THE HANNA BRAUN AFFAIR – a new story

THE HANNA BRAUN AFFAIR

PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL

It didn’t seem important at the time, a notebook they found in the woman’s backpack – black and white marbled cover, ruled paper, lined margins, pages filled with a precise hand, the letters identically inclined, ornate Ds and Qs as in a note from grandmother or a favorite aunt.  We found two blank books among her effects as well, provision for a longer life than she was accorded.

As for my role, I am the attorney administering the affairs of the indigent, Hanna Braun.  Our firm does its share of pro bono and this seemed a simple enough matter – no heirs, no will, no assets to speak of.  One day to inventory her apartment, another to file papers, however after my paralegal reviewed the notebook she said I’d better have a look.

From the notebook’s condition the woman must have carried it everywhere.  It is in the form of a diary, interesting enough for its depiction of her rather odd ways, but after reading it, I had no alternative than to involve the Cambridge police.  They asked me to prepare a summary to assist their understanding of this curious woman.  Be advised, this brief report contains excerpts only and is limited to those with a need to know.

Involving Mount Auburn Cemetery as it does, my interest was piqued – several ancestors of mine are buried there.  I might add, the woman’s unusual perspective has helped me better appreciate this great institution I had perhaps taken for granted.

* * * * * * *

1985 – October 27.   Arrival in Boston – at last!  Some weeks earlier I found a small apartment through the Globe classifieds, to which I had a mail subscription.  I never knew real estate listings could be so exciting!  From the train station I took the subway to Harvard Square, then walked it seemed miles to my new lodgings in what they call Huron Village.  I wonder if Indians might once have lived here (perhaps they still do?).  Though I associate Huron with the Upper Midwest and Canada – the eponymous Lake, for example.

October 28.  I discovered the Porter Square station is much closer than I had thought.  When Mr. Braun was alive he tried to run everything, and of course I let him think he did.  Now – glorious freedom! – I fend for myself.  I do give him credit, however, for despite the difficulty of his last year he managed to sell the pharmacy – a difficult task under the circumstances.  A young couple from Cleveland bought it and have moved to our town.  I was glad for the money because the house proceeds won’t go far, nor the insurance.  Mr. Braun’s lengthy illness depleted our savings, though I was able to salvage some small part of it.  My friends warned me that Boston is expensive, but no matter, this is where I must be.

October 29.  Today I visited Amy, my first visit since the trip with Mr. Braun.  A bus runs along Huron Avenue (there it is again!) and down a lovely tree-lined street with an island in the center, right up to the front gate of Mount Auburn Cemetery.  Armed with what I call my treasure map I found Amy in no time, and of course I had the photos from that first visit, my lifeline these fifteen long years.  She lies in the Lowell family plot on a steep hillside above Bellwort Path, some distance in from Walnut and down from Trefoil.  I do so love these names!  A simple gray slate slab marks her grave, with a friendly shrub behind, bare now, but fine shade in the summer, I imagine.  Her own personal parasol!  A low black iron fence encloses the plot.

Mr. Braun was so angry when I told him he had missed Amy’s stone, walked right past it – I didn’t mean to laugh but I did.  At times my husband acted the bully – the male runs amok is how Margaret described it and she should know, being his sister.  However I will say, even in Mr. Braun’s foulest moods he never once raised his hand.  He wouldn’t have dared.

It pleases me to see Amy in the company of women of spirit and accomplishment.   Isabella Stewart Gardner, for one, Harriet Hosmer, the freed slave Harriet Jacobs, even Mary Baker Eddy, though Amy was not religious, nor am I.  And of all people, Fanny Farmer – my favorite cookbook!  I didn’t realize she was here.  Poets and artists, too – Longfellow, Winslow Homer, even Amy’s ancestor, the overrated James Russell Lowell.  Unfortunately absent is her younger cousin, the excellent Robert, Poet Laureate of the United States and like Amy a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  He is buried in New Hampshire.

November 15.  Recent days have been chilly and damp so I mainly stay indoors, reading Amy in the fine Untermeyer collection I have used many years.  Few of my students appreciated the merit of anthologies, but I believe they present the best portrait of the author – the brilliant work, the not so brilliant, the not very good.  After all, who is always at his or her best?  Some geniuses, I suppose, but they are few and far between.  Fascinating, seeing early effort mature into a solid body of work.  I was always excited when a student showed interest or better yet, promise, and on those rare occasions I would make a gift of the Untermeyer, accompanied by my hopes and best wishes.  Such unusual specimens were almost always young women.  In my experience, at the high school level, poetry holds more appeal for girls than boys.  Poetry is demanding and boys have no patience.

December 21.  My new friend two doors down has invited me to spend Christmas Day with her and her sister.  What people say is true – as you grow older it is harder to make friends.  I have been seriously considering a dog.  Amy herself kept dogs.  A dog would help me meet people, though I fear it would be too demanding.  A cat would be simpler but not as sociable, so I am in a quandary.  Everyone is wondering where is the snow?  Will we have a white Christmas?

December 24.  Strolling through Harvard Square, the lights, the hustle and bustle, I am convinced coming to Boston was the right thing.  Do I miss Ohio?  Not in the least.  Boring, borior, borissimus!  As for Mr. Braun, in all honesty I don’t miss him either.  Long before his demise the spark between us had gone.  This may sound cold, but my biggest regret is not insisting he buy more insurance.

1986 – January 3.  I wake during the night and through the curtains spy the first flakes.  Faster they fall – faster, fashioning cones of light, green, yellow, red, from the traffic signal at the corner.  Nothing moves.  At last it has snowed.

The snow creeps upon the city,

Coming gently,

Little crystals of no account

Dropping down between solid houses,

The warm streets melt it,

But soon their power fails,

The roadways disappear,

The sidewalks sink and fade,

From doorway to opposite doorway

Lies a prairie of sudden snow.

As I pour tea, the radio says seven inches fell overnight.  Bright sun fills my window and I am happy.  At last we will have winter views of “Sweet Auburn” as it is called, after Goldsmith.  I bundle up and make my way – carefully! – to the bus.  Then, alighting, through the Egyptian arch into an enchanted world.  From gorgeous color we have passed through nature’s dark palette to this blanket of white, all in such a short time.  I tramp through the plowed areas, a surprise in every snowy nook and cranny.  From a nature guide I found in a wonderful, musty bookstore on Church Street next to the Oxford Grille where I take some meals though I hear it may soon close, I identify tracks and make notes.  Squirrel, raccoon, fox and coyote, dogs of course.  No luck finding the lairs – the drifts are much too deep.  Though no expert, I think winter is best for viewing birds, those which haven’t fled the cold, that is, and high in the bare limbs I spot nests.  I must speak with the people I see carrying binoculars and cameras.  I should like to know more about Amy’s feathered neighbors.

February 9.  Amy’s Birthday!  When I first made Amy’s acquaintance I didn’t realize she was one of the Lowells.  Family wealth started her off nicely, but credit where it’s due, she made her own way.  On nasty days, with my new library card I pass the time in the Collins library on Aberdeen Avenue, the tree-lined street opposite the cemetery.  Another branch is closer but I feel at home here, everyone knows me.  I have even been invited to join a discussion group!  Winter offers wonderful gifts but it is hard on the joints, and I am happy to rest here after a long day.     

In the Collins I’ve learned more about the Lowells.  Amy’s older brother, Abbott Lawrence – both brothers were older than she – was for twenty-five years president of Harvard University.  He and his wife Anna lie next to Amy in the last row of the family plot.  The name of their father Augustus, textile manufacturer and philanthropist, adorns the enclosure’s imposing front gate.  His monument and that of her mother, side-by-side granite crosses, are the most prominent.  The oldest brother, renowned astronomer Percival Lowell, named for the clan’s seventeenth-century patriarch, is commemorated by a knee-high stump, a charming and humorous touch.  Percival is buried on the grounds of his observatory in Arizona.

March 18.  Last night Irene, a friend I met in Mount Auburn, suggested we visit an establishment called The Plough and the Stars down Mass Ave (you see, I am learning the lingo!) toward Central Square.  I never taught O’Casey, though had I lived here I daresay I couldn’t have avoided it.  A boisterous crowd – I felt out of place and we soon left.  I enjoy a spot of sherry now and again and a glass of wine with dinner, in company of course, but beer has never appealed to me, nor loud talking, nor Irish singing.  Despite Amy’s formidable appearance, she was outgoing and convivial.

Why should we strive to be Gods and Immortals?

Three cups, and one can perfectly understand the Great Tao;

A gallon, and one is in accord with all nature.

Only those in the midst of it can fully comprehend the joys of wine;

I do not proclaim them to the sober.          

April 6.  Each morning after greeting Amy, I climb to the imposing Washington Tower (after George) which rises from the summit of Mount Auburn, the cemetery’s highest point.  From this exquisite perch I survey my new world.  Harvard lies at my feet, the city of Cambridge as well, and the Charles snakes toward Boston and the ocean.  Clear days offer a panorama of distant hills and mountains.  Happily, a touch of warmth has returned.  Trees and shrubs are in full bud, a light-green carpet spreads everywhere.  Twin tall trees overlook Amy’s plot, a white oak and a black.  Spectacular!  These fine days I spend hours on a bench at the foot of the tower, reading, thinking, watching the hawks soar.

When I first arrived I opened an account at Bay Bank, a local bank.  The interest is minuscule but I am not disposed to risk what I have for a better return.  However my withdrawals have reduced the balance alarmingly.  Before long I shall be forced to take steps, but where to turn?  Substitute teaching?  Tutoring?  A part-time job?  I am happy to be in Boston, but in many ways it is a hard place.  How does a newcomer break in here?

April 19.  Another special Boston day.  People here do love their holidays! Schools are closed, many are off work.  I heard people discussing some road race – a big event, I take it.  I will look for it on the news tonight and see what all the fuss is about.  Last week I bought a television at the Central Square Salvation Army.  Twenty dollars seemed fair although the rabbit ears don’t work well, but I refuse to subscribe to the cable.  Next to banks and insurance companies, cable companies are my least favorite people in the world.

May 2.  I have been reading in Amy’s “Poppy Seed” poems.  They portray her love for the actress Ada Dwyer Russell, her life companion.  In my opinion, Amy’s work rivals Sappho and Ovid.  Just reading this gives me goosebumps.

Her breasts point outwards,

And the nipples are like buds of peonies.

Her flanks ripple as she plays,

And the water is not more undulating

Than the lines of her body.    

Hold your apron wide

That I may pour my gifts into it,

So that scarcely shall your two arms hinder them

From falling to the ground.

I would pour them upon you

And cover you,

For greatly do I feel this need

Of giving you something,

Even these poor things.

Dearest of my Heart!

I never fit in back there, and after that horrible Reverend (sic!!!) caused such a stir it became unbearable.  No one had the right to tell me what texts I could and could not teach!  Right then I made up my mind some day I would leave, knowing that parting with Margaret would be difficult.  The idea of Boston appealed to me – in many ways so Victorian, yet understanding, even lending its name to that beautiful friendship women can offer one another.  Though fair of face, Amy was no sylph.  An illness burdened her life with great weight.  Now, nearby, the warmth of her mind envelops me.

You may ask where Mr. Braun fitted into all this.  The answer is, he didn’t.  Candidly, our marriage was a disaster.  Being second cousins didn’t help, and his dour disposition was difficult to live with.  I’m not ashamed to admit that real blood courses through my veins.  We had no children – that I do regret, a little girl would have been wonderful.  My whole life I have been pursued by wagging tongues, but at last I’ve left them behind.  Fortunately I am blessed with a vivid imagination which provides solace and joy, though I have never had a true soul mate.  Amy is the closest this will ever come.

May 12.  Today we mark Amy’s death.  When she passed she was only fifty-one.  Such a loss!  Biographers say many considered her tendentious and difficult.  I beg to differ.  It’s not easy being a woman in the world.  If standing up for one’s rights provokes the ire of men, so be it.  A man’s opinion is no better than his character.  Bad tree, bad fruit.  Q.E.D.

May 13.  I’m not proud of my new “profession” but I do what I must.  I eat sparingly, so one trip a week to the big market across from the cemetery is sufficient.  Of course I pay for the larger items, but soup, tea, tangerines, that sort of thing, I take on long-term loan.  It is still cool enough to wear my long wool coat with the oversized pockets.  The summer will be a challenge, but my black purse, large as a shopping bag, should serve.  Occasionally in my former life I played this little game, for sport only, mind you, so I have confidence in my skills.  It helps, too, to have an innocent face.  This time the need is real, so I don’t give it a second thought.

Had Mr. Braun known about my little hobby he would have been terribly upset, but he never found out.  He was so concerned about what people thought.  A prig, Margaret called him, and I couldn’t disagree.  They say it is the woman who worries what will the neighbors think, but with us, not so.  I couldn’t have cared less about the neighbors, most of them.  Real friends don’t criticize.  Indeed, for me that is the measure of true friendship.

May 26.  Memorial Day (Observed).  The cemetery teems with life.  Flowers are everywhere, squirrels fat from their winter larders, the bold chipmunks and the hawks, always the hawks.  I especially like visiting a family of owls in their tree in what they call Consecration Dell, though they are shy and hide themselves well.

After visiting Amy I climb to my bench at the foot of the tower.  I think of Mr. Braun, gone now nearly a year, and in my mind I place a bouquet on his grave.  I seldom think of his end but today I do.  Unsuited as Mr. Braun and I were, we did share a life and we were accustomed to each other in our own way.  As Mr. Braun’s last illness came on I began to feel sorry for him.  Hardly a substitute for affection which even then I couldn’t muster, though I tried.

The medicines weren’t terribly expensive, but doctors and hospitals and home care and the prospect of a nursing home – soon there would have been nothing left.  The doctor said the cancer was terminal, but with Mr. Braun’s hardy constitution and just plain orneriness, he continued to hang on.  One month became two, two became four and so on.  Being around a pharmacy all those years, you learn things, you get ideas.

I shall never forget the look on Mr. Braun’s face just before he closed his eyes.  He nodded and a smile came to his lips.  He knew.  I caused him no pain, I would never have done that, but my first attempts were too small, too slow, so I had to increase the dosage.

But I covered my face and wept,

For ashes are not beautiful

Even in the dawn.

September 22.   For some time I have been feeling poorly.  This heat is intolerable.  The summer has flown and I barely noticed it.  As my building has no air conditioning, I take refuge in cool places.  I insisted they put in a window unit but all it did was make noise.  Consequently my entries the last few months have been rather sparse.  Such discomfort and shortness of breath is also new to me.  The doctor wants to order X-rays and tests – I will get around to that, but these days I have no tolerance for bad news.  Last week I filled out papers and wrote a check I couldn’t afford to Cemetery Services.  I have thought about this a long time.  I mean to stay here, near Amy.  In death I will be united with the one who has given me joy.

October 27.  Exactly one year.  The days grow short, the color is gone.  Once again somber tones have come, but the prospect of white makes it bearable.  I sit on the bench below the tower, occupied in thought.  Then as always, I proceed down the hill, turn on Bellwort, open the gate and go in.  I sit on the grass beside Amy’s grave.

My Dearest One, I say aloud, my hand on her stone,

…the hid joy of my heart! 

I love you, oh! you must indeed have known.

In strictest honor I have played my part;

But all this misery has overthrown

My scruples…

October 27.  Very late, cannot sleep.  A cup of tea does no good.  Why do I make these entries?  What is this need to leave a trace?  I am not religious – at times I wish I had been.  Somehow I never learned to pray.

* * * * * * *

On November fourth a Mount Auburn employee making his first rounds discovered Mrs. Braun inside the enclosure of the Lowell family plot.  She was lying on the ground, her arm draped across Amy Lowell’s headstone.  A pair of gloves was found beside her.  The previous evening was overcast and windy, and the temperature below freezing, with the first snow of the season.  According to the coroner, Mrs. Braun’s death was caused by congestive heart failure.  He surmised the end came quickly.  The tips of her fingers showed moderate frostbite.  There was no sign of foul play.

The Cambridge police have referred the matter to the police in Ohio which are conducting their investigation.  In light of certain statements in Mrs. Braun’s diary, the remains of her husband, Walter P. Braun, will likely be disinterred and examined.

Concerning Hanna Braun’s desire to be buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, cemetery policy appears to permit it.  I will attempt to insure that this troubled woman’s final wishes are fulfilled, though Ohio may want her remains returned.  In that event she would probably be laid to rest beside her husband, an outcome which in my opinion would serve no useful purpose or public policy whatever.

Sworn and subscribed, this 17th day of November, 1986

For the firm of Carruthers and Caldwell, Attorneys at Law,

/s/ Milton R. Caldwell, Esquire

92 State Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02109

* * * * * * *

REFERENCES

Source:  The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell, with an introduction by Louis Untermeyer.  Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Cambridge Edition, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1955

“Snow,” Untermeyer page 573

“Drinking Alone In the Moonlight II” (Li T’Ai-Po), Untemeyer page 338-339

“Clear, With Light Variable Winds,” Untermeyer page 58  … “Obligation,” Untermeyer page 42-43

“Dreams in War Time IV,” Untermeyer page 237

“The Great Adventure of Max Breuck XL,” Untermeyer page 51

CREDITS

Excerpts from THE COMPLETE POETICAL WORKS OF AMY LOWELL by Amy Lowell.  Copyright © 1978 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  All rights reserved.

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