By Laura Hartmark
Photo of doorway of old Victorian house, Summit Avenue, St. Paul Minnesota: Doorways Around the World
My grandfather had another house. It was just something that always was. And the strangers who lived in this other house were like family to my grandfather, although they were not family.
If the images from cartoons are to be believed, they were criminals, all of them. Perhaps that is not fair of me to say. But in the mind of a seven year old, they looked like criminals, all of them. Or what I thought criminals might look like: shaggy, scraggly and darting their eyes to the side all of the time.
Photo from O Brother Where Art Thou: Lost Highway Records
Grandpa bought an immense old Victorian mansion for this other family in the heart of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Francis Frith, Halfway House
Grandpa would go to this mansion to make sure there was coffee in the kitchen, everyone was well and accounted for, and then to give sermons in the grand living room.
Photo of Orson Wells: Hypostulate
When your grandfather is a famous preacher, sermons in the living room are just part of the deal. Over six feet tall with limbs like timber, his voice was deep and booming. He held every room spellbound. He could make anyone believe in life-after-death.
The mansion he bought for this other family had a name: “The Door of Hope.” I first saw The Door of Hope at 7 years old. But it was 20 years later and 2 days after my grandfather’s death that I understood it.
Homeless Mother" Dorothea Lange
Twenty years later, my grandfather was dead. I was twenty seven, slumped low in a metal folding chair wearing a 3x black down parka from WalMart. It was the only black coat I could find. Last minute airfare and last minute funeral wear. It was five sizes too big. I looked like a gigantic burned marshmallow.
Funeral Home Coffee: Hillard Rospert Funeral Home
In the funeral home, Norwegian-Americans offered each other coffee. No-one drank the coffee. Everyone seemed to be finding seventy seven reasons to say, “I am fine. Don’t worry about me.” Then they spoke of the weather, then paused in protracted silences. Said my grandfather looked good in his suit. Said the funeral home sure was nice. Mourning here looked like a challenge. A game of chicken. The silence was cold and heavy as granite. I wanted to scream.
Photo of Paul Newman in film Empire Falls: The Cinema Guy
As if in answer to my prayer, I spotted a man across the room with a wooden leg. He was handsome in a Paul Newman sort of way. He was tall, with a shock of white hair, and a red, red face. He had big ice blue eyes that looked like he never dreamed or closed his eyes to sleep. His eyes looked stuck open, as if watching something horrifying like Napalm. I sat down next to him. He was crying. I liked him already.
His name was Jerry. Short, I think, for Jeremiah O’Malley. He didn’t ask who I was. He just launched into his story. I am not sure if I ever said anything.
“Your grandfather saved my life. I’m only alive because of him.”
Jerry stopped. Pulled himself out of a choke or a sob. I wondered if this was going to be one of those “Amazing Grace” evangelical stories. But it didn’t seem like it. This guy Jerry was too shocked-looking for brainless evangelical blather. He had been through something.
“I was in a bad way. A very bad way. I did a lot of bad things.” Jerry continued. I tried to imagine all of the bad things a person could do. As if to answer me, he said, “We’d do whatever we could. The Rev. never gave up on me. I told The Rev. I couldn’t do it. He said don’t leave. I was too ashamed to let him see me leave. So I snuck out one night, did what I did. It was freezing out. I went down under this one bridge by the Mississippi.
“The Rev. woke up. The Rev. said later he knew something was not right. He just knew. So he woke up. He went out on foot. Said he had to find me. Said he would look until he found me.”
“I went down there drinking and God knows what else. I had passed out, see? I fell asleep on the banks under the bridge. He found me with my leg on fire. Cigarette fell and caught my pantleg on fire. I never felt a thing. Found me with my leg on fire, burned off. I never felt a thing. The Rev. threw his overcoat on my burning leg, stamped out the fire. Put the fire out. Then he picked me up and hauled me over his shoulder like it was nothing. Like I was a sack of grain. Like I was a baby. He carried me home.”
After the funeral was done, we all got into black cars. The cars drove slow. My heart dull thudded slow as the wheels below me. I thought of the W.H. Auden poem: “…with muffled drum/ Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come…”
They perched my grandfather over a hole in the ground. They lowered him into the hole. They closed the hole with dirt. My heart closed. After a while, we all turned away.
The Reverend A.D. Hartmark founded the first halfway house for drug addicts and alcoholics in St. Paul Minnesota with money from his second wife. He called it The Door of Hope. His book The Psychodynamics of Alcoholism is considered a forerunner in drug and alcohol dependency treatment. It is still quoted to this day. He died in 1997 on Christmas day.
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