It’s been so long since I’ve written anything here. For two years I wrote copiously, for the eyes of my classmates and instructors, while my other “voice” for writing–the non-technical, memory-preserving voice–languished. Now it seems like I’m unable to write anything anymore unless it’s out of a sense of necessity.
Well, tonight I feel a different sense of necessity. I come stumbling back here, looking for a sense of healing in writing as I once felt. My heart is feeling fragile and cracked as I think about a world without the matriarch of our family.
My grandpa’s older sister, my great Aunt Betty, has been a big fixture in my life for all of my 38 years. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in her magical duplex, with the pink carpeted bathroom and the Narnia-esque door hidden in the spare room closet leading to the attic. The attic was full of rodents and 60s-era toys, the ones her two sons, my dad, and his sisters played with as they grew up. Aunt Betty was always a bit appalled that we were so fascinated with the attic, what with the critters and all, but I swear that was part of the thrill. I remember playing on her back steps, or under the fruit tree in the back yard. There is a picture of me with my cousin-somehow-removed at age three or so sitting on the “davenport” that still sits in her living room, in that very duplex with the dark wood banister, 35 years on. There is still the little porcelain statue of the man and the woman with the balloons, and the little niche where the phone sat. As the years moved forward, inevitably, we got taller and less interested in the attic. I became ever more enamored of Betty, and her gentle, quiet husband Vern, though. When Vern died I was in college. Driving late at night with my dad, a huge, white-winged owl swooped down just in front of our car in the dark stretch of Wisconsin forest road. Inexplicably, there was no impact and, though we screeched to a halt and turned back to look, the owl was not in or near the road. It was as though it had simply vanished. Or, if you’re like me and taken with wild flights of fancy, it was just my great uncle Vern letting us know that everything was alright on the other side.
For the longest time, I didn’t want to sit in his chair. It felt intrusive. But after enough visits, and enough stories from Aunt Betty, I just knew it was okay. It became one of my favorite places to be, because I felt closer to him and I saw her, at least a little bit, from his vantage point. And if it hadn’t already been completely obvious before, I knew for certain now that she was a force of nature, a thing of true beauty.
Great Aunt Betty, Mary Elizabeth by birth and Bant Betty by Shultzification, was as close as I got to a paternal grandmother. My grandpa did his best to stand in for both himself and his long-deceased wife when my brother and I were growing up, but his big sister came to be a surrogate grandparent and I couldn’t have chosen better, though in fact I made no choice. She was just always there, asking questions and listening to me as though I were a fascinating girl, discussing books and music and sharing some of my family history that my grandpa found too painful to discuss. As an adult, I mined her for information and she was generous and patient with my unquenchable curiosity. We shared a wedding anniversary (very auspicious indeed!) as well as a love of strawberry rhubarb pie and books. She read a dozen books a week, brought to her in an overflowing bag by volunteers from the library. She did crosswords. She fought anyone who ever tried to pay a restaurant bill in her presence. She called my grandpa every day for years, and even though he hated talking on the phone he answered, which is noteworthy. She also loved the Cubs and baseball until it got too slow for her, and then it was all about March Madness. She was a working mother back when that was still a novelty, a loving wife, a soft landing place, a tough cookie, and at times the glue that held things together. In other words: a fully-realized, complicated, and amazing woman.
For some years toward the end of my grandpa’s life, he lived on the other side of the duplex from Betty. Once when Joe and I went to visit him, and after Betty arm-wrestled my grandpa for the dinner bill, we went back to her place and played a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit. I don’t remember who won, but I do remember that she missed not one thing. It felt so strange, yet oddly comforting, to go back to the “other side” for bed that night, in the mirror image of the home I’d known for years as hers. I loved to think of my grandpa living at 1616, and her at 1618, looking out for one another. But after awhile, they couldn’t move around much. So Bob and Betty would each knock around on their own side of the duplex, and call each other at least once a day, never seeing each other but always knowing their sibling was right there with them anyway.
(I never wanted to take a sledgehammer to a wall so badly in my life.)
All this rambling is just to say that 100 years, almost 101, is a darn good run. But when you’re the best Bant Betty around, it’s a gift to the whole world to have had you with us all this time. And even though I might not see your lovely, soft, smiling face anymore, I know you’re just on the other side of this wall, knocking around, looking out for me nonetheless.