26 February 2011
After the hurricane
(Honestly, I'm not all grim all the time. Not even like 10% of the time. But sad things have happened, and I am driven to write about them...to gain understanding, mastery; to give shape.) So:
It's a famous case. There's a popular movie with an Oscar-winning actor, and a Bob Dylan song beloved and believed by people all over the world. I found out today there's a new autobiography by the man who claims he was falsely accused and framed. Nelson Mandela wrote the foreword.
45 years later, and I still yearn for a woman I can't remember, my grandmother, whose life was tangled up in a dark, evil night, and there destroyed. The details of her wounding and death were horrific; given the subsequent literal hurricane of accusations, court papers, slippery evidence, conflicting testimonies, and raging controversy, Hazel's murder will never be solved. I accept that I will never know who did this to her, and I embrace the peace of that. But today, cnn.com commenters are debating all over again the innocence or guilt of the convicted man. And someone actually posted: "... after all this time, not sure it matters anymore."
What matters, then: Hazel was beautiful, truly. She had a lilting singing voice, coupled with a mischievous smile and a winning personality. She parented lovingly and fiercely, after a childhood of abandonment and poverty. She was mine, and I'll never have her. Needing my grandmother is one of the reasons I embarked on my genealogical journey in 2000. Piece by piece, and never with ease, I've reassembled and claimed her fragmented life story. Dates, names, places, from France to Québec, New England to New Jersey. Found the love, and the sadnesses too. Made my family whole.
The poem I wrote about her a few years ago came out of me like water wrung from a cloth. It needed to happen, but it wrenched. I'm posting it now because this wound keeps getting seared open, and the poem is as close as I can come to wailing: STOP. Let her rest. Let her be Hazel. Give her back to us.
Fingering the corner of a faded photo,
I find myself in Hazel:
eyes that light and scrinch with grins,
appled cheeks, shy teeth,
chin, softly doubling,
dark wavy hair.
I've been told she feared aging
yet laughed uproariously and kidded often—
sardonic bend of her Jersey voice teasing,
sway of ample hips knowing as she walked away
carrying a loaded tray of food and drinks,
serving at a country club.
Dad kicked us out when I was four months old.
A family in shards, swept up,
discarded; then I was
shielded from everyone sharing my surname,
that lingering verb: Burns.
So Hazel dwelled in handlebars, silver as a mirror,
on the gleaming blue tricycle she'd given me
(only, living in the city, I maybe got to ride it once)—
cool sheen of the handlebars' curve
under my baby-plump palm, a tricycle
hopelessly parked indoors, new black tires
ready to move.
Today I move a smooth mouse, pointing
on the Internet, finding
an image when I search on her name:
the window of the Lafayette Bar and Grill, 1966,
"Rheingold" spelled in neon script
with a bullethole in the upper corner,
glass cracked like a twinkled star.
That's Hazel's bullet, one of five
that pierced her and left her for dead,
blasting from shotguns wielded by strangers.
And I am one of ten grandchildren:
a club that never met.