Dear Betty Bell
When I moved to Highlands in 2008 I knew I had landed in heaven. Cool mornings and flowers everywhere! What I didn’t think about were the many flowers in the form of open hearts, lovely faces and outspread arms.
The friends I have made here are of the forever ilk. I often think to myself, “ Kirk, how did you get so lucky?” Well, we all know there is a grand plan.
Making a new friend is like tasting honey for the first time. It is so sweet and the memory is everlasting. Being an older adult adds another tinge to the recipe. The immediate and overwhelming sadness of loosing a friend through death is a bitter tincture. But it is balancing. To have that breadth of emotion is so healthy and human. Having the acerbic taste of mourning slowly morph into a a sweet but somehow more mellow memory is comforting. Time truly heals all wounds.
In 2009 I had the poignant opportunity to make a most dear friend through the veil of grief. The manager and heart at Madison’s - the restaurant at Old Edwards Inn & Spa - was diagnosed with cancer. The entire community was in shock and pain for Russell and his family.
On a bright early summer morning a most lovely woman walked into Oakleaf. Her voice was clear and syrupy southern. I fell in love with Betty Bell on sight! During our visit, we realized our collective concern for Russell. She and her family made trips back and forth to Starkville all through the season, and I promised to keep her in the loop as to Russell’s illness. Short notes to her were returned in person with hugs and visits. I got to know her equally lovely daughter and her darling granddaughters. A bond was formed that bubbled up in these magical mountains like the rich mineral spring water.
I’ll never forget writing the note telling Betty of Russell’s passing. I realized that I wasn’t old nor wise enough to carry the task. But I somehow did it. Had to. Always through my life, I have gone back to my Papa’s oft repeated chant to
me ....”just close your eyes, scream and run!”
Years passed with visits to Oakleaf. The joy of having Betty walk through the door was palpable. The gift of friendship in Highlands is never sweeter than in summer.
Alas, there came a point I had to learn to savor my sweet friendship long distance, as Betty’s frailty kept her from making the trip from Mississippi to North Carolina. Luckily her visits were replaced by those of her daughter Cynthia with news and stories.
I sent Betty boxes of hemlock and galax hoping that when first opened in sultry Starkville, the waft of a cool Highlands morning mixed with the love from a friend would brush her beautiful face.
Many many months ago a note to Betty came back to me in the mail. I was stricken with fear. Remember the scene in “Fried Green Tomatoes” when Evelyn walked into Ninny’s room at the nursing home and the aides were pulling the paper roses from the wall. I was not Kathy Bate’s “Tawanda,” but the teary, fragile Evelyn we equally loved in that film.
Thank goodness Cynthia put my mind at ease with the news that Betty was happily planted in an assisted living facility. The news did have with it a tinge if reality. I remember thinking, “Kirk you must steel yourself for the inevitable.”
A few weeks ago, Cynthia walked through the door at the shop. I knew. The matter of Covid 19 prevented the hug that was so desperately the order of the day. Tears on faces at a distance are simply inadmissible when friends are involved. But we said there would be a tight, long embrace later.
Cynthia and I had dinner together this week. She IS her mother. Lovely, southern and funny. The torch is passed. But she will never really replace Betty. In my heart I now consider Cynthia, Betty Bell 2.0!
Those who love me know that I live my life as if it is a series of animation cells from a Disney movie. When in the garden, birds tweeting on the nearby branches are surely my much missed mama, papa, grandmother Mizzie, and dear friend Mary Cronin. Now as I’m picking zinnias I am listening for a particularly twangy, syrupy tweet that will belong to an impeccably plumed “Betty Bird.”
I miss you Betty Bell and thank you for being my forever friend.