Remembering Betty Jane

My grandmother, a great lady.

My grandmother Jane Ensign, Betty Jane Harrigan, passed away on July 31st, sometime around noon or one? I never say that someone “passed” but this is how she would have said it, so out of respect for her, she passed. She died, after living her life for others and not herself. She died, after supporting her husband who was ill and… challenging… for many years. She died after trying to take care of him alone and breaking her own back doing so. I thought she would have died sooner, but even though she was frail for most of the time I knew her, she had the strength that comes not from load bearing exercises, but from bearing the load of a family, and the expectations that people have of women who become mothers.

Jane Ensign always had a sense of propriety, of decency, of appropriateness. She disdained things that she deemed “tacky” which included: dyed hair, tattoos, fighting with your family, and being rude. She hated swearing.

Betty Jane Harrigan worked in one of the most infamous asylums of the 1940s, the Danvers State Hospital, and laid out naked in front of fans in the summer with her feet in a bucket to stay cool.

Jane Ensign loved gardens, she loved things being the way they ought, she loved pretty things. She loved her family. She baked cookies with her grandchildren every christmas, and always had weird plastic tablecloths on the dinner table. Jane Ensign said the same prayer before dinner every night.

Betty Jane is an enigma to me. Betty Jane went out dancing, and made her own dresses, and when she didn’t get a dress finished in time for a night out she put in maxi pads as shoulder pads. Betty Jane, in college, debated whether or not she might be a lesbian, and decided that she wasn’t, but I mean, she considered it, you know?

Every bit I learned about Betty Jane was a gift. It was a treasure. To paraphrase Tolstoy: good grandmothers are all alike. They love you, they support you, they make you feel cherished. A good grandmother is thought of in terms of what she does for others, what she does for you. What is not all alike is who she was before. Who was Betty Jane before she became Jane Ensign?

A few nights ago my grandmother called herself “Betty Jane, Bringer of Great Distress.” It was very like her to think of herself that way: suborning herself to our feelings, clever, unexpectedly funny. She also would often call herself Betty Jane, when she had a hard time standing up, when she felt that she was being silly. I never called her that, and I never heard her children, or my grandfather call her that, but it stayed part of who she was until the end.

When someone dies (passes away) you realize all the gaps you have. When my dad was killed I realized how little I knew him, and even though I got to know my grandmother for longer, I had just started getting to know Betty Jane. So as I mourn her, I mourn both of her, all of her. I mourn everything I will never learn from her, all the stories of her wild youth that she never thought were appropriate to share.

Last night, in her memory, without even meaning to I ate a dinner that is the meal that most makes me think of her: pasta with red sauce, a baguette warmed with margarine, a salad. This is what I always ate at her house in the summer. I know, in my heart of hearts, we must have eaten other things, but I cannot remember them. In the honor of my grandmother, a woman who really hated cooking: no recipe today.

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