Almost everything I know about Grandma Hazel is sad, horrifying or unlikable, although it is hard to know which of those categories to assign to the act of abandoning her son. At least one person judged her differently.
For reasons I've forgotten (I forget a lot, don't I?), my brother and I visited the woman who had been Hazel's next-door neighbor on Winslow Avenue where I had met my grandmother in 1968. They had been friends and the woman admired Hazel for her intelligence and personal strength.
One winter, during a raging blizzard when getting a car down the hill was out of the question, she woke Hazel in the middle of the night. Her daughter's baby was due, right now, and they could use some help. Hazel was there immediately and successfully midwifed the child into the world for which the woman, those many years later as she told us the story, was still grateful and a bit awed, I think.
They remained in touch after Grandma Hazel sold her house and Hazel attended holiday dinners with the woman and her family back on Winslow Avenue. She drove over to pick up Grandma Hazel at her new home for these visits, but the woman never saw the inside of it; Hazel was always waiting at the curb.
She spoke of the beautiful antiques Hazel collected and we stopped by again later to give her an elegantly-crafted, crystal and sterling silver pitcher we had found that seemed to fit with the style of her home.
After my brother and I returned to our homes, the attorney I had met with when I arrived in St. Paul helped me find a buyer for Grandma Hazel's house, a contractor who somehow believed he could make a profit by cleaning out the mess and renovating it for resale. His only condition was that a carved, three-panel, teak screen, folded and leaning against a living room wall, be part of the deal.
Was he kidding? I was so relieved I agreed to his initial offer, something under $15,000, without negotiating.
In the comments on Part 2 of this story, TropiGal refers to “Diogenes Syndrome” which, Wikipedia tells me, is “also known as 'senile squalor syndrome'...a behavioral disorder identified in 1975 that is characterized by extreme self-neglect” and “compulsive hoarding, the pathological collection and storage of objects, mainly other people's refuse.”
Nothing in the house indicated that Grandma Hazel was cruising the neighborhood to drag home other people's castoffs; the bags and bundled newspapers in Grandma Hazel's home were her own. (The Winslow Avenue neighbor also told us that Hazel had a keen interest in politics and read the newspapers thoroughly every day.)
Hoarding, in the syndrome definition, suggests ongoing collection of items rather than leaving valuable possessions in their cartons for many years after a move to a new home. Nevertheless, the squalor and self-neglect apply.
The slight battiness that was apparent when I met Grandma Hazel must have increased as she got older and there is some precedent for it. Her family had a history of mental disorders. Grandma Hazel and Aunt Edith had a brother, Harry, who lived in Chicago. On a few occasions, Edith mentioned that she sent him money, that he rarely worked – perhaps he wasn't all that capable - and was sometimes homeless.
In addition, during their late life before I was born, the sisters' parents lived with Aunt Edith in Portland, Oregon. Now and then, Aunt Edith would return home from work to find that her mother had hand-washed all the clean linen in the house and draped it, soaking wet, over the furniture to dry. Apparently there was other, more serious, aberrant behavior which led to her being incarcerated for awhile, more than once, in the state mental institution.
Good god. I never realized until now, pulling all these stories together in one place, how gothic my family and this tale of Grandma Hazel's life and death sound. (I wonder why I think I'm sane and will remain so in the future.)
Occasionally, I've thought Hazel got what she deserved, but I don't really believe in the cause and effect (samsara) associated with karma or in that tired old phrase, “what goes around comes around.” Many people who commit morally reprehensible acts are not punished (consider current Wall Street bankers still collecting million-dollar bonuses or, historically, our nation's founding fathers who owned slaves).
Although I take no responsibility for Grandma Hazel's living conditions, I ask myself now why I had no curiosity through the years about how she was doing. After all, I knew in 1968 she was mildly off her trolley. If I had known, it would not have been any harder to arrange a better situation than it was to clean up the aftermath. But there is a fine line between eccentricity, which is all I ascribed to her when we met, and behavior requiring intervention.
Grandma Hazel's life was difficult during those final years and particularly during the last weeks after the furnace stopped working in mid-winter. No matter who you are or what you have done in life, cleanliness and some ease should be in order at the end.
After all this, you might like to see a photo of Grandma Hazel. This was taken when she was in her early or mid-thirties, around the time she sent my father to live with her sister. There are no later photographs.
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 3
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – A Followup
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, William Weatherstone - Alzheimer's: Part 3.