Betty started spending Christmas with us 18 years ago, when we looked out the window of our loud, sparkly house and realized the old lady across the street was alone. Her nephew was supposed to come, she said when Joe knocked on the door, but had the flu. And every year after that first one, long after she sold the house and moved to a retirement community, one of us would call her shortly after Thanksgiving and make sure she knew what time to come for Christmas dinner. She reciprocated by always sending a box of Swiss Colony meats and cheeses and a fruitcake the UPS guy tossed on our porch--"Love, Betty B."
Betty had Miss Clairol-yellow hair and smudged, arrest-me-red lips, was trailed by a palpable cloud of sticky-sweet drugstore perfume, and told wild stories nobody believed: She was high up with the CIA; she sang in the church choir with the Clintons--both of them;she still worked L&D at Sibley because they begged her, edema-swollen ankles and bat-poor vision aside. She sometimes swept herself into a southern drawl despite living in D.C. her whole life and she talked every year about the daughter who died in infancy and the husband who didn't waste time leaving after that, and then told us we were her family. We who saw her once a year.
Last Christmas, Betty told us she had breast cancer. She was starting chemo soon, though, she said, and it would be fine. She had to be 90 years old. A few months later, when the air just started to warm and tiny leaves began unfurling on our trees, I stumbled on a very short notice online. Betty B lived and died, it said. Nothing else.
Life went on. It does that, you know? And then at noon on a scorching July day, my doorbell rang. It was Rafael, who always drove Betty to and from our house (we didn't ask questions). "I wanted you to know that Betty died," he said. But it was so much worse. She'd met a man at church, he said (at church!) who'd befriended her. It wasn't hard to do--she didn't have anyone else--and nobody knew about him until she died. That's when the will came out, where she'd given him power over her estate, because he was her friend.
You've heard this story before but here's the ending anyway: The guy, this friend Betty made at church late in life, claimed what was left of her money and washed his hands of her. The morgue, Rafael told me, held onto her body for quite some time before consigning it to a paupers' grave over in Suitland. The obituary was written and paid for by the retirement-property manager. The bank foreclosed on her condo and her car rotted where it sat in the parking lot. Rafael saved a few photos and sent them to Betty's brother (Betty had a brother?) but everything else, he guessed, was destined for the dump. Legally, he couldn't touch it.
We sat on my sweltering front porch for the better part of an hour. I guess I was the only person he could think of who might care. "I just wanted you to know," he said. "She deserved better. Anybody deserves better." He was right.
I was behind an elderly woman in the grocery store checkout this morning who handed her entire wallet to the cashier when it was time to pay. I knew exactly what was going on. She doesn't understand numbers anymore and all her defenses are gone, so she hands everything over to a total stranger to help. The cashier, thank God, was honest and decent. This time. But I wanted to yell, "Where is your family? Where are your people? Why are you here alone?" Why are so many of the people who raised us just out there on their own?
My favorite Facebook page belongs to a cop I've never met. He ends every post the same way: "Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people's things alone, and be kind to one another. " That last part is the one we forget. I do, all the time. I wish it didn't end so badly