Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Hazy and Hazardous Beginnings

My first recollection comes from my third year. I was all dressed up in Sunday finery (with someplace to go, I knew not where.) It was in the first rented house I have any memory of—on Mendota Avenue. That’s in the near Northwest of Detroit, just above Highland Park, and thus near Hamtramck, the Polish working class enclave of Detroit where my single parent of a mother, May Gertrude Fitzpatrick Hazard, taught eighth grade at the Dickinson Middle School, or Junior High as they dubbed them in those old days of the 1930’s.

She didn’t have her own home until 1945, when a cheap wartime FHA mortgage allowed her to buy a house shared with another singleton teacher, Marge Gaul, an East Detroit elementary school principal she got to know summers up at our cottage on Lake Huron, ten miles South of Tawas between U.S.23 to Detroit and a dazzling thirty foot bluff on the lakefront.

It still mystifies my uneconomic head to learn that her summer cottage only cost her $1550 in 1938: $800 for the 50 foot lot and $750 three bedroom cottage with a stone fireplace and a wraparound front porch featuring the non stop kaleidoscope of Lake Huron. She called it Birchloft, from the gorgeous second growth trees (replacing the virgin pines I later learned my lumberman grandfather had shamefully clearcut a generation earlier!) it had.

Next door, Leona Henchey, a college chum who was an elementary school principal in Detroit, built an even grander but basically boring grey shingled two story structure. To our right was May’s sister Loretto’s summer place, Silver Birches, the first female junior high school principal in Detroit (we used to brag). She had a crippled right hand, which we never talked about, but which I assume was what kept her an old maid. As unlikely as it sounds, she was the egghead of the family!

Which is another way of saying that she subscribed to the Sunday New York Times, a very infrequent habit among immigrant Irish families. The other girl in the eight children Fitzpatrick family was Lillian. Aunt Lil was the housekeeper of the three, and she spent her summers there with my cousin and Bob, six months older than I. I was seriously upset when I learned while I was teaching in London the summer of 1968 that my brother Mike had talked her into selling the cottage to Aunt Lil’s daugher-in-law. Birchloft was the only settled thing in my isolated childhood.

The Depression was no picnic, and my memory is of the family having to move almost every fall, even though I was off in boarding school between the ages of three and thirteen in Bay City, Michigan. To save money in the summer she let the school year rental go and picked up a new place in the fall. After Mendota it was a duplex across the street from Holy Mary Repriatrix convent, across Six Mile from the Jesuit University of Detroit.

And then it was across from Highland Park High school in big Gothic apartment complex just off Woodward Avenue, the main drag of Detroit, and then behind Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, presumably because my brother Mike was then going to Catholic Central High School. His lack of a father was just beginning to show. He was drinking, and when I came home on vacations from Holy Rosary would mostly be lying on the couch, defeated by his latest misdemenors which often included petty larceny.

(Harry E. Hazard, a furniture salesman when he returned from a captaincy in the American Expeditionary Force in 1919, had defected to Nevada with his office secretary Ruth in 1930.). It was all a mystery to me, but I could later well imagine as my own marriage disintegrated that the sexual license he enjoyed in Paris on liberty didn’t jibe with the prim morals of my mother.

On Mendota, my mother “roomed” with Justine Fitzpatrick (no relation) an ex nun who split expenses. Her father was as close as I got to a father figure. “Uncle” Dan was a blue collar Mick with a great sense of humor. He supervised delivery trucks at a downtown department store. My first taste of working stiffs was coming in out of the cold of a Christmas vacation to thaw in front of his electric warmer. The Fisher Building had just been finished, with its Golden Tower (grand nightlights), and he referred to it as the Gillyhoo Bird’s Nest. When he got home each night from his job at Crowley-Milner’s (the third biggest department store in downtown Detroit, after Hudson’s and Kern’s) he would settle down in his favorite chair in the living room with his Detroit Times for a few minutes.

Then he would look at me suddenly and ask, "Heh, Pat, did you just hear a whoosh of wings?” At first I was astonished at how good his hearing was, picking up the flights of the Gillyhoo Bird so quickly. I would volunteer to check behind the window ledges outside the front room, and sure enough, it was a Mars bar, or a Baby Ruth. The Gillyhoo Bird had landed again, the greatest avian philanthropist of my childhood. Indeed, that first recollecting, with the anxiety I felt long before I knew what the word meant, was soon followed by my first automotive trip to Bay City and Holy Rosary.

My second memory followed soon after we arrived there. As my mother prepared to leave for Detroit, she handed me a five dollar bill (a sizable grant in the Depression!). I tore it in two and flung it at her. My life as a lonely naysayer had begun! Sister Mary Felicia, O.P. the first and second grade teacher folded me in her arms as I sobbed watching my mother drive away from the happy crowds of parents dropping off their boys for boarding school. She extended her franchise as she became my one on one kindergarten tutor for the next two years. In a bewildering world, Sister Felicia became my island of security.

In 1980 when my brother Mike died of alcoholism in Nazareth Hospital in Philadelphia, I got sentimental when I returned his ashes to Detroit for burial in Mount Olivet Cemetery. I started visiting my old haunts. I wondered about Sister Felicia. Holy Rosary had folded as a boarding school and its noble four story Victorian brick pile became a business center. I wondered if Sister Felicia indeed was even still alive, fifty years after she became my de facto mother.

I drove up to her Dominican Motherhouse in Grand Rapids to check it out. The front desk assured me she was upstairs in Room 202. I knocked timidly on the door of 202. She opened the door and in a rather unfriendly voice demanded to know what I wanted. I asked if she was Sister Felicia of Holy Rosary Academy. She granted she was in a still ungenerous old lady’s voice. “I’m Pat Hazard,” I said timidly. “PAT HAZARD!!?? You’re best student I ever had!”

And she proceeded to accompany me with her walker down the main corridor telling one and all that “Pat Hazard has come to visit me”. Heh, I was whelmed. It was even a greater high than the tribute my son Michael and I paid to his dead Uncle’s cremains when we threw a McDonald’s coffee cup full of his ashes over the finish line of the last race that night at the Detroit Race Track, to memorialize his gambling habit. He had died from too much drinking at his favorite Greenwich Village bar on his annual visit to the Belmont Stakes. May he rest in pieces.

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