My paternal Great-Aunt Betty would have turned 104 years old today, and she would have been none too pleased to have reached such a milestone!
Elizabeth “Betty” Deeny was a woman strong in mind, spirit, and heart – fitting given her birth occurred on Valentine’s Day. Aunt Betty never married or had children, but she adored her siblings’ offspring – and they reciprocated her affection. My memories of her are plentiful in number and meaningful in their lasting effect on my life. We’d travel from the Philly suburbs to Cape May Courthouse, NJ at least once a year to visit with my dad’s beloved aunt. This was a house where Aunt Betty lived with and cared for her mother until my great-grandmother’s passing in 1987. She remained in that quaint, but treasured home, for more than a decade until she relocated to be closer to her nieces and nephews in Pennsylvania.
I don’t have many role models in my life, because I firmly believe that we should strive to be a reflection of our best self and not of another. However, there are people I’ve known along my life’s journey whose choices, personality, and experience inspire me; Aunt Betty was one of those individuals. She was well-read, intelligent, deeply spiritual, and unafraid to voice her political opinion. Aunt Betty proudly talked about being one of the few women surrounded by men in the workforce when she worked for the Department of Agriculture in the 1950s. Later in her career, she worked for the Small Business Administration.
I didn’t know Aunt Betty well, and that was my doing. For though I loved and respected my elders, I also felt uncomfortable and inferior. They were like the antique furniture in the home, revered from afar but too precious for me to venture close enough to. I sat back and let my parents ask the questions and discuss current events whenever we visited Aunt Betty. I look back now and recognize the moment I opened my eyes to all the magnificence of my grandfather’s sister. She sat next to my father at own dining room table, this keeper of the family stories, and paged through the ancestral photos my dad had scanned for her – reliving the past and gracing us with the gift of our history.
As Aunt Betty’s mind tired, after decades of extensive and thorough use, she no longer recognized the majority of her family – save for her darling niece Mary whose unwavering love and diligent care remained constant throughout Betty’s failing health. When we were notified that Betty’s time on earth was soon to end, we rushed to her side. I shan’t forget that day for though her body displayed a woman exhausted and frail, I knew that her spirit was just as fiery as it always was. I sat next to her (her eyes never opening) and read from a collection of Irish poems. I closed my eyes, reached my hand to my mother who sat by my side and prayed. In that moment I smiled, because I felt that we were not alone; Aunt Betty’s brothers and sisters who’d passed on before her now stood at the foot of her bed, silhouettes of mist there to accompany Betty to the next adventure.
In the decade since her passing, I’ve frequently paged through Betty’s photo albums – the spark that lit my genealogical flame. I’ve made connections with the distant Deeny relations still in Ireland, thanks to the correspondence she had with them decades prior. Aunt Betty may have been a Valentine’s Day gift, but the love she bestowed upon us is the beating heart of our family. If I never marry or have children, I can only hope that my role as Aunt Kelly is as treasured and beloved as it was for Aunt Betty. One day, I will write her story. I just wish I’d ask the questions long ago. Wherever she is and whatever she’s doing, maybe she’ll spare some time to assist this writer.
We love you, our beautiful Valentine!