
If you don't count Maine where I live now, there is nothing quite as snowy or cold as Minnesota winter. I was unprepared, in my then-fashionable mini-coat, for the bitter morning air and freezing wind as I made my way to the attorney's office in St. Paul.
There was no estate, he told me as he ticked off a list of the documents he had asked me to bring, except the small house and its contents. There were a few papers for me to sign and, he said, I would need to meet with a city official. The medical examiner? A registrar of city deaths? With what happened later in the day, I don't recall.
I asked how it happened that my grandmother froze to death. How was she found? Neighbors, who had not seen her recently, had called the police. The furnace was broken and apparently had been for most of the winter. She died in bed.
Then he told me it would be better not to visit the house, that it was in awful condition and I could hire someone to clear it out. I dismissed his warning. Probably, I surmised, a tiny, 92-year-old woman who was trying to stay warm for the past two months or so would have been a less than meticulous housekeeper.
No, he repeated, it was much worse than I was imagining, not something I would want to see. I appreciated his desire to shield me, a stranger to him, from an unpleasant experience, but how bad could it be, I thought. And it wasn't his decision to make.
Next, I met with the city official. There was more paperwork after which he gave me a simple gold band, a wedding ring, that had been cut from Grandma Hazel's finger and a brown, plastic box about the size of an old-fashioned family Bible. Her ashes.
Ominously, this man, too, strongly suggested I hire someone to sort the contents of the house. Doing it myself, he said, would not be a good way to remember my grandmother.
What could these people be talking about while they were being maddeningly short on detail?
Without my learning anything further, the official and I sparred about this for awhile until he was convinced I would not back down. He had the keys and would take me there. He said I should not be alone when I entered the house.
Set back from the sidewalk about 25 feet, it was a white bungalow left unpainted for many years with a badly weathered, wooden garage next to it. The surrounding homes, although in better repair, were about the same size. So far, I was still puzzled about why these men showed so much concern for me, a grown woman with a dead grandmother she had never known who was just taking care of family business.
The city official unlocked the front door and stood aside. I didn't get through the entrance before the stink knocked me back. The unexpected combination of dirt and grime, rotted and still-rotting garbage and most of all, filth - human urine and excrement - was overpowering. Holding my breath as much as possible, I took a couple of steps inside.
Whatever furniture may have been in that living room was buried under dozens of full, garden-size, trash bags piled as high as a five-foot, frail old woman could stack them. Mixed in with them were as many bundles of newspapers leaving only a narrow path, no more than nine or ten inches wide, through the room to the right toward the kitchen.
I was horrified. Someone had lived like this. Not just any someone you might read about in the newspaper. It had been my grandmother. Grandma Hazel. Aunt Edith's sister. It was hard to fathom even with the evidence in front of my eyes and the stench nearly gagging me.
Next to the front door, draped over a couple of the bags, was what must have once been an elegant sable coat, now moth-eaten with patches of fur missing and the lining torn. For just a second or two, I distractedly wondered if that was all Grandma Hazel had to wear when she went shopping. The question, as I realized, had no relevance; the temperature in the house was no warmer than outside.
My god, I thought. What would this smell like in summer.
What I could see of the kitchen from where I stood, still near the door, didn't look any more promising, nor did the bedroom I could peek into over the piles of trash bags in front of me. Something sloshed when my foot bumped it - a copper kitchen kettle filled with urine, a turd floating in it. Disgusting. The entire place was grotesque. I was sickened and repelled.
This massive accumulation of waste could not have happened in the couple of months of that winter. It was years in the making. I pushed back the humiliation that washed over me – with the city official nearby - for my grandmother and for me for not knowing of this. But right then, with no more than two minutes having passed since I had walked in, I refused to be shamed for the ghastly life and death of a woman who had no motherly affection for her son - my father – or for me.
I backed out and closed the door.
Having no heart for further investigation on my own, I returned to the hotel and called my brother. I was wrong, I told him. I can't do this alone. Please come.
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 1
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, Brenda Adams: Get a Job