It has been a hard few weeks, as my friend Betty was dying and then did, and we had a funeral. I was going to write something short and smart, but I can’t just yet, so instead, I hope you forgive me if I share the entire eulogy (and this kind of odd photo a friend took at the graveside service on April 19. I wore my mother’s pearls for Betty, and there are all these golden lights in it too, like spirits maybe, if you believe in those things, and I do, and Betty definitely did.) Here’s what I said:
We are here to say goodbye to Betty Holgate I’d like to say she’d be glad to see you all but that may not be true- Betty did not like a fuss, and she especially did not like a fuss on her account. She died Thursday morning at Haines Assisted Living, about as comfortably as a person can, and in her last days was comforted by the caring staff there, folks from the clinic, old friends, and family. She was 88, almost 89, had suffered with Parkinson’s disease and was ready to go and be with, as she said many times, her husband Don, son Johnny, and Jodi, a family friend.
Betty was a wife, mother, aunt and sister and for her, that was the top of her list of accomplishments. She was also a pilot, a fisherman, and a bookkeeper. She ran a boatyard in Rhode Island before moving to Haines in 1973, worked in the office for one of the largest village corporations in Alaska, and managed a business from her home on Mud Bay Road, which was her favorite place in the whole world.
She mended nets and helped Don build boats. His final one, finished just before he died in 2008, had a lot of Betty’s muscle in it. She was smart, independent, strong, and her niece Ruth says, didn’t suffer fools. Ruth was also part of Betty’s household in Haines for several years.
Betty loved Christmas, and Tasha Tudor’s illustrations of old New England, she gardened, baked and sewed. She was a published poet and painted landscapes. She loved animals and fed thousands of birds, and didn’t mind when the bears ate the apples that fell on her lawn and then napped beneath the trees just outside her kitchen window.
She advised the FAA on Haines weather, and for years the weather service in Juneau checked in with her when writing forecasts. On any date and year, Betty could tell you how much rain had fallen, what the peak wind speed was, or exactly when the first harrier was spotted hunting for mice on the beach, thanks to her meticulous journals.
Betty was a reader of novels, history and science. She paid attention to the news.
She drove a cool truck that was the envy of the neighborhood teenagers and she rode a not so cool Schwinn 3-speed on the road and an Airdyne in her living room.
Betty always had treats and coffee for anyone that stopped by, and friends often did. She was good company.
Betty loved big dogs. The last two were Newfoundlands Newf and Bart pronounced BAAT in the New England accent she never lost. And she had spectacularly misnamed cats. Cuddles who went with her to HAL (and preceded her in death recently) and was so reclusive that there was some doubt that she actually existed. Cuddles, who when she did appear, bit and scratched everyone but Betty. Wild One was the friendliest cat she ever had.
Betty said funny things sometimes. An over cooked steak was “tougher than a boiled owl,” but she ate it anyway out of “stubborness.”
(Here, may I interupt the blog to say I wish I’d written everything she said down, because I won’t hear her voice ever again?)
Elizabeth Robertson Holgate was born in Warick and grew up in Davisville Rhode Island. Her father was a carder in a woolen mill before becoming a manager. Her mother was a postmistress. She was the oldest of four. Marie is the only one left, and she still plays the organ every Sunday in a Baptist church in Virginia– via zoom now—and she talked with Betty almost every day on the phone, as did Betty’s best friend Martha from back in Rhode Island. Betty left school to marry Don when she was 17. They turned Holgate’s Boat Shop in Snug harbor into a successful business, thanks in part to Navy contracts. She was a flight instructor, one of the rare women in the job at the time and they had two little boys, Billie and Johnny. The family flew to the White Mountains of New Hampshire on winter weekends where Betty was on Ski Patrol.
Following a terrible accident at the shipyard, in which Don and Betty’s close friend was killed, they moved to Haines, fixed up their home, fished, and built and maintained boats out of Holgate Marine Services. Betty also ran their small seafood processing plant, worked at Klukwan Inc., and taught pilot ground school.
After Johnny died when he was 18 along with three other young people when their commercial fishing boat sank, Betty and Don poured all their grief into giving life back to the creek that ran through their property, restoring the habitat for cutthroat and salmon. Betty was responsible for initiating the creation of what became the Chilkat River Beaches (pedestrian) recreational area in front of her home (and mine) as a way to protect the river, wetlands and ponds that are at the mouth of what she called her creek. It’s a lasting legacy—for all of us, and I would say, the state of Alaska.
In fellow New Englander Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes,” she wrote:
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Betty made her life what it was: particular and real. And she wasn’t frightened when it was over. In the last few years at HAL, whenever I called or visited, she always asked, “What’s the news on Mud Bay Road?” The news today, is that our friend and old neighbor Betty Holgate is gone, and we will miss her, because they really do not make people like Betty anymore.
May she rest in peace.