When I was a little girl, my Aunt Betty used to take us to the symphony. She is a music lover who wanted to pass her passion on to the next generation. She did that for my brother, sister, and me, since she never married or had children of her own. We were her charges, to carry on her musical legacy. We saw Robert Shaw’s Christmas Concert every year. We went to see the opera. We went to organ recitals. We went to the High Museum of Art. We went to a children’s museum called The City. Her home was, and still is, filled with interesting instruments. Recorders from far-away places, thumb pianos, maracas, dulcimers, guitars and she even has an organ in her apartment! When I was little, she didn’t have a TV, but she had a record player and it played classical music or organ music, regularly. She taught me how to play the guitar, or I should say, she tried to. I am not a very coordinated person, so my attempts at guitar and piano lessons didn’t go well. None of the three of us have the musical talent she does. However, I do know that we admire talent when we see it, in part, because we were taught what it looks like from a young age. She has carried on that tradition with our children, her grandnieces and nephews. Taking them to organ concerts, and gifting a string trio to the first grandniece to marry, at her wedding. It will be a legacy of music passed on for sure.
Betty has been an accomplished organist for as long as I can remember until now. She played at all our weddings. She has played the organ in numerous churches over the years, and until some recent falls where she broke her elbow, wrist, and shoulder, she was still playing at the age of 84. Her first fall was carrying a box of music from the church at which she was currently playing. At one time, she traveled the world with the Organ Guild to tour and play some of the most beautiful instruments in the cathedrals of Europe. To say she likes music is an understatement. To say music is her life, would be more accurate.
What she did for us, she also did for hundreds of school children as a music teacher in inner city Atlanta, for 37 years. Christmas season during that time was her busy season. Chorus performances, concerts, and church programs filled her days and nights. At the lighting of the Great Tree in Atlanta, you might find her on one of those bridges, either singing or directing a children’s choir, or she might be playing the organ for a Christmas cantata somewhere. The children in her schools benefited from her passion. I have met some of her former students, who sing her praises, (pardon the pun) and they talk about how her teaching inspired them to pursue music into adulthood, in one way or another.
It didn’t really occur to any of us, until recently, that she was a renaissance woman involved in the tumultuous 60’s in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation of schools, marches, and all that was happening in that time period, whirled around her everyday life in the city. Her best friend, Mary Frances Early, was recently recognized as the first African American woman to graduate from UGA. I only knew Mary Francis as Betty’s friend, not a Civil Rights heroine. When I thought about the years in which she was teaching in the Atlanta City School System, it dawned on me what that would have been like. Teaching is not an easy job anytime, but during that era it was downright dangerous, especially to be a white single woman teaching in black schools, when race polarized the nation. It kind of helps me to understand the spunk of my aunt which has followed her into her old age.
She knows her way around the world of music performance in Atlanta, and is friends with many of the great symphony players and/or choral members as well as the conductors. You might say she is a friend of the arts. In fact, her latest fall in December where she broke her arm and knocked out a few teeth, was at Symphony Hall getting from the parking lot to the auditorium. Did I mention, she is fiercely independent? Insisting she is capable of going and doing the things she has always gone and done. It is true, that she does things her way and always will. She is not intimidated by much, and afraid of even less. In fact, I would say, probably the only thing she fears is losing her independence.
She landed in the hospital last week, when she got dehydrated and her kidneys refused to cooperate. The reality of age catching up with her set in, for all of us as we made the back and forth trips to Atlanta. The falls of the past few years where the evidence things were changing, and now it is clear the changes she, and all the rest of us have wanted to avoid, are here. It is not an easy place to be in any sense of the word. She is at rehab now, getting stronger. It is our prayer that she will be able to return to her home soon with some help there so she can continue to go and do as much as she is able. We covet your prayers as well.