Well, picking up where we left off with Faye — Faye may have heightened my knowledge and acceptance of the supernormal and the unexplained, but Hazel keeps me believing in Santa Claus for the simple fact that she IS Mrs. Claus. Singer/songwriter Richard Shindell has a song called, Hazel’s House, that makes me suspect he knows my Hazel as well. What he describes is very much the feeling and ambiance one experiences at, well, Hazel’s house. Up a winding northern New Jersey back road, you are either going to Hazel’s house or into wooded New York state after crossing the Appalachian Trail in a national forest. There is no other good reason to go up the road, but Hazel is the best reason I can think of.
Actually, Hazel is two people — kind of like a superhero. In her mild-mannered public persona, Hazel is a frumpy, slightly addled, sweet little older lady — plump, loud, happy, and as friendly as can be. You might write her off, just because she seems sweet, nice and not much else. I knew Hazel for almost a year before I visited Hazel’s house. Hazel’s house is ordinary looking — a little unkempt. A time-worn white picket fence borders the property. An old wagon wheel serves as decoration and plant hanger. Flagstones lead from the driveway to the front door. A Christmas wreath hangs year-round from the door. Christmas lights decorate trees and eaves, also year-round. Walking in the front door, you might think you have walked into a child’s bedroom. Stuffed animals greet you from almost every angle. Dolls watch your every move. Toys and games are spread on every surface. A jigsaw puzzle is eternally in process on a card table. The television is on: cartoons.
Your attention is drawn from sights to smells. There is something wonderful baking, hot and sweet. There are complementary odors of mint and cinnamon; an undercurrent of baking bread; a hint of buttered popcorn. Nothing cloying, everything inviting. Again a shift, this time from smells to sounds. If every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings, then Hazel is responsible for a multitude on her own. Almost everything in her home rings, jingles, tinkles, jangles, or clangs. From the kitchen, music can be heard, not unusually Christmas songs and carols. Walking to the doorway, it is quickly apparent that the kitchen is the control center of the whole operation. Hazel commands her kitchen space like a flour-covered platoon leader, barking orders and making efficient movements with cookie sheets, baking pans, spoons, spatulas, and mixing bowls, occasionally pausing to poke her glasses up the bridge of her nose. She acknowledges my presence with a warm, brief welcome, a from-the-toes laugh, and then she spins back in action.
Hazel is a spinster-lady, never having children or grandchildren. Her nieces and nephews live far away. Yet, I never once visited her home that children were not everywhere. I don’t think she hired them, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Children’s laughter and glee filled the air. I am not making this up, and I am not stretching the truth — I visited Hazel’s house at least two dozen times in my six years serving this charge, and children were present every time. Yet I cannot recall even once hearing them argue, yell, scream, fight, or cry. Oh, they were plenty loud, but in a joyful reverie without the slightest hint of anger or animosity. They were more than Stepford-children, though. I think somehow they were in a place where everything was okay, everything was allowed, and they were welcomed, accepted and valued for who they were. There was simply no reason to act up. Who fights in heaven?
I looked at Hazel in her own home frequently, struck by her rosy cheeks, the smile on her face, the deep satisfaction and contentment, and the deep well of joy from which she drew. I visited many single, older ladies, very similar to Hazel, who — for whatever reason — plumbed the depths of loneliness, despair, anxiety, bitterness, depression and angst. I often wondered what made Hazel different. I asked her once. She thought about it, raised a chubby hand in front of her and began ticking off reasons, finger by finger: “first, I grew up alone, didn’t like it, decided not to be alone anymore, so I’m not. Second, happiness doesn’t just happen to you — it’s a choice. I choose to be happy. Third, I don’t know if it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is certainly more fun. I like fun. Fourth, when I was a child I always wanted to live at the North Pole, but people kept telling me to ‘grow up.’ Well, I grew up, and I decided to live like I was at the North Pole anyway. And fifth, I drink Sherry; lots of Sherry. I REALLY like Sherry.” So, there you have it. A recipe for at least one happy life.
I found out something about Hazel I wasn’t supposed to, and I have kept it secret for the past twenty-two years. Every Christmas Eve, from 1967 until 1999, Hazel had a friend drive her into the small town of Sussex, where she played Santa Claus to the two welfare hotels. Displaced families, the unemployed, domestic abuse victims, spouses and children of the incarcerated, and others from the fringes ended up in two decrepit and depressing weekly rentals. I can attest to the fact that there was not much joy in these dingy rooms, as I made many visits with groceries, medicine, and gas money to the clientele. But each Christmas morning, people opened their doors to a small box filled with goodies — candies and cookies and toys and books and mittens and fruits and very simple, sweet prayer cards. She also included a New Testament with a note. “I offer this as a gift. If you do not want it, that is okay, but please don’t throw it away. Leave it behind as a gift for the next person.” She provided these boxes for 50+ rooms for 30+ years without telling a soul, all on her own, at personal expense and effort. And she delivered them herself, even at times when she could barely walk, lift, or bend over. There was never any question that she wouldn’t do this.
Faye and Hazel. Old gals who could very easily have become very bitter that life hadn’t treated them better. Both could have gotten mad at God, with justifiable reason. Both could have, at the very least, withdrawn and not cared much one way or the other about other people. But they didn’t. In the face of loss, pain, grief, struggle, poverty, and tragedy, both made the choice to stay happy, caring and strong. Do I believe in Santa Claus? Well, duh! I’ve met members of his family, and if he is half as cool as they are, I’m sorry to ever have doubted.