Laying Betty to rest.

Betty Larkey

My sister and I stifled laughter throughout our mother’s funeral. The minister was not trying to be funny. He had scarcely known our mother because she did not like him or his newfangled church policies. At her service he retold stories we’d told him only 48 hours before, and in his folksy manner he inadvertently emphasized the wrong details. The result was comical, so Margaret and I sat in the front row, splitting with hysteria, hoping everyone behind us would mistake our laughter for sobs of grief.

Betty was worth grieving. She was smart and generous, resourceful and frivolous. To her last days she was a madcap dreamer, one whose biggest dream came true when she became a mother after suffering five miscarriages. She relished every minute of raising my sister and me.

Sisters, 1972

She did all sorts of things she wouldn’t have ordinarily enjoyed just because she thought they were important for us. She woke early, though she was naturally a night owl. She cooked breakfast, a meal she despised. She hauled us around near and far, to art classes, play rehearsals, swim meets, sleepovers, birthday parties and math contests. Our lives were her life.

When I was little, weekdays with my mother consisted of picnics in the park, writing books together, and playing “you be the girl, and I’ll be the mama,” which was a game my mother invented mostly to make tidying my room more fun. Around lunchtime on Fridays, when my father came home early from work, Mama packed the car to drive us away for the weekend to my father’s parents’ house on the Spring River in Hardy, Arkansas.

Papa and Bonnie

My mother wasn’t outdoorsy, but she was a good sport. While my father fished my mother rode horses with her father-in-law, whom everyone else called Lawyer but we all called Papa. I imagine they talked about Tennyson and Walt Kelly and strategies for gin rummy, as these were things they both treasured. What I know from her telling me is that those days riding through pastures in the cool river air with me nestled in front of her were some of the most peaceful days of her life.

The peace didn’t last. My father’s mother had a stroke when I was five, the year Margaret was born. Grandmother Myrt’s declining health was followed by a series of unexpected turns, all of which forged a fork in our family road that led my father down one path and my mother down another.

For a while after that she was fragile, a frail, weepy, 100-pound mess; but then her innate resolve set in. She started a business; she filed for marital separation; she resolved to keep moving forward for Margaret and me, whatever it took.

In our adolescent and teenage years my sister and I were perfectly awful to our devoted mother. Her commitment never wavered, though I know we tested her will. She waited patiently for us to outgrow our childish ways and reconnect with her on the other side of adulthood, the side where we would become friends.

When I turned 30, unmarried and childless, Mama set aside the idea of grandchildren and instead embraced my decision to adopt a dog. She went with me to puppy school, brought treats when she came to visit, and took care of Ella when I traveled for work. “It’s a good thing I’m your mother,” she said one night when I was away, “because Ella took all your dirty underwear from the laundry basket and made a bed for herself in your living room.”

Destin 1998

A few years later, when I was living in Omaha, Mama called to say she had rented a house for the week my sister, who was in medical school, would be on spring break. “I thought we all needed a trip to the beach.” So Margaret and I got in my car and drove from Omaha to Destin, stopping in Memphis on the way to pick up our mother. It was an absurdly planned adventure that was, in fact, exactly what we all needed.

It was our last family vacation together. Eighteen months later, Mama was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and told she had less than six months to live.

Private and reserved, my mother would not have wanted her trials and tribulations with the big C to be told in any detail. She got sick, got better, got sick again, and died. She waved off the six-month death notice and instead stayed almost five years, during which time she welcomed a son-in-law, three real grandchildren, and another grand-dog. From her first diagnosis to her last day, her determination did not falter. Three days before she died my mother dressed in her sparkly finest and went to a neighbor’s Christmas party. The following day she was a bit out of sorts, and then the next in a haze that hospice mistook for morphine overdose. She died 36 hours later in her own bed, Margaret on one side and me on the other.

Ever the believer that life should keep going, Mama decided before she died to donate her remains to a local medical research institute. At the end of her memorial service, absent body and burial, 40 years with my mother was abruptly over. Eight months later I received a notice in the mail that I had a certified package waiting at the post office.

“I have Mama in the car,” I told my sister as I drove out of the parking lot.

“You what?”

“I have Mama in the car, or at least what’s left of her.”

(Pause) “What are you going to do with her?”

“I don’t know, probably let her ride around with me for a while.”

For almost a year, Betty rode in the back of my Passat wagon, wedged between the chairs we took to baseball games and the portable air compressor my uncle gave me for Christmas. When it was just the two of us in the car, I would tell her stories about the children or about the house, or just ramble and babble about things I knew she’d be anxious to learn if she were really still around.

The following summer my husband, children and I took a long road trip, and Betty had to move from the car to the shelf in the laundry room. Still in her cardboard box with the paper tape intact, she had the perfect bird’s-eye view of our daily comings and goings. I thought, somewhat guiltily, how much she would have enjoyed watching our ordinary days and that I should have done more to involve her instead of waiting for special occasions. I’d wanted to impress her with my mastery of Christmas and birthday parties. I understood, too late, that she would have preferred a more frequent, less contrived weeknight bowl of soup or Saturday morning coffee.

Ella

More time passed, and Mama was joined on her shelf by her grand-dog Ella, in a smaller box, whom we agreed could keep my mother company again until we had a better plan.

Then one night my sister called. “I know what to do with Mama,” she said. “She needs to go to Hardy.”

My father, an only child, inherited the Hardy house when his parents died. He kept it for a few years then sold it to a doctor friend when he and my mother divorced. The doctor friend thought he might retire there until he realized he might be happier retiring in Colorado, so he sold the property to a retired FBI agent. The agent made many improvements and enjoyed his retirement home. After his wife died, he sold the property to a young couple who had met on a blind date 10 years earlier. I know that’s how they met, Dave and Mary, because I introduced them.

They had no idea their quiet river house had any connection to me when they bought it. A stray comment Mary made during a catch-up lunch when I moved back to Memphis brought the thread full circle. My mother loved this strange, uniquely Memphis turn of events. We talked about taking her to see the house and the river again, but her failing health wouldn’t allow it.

When I called, somewhat awkwardly, to ask Dave and Mary if we could scatter my mother’s remains in the horse pastures, they agreed without hesitation. The challenge was getting my sister to Memphis.

The following January our stepmother died. Margaret and I once again sat on the front row of a chapel stifling laughter as a different well-intentioned minister tried to eulogize a woman he’d never met. At the end of that service Margaret turned to me and said, “It’s time to lay Betty to rest.”

We left the next morning, car stocked with a picnic, a couple of extra coats, and the still-pristine cardboard box with the brown paper tape and certified mail label.

Hardy, 2007

Three hours later we sat on the deck overlooking the river, ate cheese and crackers, reminisced about our childhood and drank a toast to the woman who always saw us, and the world, through rose-colored glasses. Enjoying this quiet time together, we neglected to watch the clock. We realized, in a panic, that we had less than 20 minutes to complete our task and get back on the road or Margaret would miss her flight home.

We threw the picnic supplies in the car, retrieved the cardboard box and headed to the horse pastures. We opened the box to find inside a pretty brass container, sealed at every seam.

“Oh, hell no; we did not come all the way up here just to take her back home,” Margaret said.

“Mama, please forgive me,” I said to the sky, as I banged the edge of the box on a nearby rock. No luck. I banged harder. The seals held.

We raced back to the house to find tools. The shed was locked. Violating the hospitality of our kind friends, we frantically searched every drawer and closet for either a hammer or a key to the tool shed. The minutes flew by. We finally located the key (cleverly labeled “shed,” as I recall) and found a pry bar. Far past gentle reverence, we banged and poked and pried that damn box with all our might until finally a side seam gave way. We tore back up the hill, scattered the ashes among the tall grasses and fallen logs, said a last farewell, and jumped in the car to speed home.

Finally, we felt closure, a proper madcap ending to Betty’s madcap life. As with many endings, though, a small postscript followed.

Three years after we scattered Betty in the quiet pasture, my friend Elizabeth died. Elizabeth’s ashes were placed in our family church’s new columbarium, lodged in the wall that once framed a picture of my mother and me, years earlier, on my high school graduation day. Looking at the names etched in stone I realized that no tangible sign marked my mother’s life, other than Margaret and me and the couple of books she wrote.

We lay her body to rest; we carry her spirit forward.

 

In memory

163 Comments Add yours

  1. great read. i love the unexpected way you present the funeral. beautiful writing.

  2. Jennifer….words cannot properly express what your story meant to me. Thank you for sharing it. Your mother sounds like a special lady. What an adventure life must have been in your house. I have a very similar story about my dog Bailey. After reading this I have decided to share that on my blog…maaaybe next week. I am feeling a lot of emotion right now and I do not like to cry and write very often, LOL! While my mother is still alive, I have had the privilege of others who have passed I think about. It gives me inspiration…….thank you! 🙂

  3. Denise Hisey says:

    What a way you have with the story”! I loved reading about your mama and the adventure she went on ‘later’ with you. Her funeral story reminds me of the one my mother in law told me. Apparently she and her sister sat in the the front row laughing the entire time, too.
    Lovely tribute to Betty!

  4. Pete says:

    My auntie Betty died on Boxing day (in the UK its the day after Christmas day) she had been ill for many years but had lost none of her lust for life despite like your mother having miscarriage after miscarriage unlike her twin who had two children. Then after giving up in 79 she gave birth to Philip who grew up to be a strong young man, then two years later another baby a girl who died after 6 weeks, then 3 years ago she lost Philip one night, he went to bed and didn’t rise. The tragedy was always in her mind, but she was still one to make you laugh, give you a hug when it was needed. Betty was my pseudo Mother, my father was a violent man who would rather have see us starve then give us any of his drink and gambling money, so my Mother worked when she could, cleaning houses of those that looked down on us and in a bar at night, the three of us kids were looked after by Auntie Betty, she stuck plaster over cuts, wiped our noses and smiled when needed.
    From what I have read about your mum, I do hope my Betty meets yours and they are looking down at us all and laughing.

  5. laritaraine says:

    Thanks for sharing, now I don’t feel so bad. I was very close to my mom and I’m an only child. She told me she wanted to be cremated but she never said where. And the same thing. “Mommy…is that granny in that box?” Put her in the lake…nooo she wouldn’t have liked that said my aunt. I know…I’ll plant her in my garden, since I love it so much. Nooo, what if I move? And I moved. so glad I didn’t do that. So after other considerations, I found me a nice leather box at Hobby Lobby and I keep her with me. I don’t have her displayed. But she’s always near me. And the instructions for my 2 girls are for her to be sneaked and buried with me. Walk up to the coffin, look around, and slide that box under my feet before the last viewing. Yeah… that’s the deal.

  6. beautiful and funny piece, thank you, LMA

  7. Michelle says:

    I often forget to look at Freshly Pressed, but so glad I had a bored moment of work this morning and did so. What a lovely piece.

  8. mandiimay says:

    Beautifully written! So eloquent 🙂 I really enjoyed it x

  9. Littlesundog says:

    What eloquent writing, laced with irresistible humor. Very nice read!

  10. Bittersweet and precious.

  11. handmadebyjo says:

    This was beautifully written and it was so nice to see the sense of humor about death come through. I love the fact that she was in the back seat of your car for so long – and how you never opened the box until you had too. Thanks.

  12. Thank you for sharing you bittersweet, loving and funny story. Your Mother certainly went out with a bang.
    She sounds like she was a wonderful Mom.

    MJ

  13. Kaywadie says:

    This is beautiful. A madcap goodbye worthy of Betty. Your writing is honest and true.

  14. ttabor says:

    Thank you for sharing with us. I laughed and cried. I wish I had known Betty!! =) I lost my dad and am really struggling, thank you for helping me realize it is ok to laugh again

  15. This one’s moving. 😦 Lordie, but I’m being a handful to my Mom right now. You made me realize how I should cherish moments with her while I still can. You see, I am but a girl of 16 and doesn’t know any better. This is an eye opener for me. 🙂 Thanks for posting this!

  16. checkmatebuddy says:

    this is beautiful. loved to read every little detail 🙂

  17. LifeStyleWebTV says:

    Very nice and moving. Loved it. Best 😉

  18. Sounds like a classy woman till the end. I hope you find comfort in all the good times;)

  19. Julie says:

    My mum is a Betty and she is very thankfully still with my sister and I. She is hilarious and we adore her. I cherish every day with my Betty and wish you peace and comfort in your memories of your Betty. This was a lovely piece.

  20. storiesbyfrances says:

    I couldn´stop reading. This is so beautiful.

  21. I’ve been thinking of the mother figure in my life a lot lately. I have decided to blog about her tonight. During reflection, I remembered this post. It was one of the very first posts I Liked here on WordPress. After rereading it, I still feel so full and want to share it with my sisters. Blessings. Oh yeah, and I’ve remembered to Follow you this time. 😉 Newbie…

  22. E j says:

    Oh my goodness….I too have so many “Betty” memories….thank you Jennifer, for reminding me of these…and that very bittersweet loss if a very good friend!
    Xxxooo
    Ej

  23. Alissa says:

    Stumbled across your blog and this piece is wonderfully written, I an almost feel your words. It has some strange parallels to my life, fellow Memphis-ite and Hardy/Cherokee Village family and homes. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Breathtaking. I can only imagine how much distilling over time this took to write. Thank you so much for sharing. She now also lives on in those of us lucky enough to read this!

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