By Steve Siciliano
There was a time when the Creston Heights neighborhood was known as “the bloody fifth,” a moniker it acquired because of its location in the city’s fifth ward and because of a rather gruesome murder/suicide involving an ax and a shotgun that dominated the headlines of the Grand Rapids Herald for weeks. It was predominately a German neighborhood back then, a solid neighborhood despite the pejorative sobriquet, inhabited for the most part by first generation immigrants who had come to the city to work in the gypsum mines and furniture factories.
After the war (the first war), a group of area merchants formed an association, threw fifty dollars in a pot and held a contest to give the neighborhood an official name. Helen Kaufman, a day-dreaming sixteen year old who loved roaming the northeast side’s still undeveloped, pine-forested hills, was awarded the prize money for her winning submission of Creston Heights.
Michael Adams met Helen on an April morning years later, when she came into his store for the weekly lottery. That day she told him she was eighty-five, that she had lived in the Creston neighborhood her entire life, and that the site of the store he recently purchased, C’s Liquors, was once a butcher shop owned by her uncle and grandfather. Through the spring, summer and fall of that year Helen walked the two blocks to C’s every Wednesday. When Michael saw her walking to the store one day on icy sidewalks after the season’s first snow, he volunteered to bring the tickets to her. During those weekly visits Michael sat at the dining room table with a cup of tea and listened to Helen reminisce about the neighborhood.
He heard about the splendid streetcars that used to run up and down Plainfield Avenue and about the day a frightened-to-death bear cub climbed up a telephone pole. She told him about the magnificent Fourth of July celebrations, the marvelous Labor Day parades and how she would go to the Creston Theater for glorious Saturday afternoon matinees. She told him that the ghastly tattoo shop was once a bakery, the horrible pawn shop a hardware, and that the drug store that was in the now abandoned building next to his store had a wonderful soda fountain. She numbered off all the businesses that had closed—the bank, the florist and the grocery, the shoe repair shop, the barber shop, the candy store—and lamented the neighborhood’s once-tidy houses, beautiful flower gardens and well-kept lawns.
One day Helen brought out some old photo albums that she and Michael leafed through while they sipped their tea. “How long were you married, Helen?” he asked.
“Forty years,” she said. “He died from a bad heart.”
“Do you have children?”
Helen fingered a small gold crucifix hanging on a delicate chain around her neck. “We had three. Danny was killed on Iwo Jima. He was only twenty. Marie. Marie died in a car crash when she was thirty-three. I still have Laura, but…”
“She’s dying. I pray every day that I go before her. I’ve already buried two. I don’t want to bury another.” She touched a black and white photograph of three smiling children sitting on a porch stoop. “All my friends are dead. You learn how to accept that. But parents should always go before their children. Of course that’s the way it should be. It’s the natural order, Michael.”
The following Monday a frail, middle-aged woman wearing a stocking cap came into C’s and walked up to the sales counter. “I’m looking for Michael,” she said.
“My mother wanted you to have this.”
“Helen Kaufman,” the lady said. “She wanted you to have this.”
Michael looked at the black and white photograph and then back at the lady. “Is Helen alright?” Helen Kaufman’s last surviving child looked out the store’s plate glass windows, wiped at her eyes, and shook her head no.