Envision a six-foot-tall Amazon with blazing, long red hair, and a voice that bounces off the walls. Temper that with a lust for life, freckles and an easy laugh... that's Rosalyn Rebecca Williams. That's Becky.
I started this post a couple of weeks ago. It's been impossible to get motivated to finish it. Becky is near death at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She's alive, but she's already gone. Barring some sort of miracle, the sickening phone call will arrive possibly as soon as today. We all know what happens now. But it's so hard to accept it.
And that's why I couldn't finish this. Because I don't want to let her go. Nobody who knows her, or knew her, does. She's a force of nature. But nature always wins. Becky's triumphed over a ton of crappy things during her life, but no one wins this one.
The first thing I ever remember happening in my life was the day I met my little brother. I wasn't yet three.
Trying to recall long-ago memories is always a challenge. What endures? One of my earliest memories is of Becky. She got married to Wendell at age 18. It was the week after the JFK assassination. I remember the big church, and her in a wedding dress. I honestly can't remember anything from my very early childhood before those two memories.
There are five Williams girls, and believe me, they're all pistols. Michaeleen is the first. My mom. Then came PJ, who is a hard-charger. Nancy, the middle child, is ideal in that spot for her balance and even-handedness. She doesn't get rattled too much. Becky was fourth. Phyllis, the youngest, is a moonchild and another sparkplug.
Two of the girls now live in their hometown. The other three have lived more away from home than at home. Phyllis went to Florida, Mike to Texas, and Becky wound up in Michigan.
All the sisters had at least one child, except for Becky. So when my brother and I were kids, she borrowed us for a couple of weeks a year.
I don't know how it got started. It must have been more or less as a lark. But my stepfather worked for an airline, so we could travel inexpensively. Starting in 1971, my brother and I began annual holiday trips to Michigan to visit Becky and Wendell.
For two flatlander Texas kids, Detroit seemed exotic. Becky and Wendell lived in an apartment near the intersection of Ten Mile Road and Hoover in Warren, Mich. -- Eminem's hometown!
I Googled it recently... the apartments look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago. I built my first snowman in the front courtyard of those apartments.
Everything about Detroit was exciting to us. In 1971, the Motor City was still a huge city, a great city: the home of the American automobile industry, Motown, and sports heroes like Gordie Howe, Al Kaline, Bobby Layne, Bob Lanier.
The first time we went was Christmas Day in 1971. As we were readying to go, I was watching a historic NFL playoff game between Miami and Kansas City. It went into overtime; we had to go to the airport. We listened to the game on the radio. When Miami won it in the 6th period, we listened to the game broadcast in our car in the parking lot at Love Field in Dallas.
We arrived late that night and the thing I remember most is passing a giant Uniroyal tire alongside Interstate 94 near Metro Airport.
We stayed for a week, and wound up going back several more times. I know for sure we were there in 1973 (on New Year's Eve we saw our first NHL game against Buffalo at the bombed-out Olympia Stadium, opened in 1927), 1975 (I watched the Cowboys' Hail Mary game while in Michigan), 1976 (I listened to Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" repeatedly -- a Christmas present), and 1978 (saw my first NBA game, with Dick Vitale as coach of the Pistons, in the Pontiac Silverdome -- as it turns out, 14 years to the day prior to the birth of my daughter). But my mom says we went every year.
We might have gone other times as well. I'm pretty sure we were there over New Year's in 1974.
Becky also invited us up a few summers. We were there in the summer of 1973 -- I saw my first baseball game at Tiger Stadium. Becky knew the catcher for the Tigers, a guy named Bill Freehan, and he threw me a ball before the game. We sat on the third-base stands, lower level about 15 rows up. Good seats. They cost $3.50. I still have that ball, still have the program. I found the boxscore online:
Memory is strange... I thought Norm Cash and Al Kaline homered that night. Only Kaline did; Cash didn't play. But I got to see some amazing players: Yaz, Fisk, Spaceman. And Willie Horton. Every time he came to bat, Becky would yell, "Hit that ball, Willie!"
We also saw the Swingin' A's pound the Tigers in a 1975 twinbill. I remember Reggie hitting a homer, and misplaying a fly ball below us (we sat in the right field upper deck). The ball flew over his head for a John Wockenfuss triple -- a rare occurrence, one of only 11 career triples by the Tiger's backup catcher.
Becky liked baseball. This girl was competitive. I wouldn't say she was a tomboy, but when you're a six-foot redhead you're kind of hard to miss, so I guess you'd better be ready for anything. I think this is a Williams sister trait: none of them are exactly wallflowers, but I'd have to say Becky was always the most ebullient. The first time we went up in summer, she was playing softball for a team. Naturally, she was the star. A six-foot shortstop. I imagine opposing pitchers lived in fear.
I got a taste of her competitive nature one year when we were all at the family homestead in Arkansas. A group of us was putting together a jigsaw puzzle. As the puzzle neared completion I confiscated a piece and pocketed it: I don't know why, but I wanted to put in the last piece. As the moment arrived Becky noticed a piece was missing and my secret was discovered. For some reason she didn't approve of my move and chased me through the house to rescue the missing piece. She felt guilty about that for years.
Bec, it's cool. It gave us a funny story to talk about for a long time.
So a huge highlight of my teen years was our annual pilgrimages to see Becky. We always did so many fun things and had such great times. The older Williams sisters had children and seemed more "grown up." Becky and Phyllis were more like us. But Phyllis was in Florida and although we visited at times, Florida was like Texas with Disney World. Michigan's holiday visits made them memorable.
My first time on ice skates was on a frozen lake in Michigan. Ditto first time on snow skis. We went to a place called Pine Knob. The biggest hill there seemed like a 90-degree precipice. I still get palpitations thinking about it.
When we left Pine Knob Becky took us to a cider mill. A *real* cider mill with a water-powered press. It was sublime.
As the 80s unfolded my brother and I were unable to take the annual trips and so we obviously didn't get to see Becky as frequently. Wendell was a firefighter and also a drinker. I'm not sure what precisely happened with them; I know on one of our last visits he was in a hospital trying to kick his attraction to alcohol. Sadly the last time I remember seeing Wendell was when he was in the hospital.
Wendell was a dark, stocky guy with a dry sense of humor. He didn't say a lot. They had a green Mustang that had a sticker on the inside that said "FTA." For years we would ask them what that meant, and they would laugh and say "Fun, Travel and Adventure." Wendell was a veteran and it wasn't for many years until I found out what "FTA" really meant was "Fuck The Army."
When they'd pick us up from the airport in that Mustang, Becky was always wound up. We'd all talk excitedly for the trip back to Warren, which seemed to take an hour. Wendell was always the mostly silent driver. Becky would chatter about the things we were going to do, ask how things were, etc., etc. And at then end of each exposition, she'd turn to Wendell and end with "Huh, Wendell?" Wendell would nod or agree. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
So I don't remember as much about Wendell. He had a reel-to-reel tape player that had amazing sound and seemingly everything the Rolling Stones had ever recorded. I remember the tapes piled in boxes and lusted after their sound the way a lot of teenage boys lusted after Valerie Bertinelli. And like if Valerie Bertinelli was there, you never would touch even though you wanted to.
Tangent: The first time I ever heard Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" was on a radio station in the back of Wendell's car as we drove around Detroit.
Wendell had family in the Detroit area. We hung out with them some, but not a lot.
One last Wendell story: There was a convenience store that had a large sign proclaiming "If we don't have it, you don't need it." We stopped and waited in the car as Wendell went inside to procure whatever. But he came out empty-handed. As he opened the door and saw our puzzled faces, he grinned and said "I guess we didn't need it."
I don't know when Becky and Wendell split, or how. And I don't know when Wendell died. I probably should. He was a neat man.
But in the time after Wendell, Becky had a rough period. I'm not going to get into too many gory details, but like a lot of us she met someone she would have been much better off not ever knowing. I met this guy but didn't really know him. But he was bad, bad news, and toxic, and led Becky down the wrong path.
Fortunately Becky had met someone else around this time: George. When things got really bad for Becky, who was all alone in Michigan, George loved her more than anyone outside of her family. George rescued Becky.
George is one of those people you meet who you know is pure goodness. When there is a family member you love, one of the best things you can ever hope they have is someone who will appreciate them, cherish them, do right by them. Everyone knows George is Becky's hero. He's kind of my hero, too.
We're all worried about George. He and Becky have been United Against the World for a long time. It's clear they have one of those relationships where they always have each other's back. The difference, from this view, is that George never needed Becky as much as Becky needed George. What I mean by that is that George has always seemed centered enough to be strong no matter what. Becky had stumbles, and George always was there to make sure she could get back up.
George is going to be tested now. Losing Becky is going to be the greatest loss of his life. This is probably happening the way it should. Becky couldn't live without George. George is strong. My heart aches for the guy. He's maybe the nicest person I have ever met. He's a better person than just about anyone I know. I hate knowing his pain is so great. It's just unbelievably sad.
I guess the good thing, for George anyway, is that he had more and better years with Becky than any of us. He's lucky in that sense. But that also makes his loss the hardest to withstand. I love you, George.
I've bought one house in my life. It was a magnificent home, and I loved it. Becky made it happen. She loaned me the money to pay for it.
When I got divorced, I had to stop paying her back for a while. "A while" became several years. These years were struggling years for me in a lot of ways. When I finally got stable I talked to Becky about resuming payments.
She sent me a note making the remaining balance a gift. This was not a small amount of money. So throughout my life, she was always giving me unforgettable memories. I could repay the money. I could never repay what she meant to me or how she enriched my life.
I was lucky in the late 90s to have a job that required the occasional visit to Southeast Michigan. I got to see Becky at home a few more times. My daughter's first time to fly and to see real snow was a trip to Michigan.
During that trip we took a sidetrip to a frozen Niagara Falls. Only time I've been there. So naturally, another memory exclusive to Becky. We also cadged a sweet suite at a Red Wings game during that visit.
In 2001 I was in a bit of trouble. I felt like I needed to get out of town. I hatched a ridiculous plan but knew that I would have a safe haven with Becky.
After 24 hours of driving, I placed a phone call to her early one morning in the summer of 2001. "Hey, how are you?" Becky: "Oh my God, how are YOU? What are you up to? Where are you?"
"Ummm... a few blocks away."
::laughter:: "Want some breakfast?
I got to spend a couple of days with her and George. Becky and I caught a baseball game at Comerica and reminisced.
Then she got sick. I saw her a few more times in the intervening years. The last time was a couple of years ago and she had obviously slowed down a bit. But still Becky.
That hair! I've had a thing for redheads ever since.
When she went into the hospital recently I couldn't call her. I heard that she wasn't in great shape. Maybe I am selfish about this, but I just couldn't bear to pollute my memories of her with the shell that her well-lived life is leaving behind. That's not her.
Becky's the attractive, amazing woman you see at the top of this post. That's who she'll always be. I love her. And I miss her.