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Monday, April 15, 2013

"That's my Aunt Betty!"... Dorothy Abrams's Everyday Heroine

Image courtesy of Pixomar
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My mother's sister, Helen Elizabeth, was a singer. A woman of the 40's, she sang on WFBL in Syracuse with the Jim DeLine Gang until she got fired because she refused the advances of someone important on the set. It's not that she was a prude, or even a virgin. She often told the story of going to NYC to audition for the Fred Waring Singers. She refused the audition couch and did not get the job.

"We just hired a red head," was the comment, but it wasn't what they meant. My aunt would tell the story and look at us seriously.

"I may choose to give it away, but you can't buy it," she proclaimed. She had been the lover of a local classical musician for a long time. When it came right down to it, she wouldn't marry him. I don't know why. My mother put off marriage for a long time too. She said she was having too much fun, and I suspect that was true of my aunt as well.

I, of course, knew them both as properly married ladies of the middle class. My aunt directed the Methodist Church choir and my mother sold Avon. Well, that was a masquerade. Neither of them was very proper. All of the women in my family told me the same thing in different words. You are married for a long time. Get your living done first. My mother said "Don't die not knowing" when it looked like I might be a career woman. My grandmother said, "Don't get married until you have to."

That was what they said, but it was my aunt that showed the way. In the 1950's she finally agreed to marry another show business person. He was a local magician, a friend of the great Blackstone and he loved music. He loved my aunt, but only on the rebound. It didn't last. My parents caught him with his girlfriend and that was the end of that. I was there too, but young enough not to understand. I thought two people were simply listening to the new HiFi my uncle had purchased. So my aunt divorced him over the HiFi. Well, that was one name for her.

My aunt was really scared when she fought for her house and furnishings. She hadn't worked except at the church for the 10 years they were married. She heard all those nasty things men say when they are mad. You'll never be able to keep the house, you can't earn a living, you'll die poor. If he believed that, he was a fool. First she went to work teaching music in a private religious high school. She had to leave off her makeup and jewelry, so it wasn't a good fit. Then she was hired to work for the Department of Social Services, first in Auburn and then for the county when the services merged. She was a welfare case worker, one of the few with compassion.

I used to ride with her when she went out in the field for home visits. They did that in those days, just to see how folks were doing. Then we'd have lunch in some local diner and talk about life and music and what was I going to do with my life. She opposed my choice of schools—a Christian college. She was likely correct in that, but I had already learned from her to go full steam ahead no matter what people said. She liked that, even though she was mad at me. By the time I was in college, my aunt was a supervisor of one of the social work teams, able to encourage kindness and well as a heavy dose of skepticism in her workers. There is no point in being gullible, but you don't have to be mean just because you know better.

I was immensely proud of my aunt. There is a family story about that. When I was a very little girl, we all went to a Christmas Eve service where she was singing a solo, probably "O Holy Night". She could nail those high notes. I slipped out past my mother's knees during the song, got all the way to the front of the church and waited for her to finish. When she closed her music folder I turned around to the congregation, pointing at her and announced, "That's my Aunt Betty!"

I always felt that way. When I lived in DC, she'd take me off to Williamsburg Colonial Village, her favorite place. "I used to live here, you know. The musician's house is this way." She meant she lived there in a past life. I wasn't sure, at the time, I believed in past lives but I noticed she never got lost in Williamsburg.

When I was ready to move back home, I stayed with her while I looked for work. She handed me the newspaper ad that put me in touch with the local anti-poverty agency. "Here. You'll like this," she said. She was right. I loved it. I was the human services coordinator, hired to stir things up and inspire my staff to do the same thing.

When my aunt retired she met with the social security people and the state retirement fund to find out how she was going to make ends meet. I don't think she had planned it out, but it was time. Computers were on the way in, and she didn't understand them. There was a reason for that. The man behind the desk looked at the figures and whistled in surprise.

"You have really done well for a woman." She arched those eyebrows and gave him a straight look. The numbers were good.

"I've done better than most men," she corrected him. It was true in a factory town like Auburn. Her ex-husband had lost everything. His words came home to bite him.

Aunt Betty enjoyed her retirement. She had a great bird feeding station off her back deck where she coddled the cardinals and shooed off squirrels and blue jays. She could sing dozens of bird songs. She knew them from the calls they made, whether they were visible or not. She still sang in the choir though she had given up directing it. She had an occasional solo. We went to concerts together. She hosted the family dinners if I didn't. I knew things had progressed to the point I needed to take over when she sat in the mashed potatoes on Easter. Running out of counter space she set them on the chair and then forgot where they were. It was funny, but it wasn't.

All the way through her last years, I'd call and ask her how she was. Her response never varied.

"I'm good. I have to be you know." Yes, I did know that. She had diabetes, cognitive losses and balance problems but she never gave in to them.

My aunt, as it turned out, had Huntington's chorea. That is the debilitating nerve disease that Woody Guthrie had. I was with her when she got the diagnosis. She was too far gone to understand what that meant. She had broken a hip and was in a rehab center that meant to keep her. The family rallied around her because she wanted to go home to the house she had paid for, the one she did not lose. We brow beat the social workers into submission and arranged for 24 hour care. My mother did at least 1/3 of it for free because we are family. The money wouldn't have stretched far enough otherwise.

In 1992 Aunt Betty choked on a piece of pizza at her kitchen table. It was pepperoni. Her favorite. We used to go out to the Italian Village and have pepperoni pizza. The aides with her did all the right things and got her to the hospital, but she had been without oxygen for too long. She died after my mother got to her side. I was too late, too far away.

The funeral was nice. Not as crowded as I thought it might be, but many of her friends and colleagues had gone on ahead of her. The music was beautiful. Her friend Joan sang the "Lord's Prayer". I couldn't do it. One of my guiding lights had moved across the veil. She sends cardinals to me even now so I know she is near, but it isn't the same.

I went to a costume party once, dressed as my aunt. We were supposed to find a costume and go as a woman in history we admired. I thought of Kate Hepburn, but when I dressed up I looked like Helen Elizabeth Russell, so that is who I was for the night. When people asked who that was, I bragged:

"That's my Aunt Betty."

1 comment:

  1. This brought tears to my eyes, wow! Very nice post and what a wonderful tribute! Your aunt sounded like a fire-cracker! Awesome, thanks for sharing your Aunt Betty:)

    ReplyDelete

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