Her name was Betty, and how exactly we were kin is a long story that involves marriages, divorces, widows, and time, but it’s far easier to just tell you she was my cousin’s wife which, while true, downplays her role in my life.
She had always been beautiful – I remember being six or seven and going to the bank where she worked as a loan officer and seeing her at her desk, in the lobby, thinking she must be the most beautiful woman in the world.
Her husband was my cousin but was also 30 years older than I was, and 10 years older than Dad. He was the oldest of his generation and served as sort of the patriarch of our extended family (see, I told you it was complicated). He died 24 years ago, but since then, Betty had stepped into the role. And for the last 15 or so years, she put together a potluck dinner on Easter Sunday.
For most of that time, I lived far away. In 2019, I was on staff at a church, and it was my first Easter there, so I felt like I needed to be there. We left right after but got there just as everyone was leaving. In 2020 they canceled because of COVID. In October of 2020, Dad died.
In 2021, it was back on, and it was fabulous. Renee and I had been locked down for more than a year at that point, our vaccinations were current, and so we made the trip north, our first real trip in ages. We took the Natchez Trace north, spent the night in Tupelo, spent an afternoon in Oxford, and then on to home, turning a three-hour trip into a 24-hour one, but feeling a little bit alive again.
Betty was 79 at that point, and all during the pandemic had been in the most severe of lockdowns because of her health. But now there were vaccines, and she was fully vaccinated, and this was the first time she was in the presence of people who were not carefully screened or her doctors. After a full year of virtual isolation, she was there, grinning like a cat in the cream, so happy to just see people.
She would come up to folks and say, “I’m fully vaccinated. Can I hug you?”. I bet she hugged everyone at least twice. We all had so much hope that the nightmare was over then, in the spring of 2021 after the vaccines came out.
Betty talked to me last year about how it just seemed wrong without Dad there. Dad was always the man with the camera at any gathering. And 2021 was the first year he wasn’t. We all felt his absence.
In August, Betty would suddenly die from an unrelated illness.
So this year was very solemn indeed. A whole generation was gone. And while it was so good to see everyone, it was far from festive.
On the way home after the potluck yesterday, we got caught in a rainstorm. I hate driving in the rain under the best of times, and this was more than 2 hours of brutal rain and thunder and lightning, and being buffeted all around the road. It was exhausting.
Driving back home from being in my hometown is always a time of introspection for me, as I reflect on the ways things turned out, on roads not taken, promises unkept. None of that is easier when you are doing it in a thunderstorm.
We stopped at the rest area to get some relief from the storm, to stretch, and catch our breath. And standing under the pavilion, watching the rain pour around us, we read the text message from a dear friend telling us that her husband – who has been fighting COVID for months – is most likely going into hospice later this week and that, baring a literal miracle, he won’t be recovering.
I stare at the rain some more before getting back in the car to continue toward home.
So much loss in the last few years. Every time I’m convinced I cannot take more, more happens anyway.
We were some 30 minutes away from home when the sun came out. It was still raining, but it had slowed dramatically, and the sun was shining fiercely and, off to the east, I saw a large double rainbow arching up from the horizon.
I know the old story about how, after destroying the world with a flood, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of that promise was a rainbow. And if I’m honest, I always wondered why a rainbow would be taken seriously as such a sign.
But yesterday – on Easter Sunday, no less, when I had come through that storm and was carrying so much death and despair with me, when I saw those bows in the East I knew that we would get through. That we could keep going. That we had to persist, to carry on, and build a better world.
So I kept driving.