One birthday remembered

I’m not good with birthdays. Beyond my immediate family, I’m pretty hopeless. Even if I remember what day they fall on, I’m unlikely to think of them around that time. But for some reason I have always remembered my great grandmother’s birthday, which is today. It would be Grandma Hazel Smith’s 108th birthday. As it happens, she made it to 102. In Hazel’s last 10 years her health was strong but Alzheimer’s had taken her, unfortunately, and she spent most of her days waiting for her husband Ernie to come and get her. Ernie, who had been dead since 1963. She was a sweet woman who baked a great apple pie. She stayed tight with her sisters, most of them, all her life, though there was some kind of a feud with her sister Mamie that rose to the level of being mentioned in Mamie’s will. (My mother thinks Hazel stole Ernie away from Mamie. I guess we’ll never know.) Ruth and Helen and Hazel spent the summers up at their houses in West Glenville, and Margaret was down in Scotia, and they saw each other all the time.
They were an interesting group. They didn’t come from any money — their father was the town tinker and the town drunk. Helen, who took care of me and my sister when we were young, had a flamboyant affair with a married insurance agent who gave her some property that helped her get by. In the midst of the depression, she was able to lend a considerable sum of money to Hazel and Ernie, which they secured with everything they had, including farm equipment, an old car and 60 chickens. In addition to a rooming house in Schenectady, Helen somehow managed to get a summer house in West Glenville, just up the road from where she’d grown up. Margaret, similarly, had a lifelong boyfriend, and she worked at the Wallace’s Department Store downtown and had a two-family house in Scotia, where she rented out the upper floor. I know that Ruth had worked and somehow she had the family house on Waters Road in West Glenville, but what she got by on is a mystery. Hazel was the traditionalist of those four, in the sense that she married a man who supported her. Ernie had various ventures in his life, but mostly it centered on subsistence farming and carpentry. He died from an accidental overdose of blood-thinning medication, and after that Hazel went to live with her daughter, Thelma, but spent her summers mostly up at Helen’s house in West Glenville.
All these labors and intrigues, ways of living and relationships, arguments so important they lasted a lifetime — all viewed dimly through second-hand memories and some papers found in a wooden box — all the rest is lost to us now.

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