“Aunt” Betty was a central part of my life almost from day one, or so it seemed to me. Raised in my father’s store, doted upon by his employees, I came to view all of them as surrogate parents and grandparents, but I was always especially close to Aunt Betty and her husband, “Uncle” Calvin.
Many of my earliest memories include her, mostly in her tiny office in Dad’s store: “Aunt Betty, I wanna play on the ‘puter,” my two-year-old self would beg, and she’d lift me onto her lap and have me “help” with the bookkeeping work she did for my dad. “Press F1,” I remember her coaching me, “now press Enter, okay, now wait just a minute, press Enter again.” And the bright blue screen with the funny yellow and red letters would flash and blink and I would snuggle against Aunt Betty, secure in my knowledge that I was loved.
We’d go out to lunch too. There was a café about a block away from the store, and although Dad could ask anyone to take us there for lunch, I usually begged for Aunt Betty to be the one. Many times, we’d meet up with a friend of hers while at the café—I don’t remember anything about her except that her name was Nancy, but Aunt Betty, Nancy, my sister, and I would eat at that café almost every day, and I ordered a tuna sandwich on toast every time. Funny, the details that we remember….
Sometimes at the store, when she wasn’t so busy, we played school. “This is high school,” I’d write in big block letters on a Post-it note that she’d stick to the wall of the office. My star pupil Aunt Betty was surely old enough for high school, I thought, after all, this was the “highest” level of school that I knew to exist.
We played school at her house, too, when I’d go there in the evenings, or sometimes for the day, after she retired. Aunt Betty loved collecting bells, and the racket we made as we rang them to get each other’s attention must have been hard on anybody’s ears—except maybe those of Aunt Betty, who was hard of hearing in one ear and nearly deaf in the other. Family lore has it that that’s why I, severely hard of hearing from birth, am able to speak as well as I do—because Aunt Betty spoke loudly enough to hear herself, thus making it easier for me to hear her. I suspect this is why I always had more of a Southern accent than anyone in my family (though I’ve since lost most of it)—because Aunt Betty was about as southern as it was possible to be, and I picked up much of my early speech from her.
When I was four, I was the flower girl in her daughter’s wedding. I don’t remember much about that wedding, except that I treasured my dress and wanted to wear it at every opportunity for months afterward, maybe years, until it was obvious that I’d long ago outgrown it, and I reluctantly let it get packed away in the attic of my mother’s house. Not long after that, Aunt Betty’s first two grandchildren were born, two weeks apart. I remember looking at “Baby” Audrey and “Baby” Dylan with awe, amazed that two human beings could really be that small. I was just as fascinated by the blanket that Aunt Betty had knitted, which she’d worked on for months before, and I begged her to teach me how to knit. She complied, and today I’m knitting a blanket for a friend who’s expecting—using that same pattern from Audrey’s first blanket.
The whole family loved Aunt Betty and Uncle Calvin. I think that after the divorce, they were some of the only people to remain close with both of my parents, and that was a blessing, though I hardly knew it at the time, because their house served as a neutral ground for us to get away from the bitter custody battle that went on for years. Sometimes, we’d spend the night there. When we were little, my sister and I would sleep on either side of Aunt Betty in the big bed with the orange blanket, and as we grew older, we moved to a guest bedroom with twin beds, each with a picture of one of her two children on the wall above it. On days when life at home was particularly trying, or maybe because I just didn’t want to stop being coddled by my surrogate aunt/mother/grandmother, I’d hide under one of the beds when it came time to go home.
Little did I know just how bad it would get at home—but Aunt Betty and Uncle Calvin were there for that too. Though they lived a few miles away, and I wasn’t yet able to drive, they always offered to pick me up from wherever I was—even from my father’s house, at least a twenty-minute drive for them each way. In my teenage years and beyond, every time I’d come home from school for a vacation, they were among the first people on the list for me to see—and often, she’d call me before I’d even been home for a day, before I had a chance to call anybody. Knowing that my grandparents were increasingly incapacitated, I leaned on Aunt Betty and Uncle Calvin for support more and more when home life was unbearable. Sometimes even then I’d spend the night with them, which brought back memories of being tiny. They’d cook amazing meals—I think Uncle Calvin is secretly a world-famous chef, though if you ask him, he’d say he was only ever a mailman—and we’d sit and play cards and talk for hours.
They have been a pillar in my life for years. I never thought it possible that they wouldn’t be there. Certainly they’d be there when I returned from my year in Israel.
But I opened my Facebook page this past Thursday night, ecstatic from a great night out, to this message, from another of my “aunts” who worked at the store.
Your dad just called me and told me Betty died. I’m sorry,I know you two were close. Shabbas is about to start… say a prayer and know that she is with G-d. Think about all the good times you had with her and remember she will always be with you.
I Love You !!!! Anne
Not quite believing what I was reading, I went to my email. Dad’s email, a response to an article I’d sent him the day before, confirmed the terrible news.
I couldn’t believe it. How could she be gone? I knew she’d been unhealthy for years—first breast cancer, then a stroke, probably more strokes as I watched her memory deteriorate over the last few years. Yet she’d always been so busy, active in garden clubs, bridge games, and various charitable organizations.
I miss you, Aunt Betty. As Anne says, you are with G-d. Wait for us on the other side, and know that the world is a better place for your having been in it.