Betty Brewer

Betty Brewer was my great-aunt, though only four days older than my mother. I never knew Betty. She died before I was born, killed by a jealous wife who caught her husband and Betty in a lover’s tryst at a boarding house rented by the day. Family spoke of Betty only in whispers, making me curious about this “black sheep” and what drove her to such extremes of love. “Betty Brewer” is my attempt to answer that heart’s inquiry.
 
 
          Betty Brewer
 
          (A twenty-one-year-old Dayton woman was stabbed to death Saturday night in what authorities describe as a love           triangle. Betty Brewer, mother of three, was pronounced dead on arrival at Rhea County Hospital where witnesses said           she died of a wound of the heart. Dayton Herald; Dayton, Tennessee, on December 7, 1946)

          Cheap paper cheapens memory
          as when fingerprints smudge
          on a weapon discarded long
          ago, leaving no trace of the
          calm fury found on the face
          of a woman whose blade at
          your imperiled throat left
          you gasping in surprise at
          the length of your own shadow
          cast on a jittery floor. How
          unlike yourself you must have
          seemed, you who so defiantly
          and lawlessly loved, hugging
          the knife to your chest, tilting
          toward darkness accompanied
          by a final night accompanied by
          a final day dismissed of salt. Not
          one of all who saw you could
          deny the rumor printed as fact
          that you had died almost instantly
          from a wound of the heart or
          that the greater offense was not
          so much cleaving to a man not your
          own as leaving behind to mourn
          your passing and posing three children
          who stood in silence where the
          wind grew.

          Of the particulars of your twenty-one
          summers I know little or even now
          of why you sing to me across the
          solitary region where rain and
          the wearing of stone assure your
          secret. From borrowed memory
          and shameful whispers I came to
          know what only the passage
          from one day to another could reveal:
          That you were my grandmother’s
          sister, though four days younger
          than my own mother and seven
          years dead before my birth. By
          many you were scolded not to follow
          your heart down the alley to a
          boarding house where compulsory
          windows remained strictly faithful
          to your ascent. It would come
          to this, they clucked, though to what
          you have come I would not presume
          to know, you whose vinegar once
          flowed beneath a kindling chair
          next to a scorched lampshade. They
          say even the preacher made a
          final example of you, but from this
          distance I am inclined to wonder:
          Betty, was his a religion you could
          live without or, barring that, was
          yours one you could die with? Did
          you discover, by losing your grasp,
          a hand held open to the secret for
          which most of life is merely an
          outward manifestation? If love is
          not worth dying for, then is what
          is left worth living for – bitter
          circumstances, interminable clothes,
          stockings hung to dry?

          Everything reaches the tips of fingers
          like flowers or orphaned children
          stretching for a tin of cookies on
          the shelf of a clapboard kitchen.
          Was it worth the cost of violet
          mouths pursing around the
          sound of your name, urging a thousand
          kisses that could not be given?
          I cannot say, and I will leave
          you and them to find what
          ever peace will open its arms
          to encircle you with less than
          stifled conversations and confused
          wind. But like a half-hearted saint you
          died in shame in a room where
          imperfect love spoke soft petitions,
          drenched you in a woman’s earthly
          sweat, and swore allegiance to your
          inconsolable blood. Not to all you failed
          to do then but to what you failed not
          to do, I sing a hymn of praise, grateful
          at last, for one who sleeps with hands
          upon a wounded heart and whose
          faithful dream of love awakens in me
          a stirring at the very least.
                    —— From Edward Francisco’s Death, Child, & Love

**Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/The J. Paul Getty Museum
                                                Artist: Alvin Langdon Coburn/ Title: Study – Miss R

1 Comment

  1. So much of this burns — the story, the questions, the way the story and questions are expressed. Marvelous.

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