They Called Her the Homeless Woman Who Lived With Us (I Called Her Gabrielle)
My grandmother Adeline found Gabrielle outside on a winter night in the 1980’s, eating cat food that had been scattered on the snow for a tribe of feral kittens that lived in the woods. Adeline invited her in, and she never left. She lived with my family for as long as I can remember, and though a twenty-year residence seems sufficient to claim a home, I’d still heard her spoken of as the homeless woman who lived with us.
Gabrielle stayed briefly at my grandmother’s apartment then moved into my aunt’s tumble-down farmhouse next door. Adeline made a habit of placing her chips on hard-luck cases, but most moved on: the Pole who strolled naked down the main thoroughfare and later addressed letters to my aunt, “The Princess of Westfield” (they arrived); itinerant workers who built farmland into condominiums with peeling siding; a foster child with flame orange hair; a woman whose pink plastic hair rollers still ornamented maple trees in the woods. Gabrielle was the only immovable guest.
She stayed in a room on the unrenovated second floor where she kept her few belongings: a radio, knitting supplies, some books and a hot plate. She never made any motions to leave and was never asked to find another place to stay. She was more like stray cat than a boarding house inhabitant—she did not attend any sort of family events or dinners or help with chores. But she cleaned her own room and was welcome.
As young children, my brother and I spent afternoons with her: She knit us sweaters with jeweled buttons, shared ham sandwiches picked up from the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry, and gave us glazed animal figurines packed in Red Rose tea boxes.
Schizophrenia was her diagnosis as we understood it, though I don’t know if she ever saw a doctor or social worker. She talked to herself and was overtaken by black moods. The presence of men so unsettled her that she would scream or hide, while children and cats set her at ease. With a curtain of gray-streaked hair, fist-sized sunglasses, and drippy handmade vests and long skirts, she looked like a fortuneteller who had misplaced her crystal ball.
She sipped cups of milky, oversweet tea that had rotted her teeth to stumps. Most of her meals were picked up at St. Vincent’s, after a daily eight-mile roundtrip walk during which she smoked hand-rolled cigarettes.
When my mother returned to college during our teenage years, Gabrielle tutored her in science. It turns out that she had earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1949, before she married and had children. According to brief sketches of her past life, she left her family and had lived in a cave on the outskirts of town.
Her children, who were adults, visited occasionally and sent my aunt some money for rent. I only remember seeing them very rarely when I was a kid, maybe once or twice. As a child, I didn’t understand why they didn’t take her home. What type of people were they? When I grew up and saw what it meant to care for someone who suffered with mental illness, and how much more acute the pain felt when their behavior seemed sharpened against you, I understood. I also started to understand why she may have left—maybe she thought that she was taking care of them by remaining independent.
The last time I saw her I didn’t: It was just her outline. I was just out of college and had gone to a holiday party at my aunt’s house, where I had taken a French leave by way of a door to the attic and then through the old section of farmhouse, a creepy pile of knotted wood and bird’s-nest clotted fireplaces where only the bedrooms were still in use. It was the second or third time I’d executed this trick, and as I crept down the central staircase, each step sighing under my weight, noise and light spilling from the new wing like an upset champagne bottle, a bare bulb hummed alive and revealed Gabrielle’s silhouette at the top of the staircase.
“Every year you do this and you think no one sees. But I see.” She turned off the light.
I live now in a city where the “homeless problem” is often the first thing tourists mention when describing their visit. Some street people ask for money or food; I never see her face in theirs. But I can make her out in a woman reading a book in a sunny doorway or sleeping in a fort of cardboard boxes steeped with fog. I think of Adeline finding a woman collecting cat food pebbles off the new snow, and inviting her inside. Come in, come in.
Gabrielle’s health declined for several years. She started to take the bus downtown rather than walk, and then retired to bed in favor of either. She passed away in 2006, at age 78. Her obituary notes that she died at home.