The Diary of Mattie Spenser - By Sandra Dallas


My next-door neighbor, Hazel Dunn, who is ninety-four, is moving into a retirement home. Ever since she signed the contract to sell her house, she’s been bringing me boxes of china and old books, along with a few wonderful family heirlooms—lacetrimmed linens, a worn paisley shawl, some Indian beadwork, and a lacquered laptop desk that her grandmother brought west in a covered wagon. Hazel’s only son died as a boy, and she has no other close relatives. So I’m not depriving anyone of an inheritance by accepting her family’s things, she says.

Of course, she could sell the stuff to a dealer, but Hazel’s a generous soul, and she knows how much I love antiques. Besides, what would she do with the money? she asks. She could live to be 150 with what she’s got socked away. I think the real reason she doesn’t want to sell the keepsakes, however, is that she dislikes the idea of people pawing through her bedding and schoolbooks and Victorian valentines, holding them up to curiosity.

Sorting through all the stuff has been quite a job for Hazel because she’s lived in the house forever. It’s huge, and every room is cluttered. Her parents designed the home for balls and big dinner parties. They were members of the Sacred Thirty-six, Denver’s fashionable social set at the turn of the century. That’s the group that snubbed the Unsinkable Molly Brown, until she emerged as the heroine of the Titanic disaster in 1912 and they had to invite her over. Hazel remembers “the poor Unsinkable,” as her mother called Molly, showing up for tea, dressed in a skunk-skin coat, poling herself down the sidewalk with a shepherd’s crook. Later on, Molly and Hazel’s mom got to be good friends.

When Hazel married Walter Dunn, he simply moved in with Hazel and her mother, Lorena, by then a widow, “just like Harry Truman did,” Walter always joked. The two of them lived quite happily in Hazel’s bedroom until Lorena died in 1959, at the age of ninety. Then they got the master suite. After Walter broke his hip, he and Hazel closed off the second floor and turned one of two parlors into their bedroom. Walter died two years ago, and realtors have been hounding Hazel to sell ever since.

Although Hazel looks and acts twenty years younger than her age, she’s wise to go into a home where someone can keep an eye on her, because she refuses to slow down or take precautions. Sooner or later, she’s bound to fall. All the neighbors are sorry about her decision, however, because Hazel is a hoot, more fun than anybody on the block. She’s also a treasury of neighborhood history, remembering, for instance, when Dwight Eisenhower married Mamie Doud, who lived over on Lafayette Street. Mrs. Doud, Mamie’s mother, was a good friend of Lorena’s, too.

Our block has become part of what the realtors say is Denver’s most desirable young urban professionals’ neighborhood, and those of us who moved here long before there was such a thing as a Yuppie are skeptical about the couple who’ve bought Hazel’s house. They’ve announced they’ll gut the place, put in a fifty-thousand-dollar kitchen, and paint the brick mauve. I’m upset about the changes, but Hazel doesn’t seem to mind that the house will lose its historic character. She never was crazy about the place, but by the time her mother died, she’d lived there too long to be comfortable anywhere else. Besides, as Walter put it, “Bess Truman didn’t sell her mother’s house.”

Of course, we’re all worried that before she can move into the retirement home, Hazel will hurt herself lifting boxes and hauling junk from the attic to the alley, but she won’t let anybody help her—shoos us away, in fact, when we go over on some transparent errand. Hazel’s not just being stubborn. Sorting through one hundred years of family accumulations is traumatic, and she’s got her pride. Hazel’s never been one to show emotion, and she doesn’t intend to start now. She didn’t shed a tear at Walter’s funeral. The only time I ever saw Hazel cry, in fact, was when I rushed over to tell her that John F. Kennedy had just been shot. She’d already heard the news on the radio, and she was sitting in the kitchen, sobbing. Sharing our grief that day became one of the many bonds between us.

Although Hazel won’t let me help with the heavy lifting, I’ve been keeping an eye on her as she