In Memory of my Cousin Betsey who died as she wished, peacefully, in her sleep, and in God’s grace
Betsey was born in the shadow of the Dundee Goat weathervane still on the steeple of the 1834 Baptist Church. It is in the register of historic buildings, but the house next door where she was born lost its shingles and its dignity decades ago. At 97, she often forgets where she left her walker in the assisted living center, forgets she needs assistance until she feels a tipsiness once steadied by grandpappy’s wooden cane. She refused a steel cane, but grandpappy’s hand hewn one had become an acceptable companion. She treats the walker with an uncharacteristic carelessness. Not an heirloom or tradition, it could be left unattended. Where was the tragedy if it were stolen?
Of some concern are her memories. Who but she was left to know that formidable Aunt Fanny took her all the way to Louisville to select her trousseau? Aunt Fanny certainly knew her lace and lingerie. Her mother, Aunt Fanny’s sister, sanctioned the marriage of her only child but could not bear the pain of transition, would not look at the fancy nightgown. That is why she and Frank Kelly eloped, no matter what people whispered behind their paper fans. And who but she would remember that grandmammy was blind to her grandchildren sneaking their hands under the covered dining table to steal a roll or slice of pie left over from lunch and waiting for the dinner bell. “Leave them be,” she told stern Aunt Mae. “I want them to remember hiding under their grandmammy’s dining table and thinking I did not see.”
Who but she was left to know that grandpappy sat on the porch every Sunday beside the dirt road in the “one horse” town of Trisler, inviting every single passerby to dinner. There was always room at the table. Trisler was no longer on the map. The home place was owned by strangers, the dirt road was paved, the one-room school great-great-grandpappy built was a wooden ruin still waiting for the storm that would put to rest the spirits of farmers who prized education along with honor, well-fed cattle, and well-tilled fields?
She sat on a comfortable sofa in the common room, satisfied from dinner and thought about assisted living. It was kind of like the old railway waiting room where everyone knew the posted schedule was a hope, not a fact. She did not know when she would go home or what home that would be. Probably not the gracious home Frank Kelly built in 1949 with four bedrooms for the children they had planned to have. The children still in her heart. Frank Kelly died thirty years ago. Their home had needed some repairs. “Why bother,” she said as a matter of fact. “I won’t be here much longer.” Eventually, she had the roof replaced and the windows caulked. The house stayed snug, if slowly going out of style. And those spiral stairs to the bedrooms? Eventually, she limited herself to one round trip a day, but at 97 she thought that was an accomplishment, one she would not give up without a fuss.
The commotion over her last fall was justified, she supposed. She was content that this level place spared her the need to rise to the occasion presented by those stairs. Her family rose to occasions. Her daddy rose to the challenge of her spinster Aunt Mae, whose excuse for not marrying – someone needs to care for mammy and pappy – expired at grandmammy’s funeral. Like all of the family, Aunt Mae was educated, educated enough for Betsey’s father to go to the county school board and suggest she be hired to teach in Tristler’s new four room brick edifice. Aunt Mae rose to the occasion by teaching two generations of Ohio County children with her steel gray hair in a bun and a firm grip on the ruler that reinforced the rules. When Trisler lost its post office, a corner in the general store, and was no longer a freckle on the map, Aunt Mae retired and made apple butter on the iron stove of the family homestead and slept unspoiled in her childhood bed. Betsey suspected that the occasion she rose to was more than teaching, it was to arrive at the heavenly gates a virgin, her penance perhaps for provoking a duel over her hand. One young man was killed. The other, well, now how could a staunch Christian like Mae marry a murderer?
And who but she was left to know that Uncle Walton endured Aunt Fannie’s tyranny by decamping to the basement for three-day benders in his teetotalling household in a dry county.
Sad to take so much home, and it was clearer every moment that grandpappy was inviting her to dinner and grandmammy had her favorite peach pie –with a B for Betsey pricked in the crust — on the table beneath a red and white checked table cloth that protected the Sunday spread from flies. Maybe she would take the long way home, and A.J. would land his plane in her high school yard and fly her home like he did in those days, flying high over the Dundee Goat. That was before she met Frank Kelly, and she had not allowed herself to think of A.J. in all those days of her marriage and widowhood.
And who but she was left to know her freest, fullest moments were sitting behind A.J. in his flying machine. Frank Kelly was so fearful of flying, he never set foot on a plane. How could she tell him that their new Cadillac was grand — but somehow too grounded for her heart to swell no matter how soft its leather seats? Today, at last, she was thinking of A.J., of taking the long way home. She had no fear of flying. She had no fear of going home. There had been so much in her life to love, but now there was this walker. No matter where she left it, someone gently reminded her.
Home was a place she could fly to, soaring over the Dundee Goat, with daddy and grandpappy looking up from the fields as they had that day and running to meet her full of god almighties that one of their own had risen to the occasion and boarded this newfangled mode of transportation piloted by her dashing new beau.
The Dundee Goat, she had been told, was now a tourist attraction. Oh, my. What stories it held in its zinc wool coat still turning with the winds.