Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Goodbye to Auntie Bet

This morning, my Auntie Bet passed away. She was almost 90. She had had a good, long life, and she was ready to go, as she had been telling her family for a while now.

(The tough part is that, just because someone is ready to go, it doesn't mean you're ready for them to leave.)

My mother and Betty Baxter met in Connecticut in the 1940s, when they were both young mothers. For many years they lived across the street from each other in Newington, and from the stories my mother told about those days, it always seemed to me as if the two families had raised their collective seven children--Betty and Elmer's three boys and my own parents' three boys and one girl (I didn't come along until later)--as one big brood. As fellow exiled Mainers, these suburban Connecticut parents encouraged (or at least did not discourage) their offspring in such rugged pursuits as camping, hiking, shooting arrows, firing rifles, and trapping muskrats. (Perhaps the kids spent so much time together because no one else in the neighborhood was allowed to play with them? Hmmm.)

After my parents bought land on a lake in Maine and began building their camp, the Baxters visited them there in the summer.
(1957...that's Greg, my mom, Steve, David, Leddy, and Betty in the back, with Andy and Ben in the front. I'm not sure where Leslie was...she was only seven, but I suppose she could have been behind the camera. Look at my mom and Betty in their skirts...I don't think I've ever worn a skirt at camp, but I guess things were different in 1957.)

I suppose it must have been terribly hard on all of them, perhaps most especially my mother and Betty, when my parents moved their family to New Jersey in the mid-50s, but the families stayed friends, visiting as often as they could.

Betty's daughter-in-law, Nancy, recently emailed to tell us a story: before they left, my father and Elmer carried our family's picnic table across the street and put it in the Baxters' backyard where, remarkably, it has lasted through more than 50 years of family gatherings. (Steve says that's because of some "old school oil" our father put on it when he built it in 1952.) "At some point," Nancy wrote, "we would like for you to have it if any of you would like to have it back." Later, she reported that Betty "was delighted that the table will be with your family. Her words were something like, 'Good, that's where it belongs.' "

After our father died suddenly while the family was living in New Jersey, and after I was born (eight months later), the family moved back to Connecticut. We lived about an hour away from the Baxters, but we went there often, especially on Sunday afternoons. Their house was a wonderful place to visit, because it held so many quirks and treasures--a third-floor attic where the boys slept; a system of buzzers so that Betty, in the kitchen, could communicate, using a special code, "Dinnertime!" or "Time to get up for school!"; a lush, terraced vegetable garden in the backyard, at the bottom of which was the scummiest, most brilliantly green frog pond; a dug-out doghouse cave in one of the garden's terraced hills where Ben's German shepherd, Phantom, slept to keep varmints away from Elmer's vegetables; a tiny dining room that quite comfortably contained--apparently by some trick of spatial geometry--an enormous table, an enormous sideboard, and an enormous upright piano; an upstairs room entirely devoted to Elmer's model trains; a big black-and-white tomcat named Tim; a kitchen drawer full of shoestrings and wooden beads, paper and colored pencils, and tin soldiers; and a startling number of clocks that dinged or bonged or cuckoo-ed every hour.

I would spend the afternoon exploring the nooks and crannies and marvels of the Baxters' house and yard, while my mother and Betty, boring old ladies that they were, would be content to do nothing at all but talk.

When I was six years old, I met Donna and discovered the wonderful concept of Best Friends. We spent all day together at school, and as soon as the bus dropped us off and we had checked in at home, we would get together at either her house or mine for the rest of the afternoon. If for some reason we weren't together, we were on the phone with each other. I remember asking my mom, who worked and cooked and cleaned and went to meetings but never seemed to spend much time with friends, if she had a best friend.

"Yes," she answered without hesitation. "Auntie Bet."

"But you don't get to see her very much," I mused, thinking of all the time Donna and I spent together.

"When you've been friends as long as we have, that doesn't matter," my mom said.

In a letter she sent me a year or so after my mother died, Betty concurred: "I do miss your mother!" she wrote. "So often we shared thoughts without even speaking."

Last December, after a surprise breakfast birthday party for our uncle in Bangor, Steve and Leslie and I continued on to Bar Harbor to visit Betty and Elmer in their retirement home. They treated us to lunch and we spent a bittersweet afternoon reminiscing, all of us knowing, I think, that it would be our last visit with Betty. I brought a tin of Christmas cookies, and she said, "These are all the kinds your mother used to make!"
Betty was no-nonsense, outdoorsy, and strong. She was smart, creative, and well-educated--a college graduate (Colby, 1941) at a time when few women were. She was a historian, a writer--she wrote a history of Newington, a real, actual book you could hold in your hands!--and a formidable bridge, cribbage, and Scrabble player. She was a mom, and a surrogate mom--she had three sons but no daughters, so she liked to borrow Leslie and me now and then.

She was our mom's very best friend for sixty years.

Nancy wrote to us this morning, "Elmer was holding her hand and Joan said she actually heard her laughing and conversing with someone earlier this morning. If she was laughing with anyone, it would have been your mom."