Here it is, Easter time and I'm thinking of Lil' Miss Hagel, whom I last saw in 1958. She was a little old lady who used to visit my great-grandmother's house across the street from Hamilton School. Grandma Gengenbach (pronounced GAY-Ghen-Bach) didn't talk much, didn't care to. She liked company about as much as Beethoven did.
It was maybe 1950 and I was 9 when I first met Lil' Miss Hagel, a wisp of a woman no taller than I, who dressed in black and wore a hat with a veil. Her eyes were kindly squints, with an occasional tear squeezing out of one of them, which she dabbed with a hankie. She sat in the upholstered chair and held her cup of tea and saucer like a lady.
Grandma Gengenbach slumped in the overstuffed easy chair across from her and tapped her fingers on the armrest. They talked in German, so I didn't understand why my great-grandmother seemed especially impatient.
I sat on the blue sofa with my beloved Gramma Lou (her daughter, my dad's mother) for a while and then she and I went out to the front porch and rocked on the swing. "Gramma," I asked, "why doesn't Grandma Gengenbach like Lil' Miss Hagel?"
"She likes her. She just gets annoyed sometimes like she does with all of us."
"Why? Miss Hagel is quiet."
"Miss Hagel is very old and sometimes says the same things over and over again."
Months later, I'm sitting on the sofa with Gramma Lou, reading a comic book, and the doorbell rings. "Hide!" Gramma Lou says.
"Don't answer it!" Grandma Gengenbach tells me.
By then, I'm opening the door. There is Lil' Miss Hagel, a smile on her face, a small carton from Dinkel's Bakery in her hands, stockings crawling down her legs. She has walked a long way.
Gramma Lou says hello and goes to the kitchen to make some tea. Grandma Gengenbach gives me a look.
"You must be Betty Lou's grandson," Miss Hagel tweets. "I bet you go to school across the street."
"No, ma'am, I go to St. Andrew's."
"I bet you like cookies though. Come here, dear, take one."
I take out a cinnamon cookie.
"Have another," she says.
She starts to speak to Grandma Gengenbach in German. I try to follow, and every time I hear the same sounds from Miss Hagel, I see my great-grandmother gripping the arms of her chair. I want to go across the street to the playground but I stay. Miss Hagel smiles at me. "You must be Betty Lou's grandson," she says. "I bet you like cookies."
"He's had enough," Grandma Gengenbach says and pulls herself up from her chair.
The next time I see Lil' Miss Hagel is a couple of years later. I'm walking up a side street on my way to Gramma Lou's when I spot her on the corner of Ashland Avenue, a block away from the house.
"Hi, Miss Hagel, are you lost?"
She looks at me like she never saw me before. She is trembling. She smells of urine.
"Would you like me to take you to my grandmother's house?"
I hold her hand. It's soft and cold, like a scared bird. As we climb the steps to the porch, I sense the scurrying inside. The door is unlocked. I open it and soon we're all seated and Lil' Miss Hagel smiles at me and asks, "Are you Betty Lou's son?"
Which brings us to spring 1958 and the last time I ever saw her.
I'm 17 and driving my first car, a 1946 gray Pontiac, up Addison Street on the way to St. Andrew's Gym for a basketball game. Again, just up ahead, near Ashland, stands a little old lady in a black dress wearing a black hat with a veil, her head darting this way and that. I can't be late for the game.
Grandma Gengenbach is gone. I slow down to put Lil' Miss Hagel in the car so I can quickly get her to wherever she lives but I don't know where she lives and she won't be able to tell me, so I keep on driving. I rush through a yellow light at Ashland and pull up in front of the gym. I keep the motor running.
I'll find a cop. I speed up to Lincoln Avenue and turn left all the way to Belmont and back again. Not a cop in sight.
I go back to put Miss Hagel in the car. I'll think of something then.
But she isn't there.
She isn't a block behind, a block to the left, a block to the right. She isn't anywhere.
I go to the game, a hole in my heart the size of an empty net.
And now it's Easter 2016 and I am taking care of my wife, Vickie, who has Alzheimer's and who makes sounds over and over that don't make sense, and I am thinking of Lil' Miss Hagel and wondering whatever happened to her.
Please pray for us, Miss Hagel.
Help me to be good and to understand the meaning of your presence in my life.
Did you come to me then to prepare me for what was to come half a century later?
Do you come to me now at Easter to remind me what is important is not that Jesus rose from the dead but why? I've been learning my whole life that he died to save us and rose to demonstrate that everything he taught us was true.
And what he taught us most was to love the weakest among us.
Thank you, Miss Hagel, for inspiring me to be faithful to my promise to Vickie to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, in sickness as well as in health.
Like the Lord himself, you departed from my sight so I might return again to my heart and this time find you there. For you departed and behold, like E.T. -- like Christ himself -- you are right here.
[Michael Leach is a writer and editor who works for Orbis Books and NCR. You can check out his columns at NCRonline.org/authors/michael-leach.]
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