Mattie Laird bought her home at 643-645 Garden St. in 1968 — back when people could walk to nearby factory jobs, when rooted Jewish families still lived here and a home on the street went for just over $18 grand.
It was a fortune back then, of course.
But even after her husband left, Laird did whatever it took to hold onto the three-family home, juggling a job at the old Colt factory, another at a nursing home.
Always, two and three jobs to pay the bills and keep her children in the house that four generations still call home.
"Whatever I did, it was better than farm work in South Carolina," Laird said, laughing. "Now that was hard work."
Her daughter, Donna Yvette Jackman, still lives here.
As does her grandson, 19-year-old Clayton Jackman.
And her great-grandchildren, Chevaughn Robinson, 8, and Michael Robinson, 10.
We sat in her living room the other day, three generations recalling life on Garden Street: close-knit families, kids playing outside until the street lights came on, a sense of innocence long gone.
From a nearby room, the fourth generation peeked out from a doorway, listening to their 71-year-old great-grandmother talk about how the changes on the street eventually crept their way into the house until what happened outside mirrored their family.
Jobs moved out, drugs and violence moved in.
Laird watched her daughter Donna first become a teenage mother, then battle drug addiction.
She lost a 21-year old grandson, Chevaughn — Michael's father — to gun violence in 2002. He was shot in the head during a drive-by shooting nearby. His murder has yet to be solved, she said.
There have been fleeting thoughts of leaving. Aren't there always, she said.
But the changes that came to Garden Street and the rest of the Hartford neighborhood didn't come overnight. It was a decline so slow and steady that by the time you stepped back, you'd already grown accustomed to them.
"It starts to become all you know," Laird said, sitting quietly for a moment.
"What can you do about it?" she asks. "Anybody know?" she presses. But no one answers.
She talks about leaving the house to her grandson Clayton. Maybe he can fix it up; it needs a new roof, she says.
Clayton quietly, respectfully, nods his head.
"Maybe," he tells the woman who raised him.
But Clayton, clearly his grandmother's child, has other dreams.
He's a student at the Connecticut Culinary Institute, he works part time at New Britain General and he sells Cutco knives. He's thinking of applying for an apprenticeship at Disney — far away from the drugs that he says sucked the city and his family dry.
Laird is clearly proud — clearly hopeful that Clayton will be the one to beat the increasing odds. But she's also afraid of losing him, and of losing the family she fought so hard to keep under one roof.
"No," Mattie says, when she hears him planning his escape. "You stay here."
Maybe, he tries to assure her.
"But that's no life out there," he says. "I want more."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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