Thank heavens for Betty White and Christmas.
Just as news of the pandemic, the weather, and various world situations continued to worsen, we were reminded of a woman who made generations of our family laugh and a festive season that brings warmth and laughter even in tough times.
It’s clear that what this tired old world needs most is more Betty Whites and more reasons to celebrate together.
When she died in her sleep at age 99.9 just before Christmas, the media took a blessed break from constant depressing news to remind us what a priceless gift of laughter this entertainer gave to us all these years.
My parents and grandparents listened to Betty on radio, and our kids and even grandkids broke up as she performed various roles as the first lady of television.
She became everyone’s beloved, naughty grandmother, especially when she flirted with young stars like Ryan Gosling and other hunks and occasionally dropped what the kids call the “F-bomb.”
At age 88.5 in 2013 she became the oldest person ever to host Saturday Night Live and the first to get a standing ovation at the show’s after-party where she ordered a vodka and soda and a hot dog and stayed until the lights were turned out.
She got that gig when a Facebook petition by fans convinced the program’s producers it was the right thing to do.
“At the time I didn’t even know what Facebook was…now I know and it seems like a waste of time…supporters say it’s a great way to connect with old friends..at my age I need a Ouija board,” she told her audience of millions that night and kids and their parents loved it.
She told an interviewer a few years back that she was so lucky to have two passions: “show business and animals….I have more but it’s none of your business.”
In addition to being greatly talented, Betty White was loved because she was kind, genuine, truthful, committed to good causes, and humble. She was often irreverent and always self-deprecating.
We had Betty White stories to tell at Christmas gatherings this year to provide much-needed levity and comfort as celebrations were scaled down and some people were left out or disappointed due to the pandemic.
Thankfully, our family has many Christmas memories to share and laugh over.
Our family lore includes my late mother’s story about what she called “the year I was going to kill your father” and several generations have heard it.
That particular Christmas long ago had gone well. As usual, Mom brought out what she regarded as the family treasures—decorations that had been made or salvaged during the lean days of the depression and World War 2 and were meticulously unpacked and repackaged each Christmas. Some had been gifts from her father.
It was the year I received my first bicycle, which came in a large cardboard box that had been wrapped and was under the tree when I bounced out of bed that Christmas morning.
In Mom’s mind, the bike box provided the perfect protection to store all the cherished ornaments and that’s where she packed away the collection after Christmas. Sadly, my Dad thought the box was empty and by the time the mystery unraveled, the garbage truck had come and gone and the family heirlooms were en route to the town dump.
My mother was no shrinking violet. I can only remember a lot of noise and fury—and then a very prolonged silence. And that story gets told every Christmas at our house.
Another favourite is what the kids call The Year Grandad Shrunk the Turkey.
Along with our Christmas turkey, husband Fred bought a little Cornish hen and secretly roasted it while mentioning with concern several times throughout Christmas Day that the turkey seemed to be shrinking.
With all the trimmings ready to go, Fred arrived with the silver platter to present with great fanfare the star of the show for the hungry diners—not a big, plump turkey but a very tiny hen.
One kind soul immediately suggested she would be content with just a wing.
Gasps and guffaws and great disappointment erupted all around until the assembled realized they were the victims of a prank.
Then there was The Year Grandad Almost Burned Down the Garage. It’s a bit of exaggeration but Fred did barbecue a goose outside while our turkey occupied the kitchen oven. And the BBQ was close to the garage and the dripping grease did catch on fire and there was a lot of smoke and consternation and some siding melted in the process.
In the re-telling, it’s always said that had the situation not come to the attention of a son-in-law, the whole damned garage and cars inside could have gone up in smoke. Our own Christmas miracle!
For sure, the goose, which was required because it was part of the my mother’s Christmas tradition, was immolated ( just as Mom had predicted with great self-assurance when she saw it destined for the BBQ).
And those are the kind of memories that make Christmas special for families like ours, who are fortunate enough to have and cherish them.
I only hope that despite the disappointments, fear, and uncertainty we all faced this holiday season, there are some good memories that endure and much hope that there will be more levity and better times in the year ahead.
Betty White would drink to that! So should we all.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s publisher, Hugh Mackenzie, and lives in Kingston, Ontario. You can find her online at sallybarnesauthor.com.