An important family matriarch passed away this week, at the age of 96. Betty MacDowell was my partner Allan's great-aunt, his father's mother's sister. She was one of the warmest, kindest, most good-hearted people I've ever known, and I wanted to share a few memories and write a little tribute to her.
I first met Betty in 1990, when we were visiting Vermont, where Allan grew up. Betty invited us over for a family dinner, along with Mary (her sister, Allan's grandmother), her son and daughter-in-law (Allan's cousins), and their children, who were then little kids.
This dinner is memorable for me for several reasons.
The table was overflowing with fresh, homemade food. For dessert there was a berry pie made with berries Betty had picked from her garden that morning. I felt like a Fresh Air Fund child, simply agog that such a thing was possible. (Betty's pies were amazing; they are even mentioned in her obituary.)
Everyone was very nice and friendly, but Betty was especially warm and welcoming, and I sensed she had made a special effort to include us. I was really touched, and I wrote her a thank-you note (sent in the mail, the only way one could send a note in those days). I said that she had treated both of us like family, and it meant a lot to me.
She wrote back, in her perfect schoolteacher handwriting, and said, You are family -- the word "are" was underlined twice -- and you will always be welcome in my home.
After that, we visited Betty whenever we were in Vermont, sometimes staying in her spare bedroom or in a trailer outside her neat and cozy home. She lived on land that was once part of her family's farm, across a wide yard from the log-cabin home her son and daughter-in-law built, where they raised their family and still live. (The yard now contains solar-energy cells.) It's a beautiful, peaceful area, and it eventually figured into my desire to live someplace quieter and more beautiful.
Somewhere along the way, Betty and I started corresponding by mail. As a child and teenager, I used to write letters with my Aunt Lillian (who was also my great-aunt, my grandmother's sister), and writing to Betty recalled that for me. (I'm looking forward to continuing this personal tradition with my grand-niece, now six years old.)
At some point Betty discovered digital photography and started making and selling her own greeting cards. I looked forward to seeing beautiful flowers from her garden, or some outdoor scene, along with her news. She would catch us up on the extended family, tell us about the weather in northern Vermont (snow country), whether a bear had visited her garden, whatever was new in her world.
One thing Betty and I had in common was a love of travel. She had travelled all over the world. When we visited, I loved hearing memories of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef or camping out in some scenic location. She also shared many memories of growing up on a farm, especially sugaring. This was totally different than the urban backgrounds of my own relatives. For me it was a window into another world.
I have no idea about Betty's politics or religious views. I mention this because it's very different from my original family. Brooklyn Jewish folks? You always know their opinions! I came to appreciate and respect the less vocal, more private demeanors of the rural Vermonters. I do know Betty was an extremely kind, accepting person. I cannot imagine a judgemental or bigoted word coming from her.
I remember two little exchanges along those lines. Once, on a Vermont visit when we were already planning to emigrate to Canada, I mentioned that some people had been quite negative about our choice. Betty said immediately and quite sharply, "That's not their business!". Many years later, during the Trump years, she wrote in a letter, "You and Allan made a very smart decision to leave the US." She said something similar to me the last time we were in Vermont.
Betty lived a rich, full life -- rich with the love of family and friends, full with experience. She was very close with her children, children-in-law, and grandchildren, and in the last months of her life, was able to meet her great-grandchild. She died peacefully with family by her side.
We were supposed to visit Oregon and California in 2020, then Vermont and Massachusetts in 2021. Covid pushed everything off by at least one year, so we didn't make that second trip. I'm sorry that we weren't able to see Betty again, but I'm very glad we visited the Vermont family in 2017 (both of us) and 2018 (Allan only) before we moved west.