Saturday, August 29, 2009

Yellowstone Road


I asked callously, not because I was a callous child, but because I had been alive for less than two decades -- two decades which were securely distant from accountants jumping out of windows wrapped in ticker tape, or middle-class homeless people, or cities made of boxes.

To a kid that had been born in 1984, words like "great depression" and "cardboard city" were nothing more than size 10 print in a high school textbook. The apathetic nature of my viewpoint was not intentional, but rather an inevitable circumstance of the human mind in which experience can never be an equivalent of non-experience. My mind could not attach a genuine emotional response to the depression era, because I had never in my life experienced the things I read about this time period. It was interesting to me, but I hadn't thought twice about it when approaching her with this question.

Like a bull in a china store, or so the cliche goes, I asked with a big stupid smile on my face. Her reaction made me feel more foolish than any single event I can recall in my brief existence here on this planet.

She didn't speak at first. Her face tightened, eyebrows brought together and lips tight. She seemed to have quietly taken her leave of the present, as if where her journey ended was so vastly distant from the chair she was sitting in that the act of processing thoughts became delayed like a radio transmission from the moon.

She was quiet, and still. I waited silently.

I don't remember exactly what she said after that -- it was something like "I don't want to talk about it." But it wasn't really what she said that effected me so deeply. More accurately, it was what she didn't say.

Hazel Gallagher (or as we all knew her, Grandma Hazel) was a woman who lived for one hundred years in this crazy world. Although some of us knew her only briefly during that one hundred years, and couldn't possibly begin to piece together her entire life, we knew that she was a good person, and a caring person, and a strong person. We knew that whatever it was that she had been through in her life, she had somehow gotten here, and that had to count for something. Perhaps it counted for everything.

I didn't know where Grandma Hazel went that day in her mind when I asked about the great depression. Honestly, I don't think I'll ever know for sure what she was thinking. But I do know that Grandma Hazel is not and never was an old lady lying in a nursing home. She was not wrinkled skin or hearing aids, as we remember her most recent physicality. She was not a mentality of delusions and mirages of the past.

Hazel was many things which we know and many things which we don't, but she will never simply be a victim of a dying body, in the same way she will never simply be the victim of the great depression. Sometimes things that are brilliantly complicated are also beautifully simple.

Hazel Gallagher was my Grandma Hazel. You may never understand what that means, any more than I understood what Hazel couldn't bring herself to say to me about her past.

But I guess the point is that understanding and knowing are not the same. I don't pretend to understand Grandma Hazel's life, but I know Grandma Hazel.

I think it goes without saying that everyone who had the privilege of knowing Grandma Hazel loved her and misses her. But I also believe that the perseverance of her soul will forever outlive the longevity of the human body, and perhaps that is something we may all take comfort in.

Love you always Grandma.