Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Tuesdays with Beth

“We live just around the corner from you; you should stop by with the girls sometime.”

It can be difficult to remember how our most important relationships begin since we don’t realize that something momentous is starting at the time, but the woman with the halo of white hair, kind eyes, and sweet smile said something like that to me back in 2011, as the congregation of Memorial Baptist Church mingled one Sunday after service.

I felt vaguely uncomfortable. We’d just moved to Vermont with our three young daughters after a decade spent in major urban areas. Although major urban areas are significantly more diverse than small-town Vermont, it was easier for us to surround ourselves with friends of similar ages and affinities when we lived in cities. To put it bluntly: No elderly woman had ever invited me to pop over with my baby and toddlers. This wasn’t in my playbook.

But this wasn’t just any elderly woman: This was Beth Wilkinson. She lived with Roy, her husband of over 60 years, in an old white house on Main Street in East Middlebury.

I was slightly shocked, on searching my inbox, to discover that Beth wrote me over 200 emails between 2011 and 2017. In one email from 2012, she recorded a brief history of herself — a history that she took great delight in telling and retelling throughout our time together.

Beth Patch was born in Vermont and grew up in Castleton Corners (which, she always added, her mother insisted was more properly called “Bomoseen”). Throughout high school she waitressed at a diner, which is where she met Roy Wilkinson in 1948: Roy had fought in World War II, had recently been discharged from the Marine Corps, and was working as an iceman. Beth and Roy had a few dates, but she was set on getting out of Vermont and moving to a big city.

Beth graduated from Fair Haven High School in 1949 and moved to Boston, where she lived with a doctor’s family in Beacon Hill and took care of the children. Meanwhile, Roy had reenlisted in the Marine Corps and was stationed in Charlestown, so they continued dating. Roy and Beth were married in Vermont after Roy returned from the Korean War in 1951.

For 15 years they were a military family, moving almost every two years. They lived in Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and visited all the lower 48 states. They had three children: Wendy, Alan, and Barry. Alan was born while Roy was away on a 16-month overseas tour (which included fighting in the Vietnam War), so Roy didn’t meet Alan until he was 14 months old. Beth loved recounting how Alan waited to start walking until he met his father for the first time.

Roy had suffered severe frostbite during the Korean War battle at Chosin Reservoir; lack of circulation in his feet would plague him for the rest of his life. Because of this, he hadn’t wanted to live in a cold climate, and Beth preferred to live in more urban areas. But as his retirement from the Marine Corps approached in 1966, Roy dreamed about returning to Vermont.

So they did: They lived in the white house on East Main Street for nearly 50 years. Roy spent 23 of those years working for the U.S. Forest Service, hiking in the mountains nearly every day. He was part of the crew that built the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail in Ripton, and he designed the Wilkinson Ski Trails on the Ripton-Goshen Road (which were named for him). For many of those years, Beth worked at Middlebury College in the Public Safety office.

It took multiple invitations, but I did visit Beth and Roy with my children. It started slowly; then, in 2013, after my fourth daughter was born, I began visiting the Wilkinsons every Tuesday morning with my two youngest children while my two oldest were in school. These weekly visits continued for nearly three years.

We’d park in the driveway near their backyard raspberry patch, which produced prodigious amounts of fruit for about two weeks each summer. (Beth couldn’t eat raspberries due to digestive issues, but she’d pester everyone to come over and pick some). Then we’d enter through the garage and pass through the kitchen where Roy — who did almost all the household cooking — introduced my children to the special treat of Pop Tarts.

Between the kitchen and the living room was a wall of memorabilia from around the world. These were gifts from dozens of international students whom Beth and Roy “adopted” during their time at Middlebury College. Beth was still in touch with many of these students, and would tell stories about driving them to the airport, housing them for the summer, and serving them countless meals.

Our destination was the living room, where Beth and Roy settled into two recliners. A fish tank full of guppies burbled in the corner; like the raspberries out back, these guppies were prolific reproducers, and every so often Beth would have to “clean” the tank by flushing a scoop or two.

ELIZABETH “BETH” PATCH WILKINSON

Beth wasn’t usually the sort to throw things away, and she’d always bring out a box of toys for my daughters to play with; these, and the stuffed animals lined up on the couch, would amuse the girls while Beth talked. And she talked. There was no such thing as a quick visit with Beth and Roy. Beth loved telling stories about her life, and once in a while Roy would interject a dry, witty comment from his recliner.

When we left, Beth would often hand me a something: an article she thought I’d like, or a ziplock baggie filled with stickers and labels that she’d clipped from mailings for the girls to play with. We still have a drawer filled with stickers from Beth. I have an aloe plant on my kitchen windowsill that grew from a cutting Beth gave me of one of the many plants by her kitchen window, where she and Roy would stand and wave as we drove away. And I have those hundreds of emails Beth sent through the years — checking in on us, letting me know she was praying for us, commenting on one of my columns (she read them all), or passing along interesting articles.

Those are some of the more “tangible” things I have from Beth. But how do I sum up who she was? How to compress years of weekly visits into a coherent shape?

I can tell you that she was an organizational force. She knew her way around a computer, and when I met her, she had recently finished whipping Memorial Baptist Church’s bylaws into place (she could quote you anything you wanted to know about church policy) and was working to catalogue all the gravesites in East Middelbury’s Prospect Cemetery.

Sometimes she surprised me. I remember when Memorial Baptist Church was in the process of calling its first female pastor, and I asked Beth what she thought about that. She just shrugged and said, “American Baptist churches have always had female pastors.” And that was that.

Beth’s Christian faith was her quiet foundation. She saw it as a family inheritance: Her mother had been trained as a Baptist missionary, and the Adventist William Miller was an ancestor. But her faith was also deeply personal. Beth was open about her lifelong struggles with dark depression, and faith was the rope that helped her out of the pit.

You may have noticed that, when I summarized Beth’s history, much of it was about Roy. That is faithful to the way she told her story; she was so proud of Roy, of her children and grandchildren, and she wanted to talk about them. But look closely, and you’ll see that Beth is always there. She’s supporting a husband through some of the worst conflicts of the 20th century, making new homes every couple of years and nurturing children through moves, acting as a mother to students who are far from their own mothers, keeping everyone organized — and chasing down an exhausted young mother who doesn’t even know that she needs a friend.

As a young mother who often felt in over my head and struggled with whether my small daily efforts mattered, Beth gave me the invaluable gift of letting me see how her life — a life made up of small daily efforts — mattered enormously: She held the world together.

And on my worst days, I’d think, “Beth did all this while her husband was away at war, so why am I complaining?”

One of the most helpful things Beth told me — something I remember weekly — was the result of my concern that my children were messing up her house. She waved away my apologies and confessed that she didn’t always tidy up right after we left because she liked the detritus of children at play. In fact, she admitted, she’d once left the smudged handprint of a visiting child on her glass door for months, because of the happy memories it carried.

Now, when my house feels out of control, I remember how Beth taught me that what I see as “mess” is really evidence of a life full of love, joy, and creativity — and one day, I may miss it.

Beth had a little pink stuffed rabbit in her living room, and each week she’d ask my daughter Georgia to put it in a new place. She’d leave it there until Georgia returned to move it again.

Our weekly visits to the Wilkinsons’ stopped when our family went to California on sabbatical in 2016, and they never really resumed. When we returned, we moved to a house farther from East Middlebury and I began homeschooling our children. Those endless open mornings of early motherhood were gone.

Roy and Beth’s health began to decline, and Beth took a bad fall from which she never quite recovered. In 2018, Roy and Beth moved into an assisted living facility. Our family visited them there on Christmas Eve and found them struggling to adjust to their altered circumstances. But the pink rabbit was there, and Georgia moved it before we left.

Roy passed away at age 91 in 2019, a couple of weeks after our son was born. We hugged Beth, frail in a wheelchair, at Roy’s memorial service. Georgia had brought a brown stuffed bunny of her own, which she handed to Beth. It was the last time we ever saw Beth in person.

A few months later, after a tough winter of hospitalizations for our son, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and it wasn’t possible to visit Beth. I wrote her a couple of letters, and a friend arranged for us to have a virtual visit with her. I received word that Beth had died peacefully on March 15, 2022.

After church the following Sunday, I noticed my daughter Georgia sitting alone in a pew. Her eyes were bright and she was hugging two stuffed bunnies, one pink and one brown. Beth’s son Alan had given them to her.

Beth has not ended for me — I expect to spend the rest of my days trying to be a Beth to others — so I’m not sure how to end this tribute. The best I can do is to borrow words, George Eliot’s gorgeous final lines from Middlemarch, as I can think of no better way to summarize Beth’s legacy:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

——————————

See an obituary for Beth Wilkinson here.

 Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

Share this story:

More News
Op/Ed Opinion

Editorial: COVID’s back: Should masking be too?

ANGELO LYNN In the movie this winter, “Don’t Look Up,” a huge comet is approaching Earth o … (read more)

Op/Ed Opinion

Ways of Seeing: Anti-abortion quest is a power grab

Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I really, really don’t want to write this column. I’m recovering from … (read more)

Op/Ed Opinion

Climate Matters: McKibben says transitions unleash creativity

16th in a series Most of the time I’m writing about vested interest as the key obstacle to … (read more)

Share this story: