Summertime and the Livin’ is …George Gershwin
I blame COVID-19 for the loss of Beverly Bettencourt.
Oh, she didn’t die. Nothing like that. This isn’t that kind of story, not really.
You see, before the pandemic, our little neighborhood – all four blocks of it – revolved around Beverly and her tiny kitchen. Year after year, season after season, she bustled around with her mixers and pans turning out all sorts of deliciousness that would wind up on our doorsteps or in our mailboxes. Baskets of pumpkin muffins in the fall, plates of holiday cookies in the winter, chocolate heart lollipops in February and pies – so many pies – throughout the summer. That would have been enough to keep our neighborhood fat and happy, but Beverly also opened up her little Cape Cod for parties. Parties for every holiday from St. Patrick’s Day to Derby Day to Halloween accompanied, of course, by her special selections of curated, themed appetizers, desserts and drinks.
And when the summer days turned thick and heavy, Beverly would leave another pie cooling on the windowsill, dab the sweat off her forehead and smooth her bun as she moved onto her front porch. There she would sit, face plump and pink with the heat, slowly rocking, pitcher of sweet tea and plate of her secret recipe chocolate chip cookies by her side, waiting for the neighbors to visit. And visit we did. Everyone joined Beverly for long, wandering chats which would – fairly frequently – wind up as front porch parties as more neighbors gathered and the wine flowed. We’d even find the mail carrier in our midst every so often because no one could resist Beverly’s merry blue eyes and her gentle order to “sit a spell.” It would be fair to call her – back then anyway – the neighborhood’s grandmother.
No one could remember when this began. It seemed Beverly, with her wire-rimmed glasses and flowered apron, had been there forever and would endure beyond the last day of forever. Her seventy-eight years meant nothing to us. Seven and eight were merely two numbers placed next to each other that bore no relation to the good times that bubbled from her house and into the neighborhood.
But then the pandemic hit and with it, the realization that our Beverly was in that most vulnerable age group. Masks appeared, streets emptied and the parties stopped. One Sunday night, a week into the lockdown, Deb Seglins from across the street saw Beverly dragging her trash can to the curb and waved.
That was the last time anyone in our neighborhood saw Beverly Bettencourt.
She withdrew into her house, drawing curtains and closing doors. We called her. Of course we did. One neighbor after another:
“Can we pick up groceries for you?” “Do you need medicine?”
“Do you have a mask?”
“Are you feeling ok?”
“We miss you Beverly!”
“Do you need any flour, eggs or sugar?”
“We’re worried about you Beverly!”
To all our queries, she chuckled her grandmotherly chuckle and responded that she was fine.
“I’m working on a surprise,” she told each person who called. A surprise? Well, that started off another round of chatter. “What could it be?”
“A new recipe?”
“A party for when the pandemic is over?” “A cake? A huge seven-layer cake?”
“Has she said anything?”
Amid the winter doldrums, we turned into a neighborhood of amateur detectives. We analyzed mysterious packages that showed up on her doorstep, sniffed
the air for the telltale scents of vanilla and butter, and watched workmen traipsing in and out of her house.
“A new kitchen?”
“Expanded dining room?”
That had to be it – a bigger party space.
And then a man started showing up. A handsome, strapping man with a chiseled jaw and bulging arms.
“Who is that?”
“I don’t know – I’ve never seen him before.”
“You don’t think….it couldn’t be….an affair?”
“Beverly? Robbing the cradle?”
“Long lost son?”
“Maybe she’s giving him cooking lessons?”
Still, Beverly refused to say anything to our telephone queries, promising to reveal all when the time was right.
Finally, that day came. The sun had warmed our crepe myrtles and the daffodils had bloomed. Our arms ached with vaccine jabs but our doors had opened and spirits had lifted with the promise of summertime barbecues, parties on Beverly’s porch and the long-awaited surprise.
I was, in fact, talking with Tom Garcia two doors down about mosquitoes when we both received the group-wide email from Beverly telling everyone to show up at her house at 8 am on Saturday morning for the unveiling. We looked at each other. 8 am on a Saturday?
“Mimosas?” he asked. “Brunch?” I wondered.
We gathered on Beverly’s front lawn promptly at 8 that Saturday, a confused murmur running among us. Brea and John brought the champagne and orange juice, Mike and Victor had bagels and cream cheese and the rest of us had various forms of fruit unsure of what Beverly’s surprise would feature, but ready for our first post-pandemic party.
Beverly’s front door opened and a woman wearing purple mandala swirled crop leggings and a matching top emerged. She bounced on shiny purple sneakers, as though fitted with springs, and clapped her hands.
We stared, uncomprehending. Gone were the wire-rimmed glasses. Gone was the grandmotherly bun. Gone was the comforting plumpness and the flowered apron.
Instead, we were faced with a stranger sporting a spiky silver pixie cut, muscled arms and toned legs. A glow that radiated from sparkling blue eyes and a tanned face. How had she managed a tan so early in the year? In a pandemic year?
“Beverly?” ventured Mike.
She laughed. Even her laugh sounded different. Not the familiar, low chuckle but a looser, louder, throw-back-your-head kind of crow.
“It’s ‘Bev’ now,” she said, pushing open her front door and gesturing to us. “Come in, come in….I want you to see what I’ve done.”
We followed her inside, clutching our champagne bottles and fruit bowls, too stunned to speak, leery of what was coming next.
Her kitchen, that hub of all neighborhood goodness, had been hacked in half to make room for an addition that jutted into her backyard. Floor to ceiling windows opened up to the trees and flowers, ceiling fans whirred lazily and the morning light streamed it. It would have been the perfect place for our brunch, except that a hulking hunk of a treadmill stood in the middle of the room. To its left, a weight bench and rack
of dumbbells. To it’s right, a yoga mat and stability ball. We huddled in one empty spot that Beverly/Bev pointed to triumphantly.
“That is where the Peloton will go!” She spun around. “Isn’t it beautiful?” We heard the front door open and the handsome, chiseled-jaw man entered. Beverly/Bev took him by the arm and led him into the room.
“Trevor, these are my wonderful neighbors. Everyone, this is Trevor, my trainer.”
“Trainer…. dear?” Ninety-year-old Ida was the first neighbor to break our silence. She leaned on her cane and fanned her face.
“The Orchard Hill 5K at the end of month. I’m going to run in it!” Beverly/Bev said.
“This is beautiful,” Mike said next. “So this -” he gestured to Beverly/Bev and then to the room. “This is the surprise you’ve been working on the whole time?”
“Yes!” She jogged in place for a few steps. “I’ve never felt so alive! Isn’t it wonderful?”
Mike put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her, looking at us with a befuddled expression we all mirrored.
“It sure is Bev. You look amazing – your home looks amazing!”
We all murmured in agreement and marched toward the front door as Beverly – I suppose this is where I should start calling her Bev – ushered us out.
“Trevor and I are going for our first post-pandemic training run – anyone is welcome to come along!”
No one did. We just watched as Trevor and Bev took off slowly down the street. Someone opened up a champagne bottle and we passed it among ourselves, taking large swigs.
“What just happened?” “Who is that?”
“Is she having some kind of delusion?” “She looks good…”
“She looks great.”
“But she doesn’t look like Beverly.” “She doesn’t sound like Beverly.”
“Will she still cook?”
“Will she still bake?” “What about the parties?”
We speculated to death, looking for signs of a vanilla-cinnamon glow from the kitchen. Surely, this was just a phase. A late-life crisis, a pandemic crisis perhaps. The effect of a year-long isolation. Surely, she’d dig out her flowered apron, sell the Peloton, bustle around the kitchen and reclaim her proper name.
We learned soon enough.
I joined her and Trevor for a run one day, determined to get to the bottom of this
– this Bev. She trotted along easily now, a sweaty sheen on her skin.
“You seem to love all this -” I waved my hand in the air. “This exercise.” “Oh, I do,” she said, not breaking stride. “I wish I’d started earlier.”
“But what brought on the change, Beverly? Uh- Bev? I thought you loved all the baking and parties and all that.” I hesitated and then “I have to say, we kind of miss that.”
She stopped and turned toward me. I was glad for the rest. She sighed.
“I wondered when this would start. Now listen, young lady.” For a moment, she almost sounded like Beverly and I smiled. “There are many, many years – well decades – between you and I. But I suspect there is something you really want. Imagine wanting that – that something for years and years – for your entire life. But you live by the rules,
by expectations. And you never get your chance – until one day, when the world stops and turns upside down. Suddenly, there’s your chance.”
I squinted at her, trying to see past her sunglasses. “I don’t understand.”
“I grew up with four older brothers. They played football, baseball and soccer. You could not imagine how much I wanted to join them. But my parents were very strict. Those were not the activities for little girls back then. So I was a good little girl and played quietly with my dolls and my tea sets. And then I became a good young lady. And then a good secretary. And then a good wife and then a good mother and a good grandmother.”
“The grandmother of the neighborhood,” I interjected. She shot me a hard look I’d never seen before.
“Do you think that’s what I wanted?” she asked.
“Well, yes. We all did.”
She looked away and, for a moment, I thought I saw a tear leak past her sunglasses.
“After my divorce, I scrimped and I saved and I bought a treadmill. I was going to become that athlete. I was so determined. But with the children and work, I never had time or energy. One day blurred into the next. The treadmill wound up in the basement under an old sheet and Christmas decorations. And then forty years passed and I became, apparently, the neighborhood grandmother.”
“Why didn’t you just say something to us? We would’ve helped.”
“I doubt that. Do you have any idea how hard it is to stop being the person you’ve become?”
I didn’t say anything.
“When we went into lockdown,” she continued, “I finally had my freedom, my chance, and I was going to take it – no matter what anyone said or thought. And look at me now.”
She took a step back and I took in the turquoise and lime green shorts and tank top, the sparkling sunglasses and the vibrance that seemed to pulse from within.
That’s when I realized this wasn’t a phase.
“I would say that I’m sorry I’ve disappointed all of you,” she went on. “But I’m not. I am the person I should have become long ago. Now,” she tapped her watch. “I must get on.”
I watched as she and Trevor, who had been patiently waiting for our conversation to end, jogged down the road.
There isn’t much left to say. The Orchard Hill 5K arrived and there we all stood, waiting at the finish line, cheering and waving signs that said “Congrats, Bev!” and “Bev Bettancourt, 5K star!” A local news crew ran with her as she crossed the line, beaming in silver and purple. We whooped and hollered, piling around her. But I noticed, amid the applause and the shouting, that the smiles among us didn’t quite meet the eyes. The cheering faltered just a touch. And I caught a few people roughly wiping away a stray tear.
I know what you’re thinking. Here we had a shining star in our midst. A story of triumph, of inspiration, of courage. A 78-year-old woman who dazzled with her spunk and her tie-dye sneakers. Who went on to write a book, give a TED Talk and start a YouTube fitness channel for seniors. We didn’t appreciate her. That’s what you’re thinking. But you’re wrong – we did. We cheered at her races and applauded at her book signings. We Tweeted, shared and “liked” every post. We told the story again and
again of the strange convergence of a global pandemic, a shrouded treadmill and a dream that had been tucked away but never forgotten.
Still, we mourned the loss of Beverly Bettencourt. We’d pause every so often and gaze at the kitchen windows where we knew the oven sat cold and dark. We tried to recreate those days of free flowing wine, late night parties and endless trays of pastries, cookies and cakes. It couldn’t be done. Those days wove themselves into another time – the time Before Covid. Beverly had been that magic sun who’d drawn us in with her vanilla and cinnamon glow. Without her, we splintered off into our separate lives, trying to pretend it wasn’t happening even as we all knew it was.
It seemed Beverly, with her wire-rimmed glasses and flowered apron, had been there forever and would endure beyond the last day of forever.
How funny to think we actually believed that once.
Author’s Note: Kristin Neubauer lives in Alexandria with her partner Brad and crazy dog Sally. She is a journalist for Reuters and is also pursuing a Masters in Social Work. She loves to write and sketch and spends as much time as possible riding horses in Haymarket.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog