Monday, November 02, 2009

One of the good mysteries

Remembering BA Fanning, 1934-2006
On the Feast of All Souls/Dia de los Muertos


I still find it hard to believe she's gone, felled by a stroke. In truth, I didn't know her very well, but she had a major role in enabling me to live the life I have lived.

BA (Elizabeth "Betty Ann") Fanning, along with husband Tom and their young children, Trip and Liz, moved in next to my parents not long after I took the 3000 mile solution in 1965, fleeing Buffalo (NY) for college in Berkeley (CA). I was busy finding a a larger world and a more grounded self over the next couple of decades and dropped into my old home as infrequently as familial propriety would allow.

By the mid-1980s, even so oblivious an only-child as I was had to notice that my parents were getting older and I became more diligent about regular visits from California, often over conventional holidays. It was then that I really became aware of BA.

At the time she was teaching ethics (or maybe it was called religion) part time at a Catholic high school. Previously she'd worked as a nurse. At home, she was constantly remodeling and improving the family's 3-story early 20th century house. She seemed always busy about some good deed or some creative project. And over holidays, she gathered her whole extended family around her for magnificent dinners. There was her mother; and her mother's retired railroad worker boyfriend; the boyfriend's dim son; her brother, the priest; her sister, the nun; always other strays; and my elderly parents. A complete fish out of water in a Buffalo I no longer knew, when I started turning up regularly, I slipped right into the menagerie. BA had made family of us all.

Yet she kept some careful distance alongside her welcome. There was a private person inside the warmth. And she could be prickly. She didn't think much of most authorities of church or state and was inclined to burst out with her prescriptions for improvements. "When I have my world ...," she'd begin. I found discussions of "her world" congenial.

In 1991, my father's tired lungs and heart gave out. Young Trip Fanning helped Mother lay his body out on his bed. BA Fanning called me with the news of his passing. Mother lived on alone in the big empty house for another eight years. BA watched the lights go on and off every day and looked in on her frequently, while carefully respecting her privacy. I visited more and more often -- and at the same time lived a rich professional life that sometimes involved travel out of the country.

Throughout that last decade of my parents' lives, I kept wondering whether I would have to move to Buffalo to help them. I'd ask BA what she thought whenever I visited. She didn't advise, but she reassured me that my folks felt cared for by me. Mother especially never "wanted to be a burden." Knowing that BA was there meant I didn't make the move.

In 1999, BA noticed that the lights next door weren't following their usual pattern. She found Mother paralyzed by a stroke at age 90; I flew in from California and Mother died rapidly. Over the next few months, the Fannings offered moral support as I cleared up the detritus of my parents' fifty years in the house. I never saw BA again after I left Buffalo that year, though we talked on the phone a few times.

As I said, I'd be exaggerating if I said I "knew" BA Fanning. Rather, I was privileged to be among the hundreds of people she befriended and assisted simply because that was how she lived. I have the sense that I was made better by having received the gift of her attention. Some people are like that. It's one of the good mysteries.

2 comments:

Rebecca Gordon said...

I knew B.A. even less well than you did, Jan, but her cheerful attention to your parents served as a model for how I behaved through the last years of my own parents' lives. Not surprised she was "prickly." Saints often are.

Sarah Lawton said...

I like this story, Jan.

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