I never knew my Aunt Hazel, my mother’s sister. She died tragically in 1946, ten years before I was born. Her story is one of those that lingered in the shadows of conversations around our house, never at the center of it. The story that I think I know has been threaded together in my own mind as if I had found pieces of a puzzle here and there over a lifetime. The pieces were never laid out on the table. They would just show up from time to time. The puzzle is still incomplete.
Hazel was born in May of 1921, three years before my Mama. She had three kids pretty early in life and was gone from this earth by the fall of 1946. Only 25 years old.
What made me think of her was my visit with my cousins the other day. We have all buried our parents by now. They buried one of their brothers a year and a half ago. He is missed. They talked about the pain of having to bury a sibling. My wife understands what that is like.
Disturbing and troubling experiences are not usually the fodder for talk around the supper table. So, we never heard the full story, just the small tidbits that dropped in as side comments when something was said or done that hit a nerve in my Mama’s memory.
When my sister and I were young, our folks would have kids from a local orphanage stay with us for a few days. I’ve seen the pictures of my sister and I and two other kids dressed up for Easter Sunday. Mama would tell us how she and Hazel were raised by their grandmother because her real mother had left, and her Dad had remarried. I got the impression that they were “handed off” because it was more convenient. Though she never said it, I can imagine that she thought that a person should think more of kids than to just hand them off.
I’m pretty sure this is why, after Hazel died, she and my Dad took in Hazel’s kids. Hazel’s husband was out of the picture and the kids had nowhere to go. Somehow these three lost children made their way from Michigan to Georgia and found some solace in the arms of their Aunt Helen and Uncle John. In 1946, my parents were just in their early twenties. I’ve always wondered if part of the reason they waited so long to have kids of their own was that they were taking care of her sister’s kids. And over the next 60 years they always stayed in touch.
It was much later in life before the most haunting element of the story emerged. Hazel was shot and killed by her husband. I don’t know any details other than that one raw fact. But that is enough to make me understand why Mama never talked about it. The fact that she was never bitter or depressed or consumed by that loss is amazing to me. It makes me wonder if the times I saw her quietly crying, assuming that she was upset about something, that perhaps it was Hazel on her mind. A birthday on May 8th. The day she got the news, September 29th. I just know that she held it together and at the same time never forgot Hazel.
When Mama was well into her 80s, losing her fight with Alzheimers, she eventually drifted into a state of mind where she and Hazel were children again. Mama had other half-brothers and sisters. I only ever knew Uncle JW. The other children of her birth mother never came around. Maybe they never knew about us.
When I went to see Mama in the nursing home, she would ask me about Hazel. She was worried that Hazel might need her. She couldn’t find her. The darkness of her loss, like an underground spring, had found its way to the surface within her struggle against reality. She talked of a time past in a way that she never would have allowed had she had control of her mind.
After my folks were gone, we did what all families do. We went through their stuff like it was an archaeological dig. We laughed. We cried. We consoled each other. In one of the boxes my wife found a folded up piece of yellowed paper. I could tell by the way she handled it that she was captured by it. She knew Hazel’s story as well as I did.
“You need to look at this.”
That was all she said. She handed it to me. It was a Western Union Telegram from September of 1946, sent to my grandfather, Ramie Still at the Cotton Mill in Social Circle, where he worked. It was from a Michigan dispatch.
“Come quickly. STOP. Hazel had been shot and killed. STOP.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed. I had a hard time choking back the emotions. This telegram was 66 years old and it came over me as if it had just arrived. My mother had held on to this in a small box out of sight for all these years. What I “thought” I knew to be a piece of the puzzle was staring me right in the face. That the story was real was undeniable now.
Sometime last year I went up to the home place to get one more piece of family history. My son went with me. Inside the old barn was a trunk. A large steamer trunk. Not really hidden, but in one of the back rooms that no one ever went into. The door from the outside was so overgrown that we cut a hole in another wall to get in. The trunk was still there just as I remembered it. I knew only this much. It belonged to Hazel. It contained a few clothes and a pair of high heal shoes, nothing more.
My entire life this trunk had been entombed in the recesses of the barn and no one ever talked about it. I know I asked a few times, but I could tell even then that I wasn’t getting any real information. What I never thought about until now is that this trunk contained, for my mother, decades of “what might have been” if Hazel had lived. Maybe it contained the pain of her loss, so Mama didn’t have to be consumed by it. Whatever was inside the trunk didn’t matter. Just knowing it was there and that it belonged to Hazel was enough.
My sister and I came about as close to being raised in the perfect family as you can get. I don’t mean that it was perfect, but it was as close to what you would want if you could order up a family where things go reasonably smooth and without tragedy. My mother did not have that. Not at all. A lot of people don’t have that. The hardships that people bare up under would probably sink most of us if only we could see the story behind their eyes.
Finding that telegram convinces me that my mother lived a life of quiet valor. She carried within her a solemn emptiness and never asked us to share it. She never accused the world of being unfair. And, her graciousness has taught me always to err on the side of sympathy toward others.
You never know what somebody else is carrying around within them. Maybe they were inconvenient when they were 8 years old. Maybe their Mama left and never looked back. Maybe they lost their only real sister way too young and for unspeakable reasons. She rose above it. She chose to rise above it.
My inner voice tells me to remember that. To be kind towards others. You just never know who needs it.