Sunday, January 9, 2011

My Friend Hazel

Hazel Pontius Collmer was the first “elder” in my life, other than my grandparents. I encountered her in the late 1970’s, when she was making the best of her twilight years at Beechwood Retirement Home, having out-lived two husbands. The driver who ran errands for the residents used to bring her paintings in for framing when I worked at a nearby frame shop. She included detailed notes on the type of framing she desired and we all adored her dreamy little watercolors.

One evening I had gone over to Beechwood to see my paternal grandmother, who lived in the wing with the dementia patients. Grandma was a lovable little dear but she really did not remember who I was and this made for unsettling and abbreviated visits, motivated more, I must admit, from familial obligation than anything else. I remembered that Mrs. Collmer lived there as well so one evening I decided to try and find her.

Thankfully this was in the days before all of the “privacy concerns” so I asked for and received her location. I knocked on her door and introduced myself as her framer. She chuckled and responded that she had always assumed her framer was a man but she looked me up and down and must have decided I was OK because she invited me into her small apartment. She was watching MacNeil/Lehrer (quite a refreshing change from the game shows blaring away in the rest of the building) and she shushed me until the segment she had been viewing was finished. It was a story about the first woman to be appointed the head of an Ivy League university.

Mrs. Collmer shut off the television, turned to me and asked, “Now, what would you have worn for an interview like that? How would you have done your hair?” She thought that the woman had not looked businesslike enough for such a distinguished position. Mrs. Collmer always dressed impeccably: she had a wardrobe of beautiful dresses, matching shoes and handbags, her hair was always perfectly coiffed; she always seemed to look like she was heading out the door to attend a concert at the philharmonic or perhaps conduct a board meeting.

By the time I met her, she was ninety-something and I was thirty-something and we soon became fast friends. I would go visit my grandmother for five or ten minutes and then spend several hours with this delightful woman who soon insisted that I call her Hazel. She had moved into the retirement community after the death of Mr. Collmer, her second husband who had been her first love. This was the best story!

When she was in high school she was friends with and eventually the beloved of Mr. Collmer, who was a year ahead of her. He went away to college after he graduated, and they corresponded regularly. He told her stories of his new roommate, a Mr. Pontius, and he told Hazel, “I am bringing him home with me for Thanksgiving, he is a grand fellow - you will just love him!”

Of course, much to Mr. Collmer’s dismay, Hazel did indeed fall in love with Mr. Pontius (and he fell in love with her). They were married for over fifty years until his passing, whereupon Hazel serendipitously reconnected with Mr. Collmer whose wife of many years had also passed on. So the childhood sweethearts were reunited (in their seventies) and married for over a decade.

Hazel’s room was decorated with the best pieces from her art collection and her favorite furnishings. When she had moved into Beechwood in her eighties she knew she needed something other than her musical pastimes to keep her occupied, so she took some watercolor classes from James Kuo at Rosary Hill. Dr. Kuo was delighted with her bright spirit. A medical condition caused her hands to be quite shaky so he convinced her to paint clouds and skies and seascapes and foliage - not try to aim for straight lines - go with the flow, as it were. Soon I had framed so many of her paintings that I convinced her to have a one-woman show at the Rosa Coplon Home that lent its wall space to local artists for month-long shows.

Hazel Pontius Collmer and me.
 The residents and staff at Rosa Coplon could hardly believe that this artist was older than most of their residents! Hazel displayed her works there three years in a row and sold quite a number of pieces each time (I bought quite a few myself). At the last show she made a personal appearance at the opening, gave a brief talk, and ended up by demonstrating her daily exercise routine. My dad was holding a microphone for her and he really had to scramble to keep up with her contortions.  Someone asked her how it felt to be so old. Hazel replied, “I will let you know when I feel old.”

Hazel had been born in 1888; she was one of the first generation of women to pursue education beyond high school. Mr. Pontius worked in the upper echelons of management in the WMCA and they traveled all over the world on for both business and pleasure. She played the violin and sang in choral groups. She was straight-backed and tall (she had much better posture than I did!), and she strode through her kingdom with a slender silver-headed cane (which I now have in my possession). Every night before she went to bed she walked down every hallway of her entire building complex and checked to make sure all of the exterior doors were locked and secure.

I remember she told me she was always so excited each time a new resident moved in to Beechwood. She lived with the everlasting hope that someday she would find a kindred spirit - someone who could discuss great books and music and world affairs, and someone who could hear well enough to carry on the conversation. Someone to talk to, a friend her age, a peer – that is what she sought and I do not think she ever found such a person. That may be why she and I became so close – she was desperate! She did give me the perceptive advice not to marry my second husband (which I of course ignored) and today when I look at a plastic grocery bag or a plastic container of any kind, I think of her comment almost thirty years ago that someday such items would be abandoned as being wasteful of the planet’s resources.

In 1985 she fell, broke her hip and her daughter hastily arranged transportation to Buffalo so she could make preparations to move her mother back with her to North Carolina to be close to the rest of her family. Humor usually pops up in the darkest of circumstances and I remember laughing that even though Hazel was suffering from the sudden alteration to her circumstances in addition to the discomfort from her shattered hip, she still managed to be fashion-conscious enough to chide her 75-year-old daughter for carrying a purse that did not match her shoes. Her daughter responded, “I am sorry, Mother, but I was in a hurry to get here to be with you!”

After she moved out of Beechwood, I saw her one last time. I drove down to Ashville with all of her possessions shoehorned into my rusty old van. Although I had a delightful stay with her daughter in an enchanting old farmstead in the middle of a wild and beautiful woodland, visiting my dear Hazel in the inhospitable hospital setting was just not the same as our vibrant get-togethers from days gone by; she was suddenly small, powerless and forlorn - such a pale imitation of her former effervescent self. It was a heartrending visit.

Hazel passed away in 1986 at the age of 98.

 Seascape, Hazel Pontius Collmer