On New Year's Day, I got a phone call from my older sister Sally. I figured it was just a friendly call wishing Rob and me a happy new year. It wasn't. She said she had just received a call from my cousin Larry with some bad news. Knowing that our (maternal) aunt lived with them, is elderly, and suffers from dementia, I assumed that the news was that she had either taken a turn for the worse (a fall, an illness) and was in the hospital or had died in her sleep. She is, after all, ninety and ailing. That's when she broke the news: our cousin's wife Betty had died that morning of the complications of the flu. I was stunned. It seemed almost incomprehensible.
Betty, who had been the primary caretaker of her mother-in-law (our aunt Connie) for the past ten years. Betty, who has been a part of our family for over forty-five years. Betty, who, while older than me by more than a dozen years, is still in my generation (my sisters and I were always the youngest cousins on both sides, maternal and paternal, but I digress).
All of this prefaces some of my memories of her through the years because she should not be forgotten and her life should be celebrated.
Larry always introduced his (more serious) girlfriends to my Mom (and by extension, our family). If they were important to him, he wanted her to meet them. (She had helped rear him when he was little so they always had a very close relationship.) Over the years we met some really beautiful, really nice girls only to have them disappear afterwards as not the one. One evening Larry arrived at our house with a woman. He introduced her: "I want you to meet my wife, Betty Severn...and she hasn't eaten. Aunt Lee, can you fix her dinner?" Unlike his previous girlfriends, he hadn't dated her for very long and she was a keeper. While our family all sat around the table, Mom made her a ham sandwich and she ate it while all of us looked on, and heard the story of their brief romance. It had to be daunting to meet everyone all at once, but Betty took it all in stride, and if she was overwhelmed, she never showed it. After an all-t00-brief visit, Larry and Betty set out to visit her family and our grandparents and announce their marriage to them, too. Just like that, she was a part of our family.
Unlike many of his former girlfriends, she was fairly plain looking, I originally felt, but over the years her beauty shone through in her smile and her gentle ways. More than once, her hugs comforted when grandparents and parents died.
When she was pregnant with their first child, she asked me to come over and help her get the house cleaned (floors waxed, walls washed) before the child's birth. Why she chose me over either of my sisters, I don't know, but it was a busy couple of weeks. She and I dealt with my uncle, who, previously unknown to me, was drinking heavily, almost nightly. We talked, we cajoled, and we got food into him. This is when she helped me to rediscover the joys of bologna sandwiches (with mustard), Fritoes, and milk. It is still a favorite lunchtime food combination for me, but I digress. We ran errands throughout the day and she introduced to malted milkshakes and frozen custard (it tasted like ice cream to me). Larry, she, and I made bullets for one of his trap shooting contests, and we spent the day at an event in which he was participating. I even ended up pulling targets which is the way scores were recorded. She taught me about a hitherto unknown (to me at fifteen) operation known as a circumcision when discussing the possibility that the baby was a boy. I remember being shocked and a bit repulsed by the idea of this, but she said it was a normal hygienic thing to have done. Betty shared Larry's poetry from his time in high school with me. In other words, through all these events and more, I grew closer to her.
A few years later, when her children were still in the pre-school stage, we celebrated Christmas at their house. I remember their Christmas tree being decorated in just bows, pretzels, and a few candy canes. At first, I found it odd, but her reasons were sound. No chance of fragile glass balls breaking and Susan and Jimmy could have healthy snacks right from the tree. The pretzels could always be replaced, and kids would enjoy the holidays more.
As I grew up and moved away, I saw them less, but that didn't mean the bonds formed over time were any less strong. When my mother died, she was the person who soothed me when my ex-husband showed up during visiting hours. She knew I was upset, but she took me aside and helped me deal with it. She made me be strong and not give in to my emotions when it would have been easy to either meltdown or throw a tantrum. The reality was she was a rock for me then.
For several years, she has been my aunt's primary caretaker. In that role, she took on a great deal. Done with love, she has always had the good of her family at heart. At her request, she asked that my sisters and I send our mail as she rarely gets any. In the past year or so, I have tried to do just that. A card here, a letter there, and Betty let me know how much it meant to my aunt. That is my last memory of her...a phone call thanking me for all the cards and flowers. It isn't that much. It is what family does for loved ones.
Her funeral was Monday. Larry, his children, his grandchildren, and Aunt Connie live on, but there is a huge hole left where Betty used to be. Memories linger on, and she will not be forgotten.
For me, the saddest part of the day was not the funeral itself, it was when I thought my aunt first recognized me, but five minutes later, asked me who I was and what we were doing there. I not only lost a dear cousin, but I know my aunt is gone, too. Her body may be living, but she is just a shell of her former self. She has only a few distant memories left that she recalls with fondness and laughter. Even while she forgets the present, she will not be forgotten, either.
Causes Nancy Smith Supports
Doctors without Borders
American Diabetes Association