There was a thin haze of cigarette smoke hanging in the air when I entered the shop. It was a consignment store. I had never heard the word ‘consignment’ until my friend Sherri told me that Betty was looking for after school help at her consignment store. I was 16. This was going to be my first job interview. I was nervous. I wanted to be impressive, knowledgeable and mature. But I didn’t even know what consignment meant — she wasn’t going to give me the time of day.
She was also Travis and Ross’ mom. They went to my high school, and they were both insanely handsome. And, because I was 16, it seemed to matter that I was being interviewed by the mother of guys that were out of my league. They were popular, I was not. I was never going to get this job.
Betty was on the phone when I arrived. With cigarette in hand, she gestured for me to sit at a table that had a large coffee urn and those mugs with the plaid design in blue and red that everyone’s family had in the 70’s. I was contemplating a life-sized stuffed Elvis doll that was sitting in a lawn chair in the window when she hung up the phone and said, “You must be Carla, Carla.”
Betty was talking, filling out price tags, flapping sheets of carbon paper around and hanging clothes. It was like watching a dance. It was clear that there were steps to learn and, with practice, they would become second nature. I don’t remember what I said, or how long I was there. I think I casually mentioned my non-experience of not working in my mom and dad’s ladies wear store that went belly up when they raised the bank rates in 1982. Regardless, I got hired that day and worked there for 2 years.
Life scrolled by. I had just moved back from Toronto to look after mom as she negotiated the heavy waters of the sea that is cancer. I had left Drumheller 17 years prior to go seek my fortune and had bounced around the planet in pursuit of such. Mom didn’t live long, and died the following January. I was 35 years old. I didn’t know what to do with my life. Everything was in limbo. Dad was sick; I was looking after him. Life took on a blackness that weighed on me.
I drove to Betty’s shop and let myself in the back door. I still had a key. Many times, over the years, I would sneak into Betty’s in the wee hours of the morning. No one ever caught me there. I would busy myself with lining up shoes by size order, organize the jewelry by colour, dust the glass shelves, fold all the hosiery, make sure all the pants were hanging straight. God, I hated pant hangers. I would put new clothes in the windows and dust-off Elvis.
Betty would phone me the next day. “Carla, Carla!”, she would say, “it’s like magical elves have been in here.”
I was so at peace there, in that little shop. Relaxed and happy. I’m 48 now, and working at Betty’s still holds the title of the ‘Best Job I Ever Had’. When she sold the shop a few years ago, I was so sad. I parked outside of it and contemplated how many times I walked through that door to find Betty sitting at the desk or lugging clothes from the front to the back of the shop. The awning was torn and faded. I remembered the day it was put up, new, with the name of the shop on it.
“Just You and I”.
Betty died a few days ago.
I was talking to my friend Denny on the phone. We were chatting about this and that and what 2019 might hold. I said, “I’ve got a few plans, but no matter what, I’m making a trip home this year.” I knew that Betty hadn’t been well. The last time I headed home, it was to see her. She was doing pretty good when I went to her house to visit. Poppa Bill made us supper. He put cheese in the salad and we ate in front of the TV. Hours went by. I was supposed to be at my friend Nikki’s. I was going to be late. I was enjoying the cocoon too much. I always felt this way at Betty’s, like it was my place…or maybe, that there was always a place for me.
So, I knew that I needed to go back to the cocoon. I hung up the phone and 15 minutes later Travis called. “Mom is in palliative,” he said, “she’s at the end.”
“But I’m coming home!”
I missed her. I missed my chance.
When I hung up the phone I leaned over the sink and cried so hard that tears dripped out of my mouth. My shoulders shook as I threw the sobs out from my body, throat burning, unable to catch my breath.
I grieved; am grieving.
Her significance to my life is phenomenally deep and I don’t think she realized it. The heart break of life is that we have people that are precious to our story and we don’t realize it – they don’t realize it – until it is gone. We think we are not important to another person’s story. I don’t know if anyone thinks of me as a critical piece of their life path – but Betty was a critical piece of mine.
When I was 16, my mom was at the height of her drinking. I didn’t see her sober until I was 25 years old. Nobody knows that. Betty did. I was struggling with being a teenager, raging hormones, self-doubt, anger, confusion – all the worst that the teenage years has to offer. My mom would come home from work and go straight to bed, get up at 5:30, make supper, eat, go back to bed, get up at 9:00, start drinking, go to bed at 2:00 a.m., get up at 7:00 a.m., vomit – repeat – daily – every day – no exceptions.
In my toughest years of learning and growing, my opportunities for a sober mother to lean on for support and advice were almost entirely absent. Except for Betty.
Every day that I went to work, I left a better person. A calmer person.
I was able to handle the unpredictable nature of my home life better because of Betty. She listened and heard me. Sometimes she even put down her pen and stopped hanging clothes when I talked to her. Sometimes she cried, and that made me cry.
“Carla, Carla!”, she would say, “you are stronger than you know.”
She taught me compassion. She knew that people stole from her. She knew who they were. (She knew who you all were). She knew that moms’ would come in and hide the clothes in the stroller underneath the baby. And she let you walk out the door. She let you steal from her. I would want to run out in the street and drag you back. She would say, “They must be in a bad way to steal from a consignment store. Let them go.”
I would be agog at her willingness to allow people to do such a thing. But she was ready to see a different side. In her mind, if someone was doing something bad, there had to be a good reason. She encouraged me to see my mom through these same lenses. We don’t know the other side of the story – she taught me that.
She would leave me gifts. She would always remember me.
She was proud of me.
She, more than most, knew what I came from, and where I am now, and the path it took to get here.
She was one of my historians. One of my people.
Betty was a momma to many. Hoards of kids would come through her door via Ross, Travis and Jana. I came into the fold through Betty herself. It felt like a different side of the same coin.
We all have people who love us.
We don’t all have people who are proud of us.
Losing the ones who are proud of you is the hardest.
This loss is significant.