I had written a similar piece years ago that was lost when multiply® went south. I don’t have the original because once I write something, I usually lose all interest in it afterwards. It is a true story as seen through my eyes as a nine year old, though I am guilty of a tiny amount of dramatization. It is one of those stories that never is fully told, even though it may told many times.
… ninety eight, ninety nine, one hundred!
Betty (Miz Beatrice to me) released the pump handle of the little vertical hand pump that watered her vegetable garden, and fanned herself. That would probably be the last time this year that she would have to water it from the well. She didn’t mind the pumping, though. Frank had brought the pump from Montgomery Wards and it pumped water from the well that he hand dug when they were young marrieds and moved to New Mexico to build their dream.
When she had rested a little bit, she walked over to the towering Alamo tree where Frank was buried. The day she lowered his casket into the grave was just as fresh in her mind as it was 20 years ago when he was killed by a cave in in his molybdenum diggings. She and her ten year old daughter dug his body out of the fallen rocks, washed it, built a casket of unfinished spruce, and lowered it into the grave with the help of the pastor and deacons.
Next to Frank’s headstone, Betty had dug a new grave for herself in the hard caliche soil, and carefully covered it with boards and canvass. She did not want to be beholden to people, even in death. Under another tarp was an identical spruce coffin for her. She even put the nails into the lid so that whoever buried her wouldn’t have to buy them.
We don’t know how she supported herself, but it was believed that Frank had put money aside for her somehow. Growing up in the Depression did not engender much trust in banks with Frank. Betty lived very frugally with spot, a non-descript mutt who was always at her side, even at the little church.
Every Sunday morning, Betty dressed in blue a blue gingham dress, one of two she owned. But she never wore one that was carefully folded and wrapped in brown paper and packed to keep rodents out of it. That was the dress that Frank saw her last in.
Each dress had a bonnet made from the same material. Sturdy black lace up shoes from JC Penny’s completed the outfit. One pair for daily work, one pair for Sabbath and burial.
Sunday she would haul water out to the old Reo pickup truck to fill the radiator. It was a 1920’s model, than my grandfather kept running for her. It didn’t have an electric starter, just a hand crank that she have developed a rather refined familiarity with. The truck sputtered to life in a cloud of blue smoke, and Spot and her clattered off to church.
But today was not an ordinary day for her. Normally, after watering the vegetables, she would sit under the Alamo with Spot and refresh herself. But today, the angina did not go away, but rather burned with a new fury. She knew time was short, so she forced herself up, went into the house, washed her face and brushed her hair before taking the dress down out of the closet. She apparently knew time was short.
The following Sunday, people at her church noticed she wasn’t there, and several made a mental note to stop by and check on her. But life waits for no one, and they quickly forgot after services were done. Life was hard in that forgotten part of New Mexico in 1950, and there were fences that needed mending, hay that needed to be put up, sermons needed to be prepared, and so Betty’s absence was forgotten.
And Sunday rolled around again, as it always does. And once again, Betty was absent from services. This time, the congregation knew something was wrong, and they all drove up the narrow road to her home nestled at the feet of the Sangre de Christo mountains, and found Betty, laying on her bed, dressed in the gown Frank had last seen her in. Next to her, curled up in a ball, old Spot had passed too.
Neatly stacked on the bed were several yellowed pages of instructions, and a sheaf of bills. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was enough to pay the stonecutter for chiseling the dates into the headstone and a few extras for the laborers to cover the grave.
They discovered under the tarp that she had also made a dog sized casket, and some more money in a cookie tin to cover Spot’s keep. Of course, Spot probably had died of heartbreak we supposed. We really don’t know. We never located her daughter. Rumor had it that she met with a bad fate in a far off City. We know nothing of Franks family, nor Betty’s last name.
Betty, even in death, would not allow herself to be beholden to anyone. Many years later, the State dug up the bodies, being that it wasn’t a properly registered grave, and moved them to a dry, barren cemetery out in the sagebrush. The headstone was broken in two pieces, one for each grave. Most of those who knew Betty had long died by then so no one protested. The old Reo truck, now a rusted hulk, was towed away somewhere. And Spots remains disappeared, because law would not allow an animal to be buried in a cemetery. Rumor was that he was left in Betty’s grave.
And life goes on.