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The Terrible, Lonely Death of An Old, Old Woman – A Follow-up

The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman - Part 4

category_bug_journal2.gif 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.


Hazel is magnificently beautiful. Those eyes are compelling. And I believe I see a familial resemblance Ronni (it's a compliment).

There is no reason to believe anyone else in the family will have the same fate. A strange tale; a compelling one at that.

This could be a book and maybe a movie...or is my delusions of grandeur side showing??? See, we all have our little querks.

She was lovely and yeah, you look a lot like her.

Still, it's sad how her life was. Sometimes we are faced with difficult choices that no one else will ever understand, accept, or forgive. I suspect that could be the case with your Grandma Hazel.

A truly compelling story Ronni. I have found equal mysteries in my own family, first cousins who married, my Mother who had my brother out of wedlock. "They" all were products of the times, secrets to be kept until our parents felt we needed to know. I am still searching for the total story of my brother, all relatives are deceased. My parents never told me about my brother, same biological mother, different Fathers. My brother is deceased and his son is the one who asked me "was my Father" adopted?" That question blew my mind and started my path of questions. I have found that past generations were the original "don't ask don't tell" folks. I can only imagine the social consequences of those situations, the 1930's were not as accepting given today's relaxed acceptance. They all had their reasons for withholding,I do know we were loved. It is one dangling participle in my life that perhaps I will never have an answer to.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. This mantra comes to mind reading each part of the story (and every time I open the gate to take a stroll down that slippery slope). Ultimately, you did the right thing each time you considered or encountered Grandma, from your childhood to beyond her death. And your telling her story that you cobbled with the shards you were handed or dug up is a memorial to one human being who lived and died. A creature of her genes, place, choices, and time. Thank you, Ronni, for the gift to her, to you and those who knew or knew of her, and to us who, too, have such kin (with only names and details changed). The human family.

Yes, I agree completely with Nancy B.

Hazel was beautiful and you do resemble her.Compare her photo with the one of yourself that is 4th from the right along the top row of photos.

Do you think it is possible that Grandma Hazel was suffering from Post Partum Depression when she gave your father away? PPD was so misunderstood at that time and perhaps that is what happened to her. Sadly, untreated, she never recovered her mental balance.

In any case,Ronni, I doubt there was anything you could have done for her through the years except worry and that would not have gotten her the medical assistance that she needed but would not accept.

Thank you for writing this and sharing. I can imagine this story has been ripening and developing and waiting until just the right moment to be shared with the world.

I do see a family resemblance,which is a compliment.

Hazel's end was related to how she isolated herself, never a good thing.

I don't think you have to worry.

I agree that there really wasn't much you could have done for Hazel until perhaps, the last couple of years, but that surely would have been a struggle, too. One other thought occurs to me: in 50 years or perhaps less, there will be few tales like this to tell since now days it's tell all, do all, tolerate all & hide nothing or just about all. I guess in years to come there will be another kind of bizarre tale to tell.

Thanks Ronni for writing this. It reminded me of my own strange & very unusual family history. Dee

Ronni, thank you for writing this long exploitative tale. It shows so well that there is so much about family life that is unexplainable. No matter how long one ponders, so questions are left unanswered.

Last night, my brother and I were talking about a journal my uncle left us of our mother's family history. The journal contains stories of an everyday family, but reading between the lines, there are also hidden motives, ostracized individuals, nerdowells sent out west never to be heard of again... and no one to explain what happened. I even doubt family members would answer the questions if they were alive.

Your grandmother situation at the end of her life reminds me of my son's grandmother. She had a large house, but the room she could lived in was reduced to a few meters in her bedroom and a chair in her living room. The squaller and hording had taken over the rest of the house. The treasures from her childhood were mixed with stacks of newspapers and other junk and garbage. The only explanation I could think of that would explain why she lived so was that she spent her whole life making up her own reality, living in denial of certain truths, possessed not a grain of self-introspection, and these attributes made her able to believe it was somehow normal to live like she did. She did not have a self critical eye, nor was she able to see herself through the eyes of others.

Many of Hazel's generation led isolated and terrifying lives. My grandmother, for example, was orphaned at the age of 8. She was sent out to work, taking care of an invalid. That's all I know about it because she never talked about it. She married young (and unhappily) and stayed married to my grandfather for 59 years.

How sad that no one cared enough about her to take her photograph during all those years.

I see the same thing playing out in my community. Obituaries of elders
carry photos taken when they were "productive" and important to someone. Beverly Johnson

Mental problems were not understood then and they are not understood now in 2009!
It's a terrible waste of a life.

What piercing eyes she had. She was a very attractive woman, Ronni. Too bad she was unstable.

I think you fail to appreciate the great favor that she did her son in sending him off to live with a more sane relative. After watching my sister's problems and seeing my nephew raised by my parents, I realize how much worse off he could have been. As it was he still ended up a meth and crack addict, but supposedly did rehab this year. I haven't checked in to see how he's doing, but I probably should...

And no, there's not much you could have done for her. My mom never told anyone how bad things were getting for her before she passed away, and she let my nephew and his friends trash the house. It was filthy and I felt horrible when I saw it, but she had never said a word, even to her church friends. We had all tried to talk her into moving into a senior home and selling the house, but she never would.

When I saw her last in the hospital about a month before she died, she told me to "go home to my family". When I pointed out she WAS my family, she just sighed and told me to go home.

Thank you for writing this gut wrenching story. You will stir many of us to think about how our family lived, what was hidden, what was the elephant in the living room. There are no "Father knows Best" families.

My friend Duck lived at the other extreme. He was a big man, and this physical strength let him do many of the things he did in his later years.

If he didn't use something, he threw it away. He chopped up a sofa once, and down the trash chute it went. He had a set of dishes especially made for him....hand thrown. All that's left is one bowl. Down the trash chute all the pieces went. Christmas? Everything....even a fake tree one year, went down the trash chute the day after Christmas. All we could do was shake our heads at him.

It's hard to know what to say. I think others have said it so much better than I could.

I do think Hazel was lovely to look at(and you do resemble your grandmother in looks, but that is all). She must have been very unhappy. Did that lead to her sad end of life? No one can really know. All we can do is try to learn from her and try to avoid becoming a recluse.

You are much to sharp to worry about mental illness. It will never happen to you.

Thank you for sharing this sad and compelling story. I don't think there's much, if anything, you could have done for your grandmother. Old people with this hoarding disorder won't listen to anybody else, much less let them touch any of their "stuff."

You are saner than sane and will stay that way. Reading and writing are wonderful brain exercises!

For anyone interested, the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation devotes a portion of its website to hoarding. The Q&A page gives concise information.

There is also a website called Children of Hoarders for adult children of parents or guardians who had this devastating problem.

It's a condition that is not well understood today, especially by lay people, and it was understood even less in your grandmother's time. But it is important, I think, for people to understand that it is a mental illness, not a "lifestyle choice" as some people (thankfully, not your readers) think.

The University of San Diego's Psychiatry Program estimates that it affects 1.2 million people in the U.S., but it's difficult to know the extent because of the secrecy and shame associated with the disorder. Also, surprisingly, a hoarder may avoid revealing her situation by presenting herself to the world in a perfectly acceptable, conventional way, as your grandmother did by standing on the curb to her home to be picked up rather than allowing someone to come inside.

Although I sometimes teach workshops in uncluttering, I haven't had any personal experience dealing with hoarders. I do know of several people who have tried to help friends and family members and found it was a thankless task. Even professional intervention often fails completely, and I think you are correct that there is a fine line between eccentricity and behavior requiring intervention. You made a perfectly reasonable judgment call based on what you saw.

A sad story. No one should be so isolated.

For a couple of days I've been trying to comment with something quite profound, only to realize my work connection won't let me get to TGB comments.

You know, I think there is a great book in this family heartbreak. Funny that you mentioned the description of "gothic", because that is exactly the word I was searching for yesterday.

Something quite "Hawthorne-ish" about your story. And yes, Grandma Hazel and her granddaughter do have a strong facial resemblance, and yes, it is a compliment because Hazel, while not classically beautiful, has something elusive and mysterious about her expression in that photo.

Old photo processes gave subjects a totally different sort of look, didn't they? Both soft and sharp at the same time.

I know it is not at all technically correct, but I wonder...if the longer lens shutter time captured more of the person's spirit or aura? Heh, fun to think about.

I've enjoyed playing the voyeur discovering your family skeletons, though Grandma Hazel's situation was sad and perhaps self-created nonetheless.

Thanks for sharing. It was a really good piece.

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