I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, on a quiet dead-end street surrounded by trees, parks, and a creek. The houses were modest, quite obviously products of the late 50s, and all cut from the same cloth with only slight variations in tailoring. They were filled with families, working class folk, and for the most part the sorts of people who you would think of as good neighbors. They chatted on front porches, barbecued in their back yards, visited each other regularly, and pretty much knew what everyone else was up to and what minor scandals might have recently transpired.
On one side of my house was a family with four children-- three boys and a girl. They were all older than me and slightly wild-- not quite feral, but not exactly well-disciplined either. The youngest was slightly retarded, and the neighborhood gossip was that it was because her parents didn't pay much attention to her as a baby. I have no idea if it's true, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least.
On the other side was an older, childless couple. Shorty was a truck driver for the local grocery chain, and Hazel was the epitome of a housewife-- she cooked, gardened, and kept a spotless house. On weekends, Shorty would mow the lawn and work on his car, while Hazel tended her flowerbeds. One of their spare bedrooms was a TV room, but it was also stuffed with trophies from Shorty's many hunting and fishing trip-- bass with gaping mouths, quail on the wing, deer with huge racks, and lots of other things that were both fascinating and frightening to a small child.
To most of the kids in the neighborhood, especially the kids next door to me, Hazel was the caricature of the mean old lady chasing them off of her impeccable lawn-- you didn't dare set foot in her yard, because she'd immediately see you and come out to send you on your way. For some reason, I had diplomatic immunity, and could run across her lawn with impunity. I rarely did, of course, which may be the reason I could get away with it. She was also the canonical curtain-peeker, and if a strange car appeared in our driveway she'd be there very shortly to figure out what was going on.
I don't know why Hazel and Shorty didn't have kids-- one didn't talk about such things. She doted on her nephew Terry Paul, though, and she also took care of me from time to time. The one I remember most clearly was Christmas day, 1970. I was raised by my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather, but since both of the women worked grandpa took care of me most of the time. That day, I clearly remember grandpa going out on the front porch in the morning because he needed to get some air-- he was having trouble breathing. A few minutes later I was at Hazel's, while the rest of the family took him to the hospital-- he died a few hours later. I have no idea what Hazel said to a six-year-old child abruptly deprived of Christmas, but whatever it was made it sort of OK.
She was a very religious woman. Actually, I'm not sure of that, but she was very much a churchgoing woman, and her social life revolved around church events. Like all older women in the midwest she was a little bit in love with her pastor-- not in that way, but she hung on his every word, vied for his attention, and glowed when she got it. Her pastor was really just one notch down from God himself.
Shorty died many years ago, but Hazel continued on-- stubborn and independent. Maybe ten years ago she lost her drivers' license after a series of mishaps, but she continued living alone with the support of the neighbors and the people from her church. For the last few years she was starting to lose mental capacity-- mom would often have to remind her over and over about what day of the week it was, when her doctor's appointment was, and where she put her checkbook. Amazingly, she could still tell you exactly what she thought of the Cardinal's management, and recite the pitching coach's litany of errors from yesterday in excruciating detail.
Two years ago, after mom got married and moved away from St. Louis, Hazel's family put her into a nursing home. It was the right decision, since Hazel clearly couldn't take care of herself. In fact, it probably would have happened much sooner if mom hadn't been there to pay the bills, tell her what day of the week it was, and help her out with half a dozen little things every day.
Hazel died last week, just a few days short of her 92nd birthday. I doubt many people will remember her, but I will-- she's been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember. Requiescant in pacem.
Hazel with her pastor, at Mom's wedding.
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