My Cousin Bill —by Jinny Batterson
This time of year I often think about my cousin Bill. Bill was a cousin-by-marriage, wed for nearly thirty years to my mother’s second cousin Jen. Before I remember meeting Bill, I met the small “gentleman’s farm” that he and Jen owned in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. One summer in my young teens, I spent nearly a week at their place on a return visit after their only daughter Grace came to stay at our much smaller homestead in the suburban fringes of Washington, D.C. Bill and Jen’s place wasn’t near any large city. Their farm of a hundred acres or so had a small herd of beef cattle and was way out in the country. The closest town of any size was the college town of Lexington, Virginia, about twenty miles away. What I mainly remember of that visit was not Bill or Jen, but how scared I was of Grace’s two horses, huge animals compared with the dogs and cats at our house. Over the course of my visit, I managed only one brief ride on the gentler and smaller of the two mounts.
Several years later, Bill and Jen came to Maryland for my grandmother’s funeral. As they gave me a ride from the cemetery back to our house in their car, I got my first direct exposure to Bill, who regaled us with stories about Granny and how much she’d enjoyed racy anecdotes, despite her somewhat stern Presbyterian upbringing.
A couple of years after that, as Grace went off to university in Atlanta, I began attending a small women’s liberal arts college near the Shenandoah Valley. Once I got access to a vehicle at school, I went to visit Bill and Jen, driving my little car through the verdant countryside of a Virginia spring to their front gate. Bill welcomed me and gave me a house and garden tour while Jen fixed lunch. He’d filled the walls in their parlor with “ancestors,” a portrait collection of Indians and Africans decked out in ceremonial dress, plus assorted other individuals that were no biological relation, but struck Bill as having character. He’d made up stories about each one. Outdoors, in one of their several flower beds, Bill pointed out the “night-blooming enuresis,” a yucca to which he’d attached the label for childhood bedwetting as a joke on some of the snootier but vocabulary-limited ladies of the local garden club.
Later, when I began seriously dating a young man who was a student at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, I brought Jim with me to meet my sensible cousin Jen and her eccentric husband Bill. Bill and Jen would invite us to their place every couple of months. Bill entertained us with more stories, while both he and Jen plied us with home cooked meals more varied and nutritious than we’d get at the cheaper town restaurants that were our typical date-night fare. I began noticing the extensive collection of fine china and cutlery that filled a long wall of cupboards in their remodeled kitchen. Only gradually did it slip out that Bill had inherited a large fortune from his now-deceased parents. It also gradually slipped out that Bill was a gentleman alcoholic as well as a gentleman farmer. He was generally good at staying away from drink, but every year or two his disease would get the best of him. Neighbors knew to phone Jen and to manage to get Bill home from wherever he’d fallen off the wagon.
When Jim and I got engaged in the spring of 1968, Bill wanted to throw us an engagement party. The party didn’t happen—coordinating schedules for our out-of-town families proved too complicated—but Jim and I continued occasional visits to the farm. Early that December, I completed my undergraduate schooling and moved home to Maryland to begin graduate work and start planning our wedding. We’d get married in the chapel at Washington and Lee the next spring. Of course we’d invite Bill and Jen.
In January 1969, we got word that Bill was seriously ill. He’d been feeling a little rundown when we’d last seen him in the fall. Jen eventually nagged him into seeing a doctor. The diagnosis was dire—acute leukemia. At first I was sure Bill would bounce back, his wealth giving him access to the best medical care money could by. However, later news from the farm was not good. About ten days before the wedding, I talked by phone with Jen, who explained that Bill was quite weak and no longer able to drive, but that she’d do her best to arrange a driver to bring them to the small college chapel where our ceremony would be held.
Our Saturday wedding day dawned clear, but brisk and windy. Once or twice during the early afternoon ceremony, I looked around to see whether Bill and Jen had slipped in at the back of the chapel, but they never appeared. Our simple wedding was followed by an equally simple reception at the college’s alumni house. By mid-afternoon, the festivities were over. Our best man retrieved our car. Despite his best efforts to hide it, it had been festooned with shave cream slogans and peppered with jelly beans. We drove back toward Maryland at a leisurely pace, with no extensive honeymoon in prospect, but no work or school until the following Monday. At the turn-off to Bill and Jen’s, I hesitated. Would they welcome a short visit? We decided to try it—Bill and Jen hadn’t come to the wedding, but the wedding could sort of come to them.
We knew by now to ignore the “Unruly Dog” sign at the gate. We went straight to the front door and knocked. Jen opened it. We could see Bill, wheelchair bound, behind her in the parlor, along with a neighbor who’d come to help with nursing and provide support for Jen.
“Howdy,” Bill croaked, his voice weak and slightly slurred. “It’s so good to see you. I’m sorry we couldn’t make it to Lexington. The powers that be (here he nodded at Jen and the neighbor) forbid me to go out into the wind.”
He had a small tumbler of whiskey in one hand—one side-effect of his disease was the capacity to absorb alcohol without the likelihood he’d do any further damage to himself or others. We chitchatted for a few minutes, but could see he was very tired, though glad we’d come.
“Y’all go on now,” he said. “I expect you have other things on your minds than visiting with your old cousins.”
We left. A few weeks later we got news that Bill had died. When we first learned of Bill’s leukemia, Mom told us that Bill had lost his first wife to a different, but equally aggressive cancer, a number of years before he met Jen. He was no stranger to death.
It’s early spring again. Easter and our wedding anniversary are not far off. The slopes of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia will soon be filled with redbud and dogwood blossoms, and the pale, almost iridescent green of newly sprouted leaves—nature resurrecting herself. I don’t reflect all that much about death, afterlife, or resurrection, but I often remember Bill, especially at this time of year. I think perhaps it’s enough that Bill, and others like him, live on in the memories of those whose lives they touched.