My aunt Beth passed away peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of September 14th, after slowly getting weaker and weaker from the lung cancer that she knew would take her life. Early on she had asked me to speak at her memorial service and the following are the remarks I gave at Milford Hills Baptist Church in Salisbury, NC.
I am Millicent Austell Flake, and my father was Beth’s oldest brother, James. I’m honored to be here today to talk about Beth, who in her modest way had a great impact on my life and I think on the lives of most of us here.
As I thought about Beth’s life, the scripture that came to mind is from I Peter:
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. I Peter 3:3-4
Beth had one of the most beautiful spirits of anyone I’ve ever known, not in an overly sweet or spiritual way, but as someone who genuinely cared about those around her, especially the underdog and downtrodden. Although privately she may have had her opinions, she was never judgemental and was always forgiving. We will never know the people she helped not only monetarily, but with a listening ear and sound advice. Her “gentle and quiet spirit” is an inspiration to me.
From the time she was a child, she had a heart for the less fortunate. Beth, for some reason given the family names of Douglas Elizabeth, was the 4th child born to Ruth and Cline Austell and she grew up during the lean times of the Great Depression. My father was the oldest, then came her only sister Mary Frances, then their brother Maynard also known as Gabe, then Beth, then the youngest brother Morris. They grew up in the little town of Blacksburg, SC where their daddy was the police chief and their mother taught English and Latin at Blacksburg High School.
Life was not always easy for Beth growing up. Hard work was expected at home and at school. Money was tight, but so was the family. Beth was especially close to her baby brother Morris and throughout his life felt the need to look after him.
A college education was expected for all the Austell children, and each helped the others along. Career choices were limited in the late 1940’s for women, so Beth chose nursing. Following her graduation from Presbyterian nursing school with her RN, she did her stint in the military, working as a nurse with the Army Nursing Corps in Louisiana. She was always proud of her time in the military, as evidenced by her desire to have her coffin draped in an American flag.
Beth was a feminist before that word even existed. In the 1950’s when few women lived on their own, she moved to Salisbury and began working with the VA hospital. She bought her little house and took care of herself. She told me once that in the beginning she would cash her check and put the money she owed for her mortgage, car, electricity, phone and gas into separate envelopes so that she would be sure to pay all her bills first. I know my father often remarked how proud he was of her and of how hard she had worked. Up until her last days, she worked hard to be independent.
She was an old time “tough as nails” nurse who lifted and pulled on the patients under her care, mostly men, advised the doctors and taught the younger nurses the ropes. She worked all shifts, day and night, and went home to her dachshund, Sam. Later, after Sam died, she had Mr. Tubbs, a chubby beagle. Being a nurse, she was always there for anyone in the family who was sick, and was especially good to my sister who went through a difficult year of cancer treatments before her death in 1976.
Beth was special to us grandchildren. We thought she was pretty cool because she wore blue jeans and penny loafers with shiny new pennies, and was the first person we knew to have an air conditioned car. Her cars were probably her only weakness, and she traded in for a new Buick every 2 years. She always liked to sit at the “children’s table” at holiday meals and was genuinely interested in our lives. She didn’t miss a graduation or wedding and was excited for every baby and grand baby. And she also never missed a birthday, always sending a card exactly on time, signed “Auntie Beth.” I will miss those cards. Whether she was sitting in the sand building castles with us or going to Tweetsie Railroad and Carowinds, she always seemed to enjoy herself, and I’m sure it was a welcome change from her work at the hospital.
Beth always felt a sense of duty to her parents, and for many years spent almost every weekend in Blacksburg looking after them. It wasn’t until they died and she had retired from the VA that she began to settle into life in Salisbury. She joined this church, started going to water aerobics, made new friends and in general had a good time. She loved her time at the beach, went on several cruises, and made trips to visit family. After her nephews got her set up on the computer, she loved keeping up with her friends and family through Facebook,
Beth was a rather shy person who liked to stay in the background, but she had a strong core which showed through after her cancer diagnosis. She faced it with pragmatism and courage. Many of you here went through those difficult days with her as she struggled through chemotherapy. She finally beat it and was able to enjoy simple things again.
When her cancer returned, she made plans to move to Arbor Acres so that she would have family close by and be able to move into the health care if necessary. Again, she faced a difficult time with courage and pragmatism. As she knew that her time was getting short, she planned out every detail of her burial, even prepaying for the flowers here today. Even in her last days, she was thinking of others and trying not to be a burden to them – more evidence of her “quiet and gentle spirit.”
This past summer I participated in a well known running event in Atlanta called the Peachtree Road race. I had Beth on my mind and heart as I plowed through the mass of people running and lining the streets, knowing that she was coming up on the end of her race. The writer of Hebrews gives us a beautiful picture of how that end will be:
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
The scene is of a stadium full of cheering spectators, the great “cloud of witnesses”, which includes all the heroes of the Bible, Abraham, Moses, Joseph and David and at the center Jesus. As we run our final laps, we are to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who will bring us to the finish line. In my mind’s eye, I add to the cheering crowd all those that have gone on and have been waiting for Beth, her parents, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, my sister Anne and my cousin Larry, her good friend Sonny and others that you may know. I even picture her dogs, barking and jumping up and down. They are all waiting for her to cross the finish line, for Jesus to wrap His arms around her and say, “Well done Beth, my good and faithful servant.” I hear her in her self-deprecating way say, “Well, I guess I made it.”
My hope and prayer is that some day I will leave behind a legacy like that of my aunt Beth.