Aunt Betty

image of my Great-Aunt Betty, an older white woman with short strawberry blonde hair and oversized glasses, standing in a jaunty position in her dining room with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth
My Great-Aunt Betty, a couple of years before she died.
Do I even need to tell you how much I loved this woman?

I was thinking about my Aunt Betty earlier today. I don't even know what prompted the thought of her, exactly. It was a thought about getting older, and becoming a woman of a certain age, and my thoughts eventually tumbled down a path that led me back to Betty.

Aunt Betty, who married my grandfather's brother, was an ominous presence in my life long before I met her. She was the kind of woman who marries into a family and gets called by some members of that family, in whispered voices, a battleaxe. Or slightly less kind and subtle, ahem, versions of the same notion.

When I met her for the first time, or the first time in my memory, I was younger than 10. Even without the influence of things whispered about Betty to which children supposedly don't listen, I would have been terrified of her upon our first meeting.

She was stubborn and brusque and quirky and fiercely individualistic. She had been a widow for a long time, and she lived a life that satisfied her and no one else. She had strong opinions about How Things Should Be Done, from chewing food (50 times before you swallow!) to child-rearing. I often heard my mother say, "Betty is an expert on raising children, like everyone who's never had any."

I'm not certain that Betty really had ideas about child-rearing as much as she did the intractable notion that children were tiny adults. Betty always talked to me like an adult, rather than a child, which I adored even as it intimidated me.

She lived in Florida, in a home that was rich with color on the outside and quiet with neutral tones on the inside. We were sitting on her patio one morning when one of the ubiquitous lizards in her garden ran over my bare toes. I watched its tiny feet scamper across mine. "You didn't flinch," Betty said. It wasn't a question, but an observation. She nodded. "That's good. It's good you're not scared of them."

The first time we visited her, I asked for ketchup to put on my chicken. "I don't eat ketchup, I don't like ketchup, and I don't keep it in my house!" she informed me. I shrunk. And I ate my chicken without ketchup.

The second time we visited her, Betty took me shopping with her. She asked me what I wanted at the store, and I told her, and she put it in the cart. I did not say I wanted ketchup.

In the condiment aisle, she grabbed a bottle of ketchup nonetheless. "I'm buying it just for you!" she said. And I felt very loved.

I didn't understand my Aunt Betty as a child, but I knew that I loved her and that I liked her. She was hard, but she was warm. She was tough, but she was wickedly funny.

I still love and like Betty, though she's been gone for many years. The older I get, the more I understand her.

Now I'm the battleaxe who had never had kids. Whose opinions are measured and valued by conformity to ideals that do not suit me and never will.

Aunt Betty. She was meant to be a cautionary tale, not a role model.

I'm so glad I knew her. Having known her helps me know myself.

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