Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dear, Sweet Betty Lou

She'll celebrate her 89th birthday in May. While her physical body has let her down - she spends most of her time in bed - her mental acuity matches the sharpest of minds of those many years her junior. Dear, sweet Betty Lou. She's had more than her share of tragedy yet remains ever upbeat and positive (except when it comes to politics and Republicans).

I interviewed Betty Lou when researching my book about love and sex in World War II. Among all the stories I collected, hers was the most heartbreaking. Her fighter pilot husband was shot down days before he was to finish his tour of duty. Betty Lou was left a widow with an infant son. Even though she remarried twice (her second husband was also killed in an airplane accident), not a day goes by that Betty Lou doesn't think of her sweet Rarey, her first love.

Years ago - maybe six or seven - my husband and I attended a memorial in Sonoma, California, not far from Betty Lou's home. One afternoon, I drove to Novato to meet Betty Lou in person. After all, she'd been one of my biggest allies, having supported and cajoled me through all the ups and downs of first finding a new literary agent and then securing a publisher. Her encouragement propped me up many times when I was ready to give up the ghost.

After lunch, we sat in Betty Lou's living room and paged through her cherished World War II photo albums. The young woman with her long, curly hair and bangs rolled back in a 1940s hairdo could have stepped off the pages of Look or Life. Rarey was cute as a button and, after reading parts of his letters and seeing his drawings, it was easy to see why Betty Lou had fallen so hard. (Laughter and Tears, a book edited by Rarey's son, is a must read. If you aren't overcome by joy and sorrow, I'll reimburse you the price of the book.)

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with Betty Lou once again. I'd expected to be led into her bedroom but was pleasantly surprised to find her sitting in a living room chair all gussied up in a dress with a necklace to boot. She'd fought off the unexplained dizziness and accompanying nausea that plagues her whenever she tries to stand. I was moved. We spent the next two hours covering the water front from Betty Lou's current arrangements (her daughter from a second marriage has come to live and take care of her) to my California journey. Never did Betty Lou complain about her physical maladies; as always, she was upbeat, funny, and smart.

Toward the end of the visit, I could see that she was pooped. I'd overstayed my welcome. I got up, walked to where she was sitting, bent over, and whispered, "I love you." My dear, sweet Betty Lou. May I learn to let tragedy slide off my back as you have done. May I keep a positive attitude even in the face of adversity. May I laugh off the insults of Father Time and learn to live happily no matter the bumps in the road.

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