The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 2
This Week in Elder News - 1 August 2009

The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman - Part 3

category_bug_journal2.gif 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


Imagine people dying alone, while having all kinds of valuable treasures they could sell, money in the bank, yet they slowly disintegrate mentally and physically.

We want to think they were the architect of their demise, but a part of us wishes we could have helped them, if only they had opened the door a crack.

A senior woman died in a residence last year. None of her neighbors knew. When they did find her, everybody in that residence was horrified that nobody had checked on her or even called. It was a big story in the newspaper. After that happened, each resident got a daily "how are you doing?" call.

I can't stand looking at those senior homes. They remind me of chicken coops.

If only we knew how long we had, maybe we could plan something..
but what?

Ronni, I felt as if I was walking beside you through the house, afraid to open those bags.

Something out of Great Expectations...

Your story just gets better, and worse by the day.
It truly is a great mystery, and I honestly thank you for revealing it the way you have.
Sorry, but I look forward to 'seeing what happens next' each morning, and will be sad when it comes to an end.
Out of all the adversity came a remarkable person, you!

The whole story is compelling but oh, so very sad.

I think life is like the garbage bags with choices made one by one which might not seem significant but add up to change a whole pathway. The thing is we can change it. She could have changed it but maybe pride kept her from that. Sad

My mother - age 98 - is in assisted living now, but we are not allowed to sell any of her "treasures." I think she holds on to them because some of them are her link to a time when she was active and young and in control, while others (like her grandmother's wedding shoes and Currier&Ives prints) are her link to her girlhood.

Ronni, you are one terrific writer.

I agree with Bozoette Mary. And I think, in my mother's case (and probably not unusual), a desperate craving for control over the uncontrollable (time's passing) and for independence (not wanting to ask for help and all that conjures up). Mental illness, dementia, and depression are always factors/suspects involved when we let ourselves go without apparent taking of steps to get help.

P.S. Had you considered hanging the quilt on a wall, away from cute little claws? ;-)

The real shock is finding out there really were treasures that Hazel could have sold to obtain money to have the repairs made as they became necessary. Obviously things of beauty became more important to her than even her own comfort. The number of years she spent collecting the Meissen china (only to have it stored in a falling down shed) is proof of how important 'things' were to her. There is a lesson here for many of us.

I cannot wait for the next installment. Unfortunately, one of my friend's mother lived this way. My friend tried to keep the house clean of clutter only to find that in one week, the garbage re-occurred. Her mother was not frail; she collected everything thing and threw nothing out. It is a sickness though in the case protrayed in Ronni's story, I believe it was probably a case of frailty, depression, and more. Sad, very sad.

This is so sad Ronni. I am glad you had your brother to help out with this onerous chore. You would never had made it through the debris on your own.

We live in an upscale townhouse community but just two doors down from us is a neighbor, in her mid to late 60's, who is fast headed toward the fate of your relative. She moved here from Virginia about 3 years ago to be near her 2 grown children who have since moved out of state.

This sad woman has every inch of her townhouse stacked with wall to wall trash, boxes, furniture, overturned lamps all kinds of junk. She goes out to yard sales and buys more.
Her 2 garages are so filled with the mess she cannot park her car inside. She told her next door neighbor that she is cold sleeping in the kitchen. She has so much junk she cannot get up the stairs to her bedrooms.

Her grown children have evidently washed their hands of her. She has money but I guess this is a sickness. Her neighbor called the fire department to report the hazard but they said there is nothing they can do.

There may be addiction to prescription drugs involved.

Her grown children should do something but no one knows how to reach them.


This is an amazing and sad story, Ronni. I am reminded of "Grey Gardens". I wonder what turned her into a person who could throw garbage down into the basement and live with it.

I almost missed my subway stop reading this on my iPhone. I never miss a chance to read your blog and this story beats them all. Heartbreaking.

Perhaps the memories are too sad to look at on a daily basis -- does your home allow a place where the quilt might be displayed as a wall hanging? What a compelling story, compellingly told.

A very graphic, heart-rending story, Ronni and very generous of you to share it with us all.

Riveting. I love the way you write. Am catching up on the final parts now, and continue to be amazed by this story.

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