Hazel Byorum’s face was a map of wrinkles and sagging, topography disintegrating because gravity worked overtime on her.

Wiry hair sprung from her jaw and upper lip, and her nose slumped toward her chin as if the two conspired to form a snout. Her eyebrows were fierce and unmanageable, an odd match for her thin goatee, though they looked like part of her hat’s netting, loosely held to her head by a couple of hair pins.

I couldn’t imagine her as anything but old-never as a girl playing hopscotch on the sidewalk just as rain had begun to fall or a teenager flirting with her lab partner in Chemistry class or as a young woman in a smart suit, fitted and double-breasted. She’d been plunked down on the planet old-not born or made, put here old for reasons I didn’t understand.

It wasn’t just Hazel with us in the car; her hideous smell was also there in my mom’s blue Toyota as we drove her home from church on my grandmother’s suggestion. It was heavy, a stickiness on the upholstery, the dashboard and even us, some sick syrup of ammonia spun one more time, ratcheted up to the edge of taste that would cling to us all day. As we turned onto her street and got closer to her house, it got worse as if stench were inversely related to the time remaining to endure it.

I’ve never known much about Hazel.

My family talked of Pi Byorum, perhaps her husband. Perhaps Hazel and Pi spent a Saturday evening or two at my grandmother’s when my grandfather was alive, the cherry wood dining table extended with a leaf from the basement, the table resplendent with burgundy glasses, lace napkins and sterling from a matching hutch cabinet on the west wall of the dining room. There would have been a cut glass pitcher and a gold tea pot in a crocheted tea cozy, maybe homemade salad dressing in a gravy boat and warm rolls in a bowl draped with embossed linen.

After a meal of veal, birds or salmon croquettes with creamed peas, they retired-how the civilized do go to another room, into the living room, settling on a mauve davenport for coffee and homemade chocolate pudding for which my grandmother was known.

Maybe Hazel and my grandmother were in PEO, and Hazel once uttered the password to get into a meeting to my grandmother who let her in. “It is…… Fern.” “That’s right, Hazel. I’ll take your coat and put it on the bed.” Maybe they played cards together and bid “two no trump,” speaking of suits and tricks, the coded parlance of bridge.

I bet they became acquainted in a church circle because it’s with church that I associate Hazel and most of the old people of my childhood: twins Ida and Rachel Van Fleet holding the church library together, Eula Rush, Esther Abbott. My grandmother and Hazel talked in the church fellowship hall as they sat on folding chairs at long tables, light, and heat from a bank of north facing windows making their bone-lined corsets feel a bit more restrictive than usual.

When my mom stopped her car for Hazel, we were one block east of Main Street, a street that wound its way up from the downtown railroad tracks where Burlington Northern whistled its hollow notes in the evening. Past Cox’s Bakery where even the air tasted like just fried dough and sugar, past JC Penney, a funeral home and the Empire Theater, razed to make room for a parking lot. Past Trinity Hospital’s emergency and visitor entrance, and past an old folks home with a brick façade the color of cinnamon to where it finally delivered you to the South Hill’s summit: Eighth Avenue, where we lived.

Hazel lived in just off Seventh Avenue in a house behind houses that would’ve claimed First Street as their address. Her house wasn’t really on a street. Rather it was on an interior street, an alley between a street and another alley, Mount Curve, which separated Dr. Ayash’s posh rambler with a small cement pool in the back and Ellison’s white two story with pine green shutters.

The Ellison family owned a department store that bore their name; its downtown store had an elevator with an attendant who sat on a circular seat attached to the elevator frame when she pulled down the lever the closed the elevator door. You could get off at a rattling mezzanine luncheonette where you could buy a root beer float and watch women purchase make-up and fancy handkerchiefs at the counters below, or you could ride up to the top floor, a young woman’s clothing shop with fancy brocade dresses for proms and weddings. The Elllison girls went away for harp lessons, and once or twice one of them performed at church, their fingers like hummingbirds plucking the long and intricate strings.

Hazel got out of the car slowly, chit-chatting, something about my grandmother or the church or the ride home.

God, old woman, hurry up! You stink. I want to go home.

At home, a roast was kept warm with onions in a splattered with white, roaster and the carpet had been vacuumed into near fluffiness by my father, who never went to church. When I got there, I‘d change into jeans and a sweatshirt and eat my dad’s mashed potatoes, smooth and silky because he mixed them with a hand mixer. He’d have gravy for us, too, darkened with Kitchen Bouquet, and my mom would make Harvard beets, sweet and pungent, though I never ate them. I mostly enjoyed the meat, dredged in ketchup on my plate, the beef sweetened by onions cooked with it. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie would be on or the CBS Children’s Film Festival with some version of Pippi Longstocking, that I’d start to watch but abandon for double solitaire on the floor with my mom or gin rummy with my dad.

When Hazel finally got out, we had to wait until she got into her house. In this, she was a study in looseness-her arms and breast loose under a loose dress, her walk lumbering, an upright crawl past a stoop of a house on First Street, toward that nearly hidden alley to the house where she lived that I never saw. Some of her smell she dragged with her as though it were a train; some of it remained in the car with us, a dreadful calling card from a woman who mostly annoyed me.

That’s all I really know of Hazel, except for this: despite old age and atrophy, she cleaned up, found a decent dress, got her stockings to stay up, put on a hat and got to church.

We never drove her there; maybe she took a cab. Did she have the money for it? To speak of money was rude, a sign of unlearned manners commingled with serious disrespect. She got to church and she stayed until the choir’s men sung a capella in the narthex, a sacred resolution of a chord as Reverend Bill Puls, his black pleated robe floating from his shoulders when he descended the pulpit and walked past worshippers out of the sanctuary back into the world of the unholy, the profane, and the body and its inevitable stench. And she went more than once because we drove her home more than once.

But more importantly, I understand now that Hazel presented my mom with an opportunity to do a good deed-driving an old smelly woman home, despite my mom’s annoyance with it. I saw that a good deed isn’t necessarily fun or appealing. It might even be disgusting and gross, a nuisance to be tolerated quietly.

Maybe someone, like my grandmother, wants you to do it and says so as she herself gets a ride home from one of her other daughters. Maybe it’s accompanied by inconvenience and horrible smells that pierce your nostrils just before assaulting your brain. Maybe it forces you to confront the body, how the implications of its failure foreshadow its utter dissolution even though yours is young and agile, the vehicle for the fastest girl at Washington Elementary School, someone who can almost catch up to the fastest boy in a foot race.

Maybe church really happened in my mom’s Toyota before Sunday dinner when she drove Hazel and me up Third Street to Seventh Avenue and then onto First Street. The reading of the scripture and the sermon our waiting as she walked to her door, that lingering pungent odor of hers our benediction, like a chord resolving, the notes inside it settling like a mother and her daughter in a car on a Sunday morning over 40 years ago when I’d not yet realized what it means to go in peace.

Photo Credit: foundin_a_attic Flickr via Compfight cc

  1. Nancy, I was hypnotized reading this. You have a true writer’s voice. Your story is the reason I go out of my way to help the golden girls and boys–as a repayment to the many people who showed so many small kindnesses to my father as he made his way near the end of his life. Your descriptions took me back to times when my grandparents, great-grandparents were alive and the Sunday dinner was very much alive. I can still remember the smell. Will I smell like that someday?

    Beautiful piece. ~D.

  2. Wow and double wow! That final paragraph is profound, moving, and for me, spiritually so true. If we are honest, we LIVE our prayers, we don’t just mouth them, and ‘going to church’ is a moment by moment experience. Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing.

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