The Big Sleep… Oops!
Through the grate in the floor under the head of my bed, I could hear my mother replace the receiver back into the phones cradle, then softly say to my Dad, “she died.” My life was about to change… in a matter of weeks to be exact. The only world I knew, my 32nd Street neighborhood, was to become history. It was late in November of 1950, less than a month before I was to turn ten years old, and just before Christmas.
My Grandma Hart, my Dad’s mother, was until then a mystery to me. To this day, the only physical memory I have of her was attending her funeral. I don’t remember any of the encounters reflected in earlier photographs. She lived with my Uncle Louis at 24354 Stanford Street in Dearborn Township, a suburb of Detroit. My Uncle, who also wasn’t well known by me, was a bachelor then and was to remain so for the rest of his life. He was the youngest male child of the Hart Family. He had served in the Army during the Second World War, having stormed ashore with his unit into Italy in September of 1943. General Mark Clark’s 5th Army had assembled in North Africa, and from there transported northward across the Mediterranean. After the war ended Grandma Hart lived with my Uncle, the dutiful son, until her death in 1950. I didn’t know it then but my uncle and me were to become best friends and roommates.
The house on Stanford Street, where I would soon go to live, was highly unusual. It was small for sure but it was also different than all the other houses in the neighborhood. It was the only house with a coal burning stove. There were two small bedrooms, a living room and a small kitchen. A bathroom was in the hallway between the two bedrooms. The basement was unfinished. The coal bin sat beneath the front porch, a four foot by six foot cement pad about four feet off the ground with a wrought iron railing around it. The bin itself was accessible in the basement for the furnace.
It is important in this story to understand how difficult it was to get into the house from the front porch doorway. The front storm door/screen opened outwardly blocking the small cement stairs (there were three of them). Entering the house from the front door you were faced with a closet with an immediate step up to the left into the living room. This is where I first remember seeing my Grandmother Hart… in her casket.
The decision to have a funeral, visitation, and wake in her house had to have been and economical one. The living room was not designed for such purposes. The casket itself took up at least half of the room and I have no idea how they got it in there. Perhaps it came in pieces and was assembled inside. The extended Hart Family was quite large; Grandma bore thirteen children and most had survived which meant them having to take turns to stop and pay their respects. I remember my cousin Leo, formerly from 32nd Street and now from Minnock and Joy Road, bragging how many Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s he had recited kneeling at the prayer stand next to Grandma’s open casket. I didn’t know the Hail Mary and Our Father prayers, so pretended to do the same, so Leo wouldn’t get too far ahead of me as favorite grandson. I felt sure Grandma Hart knew I wasn’t really praying and would forgive me because I was trying so hard.
Now we get to the most interesting part; the Priest has come, the Rosary has been said, and I thought at the time he was sprinkling the flowers as well (It was explained to me later because I asked). Well, if your imagination has gotten ahead of you, you can well guess the dilemma facing Grandma Hart. This was a time before seat belts. Grandma Hart, now horizontal in her resting place, was about to go for a ride she wouldn’t have expected. She needed to go out the front door in a near vertical position. Remember all of the turns getting up the front steps, around the outward opening door, into the front hallway and up into the living room? Well, it all had to be reverse engineered with Grandma stood on her head. Fortunately, for all of us (and Grandma), the casket had been locked closed.
It was a sight to behold and stirred many an imagination I’m sure. Truly, what a way to go? If in future centuries an anthropologist were to come across Grandma Hart, in her resting place, they might well wonder about this ritual of 20th Century burial practices. I should have thought then to ask, “how she had gotten into the living room in the first place?”