I didn’t know my cousin Beth well. She was born in September, about three years before I was (and I remember envying her blue sapphire birthstone because I didn’t like my own). Beth loved “Downtown,” by Petula Clark. She and I looked a lot alike when we were younger to the point that one of my aunts on the other side of the family was once quite convinced Beth was me, when she got out of my mother’s car because she was spending the weekend with us. Beth wanted to excel at everything she did and she didn’t cut herself any slack – or even a learning curve. It always seemed as though she believed she should already be good at everything. There was a family story about her, on the eve of her first day of school. Her mother was surprised to find her crying and asked, “Why in the world are you crying about starting school when you have been positively champing at the bit and driving us all to distraction talking about how excited you are?” And Beth said, “I’m not ready to start school! I can’t read! I can’t write! I can’t even color good!”
I think Beth knew she was demanding of herself and I hope she had the kind of acceptance of it that would have caused her to appreciate the fact that I sometimes share this family story with those whose pursuit of excellence is very admirable but sometimes prevents them from taking a bit of time to appreciate how exceptional they are.
I also remember that she had fallen smack on her butt, probably quite painfully, on the front steps of my parents’ home, right on the heels of having laughed uproariously at her sister having fallen smack on her butt, in exactly the same way, just seconds before. At that point, the entire family was guffawing uncontrollably, just as the mortuary limousines pulled up to take us all to my grandfather’s funeral. I’ve often wondered what the drivers must have thought, at the sight of a dozen people laughing like fools. Did they think we were making a joyful noise celebrating our grandfather’s arrival in heaven? Or that we’d just hit the jackpot in the will? Or that we had a dentist in the family with access to nitrous oxide? Perhaps the drivers had already seen it all and they hadn’t given it a second thought. However, I feel certain it was not the decorous funeral comportment any of us were shooting for.
I hope none of the family suffered any lasting ill effects of our unfortunate (but uproarious) breach in decorum. I especially hope Beth didn’t, because she carried the reputation of insisting everything be “just so,” which must have served her well because she had achieved a good deal of success as a professional person serving her community. She was also successful in a marriage that lasted more than thirty years, raising two sons who I hope are as successful and happy as Beth would want them to be.
I got a message during a lunch meeting one day last week that Beth had died in her sleep that morning. She was fifty seven.
Beth’s brother told me a number of years ago, when my father died so much sooner than expected I’d had to borrow clothes to attend his funeral, that we’d reached the age when we shouldn’t travel without a black suit. More importantly, I think, is the idea that we should all live with the knowledge that “we’re all just a phone call away from our knees.”*
* Sometimes I think Pandora knows what I’m thinking, especially when I’m about to resume work on a painting. The first song I heard as I was thinking about Beth – in a way, making her part of my painting – was Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love.” I hope he wouldn’t mind that I’ve co-opted his title as a way to honor – not exploit – his artistry and the feelings he helped me capture.
Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love” lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/matkearney/closertolove.html
Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMRXXBGotnw&feature=kp