Is anyone named Betty anymore? Maybe the name will make an ironic comeback, but when my Aunt Betty died at the age of 102, the last Betty left the world.
102 years old! She got there with all the right cards stacked in her actuarial favor: no husband, no booze, strong faith, walked to work every day, the presence of a large network of family and friends. Her modest life as a factory worker in a Midwestern tavern town was the flipside of the urbane aunt with a martini glass in hand. Yet, to me—a girl growing up in the 1960s—Betty presented possibilities. She had a job and drove a Rambler.
Was she a feminist? Such a label had little meaning in her world. But Betty, with steady determination, made a stand for what was hers. When her parents were in arrears with tuition payments, the Catholic high school she attended said that Betty wouldn’t receive her high school diploma upon graduation; the school would, however, award a diploma to her twin brother. What’s a girl need a diploma for anyway? How little they knew of her will. With steely resolve she saved her factory job earnings, later returned to the school to pay her tuition, and received her diploma. I like to imagine the scene of her handing a money order over to a startled clerk in the school office who would likely defer in hushed consult with the priest-administrator. Betty settled the score.
Quiet. That was her style as she walked through the noisiness of life. If one of her brothers or sisters was in a tough spot, she was always there to help. She paid her own way, never bragged, in fact, she didn’t talk much at all.
Once in a while she would open up. In her nineties, she surprised me with a story about the long-ago boss who would invite young girls to his office and sometimes to his cabin. Betty knew what he was up to and wasn’t going to have any part of it. This was the closest she ever came to talking about sex or men within its context. Men were generally brothers or nephews or priests—some simply tolerated, others admitted to the circle of her kindness.
Childless, Betty was the matriarch to many and fairy godmother to generations. Every new baby in the family received a hand-knit blanket, followed in time by hats, sweaters, ponchos, stuffed animals, slippers, and one-off pieces of her own invention. A 3-by-5 index card with our birthdate assured us a place in her permanent record, which meant at least a birthday card and Christmas box of treats. I received a birthday card with a five-dollar bill well into my fifties.
The furious abundance of her “Maker” skills extended well beyond knitting. Betty grew and canned tomatoes and green beans. She made her own fruit jam. Before Christmas, her small kitchen became a production site yielding commercial proportions of cookies, candy, and popcorn balls—all to be packed in tins and shipped to scores of relatives local and far away. The arrival of Betty’s Christmas box via UPS was cause for uncontained excitement when my sons were little.
They are mostly gone now—Betty and her generation of women who crafted ornaments out of clothes pins and walnut shells in the church basement. Who lit candles with whispered intentions for someone’s safe travel or a deeper secret appeal. I miss them. I miss her.