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The Heart of the Visit

By Caitlin Littlefield | Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Who doesn’t love listening to grandparents tell stories about their lives growing up in days gone by? Don’t those days seem so different, it’s hard to believe they are within our grandparents' lifetimes?

Betty Jean 

Betty Jane Hall, circa 1942

My grandmother Betty Jane, or BJ as we all call her, used to have a 19-inch waist. Nineteen inches! During WWII, when she was 20, she worked as a model at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City, in the custom clothes department. This meant that she spent her days modeling made-for-her clothes from the likes of Chanel and Sophie Gimbel in the Salon Moderne to wealthy buyers, and her nights at the Barbizon Hotel for Women. Her rent there was $13 per month. My grandmother BJ often told me how much she loved going out on dates with men back from the war every night, when at the end of the evening she would gracefully say “Thank you and goodnight,” and step into the women-only complex with a smile on her face. She met my grandfather on one of those very dates.

BJ is now 87 years old, and as much of a spark plug as ever. She’s in good health for her age, and whenever I ask how she is doing she says “I can’t complain!” Several years ago, her husband of 60 years passed away from pancreatic cancer. Losing him was a blow to everyone who knew him – he was a warm, charismatic, and fun-loving fellow who couldn’t get enough of fishing or his large family.

Several months after his death, my mother accompanied BJ to a doctor’s office for a routine check up. The doctor assessed her health and at the end of the appointment said:

“Well BJ, I’ve looked, and I can’t seem to find anything wrong with you.”

BJ: “You’ll have to look again doctor, because you missed something.”

MD: “What did I miss? Do you still have pain when I bend your knee like this? Or does your hip hurt when you are sitting in that position? Is your eyesight OK?”

BJ: “No doctor, it’s not any of those things. What you missed was asking about my husband. He passed away last month, and you overlooked my very broken heart.”

BJ and RM 

Betty Jane and Richard Michaels, circa 2004

When my mom recounted this story to me, and in the countless times I’ve retold it since, I feel a pang – for my grandfather and how my grandmother must’ve been feeling at that time – but also for how the doctor must’ve felt. Checking out the routine physical state during an exam, he missed the most important detail of his patient. How can we readjust our routines so as to never again overlook a broken heart?

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