Reflections on a park bench … and a perfect life

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My six-year-old granddaughter and I were walking in Rock Creek Park—in Chevy Chase, near the D.C.-Maryland border—when we came across a park bench. It’s a plain wooden bench that sits alone under some shade trees. As we approached, I saw on the back of it this memorial plaque:

I quickly did the math: The woman memorialized, Joyce Hadl, had died at age 35. To me, the epitaph—“It was a delightful visit—perfect, in being much too short”—captured perfectly not only the tragedy of this woman’s too-short life but also the essence of life itself.

But who was Joyce Hadl and from what accident or illness had she died? Why was her plaque on a bench in this park? The epitaph, I assumed, was from Jane Austen. But what friend or family member had found and chosen such a perfect quotation? 

After some digging, I learned the story, and it’s more intriguing than I had imagined—and also not at all what I imagined. 

Joyce Hadl wasn’t 35 when she died; she was 71. She didn’t die of an accident or illness; she was murdered. And no one chose the Austen quote for her; she chose it herself.

If you’re planning a visit to Washington, D.C., this summer and want a break from the hot and crowded National Mall, you might consider a side trip to Rock Creek Park. It’s cool and quiet—and you can have a look at this simple bench. To be sure, it’s one of Washington’s lesser-known memorials, but to my mind, it’s one of the most deeply moving.

Rock Creek years

Joyce Hadl (pronounced “hay-dil”) was born in 1932 in Dorchester, a working-class section of Boston. Her father, Jacob Balansky, an immigrant, ran a tire shop; her mother, Sarah, was a homemaker. “My mother came from humble beginnings,” Hadl’s son, Dan Hadl, told me by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “But she was bright and hard-working.” She gained admission to Boston’s Girls’ Latin School (now Boston Latin Academy), the first public college preparatory school for girls in the United States. She worked summer jobs waitressing and at the public library. She graduated from Tufts and earned a master’s degree in social work from Columbia. She worked as a social worker at a Boston hospital and at the Veterans Administration. 

In the 1960s, she met Robert Hadl, a lawyer, in Washington, D.C. They married and settled in Chevy Chase. Their house, on a quiet street just steps from Rock Creek Park, is where their three children—two boys and a girl—were born and raised.

“We lived 10 houses from Rock Creek Park and Meadowbrook Stables,” recalled Dan Hadl, referring to a riding stable just behind where the memorial bench is located. “That’s where we played. We’d feed the horses, ride the horses, and play in the park.”

Joyce Hadl on family trip, circa 1983

In Washington, Joyce Hadl worked as a county social worker and taught at D.C.’s historically black Howard University. She also traveled the globe to work with poor people in Cambodia, South Africa, India, China and elsewhere; did disaster relief work with the American Red Cross; and volunteered as a Washington-area tour guide.

In 1990, Hadl opened a private therapy practice in her home and earned a doctorate in clinical psychotherapy.

After his mother’s death, it was Dan, the youngest of the three children, who took the initiative to create a memorial bench. I asked him why the plaque gives the years 1969-2004 rather than his mother’s birth and death years: 1932-2004.

“My mother wasn’t from Rock Creek, but it became her home,” he explained, “and the memorial is about her Rock Creek years, not all her years.”    

Boarders

“We never had housekeepers,” recalled Dan. Instead, his family took in boarders on a barter basis. Some lived without rent in exchange for doing household chores; some helped by driving Dan and his sisters to after-school activities. The family had boarders during the Hadls’ marriage and Joyce Hadl continued the practice after she and her husband divorced. 

The arrangement with boarders worked well until 2004, when Hadl took in a 39-year-old woman named Susan Sachs. Sachs, who had a history of hospitalizations for mental illness, was “a street person, or somebody who wasn’t too stably settled,” a family friend told the Washington Post. Hadl let Sachs live rent-free in exchange for housework. 

But after several months, Sachs’ behavior became aggressive. In an Aug. 16 call to 911, Hadl told police Sachs was off her medication and needed to be removed from her house and hospitalized for psychiatric care. 

Over the next 24 hours, police and county mental health workers came to the house at least three times. They interviewed both Sachs and Hadl but concluded they did not have legal authority to forcibly remove Sachs from the home.

That night, or on one of the next nights—no one is sure—Sachs and a male accomplice entered Hadl’s room while she was in bed, struck her with a blunt instrument and stabbed her to death. They drove her body 38 miles to rural Maryland and with a second accomplice buried it under a farm shed. Five days later, in response to a call from a concerned relative, police entered Hadl’s house. On the mattress near the head of her bed, they found a blood stain a foot and a half wide. Another four days elapsed before they found her body.

 Joyce Hadl, at her 70th birthday celebration, 2002

“My mother was trying to help this woman and obviously she got in over her head,” said Dan Hadl. “Then the county and the legal system failed her. It was tragic.”

The accomplices were each convicted and served prison time, but Susan Sachs never stood trial. After psychiatrists determined she had paranoid schizophrenia, she was confined in a maximum-security state psychiatric hospital. Four years later, a fellow patient entered Sachs’ room at night, kissed her, and strangled her to death with a string.

The epitaph

After the murder, Dan Hadl and his siblings found some of their mother’s papers in an old trunk in her bedroom. One was a letter to her children. It’s undated, but because it’s typed and on fax paper, Dan guesses his mother wrote it when she was in her 50s, some 20 years before her death. 

“My dear beloveds,” it begins, “If you just look up you may catch me looking down, smiling, for I am so proud of you all . . .”  She then discusses what her children might do upon her death with her household belongings and with “what is left of the mortal me.” A burial, she says, should be modest, befitting her lifestyle and “my belief that there are wiser things to do with the hard earned (money).”  

The letter ends: “I have had a full and rewarding life and as Jane Austen put it, “… a delightful visit—perfect in being (much) too short.”

“That’s how the quote came to be,” said Dan Hadl. “I took it from her letter.”

His mother, Dan added, “was a big Jane Austen fan.”

And yet the Austen quote is “like a riddle,” he noted. “It plays tricks on my brain. My mother had a rich and meaningful life, but the ending obviously was far from perfect.” 

Among other things, his mother never got to meet her grandchildren. At the time of her death, Dan’s wife, Dana, was pregnant with their first child; so was Dan’s sister, Sarah Langdon. Both grandchildren were born early the following year.

To better understand “the riddle” of the Austen quote, I spoke with Celia Easton, a Jane Austen scholar. Easton, a Rochester resident, is professor of English and a dean at SUNY Geneseo. She serves on the editorial board of Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North American. 

The quote, Easton explained, comes from “Emma,” Austen’s novel about 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse. In the scene where the line occurs, Emma’s older sister, Isabella, and her husband have had a Christmas visit with Emma and her elderly father. Austen writes: “It was a delightful visit;—perfect, in being much too short.”

“Austen’s toying with us a bit,” said Easton, “because ‘too short’ can suggest something negative, and yet she’s saying it was perfect. But within the context the meaning becomes clear, and it’s a lovely thought. She’s saying the family visit felt neither too long nor too wearying; it’s a nice way of saying nobody’s become tired of seeing each other. It’s that kind of sweet spot, like ‘It’s fresh and good, but I’m not exhausted by it.’ So, in that sense, it was ‘perfect, for being much too short.’”

What kind of reader, I asked Easton, would have even noticed this line?

 “It would be an especially attentive reader,” said Easton. The line is not a key quote; it’s just a little off-the-cuff end of a paragraph that doesn’t do anything for the plot and would be easy to overlook. I’d guess it’s someone who read the novel more than once.”  

And what might it say about a person who chose this one line to quote in a letter to her children about her own eventual death?

“My suspicion,” said Easton, “is that this person appreciated that sweet spot of having enough time to be with the people she cared about but also not wanting to let herself become a burden. Saying one’s life was too short also means it wasn’t too long. I suspect that as a social worker, (Hadl) saw clients become degraded and saw the effects on their families and didn’t herself ever want to be a burden to anyone.” 

But does the quote make sense as the epitaph of a woman whose life had a tragic and untimely end?

Ellie and Reese Langdon in 2012 on the bench dedicated  to their grandmother, Joyce Hadl.

“Yes, it certainly does,” said Easton. “It’s saying, in effect, ‘My life was delightful; I’m happy about it. I don’t have regrets. If it was cut off a bit prematurely, at least I didn’t stay too long or become a burden; I was still in my prime. Overall, it was a delightful visit.” 

Easton told me she has never seen this line used before as an epitaph. “But it’s a lovely thought,” she said, “because we all want things to end just when they are perfect.” 

I’m grateful that a walk in Rock Creek Park with my granddaughter brought me to this memorial bench. Learning about Joyce Hadl’s life and reading her epitaph reminds us that our time with the people we love—no matter how long or short it actually is—will always seem too short, and that that is also what makes it perfect.

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected].

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7 thoughts on “Reflections on a park bench … and a perfect life

  1. This is a wonderful story. I’ve passed by the bench and plaque during multiple visits to the DC area. I knew a little of the person, the plaque and, the Austen quote. So appreciate your telling.

  2. Thank you for being the kind of person who takes the time to learn the back story – and share it with others!

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