I often reference the burden that carrying your family history entails. I usually dwell on the mental load, how it requires — and can drain — your time and energy and spirit. But other times, I’m talking about an actual, physical burden.
I’m talking about Gertrude’s window.
This stained-glass window currently lives in my dining room. I haven’t found a better place for it. I have somewhere in mind, but first, a little history.
Nancy Chamberlain died an unremarkable death. But what happened after – her daughter Ruth and granddaughter Marian kept Nancy’s body above ground for weeks; they buried her in their backyard; and they never told the authorities – meant that a serious investigation was required.
Nancy Luther Chamberlain died in her 90s, at home, after a perfectly ordinary life. It was the kind of unremarkable death that doesn’t raise an undertaker’s eyebrow. But what happened after – her daughter Ruth and granddaughter Marian kept Nancy’s body above ground for weeks; they buried her in their backyard; and they never told the authorities – meant that a serious investigation was required.
One chill February afternoon in 1921, a call rang into the Englewood police station from a Greek restaurant on 63rd Street. Could they please come remove some patrons who wouldn’t leave?
Police arrived to find two reluctant customers: Ruth Townsend (61) and her daughter, Marian (26). The pair had just been evicted from their home a few blocks away, at 57th and Stony Island. It was cold outside. They came to this restaurant, where they’d eaten before, because they had nowhere to go and nothing to go with.
Accustomed to handling sympathetic hard-luck cases, the police took the now-homeless women to the Hackett Stevenson Memorial Lodging House, a women’s shelter on South Prairie Ave. They probably thought that was the end of it.
But a week later, on Valentine’s night, the police had reason to return — and they weren’t bringing valentines. The Townsends’ neighbors had watched their eviction take place, and had seen the furniture piled up in the backyard. They also noticed something that was missing from the scene. Rumors began to spread. Eventually one of the neighbors had approached the police to say: Ruth’s elderly mother was living with them. We haven’t seen her since last summer.
The cops wanted answers. Where was Ruth’s 93-year-old mother, Nancy Chamberlain?