She was given the name “DelNita” at birth, but at some point she decided to call herself Bethany. That might have been a move to take her from the frying pan into the fire; “DelNita” was a one-of-a kind name that her mother dreamed up, based on her own parents’ names, Delmont and Juanita. They were known as “Del” and “Nita”, and so in that way, “DELmont” and “JuaNITA” combined to make “DelNita”.
While her mom may have thought it was a clever way to pay tribute to her parents, Bethany hated the name. She told me frequently about her grandmother calling that name when she was in trouble … “Del … NITA!” – to be scolded, but scolded with a name that she hated, a name that represented, in many ways, the two most hateful people in her life.
She was called a number of things throughout her life. When she was a young adult, some called her “Dee” or “DeeDee” (or variations of that). When she was in the army for the first time (1980-1985), she became Beth, or Bethany, based on the suggestion a teacher had given to her, derived from her middle name, “Elizabeth”.
I’m sure she thought that “Bethany” was a good biblical name at some level. And it was – the town of Bethany in the Bible. But that town came from the Hebrew words bêt and ʿănı̂â, literally, “house of misery/oppressed” or “house of poverty”. I think if she had known that, she would have chosen a different name.
Nevertheless, it seems as if both of her names were characteristic of the struggles that she faced all her life, and it was representative of something that we dealt with all of our lives together.
It certainly was not an intentional thing, and it certainly was a thing that she struggled against mightily. In fact, she struggled to break free from a kind of poverty that she seemed to have carried with her all of her life.
But the other side of the poverty coin is a poorness of spirit –and as Jesus said, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Scholars debate what that means, [and in our lives, we didn’t pay too much attention to what “the Kingdom” was to mean – because we always struggled to make ends meet].
“The Kingdom of Heaven” as used by Matthew, and the “Kingdom of God” as related by the other Gospel writers, are the very thing that Jesus came to preach. “The Kingdom of God is at hand”. Even though, on the surface, our lives certainly did not seem to bear any of the marks of the kingdom. But she and I shared a love and a treasure that is rare in this world. I believe she and I shared in that Kingdom, here on earth.
I just recently revisited the small town where she lived when I met her – Clairton, PA – itself a seat of poverty. In the Pittsburgh area, Clairton was one of the small steel-mill towns along the Monongahela river that once was prosperous during the 1950’s and 60’s and 70’s, but which had come to characterize the term “urban blight” when most of the steel mills closed down in what an acquaintance of mine (whose life revolved around steel) called “the steel mill crisis”.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, it seemed as if the steel mills flourished. And when I was in high school, my friends whose dads worked in the mills also could get summer jobs in the mills, and these were the guys who always had a lot of money. Some of them would go to college, but many of them would just graduate from high school and look forward to a life in a steel mill job.
That didn’t last. In the late 1970’s, when I was going to college, and into the early 1980’s, the steel industry changed dramatically in the Pittsburgh area especially, and employment in the mills went from a high of about 120,000 at one point, down to barely just 20,000. (Wikipedia, citing official government records, notes that “in 1980, there were more than 500,000 U.S. steelworkers. By 2000, the number of steelworkers fell to 224,000.” Much of that reduction occurred in the early 1980’s, and it hit the Pittsburgh area especially hard. Unemployment in the Pittsburgh area reached 25% at one point in the early 1980’s.)
Clairton, a steel mill town, was hit very hard during those years. And Providentially, that’s where she had landed in 1986, after her first tour in the Army.
The Bethany that I first knew lived in the heart of Clairton when I met her. For all practical purposes, she lived at 429 Main Street, right in the heart of that small city. She was, it seemed a perfect jewel set amidst a backdrop of coal and soot and odors from the local coal-burning “Clairton Coke Works” – the odor of “hydrogen sulfides that smell like rotten eggs”.
But somehow, none of the taint of any of those things could be discerned on her when we first met in the little typing room at the back of the community college library. Certainly she was not perfect. I was living my life in my quiet and unaggressive way, and it was only by the hand of Providence, I am sure, that she and I found ourselves sitting together, alone in that small room.
I didn’t know it at the time, but she had traveled globally – and neither of us was aware of the other’s lives or travels or even the presence of each other – nor of the Providence that shaped our journeys and that put us together in that one small room.
But there we were. At the time, I was working full time as a floor-tile salesman, taking night classes and hoping not to be a floor-tile salesman at some point in the near future. I was taking night classes, trying to beef up my credentials to get into a Master’s degree writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. My classes were at the University of Pittsburgh, where I’d gotten a BA in English Writing about six years earlier. I was at the community college typing room there because it was close to home, and my mom worked there.
Bethany was crafting a couple of poems, ostensibly for an English class, but more directly, poems that were devoted to two male “friends” who had recently entered her life. I still have the original typescripts.
The first word I ever heard her say was, “God dammit”. Her voice, high and full like that of a young girl, cut the air like a siren, and I heard her hand slapping against the big beige typewriter. The sound of it startled me from my focus on whatever it was I was writing. I looked around, and my God, I saw the most beautiful golden blond hair I had ever seen on a woman. A second later, I could see she was struggling with her typewriter.
She and I were sitting catty-corner from each other in a typing room at the Community College of Allegheny County (“CCAC”), and all I could see was the back of her head. It was a small room in the back of the library, set up with maybe six or eight IBM Selectric typewriters on tables set around the perimeter of the room.
I had had my back to the door, and I hadn’t heard her come in. I wasn’t even aware that anyone else was there. She was adjusting the paper in the carriage, and she appeared to be trying to persuade the machine to erase something.
Always a gentleman, I said, “is there something I can help you with?” Making an offer to help is the only way I would ever have talked to a woman who looked as beautiful she did. Otherwise fear would have gripped me and I’d have let the opportunity to talk with her pass by.
“I can’t get this damn thing to erase,” she said.
I couldn’t imagine why. “This damn thing” was a IBM Selectric typewriter, and in March of 1987, when this occurred, IBM Selectric was state-of-the-art.
I was in my mid 20’s at the time, taking night classes at Pitt, and trying to get into an advanced English degree program. Over the last couple of semesters, I had typed many papers in that small typing room, though I had never seen her before.
And sure, personal computers had been out for several years by that time, but they were expensive, and except for the Macintosh, which was rare and odd back then, you had to know DOS.
For a guy like me, a writer at the time, erasing on a Selectric was a kind of a holy grail. Before I had run across the Selectric, I had owned several manual typewriters, and there was no erasing. You simply ripped the paper out of the roller and started all over again. It was bad when you had to start over after you’d typed most of a page already.
But the Selectric made things easy. “Do you mind if look at it?” I said. She stood and I moved over into her seat. The Selectric was my good friend, and the problem was immediately obvious to me. In order to see better what she had written, she had advanced the paper off the original line, something you could do with the push of a button. The machine’s precision erasing feature was off-line, and the sticky tape used to pull the lettering off the page was missing the stencil letters. I backed the paper down to where it needed to be, and letter by letter, I erased enough so that she could see how it was done.
“You’ll have to erase each letter individually now because the machine thinks it has already erased it for you, and then once you moved it off the line, it cleared its memory,” I said. “You have to backspace it one letter at a time. Just key in each letter individually, and hit the backspace button.” I erased the errant line for her, working backward through the whole line, letter by letter.
“WONDERFUL!” she said. “My hero!”
My recollections of those moments are somewhat faded. But after the typewriter incident, She and I walked out into the library. She introduced herself as “Bethany Ariel” (“Air-ree-ell”, not “Air-el”, as it was spelled), and she gave me a good, firm handshake. That was another thing to notice about her – the very firm and direct handshake.
The day we met most certainly was Monday, March 9, 1987; I was a Color Tile salesman at the time. I sold floor tiles, wall tiles, and wallpaper. Remembering back, I would have been scheduled to work that Monday night; I had classes Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and so those were my regularly scheduled days off.
So I asked her to lunch that day, thinking of the nearby McDonald’s. I think that she rather said that she also needed to get to work, but that I could join her for lunch where she was meeting some friends in the cafeteria.
Walking out of the library, she bumped into a short and pudgy EMT named Shawn that she knew. She introduced me, we chatted briefly about some aspect of his work, and we were off again. Down in the cafeteria, she introduced me to her friends Cindy (a dark-haired heavy-set woman with a deep voice), and a tall, thin, pimply-faced youth named Kevin.
She always seemed to have a constellation of acquaintances hanging around her in those days, though none were really close. But she knew a lot of people. At the time, too, there always seemed to be a lot of male friends hanging around her, and it seemed to me that this was because she was beautiful, outgoing, and she gave off an air of availability.
It came up that we were both working that night, and that she needed to take a bus from the college back to Clairton. I offered her a ride, and that day, I drove her to her poverty-stricken apartment above a second-hand shop right on Main street in the urban blight town of Clairton.
How in the world did a woman of her beauty come to be living in a town like Clairton? I was soon to find out.