Tuesday, November 13, 2012

EDITORIAL >> Say goodbye to Aunt Bet

The last Baker of my dad’s generation died last week.

Betty Lou Coe Baker, Aunt Bet to her 60 or so nieces and nephews, was 88 when she died Friday morning. By that time, her husband and her mind had been gone for a decade.

Dementia is so prevalent among the elderly farm women in Lee County where I grew up that many of us think it must have something to do with the chemicals that were so much a part of their livelihood.

The sadness for their children is that the condition takes away their strong personalities. The blessing was that it leaves behind their loving natures.

Aunt Bet was a sweet woman who introduced herself to her neighbor at the nursing home every day. She didn’t know me the last time I saw her, but she was very pleased to see me just the same.

She told me I was pretty, something a woman my age isn’t accustomed to hearing. But then, she had told me that all my life. So I shouldn’t have been surprised.

As the only person in the family paid to write, I was asked to talk to her kids and grandkids about their memories and write her eulogy.

Unfortunately, some of their favorite memories seemed to them unsuitable for a church service, so I write them now in case they want to read them later.

She was married for 55 years to Louie Baker, the baby of my dad’s family. And though most couples have some difficult periods, theirs was a good marriage.

They had four children and 13 grandchildren that they called their Baker’s dozen. Aunt Bet, a religious woman who managed to be both pious and earthy at the same time, once suggested in jest that she wouldn’t be opposed to a union between her youngest son and the second son’s wife if it would get the 13th grandbaby she wanted. Thirteen was a Baker’s dozen. Twelve was just a dozen.

Fortunately, no adultery was required for the desired outcome.

The kids, ranging in age from 57 to 67, told me to remind everyone that their mother was a farmer’s wife, but she was also a farmer. She knew how to read a transit for laying out rice levies. And she helped with planting and harvesting.

Another story that wasn’t fit for church was that a full cotton sack hidden among the rows was often their parents’ romantic hideaway. I shudder as I wonder how the kids knew that.

I remember the borderline risqué song she sang in the cotton patch about a farmer and a young miss. And sometimes I sing it myself with the appropriate pauses to emphasize the humor. “There once was a farmer who had a young miss in back of the barn where he gave her a — lecture on horses and chickens and eggs. And told her that she had such beautiful — manners that suited a girl of her charms….”

The only four-letter word said to have ever left Aunt Bet’s mouth was uttered when the last board in the new floor she was laying in her closet wouldn’t fall into place despite pounding from her hammer.

Betty Lynn, her then-teenaged daughter, was shocked. But Aunt Bet showed no remorse. That board deserved any name she could call it.

Sixty years ago, before smoking was taboo, Aunt Bet could smoke and sing while floating on her back in a lake.

Sitting Saturday evening in Aunt Bet’s house across Big Creek from where I lived my first 18 years, I listened to those stories and laughed with her kids.

The farm people in my community were hard workers who were dedicated to taking care of their families. They grew row crops for a living and gardens and livestock for food. The women made clothes for their kids and cooked three meals a day, often including desserts like homemade cobbler made with blackberries they picked.

And apparently, Aunt Bet was as well known on her side of the creek for her biscuits as my mother was on her side.

I wrote about those biscuits for Aunt Bet’s eulogy and about the kites she bought every spring to fly with her Baker’s dozen.

But those stories that weren’t fit for a eulogy given in church help complete the picture of a woman who loved and lived life to the fullest.

Her legacy, as I see it, is the lesson that can’t be missed: Although life is a progression to an inevitable end, the joy, like the memories, really are in the moments.

–Joan McCoy