I met Beverlee Carlson LaBonte on the day when my 19-year-old son and her 17-year-old daughter informed us that we were going to become grandmothers. I wasn’t happy about it. She was. The first complete sentence I heard from the tiny purple-clad, red-haired woman who would become a dear friend was, “Oh! A baby — I hope it will be a girl. I know she’ll be beautiful.”
Beverlee got her wish, and our granddaughter is beautiful. She got her grandmother Beverlee’s pouty lips — the kind that make men stare and women jealous and have make-up artists putting away their tools, saying, “Well, YOU don’t need any help.” She got her middle name from both of us, since that is one of the things we had in common. And, unfortunately, she got a serious heart defect from me.
Beverlee and I must have been the oddest pair ever to move into Children’s Medical Center of Dallas to spend countless hours and days outside the NICU and the cardiac care unit. Beverlee was tiny, childlike and innocent, with a sense of wonder that was palpable. I’m big, cynical, and always on guard for whatever threat is just around the corner.
I’m a conservative dresser more likely to be found in basic black than bright colors. I can’t stand bracelets, and I’ve only ever colored my hair (brown) to hide a bit of the grey. Not Beverlee.
Kids at her church called her “the purple lady”. She loved purple, and would sometimes wear four or five shades of it at once, never caring if it clashed with her green and gold Green Bay Packers jacket or whatever hair color she had decided to sport that week. I once counted six necklaces, nine bracelets, and five rings — and she was wearing a sweatshirt and casual clothes at the time. On more formal occasions like Christmas parties or church banquets, she’d add a silk flower in her hair, or a layer of shawls or scarves to the mix.
In the beginning, I wasn’t at all sure what to make of her, and I nearly let her drift into a diabetic coma because I didn’t realize that she had rushed to the hospital to sit with our granddaughter without any money, so she had no way to feed herself while we waited for news. Finally, after about 18 hours, my son Geoff said, “You know mom, Beverlee hasn’t eaten all day. I think she’s going to pass out.”
I realized that she wouldn’t ask for help. But if I said, “Come on, it’s time for lunch”, she’d happily follow me wherever I led her, and would take her time to figure out what wonderful new thing to try. Whether it was a hospital cafeteria or a 4-star restaurant, fast food or an upscale meal, she would find something to get excited about.
I always paid, whether we went on a trip, went Christmas shopping, or just had lunch on the way to or from one of the kid’s activities. Someone once said they thought it was nice the way I took care of her. But over the 24 years since I first met Beverlee, I couldn’t tell you who took better care of whom. I contributed little beyond some cash. She shared happiness, joy, and a perpetual innocence that was beyond price.
I learned many wonderful lessons from her, and I am a better person for them. She died last week, at age 72, leaving behind her husband of 23 years, Dennis LaBonte, her son Chris, her daughter Ilana, and the grandchildren we share: Krystal, Kameron, and Nathan Jr. This story isn’t about them, though. It’s about five of the many lessons I learned from Beverlee.
Lesson #1: Be Ready for Something Good
I often tell people I am the luckiest person on the planet, and it’s true. Beverlee was not. Born the only child of parents who doted on her, she seemed to have a charmed life at first. Although her family wasn’t wealthy, her dad’s job as a fund-raiser for the Presbyterian Church and later for a private foundation that helped churches and community groups build hospitals, schools, and churches ensured that their social life and social circle was more rarefied than their income might have otherwise allowed.
Beverlee’s mother, Ruth Carlson, told me once that Beverlee loved parties, and the intellectual stimulation she got from being around interesting people. She was always ready to dance, to sample the food, to have a good time. She went to a community college, and had been accepted at Cornell on a full scholarship when she fell in love with the wrong man.
I say he was the wrong man, but all Beverlee ever said to me about her first husband was that he gave her a wonderful son and daughter. Her mother wasn’t so charitable. She called him a monster who turned her smart, articulate daughter into a woman frightened of shadows, unable to communicate without stuttering and a host of other challenges because of the frequent beatings. Ruth said that he forced Beverlee to get on her knees and beg him for food for herself and the kids, and hit her so often and so viciously that he left permanent scars and brain damage.
“She wouldn’t leave him, though, because back then her church taught that it was her job to be a better wife, to accept him and support him,” Ruth said. “But, one day, he started in on the kids. And she got on a bus with two little kids and no money, and came to Texas where we had moved — and she never went back. She wouldn’t act to save herself, but she wouldn’t allow him to hurt her children.””
Life as a single mother struggling with aphasia and the physical and neurological challenges left by her abusive ex can’t have been easy. But Beverlee loved her kids, their friends, and the job she found as the “coffee girl” at a large company, making sure that there was always plenty of fresh coffee for her co-workers. One of her little luxuries was iced coffee, which she said she learned to love by drinking the left-over coffee at her job.
She was always ready for the next good thing in her life, and she never stopped expecting something wonderful to happen. Big or small, she was ready to be happy about the good things that came her way. That way, she said, she didn’t miss them even if they didn’t last long.
Lesson #2: True Love is Real
Remember the Impressive Clergyman in The Princess Bride? He said, “Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam… And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… So tweasure your wuv.”
I don’t know if Beverlee ever saw The Princess Bride, but she treasured her true love, and it did follow her forever. A lot of women would have given up on the idea of true love after an abusive relationship like the one she endured with her first husband, but as I said, Beverlee was always ready for something wonderful to happen.
Dennis LaBonte was nearly 20 years younger than Beverlee when they met in 1991. He’d traveled the world while he was in the Navy, and had a laugh and a way of looking at her through half-lidded eyes that Beverlee found enchanting. I’d always thought that only the Angelina Jolie/Brand Pitt beautiful people in the world experienced the kind of true love they make movies about. But Beverlee and Dennis proved that theory wrong.
Anyone who ever saw them together, from the very earliest days until the day when Beverlee’s final moments on earth saw her open her eyes, look at Dennis, and mouth the words, “I love you” one last time, knew that they were in the presence of True Love.
Not the kind of fairy tale love, where life is perfect. But the kind where two people truly were meant to be together, and somehow managed to keep that newlywed spark going in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, until death parted them.
They loved each other, and they weren’t shy about telling anyone who would listen about it, nor about showing their affection physically, no matter where they were.
My friend Susan Ryan says that her grandmother used to say of couples like Dennis and Beverlee, “When God made ’em, he matched ’em.” And it was true for Susan and her husband as well as for Dennis and Beverlee. They were like newlyweds, constantly amazed that they had found each other and unable to stop touching or sharing kisses, every one of their 23 years together. Near the end, when her arthritic knees gave out, he simply picked her up and carried her, bridal style, wherever she wanted to go.
Dennis made other husbands look bad, just by the way he gazed adoringly at Beverlee. I can’t count the number of women I heard over the years look at them and whisper “Oh, I hope I find someone like that someday!” or “I wish I had someone who would look at me that way.”
Lesson #3: Enjoy the Music
One of my early jobs was writing entertainment copy for a wire service and a music magazine, and I had the unfortunate experience of being sent to interview Bruce Springsteen on a day when Mr. Springsteen most decidedly did NOT want to be interviewed. So I can’t claim to be among the Boss’s fans.
Until I started taking Beverlee with me on road trips to visit our grandchildren, I was oblivious to the kind of Pentecostal gospel music that reigns in the “spirit filled” churches here in the Bible Belt. But my musical shortcomings were no challenge for Beverlee LaBonte.
She not only knew every word to every song Bruce Springsteen ever recorded, she seemed to know every word to every gospel song recorded in the 20th century. Whether it was “Jesus on the Main Line” or “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, she loved her music, and she wasn’t shy about changing the settings on my car radio to make sure she could hear it.
In the car, driving for hundreds of miles, she’d stay wide awake and alert as long as the music would play — clapping her hands, bobbing her head, and letting the myriad bracelets, rings, and necklaces she wore keep their own rhythm as she moved with the music. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone enjoy music more than Beverlee.
Watching her listen to music taught me to enjoy it in a new way — no matter who was singing, or what genre it was. Even if it was me all alone on the highway, singing off-key, I learned to enjoy the music just because it made me happy.
Lesson #4: Don’t Judge Anyone
Beverlee never judged anyone. Well, ok. She never judged anyone who wasn’t rooting for the Dallas Cowboys when they were playing her beloved Green Bay Packers — and she forgave the Cowboys fans as soon as the game ended.
She did, however, judge herself harshly. When she struggled to get the words out, she’d sometimes slap her forehead and say, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Our granddaughter broke her of that habit, instilled by the abusive ex-husband, when she picked it up (briefly) as a toddler struggling with her own challenges caused by a stroke.
Beverlee wasn’t about to allow Krystal to pick up a habit that might hold her back — not from Grandma Beverlee! Our beautiful granddaughter was born with multiple heart defects, and by the time she was two weeks old, a massive stroke had caused brain damage. A doctor told us she’d never walk, or talk, or feed herself. Then he held out a “do not resuscitate” order and asked Krystal’s 17-year-old mother to sign it. Beverlee snatched it out of his hands and said no.
He asked why, and she said, “Because she deserves a chance, and I believe in miracles.” There was no hesitation, and no stuttering, and I got a glimpse of the proud Ivy League-bound young woman usually masked by the aphasia. Later, Krystal would say that doctors told us that she couldn’t do those things — but nobody ever told her, and besides, she wasn’t very much interested in what people told her she couldn’t do anyway. Our granddaughter is more like her grandmother Beverlee than she knows: strong and just stubborn enough to overcome almost any odds.
Beverlee was fiercely proud of her son and her daughter, and even more proud of her granddaughter and grandson. Every milestone Krystal passed was cause for a celebration by her grandmother Beverlee. When Kameron arrived, 10 years after his sister, healthy and bigger at six months old than Krystal had been at 2, there was a different kind of celebration in Beverlee’s heart, because she was hopeful that he would escape the challenges she and Krystal had faced.
Later, when he became a budding circus performer and actor, she went to every performance she could. In the videos of his shows, you can pick out her voice, gasping when he is up in the air on silks or trapeze, or juggling knives. You can sometimes hear the sound of her bracelets as she clapped until her hands hurt, tears falling and a huge smile in place as she celebrated his successes.
She knew that others judged her, that they thought that she was dumb or eccentric. But if she cared, she kept that secret locked away and I never heard her judge anyone for judging her. Not even me — and I did judge her when I first met her.
I quickly spotted my mistake, however, about two months into our acquaintance when I saw her solve a New York Times crossword — in ink — in less than 15 minutes. I’ve never actually completed one without resorting to a crossword dictionary, despite years of trying, so I know just what kind of feat that was. She didn’t rub it in, though. And on the rare occasions when we’d both attempt puzzles, she was generous with her help when I got stuck.
Lesson #5: Be Like A Saguaro Cactus
We were on an impromptu road trip to Las Vegas when a wildfire caused us to take a southern route through Phoenix, then up through Prescott instead of our usual northern route. Krystal was in junior high school by this time, and as she grew up, her grandmother’s aphasia had gotten worse. When I first met Beverlee, the stuttering and difficulty in speaking was intermittent, but by the time we embarked on this particular road trip to visit our granddaughter during her spring break, it was constant.
Our detour took us through one of the wilderness areas in the Sonoran Desert populated mainly by saguaro. As usual, Beverlee was listening to the CD player, and watching the scenery go by with the kind of eager innocence most of us lose by the time we hit puberty. She wasn’t talking much, although she was happy to listen to me or respond if I asked a question.
Suddenly, Beverlee said clearly, “The saguaro is my favorite cactus.” At the time, I didn’t have a favorite cactus, and I didn’t know anyone who did, so it took me a couple of minutes to ask why.
“Because they just stand there, with their arms raised up to God. And no matter what, they survive. They can live 200 years, you know. No matter how harsh the conditions are, they survive.
“You can chop at them with axes, a wildfire can go through, and they thrive in droughts or floods. When times are good, they have beautiful flowers and fruit. When times are bad, they just wait for the good times to come back,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say, so there was silence for a long time. When she spoke again, the stutter and the hesitation was back. I never told her that she was a human saguaro cactus: standing there with her arms out to embrace whatever came at her, and surviving in good times and bad without ever forgetting that there are good times ahead. Now I wish I had, of course.
I hope our grandchildren are more like Beverlee than like me, because she was right. We should all try to emulate her favorite cactus — standing tall and proud without judging or allowing ourselves to be judged. Ready to defend ourselves when necessary, but always ready to burst into flower.