Hazel breezes into town this balmy summer’s day, a day I never imagined would be her last visit and our last time together. She arrives in Toronto to spend time with her daughter, Pam, after a long hiatus from visiting. I dash over to Pam’s home to welcome her. I’m nine years old and relatives from another parish arrive for a visit. They bring juicy tomatoes and syrupy sweet mangoes. My cousins and I go hog-wild as we eat a large bowl of mangoes after dinner.
Hazel’s mother is my paternal grandfather’s sister. In the grand scheme of things, I believe that makes her my cousin two generations removed or is it three generations? Pam and I are very close and content that we are cousins; whether it is second, third, or fourth is inconsequential. I’m thirteen, attending high school, and Natalie is my bosom buddy. We share all our secrets. Her folks are well-off, so I spend some weekends at their home.
Hazel flew in from her home in Florida, the place where my father also lives. She brings word that Dad is okay.
After Hazel is in town for a week, it dawns on me that she is one of the few close relatives that I have and that her two-week vacation is evaporating fast. I decide to put the corporate world’s business aside and devote a day to her. I’m twenty-six, newly married, and Aunt Marie comes to visit. My husband and I scurry to take her to as many touristy spots as we can afford to give her a good time.
I called her on the telephone. “Hazel,” I say (if she wasn’t so jazzy, I would have to call her Aunt Hazel) “How would you like to spend a day with me?”
“You want to spend an entire day with little old me?” she asks. Surprise is audible in her voice, but I detect excitement too.
“Sure, why not? Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll pick you up early, and we’ll have breakfast at a pancake house. After that, I’ll take you sightseeing around town for a while, then we’ll go see an early movie. After that, I’ll take you to my place for a nap, then we’ll go out for dinner. How does that sound?”
Hazel is ecstatic. “Oh, my young cousin, I can’t believe you want to do all this for me. It sounds wonderful. Wait until I tell your father about this!”
Two days later, before the crazy Toronto rush-hour traffic accelerates to high gear, I drive from the suburbs to the edge of the city and pick up an exuberant Hazel. I’m ten, my uncle collects my cousins and me to take us to spend three weeks of our summer vacation with my paternal grandparents. We are thrilled to spend time with them in the rugged countryside, where we’ll climb trees, admire gigantic boulders, and bathe in the river that runs through the property.
Hazel is wearing a colourful shorts-set with matching earrings dangling from her ear lobes and a fashionable pair of white sandals. Except for a few wrinkles at her throat and forehead and a few strands of grey hairs that have escaped the wine-coloured rinse she uses in her hair, one could easily mistake her for seventy.
While we wait for our breakfast at the pancake house, we gaze at the traffic whizzing by through the wide, floor-to-ceiling windows, chatting amicably. Full of life, Hazel shares some old stories with me.
“Eh, did your father ever tell you the story about his Aunt Mary?” Without waiting for my reply, she continues. “Mary lived in Harlem for decades and was well-known there for her delicious rum-cakes. Caribbean people came from all over New York to buy them at Christmas time.” I’m sixteen and visiting Aunt Marie (my mother’s only sister) for the Christmas holidays. She is an expert baker and demands that I help to make the plum puddings and fruit cakes. While she plops the cake tins into the oven, I relish the taste of the raw batter as I lick the empty mixing bowl.
I return from my revere as Hazel continues. “One evening in December, your father was on his way home from work, tired, but he loved to check up on the older folks. He stopped by Mary’s apartment and rang the doorbell over and over. No one answered. He saw a light inside and believed that someone was home. He left in the bitter cold. At the top of the street, he saw a phone booth. He used the phone to call Mary. She answered on the second ring. Your father was livid that she hadn’t answered the doorbell and had wasted his time and his dime. He was probably madder about the dime!” Hazel chortles and slaps the table.
“Was he really mad about the dime?” I ask.
Hazel looks at me but ignores the question.
“You must understand that your father lived in The Bronx at that time. Harlem was a long way from home.” I’m twenty-four and visiting Aunt Mary in Harlem for the first time. The apartment is dingy, the carpet as old as Methuselah, and every corner and crevice is stuffed with furniture or memorabilia. But her cooking awakens my taste buds.
“The feisty Mary told him that he had the nerve to show up at her door without calling first, that she did not open her door to anyone unless she was expecting a visitor.”
Hazel and I crack up laughing.
After we recover, I say, “Did Aunt Mary not have a peephole in her door?”
“Yes, but she never uses it!”
A pretty Indian waitress arrives with our food. Scrutinizing her plate, Hazel picks up her fork and looks across the table at me.
“I won’t eat too many of them pancakes to send up my sugar,” she says in her American drawl, acquired after living in New York City for more than fifty years. She has always been a full-figured woman, and although she has lost several pounds, she remains in that size range. I tell her it is all right, that she can have as much fruit salad as she likes because they make it with fresh fruits, not the canned stuff.
After breakfast, we tour the city then I speed up the ramp to the highway. I want Hazel’s visit to the movies to be a memorable treat, and I knew just the cinema to take her―the Colossus. It’s located a good distance from my home, necessitating driving on the highway. I’m thirteen and our English teacher takes the entire class to the cinema in town to see The Sound of Music. We march two abreast, orderly, like little Lords and Ladies, adhering to all instructions from our chaperones. We cross the street, then enter the cinema. Colossus is one of the newer cinemas in the suburbs, and as the name suggests, it is gigantic. It is indeed the one to visit for a movie experience.
As we come near, I point to the space-age-looking building set apart from everything else. At a glance, you would swear it is a flying saucer. Designed like a space ship, it is silver-coloured with antennas jutting out from the top, while tiny, red lights flicker around its circumference.
I park close to the main entrance, so Hazel doesn’t have to walk far, and soon we enter the building. She stares in awe at the structure. In the lobby, the ceiling stretches forever. The ambiance is that of the interior of a space ship. Large green men in purple robes line the foyer. A closer look reveals that they are machines one can use to purchase movie tickets. Several effigies of characters from Star Trek, including Mr. Spock stands in glass cages in the center of the room.
We arrive just minutes before the one o’clock movie starts. I purchase our tickets, popcorn, and diet sodas, and hurry as fast as Hazel can walk to cinema six, one of twenty theatres in the building.
“Don’t go up too high. I can’t take too many stairs because of arthritis in my legs,” Hazel cautions.
I acquiesce. If only she knew that my knees also hurt, but I do not let on. We select two seats that are not too far up but not too close to the huge screen. Since our movie-day occurs during the week, and in the middle of the day, the cinema is partially empty.
During the show, Hazel and I eat popcorn and slurp diet cokes like two teenagers. I’m sixteen, Natalie and I are at the Odeon Theatre at a Saturday matinee. We share a paper bag chock full of sodas, grapes, American apples, chocolate bars, chips and peanuts in the shell during the show. When we leave the cinema, we leave behind a pigsty—grape pits, apple cores, candy wrappers and soda cans and peanut shells strewn on the floor. Whenever Hazel or I think we know what comes next in the story, we whisper our thoughts to each other. The movie, the newest version of The Great Gatsby, is interesting. On the way to my house, Hazel banters on and on about how much fun she has had. We dissect the movie and talk about what was powerful and what was weak about the story.
Later that evening, after Hazel has her nap and feels refreshed, we dine at a delightful Italian restaurant, then I take her back to her daughter’s house. It was a great “girl’s” day out. During our time together, the thought never crossed my mind that my date was an 86-year-old woman. It gives me some hope that growing old doesn’t have to be humdrum. If you have a zest for life, like Hazel, it can be fun. Cecelia Ahern and others may be onto something when they said, “Age is only a number.”
I received a telephone call from my father within minutes after Hazel arrived back in Florida; he had heard all about my date with Hazel, and he was pleased. Six months after our time together Hazel departed this world.
Yvonne Blackwood is an African-Canadian author of three adult non-fiction books and three children’s picture books in The Nosey Charlie Adventure Series. She is an award-winning short story writer, columnist. Yvonne has contributed to several anthologies including Human Kindness, Canadian Voices, and WordScape. She has published articles in More of Our Canada, Adelaide, Litbreak, and InTouch magazines and has written numerous articles for several newspapers including the Toronto Star. She is an alumnus of the Humber College School of Writers.