Saturday, March 27, 2004

I feel somewhat shaken ...

Heard my cell phone ringing somewhere in the distance -- buried in my purse way off in the livingroom -- but couldn't reach it in time. The little screen flashed the "unanswered" message but when I tried to reach the voice mail feature, it was busy. Finally I reached the unfamiliar number after going through the process and there was a woman's voice -- sobbing wildly! She could hardly get the words out, but it was clear that she was responding to an email she'd received that announced my death! Of course it was a tragic mistake.

My friend Jane (whom I rarely see these days), is a marvelous satiric writer. She's also an avid peacenik and activist who lives her truths with fervor. About a year ago she actually went to Washington, D.C., to the White House to place an eviction notice on the fence! Her stream of clever and profound writings have been worthy of publication, and I often forwarded them to others who shared her passions. One of those was Betty Smoot, a virtual friend from Seniornet with whom I'd corresponded through emails for years. We'd never met. She's spent her final years in a nursing home in Ohio, I believe, and continued her political advocacy to the end. She was a natural for Jane's newletters.

This morning I along with others received notice of Betty's passing from her daughters. Jane must have been on Betty's mailing list. Obvious mistake.

Jane's hysteria was there in my voice mail, but it was I who was shaken! She spilled out her fears and regret in a lengthy message --regret at not having spent nearly enough time together of late, etc., it was totally unexpected, and no little upsetting. It was also reassuring of her caring and of my not being alone -- ever. What a wondrous thing... .

This was not the first such incident in my life. It comes of being a "Betty." I suspect that there are few bearing that name who are under 60, but in the older age range, we're plentiful! In the earlier case -- it actually was another Betty Reid (a relative of my first husband's).

It was an early evening performance of the band of Johnny Otis, rhythm & blues artist of my youth. He'd grown up with my Mel in South Berkeley where (Greek) Johnny Velliotis' father ran the corner grocery store. Johnny spent his youth in a small group of otherwise black kids who played sports together at San Pablo Park, or, for those who were into music (Bernard Peters, Jerome Richardson, Vernon Alley, Curtis Lowe, etc.) jammed on many a Saturday afternoon in garages around the neighborhood. Johnny (name now changed to "Otis") wanted more than anything else to be one of the "brothas," Black!

Like Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Vanilla Ice, among today's rappers, Johnny took on the language, dress, attitude, etc., of the guys he ran with and does to this day. Eventually, he formed his own R&B band and toured nationally. He married a Berkeley girl, beautiful Phyllis (African American) to whom he is still wed. For a time he was a "Reverend" in a Black church he founded in East Los Angeles. The Otis's have since moved to Santa Rosa, I believe, where Johnny -- now a deejay -- still hosts a Saturday afternoon radio R&B show for Pacifica Radio.

A few years ago -- and long since Mel's death -- I learned that Johnny was appearing with his band at an Emeryville jazz club. My son, David, and his lady invited me to attend the opening with them. It had been years since I'd seen Johnny -- couldn't recall how long it had been. He'd been Mel's friend, and I only knew him slightly. Nonetheless, it would be fun to hear him again. "Hand Jive" was one of his big numbers, and Little Esther, blues singer one of his discoveries.

We sat at a table some distance from the stage, with dancers scattered in between. At intermission, I walked to the stage and motioned to him -- to simply say "hello" -- not really sure that he'd remember me -- and he blanched! He could hardly speak. I noticed that he was tense but attributed it to his struggling to recall just who in the world I was. After all, we'd aged considerably. After a few awkward moments, he backed away and disappeared into the green room.

Some time later, he came over to our table and apologized for his behavior. "I was stunned, Betty. You may not know it, but a few months ago I learned of your death. I did a long eulogy on the air (KPFA) in honor of you and the work you've done over all these years. Almost fell off the stage when here you were -- standing in front of me -- right here -- resurrected!!!

I remembered then that Betty Reid, wife of Mel's uncle, Bob Reid, had died of breast cancer after a long illness. I'd lost track of that branch of the family after Mel and I parted -- so her passing was relatively remote for me. Hadn't occurred to me that anyone would confuse us. Obviously Johnny had.

Thought of him today, and of how hard that shock must have been for him. I received a lovely letter from him a week or so later. "After seeing you, I wanted to give you your flowers now." (Or words to that effect.) Ran across that note only a few days ago while trying to organize my thoughts for an attempt at more writings of the past. Funny how these things run together ... like an omen.

How I wish I'd written my friend, Betty Smoot, more often while she was still here to read words of support. But I'm sure that's the way it will always be.

What I CAN do is pick up the phone and reassure Jane that all is well and that I love her, too!

Ressurrected, yet another time!