Betty Calahan—gifted phone talker, lover of Hallmark movies, premier shopper, semi-professional advice giver—died at her home on New Year’s Day with her devoted husband Joe by her side.
She was 68 years old.
Betty graduated from USM in 1969 with an education degree, and she married Joe that same year. The two met on a blind date, and Joe stole her heart by driving his car in circles in front of her house and hollering from the street. Actually, that’s not how he stole her heart—she sent him away that night and wouldn’t see him. But he still managed to get her to marry him, eventually proposing with a beer can pop top. A diamond came later, and the pop top is now tucked away, saved in a box in the Calahans’ home.
Betty made sure Joe had a nice Polo shirt to wear when mowing the lawn, and together they raised two daughters, Cheri and Christine, who grew impressively in both height, athletics and character.
Betty loved to feed her girls and anyone else who came over. For years my family lived across the street from the Calahans, and growing up I knew where to go for the good snacks (not my parents’ pantry). Betty was known for her coffee drinks, which she loved to share with friends; chocolate malts blended with an egg for protein; and a mean White Russian. She loved her husband’s gumbo, but fussed at him if he made it too spicy.
She was up and dressed to shoes, makeup and accessories, most mornings by 8. She did not laze about, unshowered in a bathrobe—she had things to DO. She had an impressive wardrobe of capri pants, vests, jackets and Brighton jewelry, with items stashed in closets all over her house. Her makeup collection was spectacular; the sweet lady at the Lancome counter who had helped her for years wept to hear of her passing.
Betty made friends everywhere she went—like at the Lancome counter—and she was fiercely loyal to them. For those she loved, she gave advice on anything and everything, anytime, whether you asked for it or not. Often you did ask, because her advice was pretty good. It was clear and direct; she didn’t coddle or beat around the bush. Need money? Get a job. Don’t like your job? Find a new one. Unhappy with where you live? Move.
She could say those things because that was how she lived. She didn’t complain about life’s circumstances. She just did what needed doing.
And yet, there were times she knew there was no advice to give. A dear friend said Betty understood the “unfixables” of life. Maybe because Betty faced her own unfixables—a much beloved granddaughter with profound special needs, aging parents and inlaws who could not care for themselves, and then cancer—once as a younger woman, and again at the end of her life. She knew when to hold a hand in silence and sit with a friend in their hurt.
But Betty didn’t do silence often. She could talk and laugh for hours over coffee, or over the phone. She loved to talk.
She knew there was a right way to do things, like with cooking. She followed the recipe, no winging it. She wanted you to follow the recipe, too. She likely suggested the recipe, and she might have (probably) offered her opinion on which sides to serve with it.
She did all this because she loved you, and if she loved you, she wanted you to get it right. If she loved you, she went with you to small claims court and helped you win your case against the florist. She drove through terrible weather to attend your son’s wedding. She helped you raise your kids and lectured them when they stepped out of line. My little brother was the recipient of a few Betty lectures.
Betty was practical, although her collection of Boyds Bears seemed to indicate otherwise. She was always prepared and carried a Tervis tumbler of water wherever she went. (She said Slidell water was the best water.) She wasn’t sappy or sentimental, but she treasured handwritten notes from her daughters. She was compassionate, but she wasn’t afraid to tell a crying person to get over themselves. Sometimes people need to hear that.
Betty didn’t want to do death just yet—she had five young grandchildren to spoil and a husband who might forget to pick up his dry cleaning—but she knew it was inevitable, cancer or no cancer. She faced it with grace and matter-of-factness, and she loved her friends and family through it. She didn’t wallow, and she didn’t let them wallow, either.
She played practical jokes. She was suspicious of Democrats. She danced at the Flora-Bama. She once loved a toy poodle named PJ who had bad breath. She must have thrown 1 million bridal and baby showers (mine included). She gave gifts, sent thoughtful notes, called to check on you. She loved Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
I wore her pearl drop earrings on my wedding day—something borrowed. She was a treasured friend of my mother’s and another mother to me.
“Everyone needs a Betty Calahan in life to keep them accountable and on the right path,” said a much-loved friend. “I was just lucky enough to have the original.”
The world is a little bit darker—and quieter—without her in it. I will miss her deeply.
(Betsy Swenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)