The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 2

The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman

category_bug_journal2.gif 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


Gripping tale. I especially love this: " seemed the right thing to do." How you emerged from such a tribe of people, with the manners or thoughtfulness to have such regard for one who hurt your parent deeply tells me that in that tribe was class, real class, and that you are even more amazing than I thought yesterday.

Ronni, look at what you have accomplished, in spite, or because of of your winding road past, of ghostly,eccentric, absent relatives. The best teachers (I consider you one) are those who have experienced life from every angle. You are not alone. Write more stories like this one. The best.

To be continued? AGGGGH! I just sat down with my second cup of coffee hoping to read on for at least 10 minutes or so! :::sigh:: I will be patient ..will wait until tomorrow.
The BAD news is how much the part about gifts from your grandmother Hazel hits home with me.
My son had a nasty divorce 5 years ago and does not communicate with his 8 year old daughter who lives in a different State. For the first few years, I tried to keep up a semblance of communication with my granddaughter, but the last visit was uncomfortable because the ex daughter in law brought along her boyfriend.
I have now reduced my communication with my granddaughter to gifts on birthdays and Christmas and I am sure she has to be prodded to write the thank you notes I receive.
Reading from your perspective, I think I must do something different.....

Gosh, I'm rivetted and can't wait for the next chapter.

It seems it's still quite prevalent that children get farmed out when they become inconvenient. It happened to my mother, who then repeated the whole thing with me during the War. You're so right about family secrets and by the time we may have a need to know, those who could tell are dead and gone.

Fascinating! What a family, eh?!? It clearly did you no harm. I'm not aware of any secrets of that magnitude in my family. Gosh, isn't there ANYONE still living who could shed light on it? Some friends of your mother and/or father who might still be living and would LOVE to talk about it?? If I had money, I'd be tempted to hire a private investigator for the job!

You write a very good story, and what a lotus flower you are coming up from the mud, or a phoenix from the ashes. What sad stories you grandparents and parents had. They are figures from XIX century literature, such sadness and neglect. Your postings are always food for the mind. I have not commented, but always come here to read your blog.

It always amazes me the resilience of children in bizarre circumstances who manage to survive despite their family secrets. Also your family's story shows what an important role grandparents play in a child's early life. Fascinating tale, Ronni. Along with the others, I'm anxiously awaiting the next installment......soon, I hope. Dee

Wow. Amazing story of your parents. Almost Dikensian! A good reminder to all those folks who talk about the innocent good old days. Yeah, right.

Also amazing that you remember the street in St. Paul that your grandmother lived. I grew up in St. Paul on King Street. Winslow Avenue was in my neighborhood! I would have been 8 years old in 1967 when you visited. Small world...

I guess the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons didn't apply to you. In spite of having a dysfunctional background, you have risen above it to become a very self sufficient person of great ability. I really admire you more and more as I learn how much you had to overcome to be the wonderful person that you are.

Thank you for sharing this painful background with us. I know many would try to keep the family secrets hidden. We can all learn from you on how to cope with adversity and rise above it.

It is refreshing to have such openness and honesty shared with hundreds of your followers.


Next installment, please--we can hardly wait.

I know I'm not the only reader who feels slightly less alone today because of this story.

Thank you, Ronni, for sharing a very difficult story with us. Telling such stories is a challenge; it's the nature of humans to hide the bare facts and try to gloss them over with made up and wishful thinking. I was recently informed that the man I had been told was my father (when I was eleven after discovering that the man I had thought was my father wasn't really...altered birth certificate,etc.)wasn't really my father after all....Since my mother is dead, there is no way to confirm this report.....the really distressing part is the possiblity that my mother felt compelled to lie (again) to me all those years.
By sharing stories such as yours, you help others with similar pasts know that they are not alone. Telling the story is one part of the healing, I now realize, and I thank you for sharing yours.

Ok, we will all be back tomorrow well before dawn. I with memories of one grandmother who really loved me and lived on 85 bucks a month, and another who died in 1928. Thank you so much for this.

You are such a good story teller, Ronni. We need more of this from you! It is so interesting what paths lead us to your significant others, and interesting to think about how different our lives might have been if just one little thing had been different. The way that mr. kenju and I met and the circumstances that put us in the position to meet are very weird - but telling. It was meant to be.

My mother was born out of wedlock and my grandmother put her into an orphanage. In those days, 1902 in Denmark there was not much in the way of adopting children.

My grandmother subsequently married and had two children. I am not sure at what age (I think around 12) my mother was taken out of the orphange by her mother and brought into her mother's home as an unpaid domestic! Sounds like a tale from "Bleak Street" by Charles Dickens.

My mother escaped at age 16, moved to England and became a paid domestic.

I too have lots more to this story but will refrain from continuing as it might turn into a full fledge book.

Wonderful writing.
The part that intrigued me was about how if each parent had been less emotionally damaged (which of course you would have wished them), they might not have found each other.
I am greatly emotionally damaged from childhood through 20s, compounded over the years, now in my mid-50s. With new men, I have tried to not talk about what happened, but somehow they can feel it. To disclose is a turn-off -- except to someone who can understand and accept. Someone who is not frightened by damage. Thank you for the insight.

I put a comment in here this morning but guess it got eaten by the internet fairies. Basically my thought is I know more than a few stories like yours, not all that end as tragically but definitely families that aren't what we expect as 'normal'. Tough and very sad

Terrific story, Ronni!!! I brings to mind a quote from mystery writer Sue Grafton's heroine: "They talk about dusfunctional. I've never seen any other kind." My own family put the 'dys' in dysfunctional. It's a wonder I've bothered to get out of bed much less marry and have children to continue the cycle.

An interesting story well told. Brava for surviving and thriving with grace, wit, and intelligence. . .

I read Part 2 first - - and am glad I did because it added a special twinge of irony to pieces in Part 1.

Phenomenal family history here, or lack of it, which makes the story all the more mysterious and intense. I'm just shaking my head and thinking Can't wait for Part 3!

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