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Betty Shirley
By Sandy Caldwell

I remember when I was little and would visit my grandfather in his big house. I would make my way up the stairs to the hallway full of family pictures. There in the middle of the wall was a grand portrait of a beautiful woman with dark wavy hair, big black eyes, full red lips, high cheekbones and a look of longing on her face. That was my grandmother, Betty Shirley. Although I have never met my grandmother, I am influenced by how she lived her life.

She was born Betty Jane Smith, an only child deeply loved by her parents. But when she was in her early teens, she lost her mother…that didn’t hold Betty back.

When she was older she headed for Colorado, not knowing anyone or where she was going to live or work. She just fell in love with the place. She thoroughly enjoyed skiing on their great snowy mountains and was taken aback by its beauty.

She found a job working in a resort running their small train up a mountain to the zoo. She lied about being able to drive a stick shift so she could get the job. She loved people and no doubt got pleasure from meeting so many different passengers on her train…even famous ones.

It was there in Colorado, during the war, while hitch-hiking with a friend, that she met my grandfather. He was in the Air Force and also with friends. I believe it was love at first sight. Soon they were married. Together they had two boys Jim and Gray, and almost ten years later, two little girls Janis and Joyce. Because my grandfather was in the Air Force, they moved around many times. It must have been hard for Betty to leave so many friends behind.

My grandmother also painted brilliant oil paintings and took lessons in France under a French artist. She was an excellent golfer and had the trophies to prove it. She loved camping with her family in the great outdoors. She could sing, and sang at some nightclubs in her day. I’m sure her voice was divine. She was passionate about good food and went to cooking school.

Whenever I look at pictures of my grandmother with a group of people, she always stands out. Not just because she was 5’ 11”, but because she looks like a movie star. She is always dressed up to the nines and flashing her contagious smile. Your eyes would always go to her.

Sadly, shortly after her youngest daughter, my mother, was born, Betty discovered a lump in one of her breasts. It was breast cancer. All they could do back then was cut it out. And they kept cutting. She lost both her breasts. And eventually they had to cut away cancer in her arms. So much so, she could no longer play golf.

Despite her cancer, she still went on living. She enjoyed being a mother to two tall, handsome young men and two pretty little girls. But her life did come to an end.

My grandfather finally retired from the Air Force. No more moving every two years. The day my grandfather came home with the news, my grandmother leaped up onto the kitchen table and started dancing. She was thrilled. They had bought a house in Atlanta Georgia and fixed it up, just like my grandmother had envisioned it. But my grandmother never got the chance to live there.

On a routine visit with the doctor, before my grandmother was to leave to see her oldest son, Jim, at the Air Force Academy, the cancer had spread. She couldn’t leave to see Jim; she couldn’t even leave the hospital. It broke her heart. She never left the hospital…she died there.

My grandmother had developed such a close bond with her sons. It cut them hard. My mother and her sister, Janis, were just two young girls without their mother. My grandfather lost an amazing woman he had been with for over twenty years. The heart of their home was gone.

I never understood the reality of facing death and losing your life, until my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mother was about the age her mother was when she died.

I remember being in the elevator going up to see my mother right after surgery. It felt so surreal. I had a taste of what it must have been like visiting my grandmother in the hospital, as she waited to die…but my mother didn’t die.

The surgery went well, but she had to go through chemotherapy and radiation. Chemotherapy was brutal to my mother. I wished so hard I could stop her pain. Pain. I wondered what the pain was like for Betty. Not just the pain of the cancer taking over her body, but the pain of leaving her loved ones behind…especially her children.

When my grandmother Betty died, my mother, Joyce, had just turned nine. The youngest in the family, they thought it best not to inform Joyce that her mother was dying…but she figured it out. My mother first realized it when she came home from school one day. They had a crabapple tree growing in their yard and my mother loved crabapple jelly. Betty promised to make her some. But when my mother stepped into the kitchen, she found it to be a mess with a small jar half filled with crabapple jelly. Betty was lying on the bed in the bed room…deep in sleep. It had taken all the strength she had just to make a small amount of jelly. Something was wrong with her mother.

I was so relieved when my mother was cancer-free. She would live to see my sister and I grow and fall in love and have families of our own. She would be there at the weddings and hold her grandchildren in her arms.

Betty missed so much of her children’s lives. She missed seeing them graduate. She didn’t witness her boys marry their beloved brides. She never saw what attractive women her girls grew up to be, nor did she watch them walk down the aisle. She never held any of her eight grandchildren in her arms. …But they knew who she was.

All her grandchildren are fascinated by the beautiful woman in the pictures and love hearing stories about her. My grandmother loved life. She had a vibrant spirit and a great personality. Because she lived life to the fullest, her legacy lives on. She is truly an inspiration.

Now that I am older and on my own, when times get hard and I wish for an escape from the trials of being single and finding a new job, a new career…I think of Betty. Betty was brave and faced her fears. She enjoyed life. She knew already, by the death of her mother, that life is a gift, a gift that will not last forever; a gift not to take for granted. No one knows when God will call you home.

I gaze at the pictures I have of my grandmother and I’m encouraged by her radiate smile. I think of how, despite her hard circumstances, she was able to keep on going. She pursued her love of art and continued to persevere. I believe she lived until she died.

That is my goal in life. I want to enjoy life. I want to be like my grandmother and not be afraid to live. I want to take risks in life and follow my heart and pursue my passions. I want my grandchildren to look back on my life and be encouraged. I want them to see that life is worth living and life is a gift.

Sandy Caldwell Bio:

Sandy Caldwell is a graduate of the Art Institute of Atlanta with a degree in Culinary Arts, but she loves to write. She has been writing poems, short stories and started many attempts at writing novels since she was very young. Sandy is taking on-line classes from Kennesaw State University College of Continuing Education, so she can become certified in creative writing. She hopes to become a food writer and fiction author.

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