Auntie Bea

Talcum Powder and Moth Balls

My mother’s aunt Beatrice was ten years older than my mother’s mother. Beatrice had grown up in the age of the Flappers and had lived the sheltered life of a poor girl from a mill town in the early 1900s. Her father was a mild-mannered artist who worked in the mills of Danielson to support his family.

Beatrice’s mother was a quietly bold woman who made nice clothes for other women, but could never afford them for herself. She used the leftover cloth to make clothing for her own family. So, even though she was poor, Beatrice could have fashionable dresses.

From what I can tell, my mother’s aunt Bea lived a shadow life. She liked to dance, but was often too shy to get out on the dance floor. She bobbed her hair, but was too timid to be a Flapper. She loved children, but she was a little too backward socially to win a husband during the shortage of men caused by the Great War.

Auntie Bea worked from an early age. The job she held longest was with the telephone company. As a switchboard operator, she carried on in the shadows of local society, connecting other people, but seldom connecting herself.

Meanwhile, her younger sister, my grandmother, had a busy social life. My grandmother bought a car and taught herself to drive. Beatrice never drove. My grandmother moved from the telephone office to the power company while Bea stayed behind. Gram went to college up to Boston while Bea stayed home. Gram married at 29, while Bea stayed single into her 40s.

Yes, Auntie Bea married, finally. After many years at the phone company in Norwich, riding the bus to work from her apartment down by the river, Bea met a single man who took a fancy to her. He was an Irish immigrant, a former Cavalry soldier in the British army. He had fought in the marnes (campaigns) in France. And he was her bus driver.

Joe Rutherford was an affable, redheaded gent with a big heart. He had been one of the many men affected by mustard gas during the WWI. He had emigrated to America after the war when he found his homeland too poor to support him. He worked hard, but it was hard to make headway with damaged lungs.

He courted Bea for a long time, I understand. Her shyness was a challenge to his humor. But he found a girl who loved to laugh and who, eventually, loved him dearly. They were late to the marriage game, though, and never had children.

Meanwhile, my grandmother had married a man with three children. After eight years of marriage, she had a child of her own. My mother was twenty years younger than her brother, born while he was serving in the Pacific in WWII.

Uncle Joe and Auntie Bea both loved my mother and treated her like a granddaughter from what I can tell. I never met Uncle Joe, the damage to his lungs shortened his life, but both my mother and her Auntie Bea had many stories to tell. Mom’s Auntie Bea became my Auntie Bea, a second grandmother.

My favorite thing about Auntie Bea was the mixture of fear and fun. She loved to go places and do things, but she was afraid of every new experience. Afraid of traffic, but always loved to go on a trip. Scared to death of ghosts and dark rooms, but she loved seeing the children on Halloween. Shy of meeting new people, but loved parties and dancing.

One of my most vivid memories of Bea was her talking about how she wanted to go to Hawaii. She was planning to win the Irish sweepstakes, take a cruise to Hawaii, and dance the Hula in a grass skirt. Then she would do her version of the hula, a hysterical sight for an eight year interacting with a woman in her 70s. 

Auntie Bea owned a lot of wool clothing, which accounted for her entire wardrobe, not to mention her room, smelling of mothballs. And she came from an era when people thought total immersion in water on anything but the hottest summer day would lead to pneumonia, so she only took sponge baths then powdered herself liberally. Her talc had a hint of rose scent to it, and that is how she always smelled; roses, talc, and mothballs. 

Auntie Bea was always up for a laugh or a dance around the kitchen or a game of miniature golf. She loved to talk about things she would never have the nerve to try, and she loved to watch me play or hear me sing. Her Joe sang to her when he could. And so did I.

And Auntie Bea was fun to scare. I could pop out from behind things or sneak up behind her, I could reach out from under the bed or throw a tissue ghost onto her in the dark. She would always jump and often scream. One time, on a long weekend trip out to the Cape, we stayed in a cabin by the water. I told her I thought there was a snake in the dresser. The poor woman never went near it, nevermind opened it.

Auntie Bea was good at reading stories. She was poor at cards, but good at jigsaw puzzles. She had a sweet smile and the softest skin I’ve ever touched. She always had short curly hair, which though gray, never went white. She gave great back rubs that put you right to sleep. She often fussed at her little sister and they always argued over how to split the check at restaurants, literally down to the last penny if it didn’t come out exactly even.

Bea had her gallbladder out at some point, so she had trouble with some foods. But that never kept her from buying me an ice cream. She always seemed to have some sweets, and popcorn was always appropriate, especially at the movies.

All the time I knew her, her income was social security and a small amount from a pension. But she always had a dollar or two for me to spend in the 5&10 and usually had enough to have dinner out at Joe’s or Flavorland. I liked clam chowder because she liked clam chowder. And I liked a turkey club because she liked a turkey club (with extra crisp bacon!)

But there was something she wasn’t good at or fond of at all. I found out the hard way one day. I had been out riding my bike and had gotten up to Acton Library. I was whizzing through their empty parking lot, so it was probably a Sunday afternoon. I was wearing shorts, so it must have been summer.

At the bottom of the old parking lot there was sand scattered on the pavement. Perhaps it was left there from winter sanding or might have washed down with rain. I wasn’t ready for it, and when I made a sweeping turn at the back of the lot, my back tire slide and I went down.

When I picked myself up, I had a patch of road-rash on my left knee. It was full of sand and bleeding. There was no one around and the blood was running down my shin in a long line by the time I rode the three or four-tenths of a mile back to the house.

I ran in the house expecting to find my grandmother, who was good with scrapes and cuts. Instead, I found Auntie Bea alone. Her first reaction was to yell “Oh dear!” Her second inclination was to faint. Instead of running to me she retreated to her bedroom and came back with… not what I expected. She had her vial of smelling salts for herself. 

There was a bit of chaos as I cried and as she tried not to look at the blood while she got a wet washcloth. I had to wipe the blood off of my leg and then I held the cloth over the scrape, but neither of us knew what to do about the dirt in the wound.

Thankfully, my grandmother returned in about ten minutes and had a hot washcloth with a bit of soap on the job in no time. She gave me a towel to bite down on and quickly scrubbed the wound. I hurt like fire, but the ordeal was soon over and a bandage on my knee so that Auntie Bea was safe from the sight of the blood.

Most people and all children loved Auntie Bea. Even the cat liked her, though he frightened her to death. She was my mom’s Auntie Bea, she was my Auntie Bea, and even my father was a favorite of hers, but I’m sad to say that my younger siblings don’t remember her.

Auntie Bea got liver cancer when I was twelve. My sister was only 18 months old when she died and my brother wasn’t even born until the following year, near her birthday. Auntie Bea lived eighty years, timid but happy. Fearful but joyful. 

The day that we laid her to rest, my father was standing at my side, tearful like the rest of us. The cemetery and the little plaque with Uncle Joe’s name on it, even the stone wall in the background, were all burned into my memory. So much so that 34 years later, as I was taking my children to a family reunion in East Haddam, I was able to drive into the cemetery and go to within a few feet of the spot. It took my kids just a minute to find the bronze plaque. 

The location of her grave has stayed with me. But only because Auntie Bea has stayed with me all of my life. I wish everyone could have an Auntie Bea. I think that would go a long way to making the world a better place. Unless there was blood.

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