A Eulogy for Elizabeth Annabelle “Betty” Bowers Hange, Feb. 29, 1920 — June 15, 2018
I’m not sure what epitaph will be engraved with the artist’s palette Grandma picked years ago for her grave marker, but this would be my choice.
I heard Grandma say it more than once when extended family members (read: daughters-in-law) disparaged the piles of seemingly useless materials she saved.
The piles got completely out of control: stacks of foam meat trays in not just white, but blue, green, yellow, and pink; empty spools bare of thread; buttons, clothespins (especially the old fashioned kind), empty baby food bottles and their caps, bits of cloth, yarn, ribbon and thread. She collected natural materials, too: dried thistles and milkweed pods, money plant, gourds.
These worthless things became craft projects, costumes, floral arrangements. She flooded the entries to the local County Fair with milk-pod interpretations of “The Owl and the Pussycat” or “Alice’s Wonderland.” Once, when she broke her leg falling into a hole the dogs had dug between the shed and the back-porch door, she gave her ample plaster casts a second life. Turned on end, with an extra bit of paper mache and paint, they made the best camels I have ever seen grace a home porch Nativity crèche.
“Well, it isn’t junk to me,” Grandma would say.
Perhaps it was her childhood experience of the Depression.
Perhaps it was an illness or a disorder. We do have a few on that side, and whole rooms and passageways in the family homestead became barely passable. The producers of “Hoarders” might have had a field day. It gave her grown children fits.
But for a grandchild wandering through the menagerie of color, shape and texture, it was a magical realm over which she reigned in jewel-toned polyester glory.
Grandma could see potential in what the rest of us threw away. She could make an empty cottage cheese container beautiful with the right kind of hot glue, lace doily or paint.
She made a “pill-box hat” as a gag for a Senior choir she loved to perform in. It was a box, with some extra foam corners attached, painted and affixed with an elastic chin strap, to which she’d glued a delightful variety of empty medicine bottles… and colorful silk flowers.
She wore that hat with impish glee at the Methodist Church’s Mother-Daughter banquet, as if she’d just made the best joke ever, singing lustily in what I can only describe as a galloping alto.
God, I miss her smile.
I’ve written this eulogy a dozen times in my head, tears and snot dripping off my chin as I drove through rural Ohio farmland from some visit at which we’d lost another piece of her. Dementia steals our loved ones in nibbles and bites over time. It hadn’t stolen her glow, though. She could still belt out “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” at a disconcerting volume, loved her scarves and wheelchair bling. At least until last week.
Since I was homeschooled through most of the primary grades, I always felt I’d hit the jackpot. For a time, my older sister and I got to spend every Tuesday night at Grandma’s & Grandpa’s so Grandma could give us Arts & Crafts lessons all the next day. They’d both been artists before the Second World War disrupted everyone’s plans. And while I wrote a whole essay in college on Grandma Betty’s fascinating childhood and young adulthood stint as a war-time rubber factory employee (“Rosie, the Rubber Worker”), she’d originally been trained to teach Kindergarten. She had the patience and sweetness and joy. Our Wednesday art lessons ranged widely from yarn-wound Christmas ornaments to my first hand-sewn baby doll quilt to pretty pitiful attempts to teach me crochet to pint-sized painting lessons “en plein air” of her exuberant, orchid-stuffed flower beds.
It wasn’t just what she taught us, it was how she taught us, valuing each one of us, understanding how it made a kid feel to get to pick their favorite flavor of yogurt from the milk truck delivery man, their favorite pillow or cocoa cup, their favorite bed in “the old boy’s room.”
For those of us grandchildren who already felt like self-conscious misfits in the world, somehow we knew it wasn’t just the foam trays and milkweed pods she treasured. Grandma could see beauty where no one else could. We knew “It isn’t junk to me” applied to us as well.
She loved us, unconditionally.
Grandma Betty was my first experience of just that kind of unconditional love.
God, in an ungodly shade of polyester pantsuit, with lipstick, nail enamel, a neck scarf and can’t-miss clip-on earrings to match, grinning at us. Maybe even popping out her dentures because she knew we got such a thrill out of that trick.
We were, all of us, every one, even after divorce or separation or some other relationship embarrassment or life failure, welcome. Always. It was Grandma who’d circle our dysfunctional clan in the living room at holidays, with the craft piles hidden upstairs and 6-8 different fruit pies straining the tables on the kitchen porch, to make sure we prayed the family prayer:
Father of all, in heaven above,
We thank thee for thy love
Our home, our food, and all we wear,
To thy love and care. Amen.