When Betty answered the door Wednesday afternoon, I was greeted by a big smile and firm hug. Tall, slender, a head piled high with glistening white hair, Betty is the picture of grace at 82 years old. She ushered me into her kitchen where she puttered back and forth — popping buns into the oven, breaking whole wheat noodles in half to boil on the stove, pulling honey out of the pantry — as she told me about her late husband and a marriage that began at the tender age of 16.
I smiled when she told me how young they were. They helped raise each other, she said, and had their first baby when they were "almost 20." I told her people thought I was young when I got married — 10 days short of 21, but her story made me look like an old maid.
"21 is quite respectable, Hannah," she said.
Betty was married to her husband for over 60 years when he passed away. Holding his photograph and commenting on how handsome he was, Betty gushed as she told me about her lover and best friend. She pointed through the glass doors near her kitchen towards the backyard, towards the very place Jim took his last breath as they gardened together in 2009.
"I've not been angry, despondent — I'm the craziest widow that ever lived. Because it was so right," she said about when "her Jim" passed. They were in the yard together when she heard a loud groan and turned around to see him falling towards the grass. She saw his face in his last moments — looking up towards the heavens with an expression of peace. She described it as the moment of calm before the storm.
After their first baby, the couple had seven more. In their busy household, music was an integral part of the family culture. It's a love that first began with Betty's grandmother, Libby. When she was a little girl in Oklahoma she picked nuts in the hopes of buying herself a mandolin. As a married woman, Libby had an entire room in her home dedicated towards music. Betty spoke of fond memories waking up listening to various family members singing or playing instruments.
Four of Betty's eight children are now professional musicians. As we ate our lunch, Betty popped up and down to the CD player to have me listen to samplings of her children sing. Her daughter's smooth, easy, rich jazz voice flowed out of the player as Betty held her hand to her heart, her eyes closed, swaying as she cherished the music.
The family love doesn't end at Betty's children. Her grandchildren are musicians, too. For the last 19 years her family has assembled together to host a charity Christmas concert for the community. This year, her 13-year-old grandson will be playing an originally composed piano piece. Her 7-year-old great-granddauther will sing, as well. Of course, Betty isn't one to be left out of the fun.
She beckoned me over to her black piano. Betty propped music on her stand, explaining to me she couldn't find any music that had been composed to Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son." She was determined to fix that. The tone of the music has to match the tone of the poem, she told me, and she hoped I would agree about her creation.
Her eyes closed, her fingers grazing the top of the white keys, Betty began playing a melody that was beautifully haunting. Chills ran up the side of my body when she opened her mouth crying out the poem's words "Well, son, I'll tell you:/ Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. ..." I was captivated as she played, surprised to hear something so — emotional, soulful, thought-provoking — coming from a woman her age.
She finished, and was pleased with my reaction to her piece. She told me that settled it — she'd have to perform the song during the family's upcoming concert.
We continued to eat lunch. I mopped up the remaining sauce from my noodles with my bread as she told me about the concert.
"We do some classic songs, some originals, some standards. We're going to run the full gamut of musical expression. Some of it will be original and it always is with me ... the whole end of our show is dedicated to the season. It's not a traditional Christmas concert in that we do everything. What my rule is — I love you. I love you! Can I fix some more for you?"
I had just finished swallowing my last bite of food, and I couldn't hold back an ear-to-ear grin.
"Oh, no, I'm okay!"
"I love you because you love my food. I can tell I like you, anyway. But you like my food and that makes me happy. You know there's more — and that's what bread is for," she said, pointing at my plate, referring to me mopping up the rest of my food.
"Oh, yes. I'll try the bread with some honey now," I said.
"You go for anything you want. Anyways. Where was I? Where was I? I don't now. I'm talking in circles. You don't know this family and you need to be filled in. It's a crazy mixed up bunch — "
"You had a rule. That's what you were talking about," I said.
"Oh! Thank you. I need all the help I can get. I was chasing rabbits here! What happens every year is the kids are performing all over, literally, quite literally, all over the world. ..."
We continued our conversation, veering in topic almost constantly — talking about life, marriage, family, religion, science, politics, faith and any other thing you could possibly think of. I asked Betty if she hopes some day her great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren will still make music a part of their life.
"Oh, yeah, how could I not want that? Just like I want it for my own children. It rounds life out. It gives life soul."
Betty made me blush during my two-hour visit with her, too:
"Each show, each year is different. The fact that it's very different. Depending on who is in town — you have the most beautiful eyebrows I have ever seen. You are a beautiful girl. You had nothing to do with that, I'm sure. — Anyway, what they do is they bring to the show what they're doing in their individual shows because they're always entertaining. ..."