IT WAS EARLY NOVEMBER, a brisk day but with azure skies, and the east coast autumn had already burned the deciduous tree-leaves to yellows, oranges and reds. A vagrant thought grabbed me that one ought not to be fuming on such an elegant day.
She strode past me and into the building–but not before my al- ways beauty-seeking eyes checked out her trim figure and firm, mus- cular legs–a jogger, I decided.
At that time, two years ago, an irony occurred in that as Meredith was visiting her seventy-something-year-old grandmother, my visit to Charlotte was paired with a presentation she had asked me to make on “Growing Older, Or Older and Growing.” Grandmother and Meredith were part of my audience of forty.That’s what I do: I lecture and teach on a variety of family issues.
When my hour-long offering was over, several of the residents crowded around, two or three in wheelchairs, a couple more with walkers. Alongside was Meredith, guiding a wheelchair occupied by her grandmother, a substantial, white-haired woman with enormous
blue eyes that stared straight ahead and tilted upwards. I could see that she was blind.
As the others peeled away, Meredith stepped up and said, in what
I liked to think was a sheepish voice, “I enjoyed your lecture.”
“Yes,” her grandmother added. “Fine job, young man.” She was wearing a knitted woolen sweater, cut wide to accommodate her am- ple body. It was open in front, and under it she wore a tie-dyed tee shirt, multi-colored and almost luminescent in its brightness.
Young man. When one is blind, certainly age has to be measured by energy, enthusiasm, and high spirit rather than looks. All at once, I felt wonderfully young.
“Thank you both,” I said. “I’m flattered.”
“Flattered is one thing,” Grandmother said, “but I can tell you are an educated man, and I would guess you have presented in front of old fogies before.”
I smiled. “I don’t think of you as old fogies. I think of you as splendid survivors.”
Meredith said softly, “I apologize for my harsh behavior in the parking lot.”
I noticed that my sister Charlotte looked at us oddly.
“Oh no,” I answered, “I did trespass. Your reaction was quite
In that moment, we became friends, Grandmother Claire Hazel- ton, Meredith Hazelton, and I. Claire was an elderly person who, I was certain, would not, along with my sister, pick her nose and intro- duce the product into her parted lips. Something about her was mag- netic, a genuineness, a munificent spirit that shown through those pale, unseeing eyes.
Charlotte told me later that the granddaughter was a frequent visitor, and that Claire was a sweet andsparkling woman who lost her eyesight some eight or ten years earlier as a result of macular degen- eration, the more severe, wet kind, where blood collects behind the retina.
“I don’t know Meredith,” Charlotte told me, “but I do know that she is devoted to her grandmother. I consider Claire a lovely friend.” Before I returned home from that visit, Meredith and I ex- changed emailsand phone numbers. My foolish presumption was ro- mantic in nature, while her purpose, I have since learned, was an in- terest in my work (I am a college teacher, specializing, as I said, in family relations),and a long-distance friendship that might enrich her.
Meredith was, and is, a licensed social worker, employed by Bucks County to work with indigent families, often with incidents of substance abuse. I know she is good at what she does, since her em- pathy is elegantly partnered with a keen intellect. I also know she can blow her top when crossed.
On this particular trip, she has picked me up at Hamilton Station in New Jersey, after my one-hour train ride from New York. This is not, however, a pleasant time.
Char had told me on the phone that Claire Hazelton had passed in the night, and now, a week later, I am arriving for my yearly visit. Meredith is clearly distraught, almost morose.
In the two years since Meredith and I became friends, I have learned that her father died when she wasa child, and that her mother lived in Florida. Claire was her father’s mother, and she and Mere- dith’smother did not get along. As I knew to expect, Meredith had to handle her grandmother’s death all alone.
“It’s a mess,” she says, while motoring slowly along in the pe- numbra of arching maples and oaks. “Claire has been my rock, the only person I could feel totally safe with.”
I wonder, in that tense moment, what Meredith has to feel unsafe about, but remain silent.
“All the stories about my different sucky relationships that I’d bombard her with were always received with patience and wisdom.”
At that, I realize I am insanely jealous. I don’t see her for months at a time, after all, and this is the first moment I realize that for all I know she may have a boyfriend, may be sleeping with someone, may be inlove.
Since we met, she has come to California twice, once for a con- ference and the other time to visit an old high school friend who moved to LA ten years earlier and lives in Marina del Rey. Each time I invited her to stay in my townhouse, assuring her that I have a sep- arate suite upstairs with private bath–and eachtime she gracefully de- clined and stayed with her friend instead.
After a quiet few moments, in which I take in the embracing am- bience of Pennsylvania’s autumn riches, she says, “You know, Greg, it’s not that Grandmother didn’t have issues of her own. I mean, she needed me as well, would tell me secrets that no one in the world could even imagine. We trusted eachother.”
Finally, I say, “You had a sweet connection. That’s what makes it so painful.”
“It’s hard to explain, but she was my grandma and my sister, my true confidante. Crazy to put it this way, but she really understood me, was almost like a therapist to me. She had amazing listening skills.”
I want to bellow to the trees: “I have those skills! Use me! With
your grandmother gone, let me be your confidential ear!”
What I say is, “It’s rare to find a person with that talent. And even more, the wisdom to know how to use it with her granddaugh- ter.”
We are nearing Bigelow Village (but not for me to lecture this trip–only my regular visit with Charlotte), driving past an enormous open field with a rain-caused lake, where hundreds of wild geese col- lect. In the pause of conversation I say to Meredith, “Char told me the geese used to fly far to the south in the fall, but now tend to stay local the year around.” I find my mind occupied thinking about the birds, Meredith, other things I could say, and what I remember is my sister telling me:
“Those birds are dirty creatures, and in the spring, we have to be cautious because they cross the highway with their little trailing broods.” But it seems an unkind piece of information to one who has just lost her grandmother, and so I stay in Meredith’s silence.
The car rolls on, and after a few more quiet moments, Meredith says softly, almost inaudibly, over thehum of her car’s motor, to her- self as much as to me, “Claire was a murderer.”
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