It is fitting that Edna Elizabeth Costello, a.k.a. “Bette”, be featured in our Fabulous Ladies series. First and foremost, she’s my Mom! And second, today is her birthday. She didn’t know that I was writing this. In fact, she still doesn’t quite understand what a “FLUFFI” is and while her willingness to adapt to an internet world is impressive, she still hasn’t found the www.fluffius.com website. But she gets a pass, because for my 51 years on this earth, she has been an anchor, a support, an inspiration and a friend.
What makes Bette Costello fabulous? So many things come to mind, but what has always touched my heart deeply is how at age 37, when she received a phone call that changed the course of her life forever, she rose to the challenge and became everything her two daughters, ages 15 and 10, needed to survive the crushing blow.
The middle child of three, she idolized her glamorous big sister Joan and doted on the mischievous baby, Bobby.
Her world-class worrying skills were honed waiting for Joan to come home from dates, watching the clock because curfew violations were not well received by Robert Lee Hartsell, whose military background spilled over into his expectations for his children. (White glove inspections also led to world-class cleaning skills that made our childhood home an eat-off-the-floor, vacuum lines intact showplace at all times.) And Bobby? He lived to torture his sister’s propensity for fearing the worst by playing near train tracks – and when a suitor came to call, Bobby was known to bang on the bathroom door the entire time Bette was getting ready for her date, just to “get on her wild nerves” (just one of the Bette-isms that make her fabulous.)
She had her share of admirers, with that hour-glass figure and pretty blue eyes, but it wasn’t until a tall, dark and movie-star handsome Italian man was assigned to be her partner in the wedding of her friend Vivian and Frank Romano that she fell so hard her desire to not upset the apple cart was overshadowed by her need to be at Salvatore Costello’s side. It was the 50’s, and a good Presbyterian girl like Bette shouldn’t even entertain the idea of falling in love with a Catholic – and no church would marry them. Also scandalous was that Sal was 15 years older than Bette, loved fast cars and was an avowed confirmed bachelor. They broke up a few times, succumbing to family disapproval, but that Thanksgiving in 1955 he showed up at her family’s dry cleaning business and declared, “We have to get married.”
On a rainy day in December, they set off for Elkton, Maryland for a simple, civil wedding ceremony.
No church, no hoopla or dancing – but they bravely followed love and sealed the deal. One of the greatest gifts Sal and Bette gave their kids was their obvious infatuation with each other – a romance that only grew stronger with the passing years.
I can still smell the scent of Brut and my Dad’s clean shaven face as he would whistle when Mom came out of the bedroom, all decked out for a night on the town. Their date nights were legendary, as we kids were happily shipped off to the grandparents, and even on that fateful day he called just to say, “I love you.”
That’s why the phone call, just a few hours later seemed to be a cruel April Fool’s joke. But it wasn’t; after just recently given a clean bill of health, Sal’s heart fatally gave out, and all of a sudden, the woman who was used to evening gowns and cocktail umbrellas had to learn to fend for herself and raise her two devastated daughters, ages 10 and 15. The timing was uncannily made worse by occurring just two weeks after her beloved father passed away from emphysema.
Would she crumble, overwhelmed by the grief? Thinking only of my sister, Shirlee, and me – she dug deep. The evening gowns were replaced with the manufacturing gloves of a factory worker…her hands nightly ravaged by the hot plastic. When the Atlantic City casinos opened, it was a form of salvation that allowed Bette to return to daytime work without a netted hat – and to ensure that her girls never did without.
We were well-dressed, given new cars when turning 17 and weddings (much sooner for Shirlee than me.) She put me through college and bought (and paid off, mind you) her own home. Never treating herself, she made sure that birthdays and Christmases were present-filled…and as we went off to pursue our lives, loving hand-written notes were a regular occurrence. I have saved these letters, chuckling at her warnings about germs and the inclusion of recipes that were her signature masterpieces (and my epic fails).
For the lonely years as I watched my friends marry, Mom would pray (kneeling by her bed just as her own Mother was known to do) that God would bring me someone to share my life with. At age 39, when those prayers were finally answered, she threw herself into joy of the occasion and opened her arms and her heart to my husband, Duane.
The hardest part of following our dream to move to Florida was knowing that I couldn’t just plan an impromptu visit to meet for Sunday lunch at Harrison’s Restaurant in Mullica Hill (our halfway meeting place) or to wander around the local K-mart (for some reason, we always had so much fun doing that. And finally I was able to buy her anything she remotely expressed an interest in, despite her protests, but ultimate glee.)
Her response to our move was her blessing: Life is short. Follow your dream. Enjoy every precious moment you have with your husband.
We are an extended family – Shirlee and Tony, their grown children, Deena and David, Duane and me (and Shasta, for whom she always buys treats, though she detests dog hair) that genuinely loves and enjoys each other.
We devour her homemade ricotta cookies, which are now a featured item on the menu at Deena’s Bliss Organic Ice Cream in Cape May. We feed her addiction to Amish love stories (she keeps a list of the titles she’s already read) and think that in a former life she must have lived among “her people” in Lancaster. To this day, she never has a hair out of place, looks so much younger than her years and always smells of fresh laundry and perfume. She weighs less than she did when she and Sal were dating, and avidly watches Court TV and Nancy Grace.
The people she greets at her latest job, handing out flyers for the optometrist at the Mays Landing BJ’s, comment on her sweet and friendly manner, and on a regular basis, her former co-workers from Harrah’s stop in, so happy to see their friend Bette.
My Mom has lived a life that makes her family proud. I know Sal looks down over his child bride and also smiles with pride, as does her Mother and Father. I know the words she will hear (and hopefully for not a very long time to come) will be, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
But the words that matter the most right now are those we should not hesitate to speak while we can, and that is why I write this tribute to my beautiful Mom today.
I (gratefully) did not inherit the name Edna (thank you Shirlee, for coming first) but I hope that I can emulate her fortitude in tough times, her knack for making good decisions when faced with a choice, the selflessness to put others first, her ability to tell a good story and overall beauty.
My house will never be as clean as hers, my cookies will not taste the same and my figure will likely never be as svelte, but in the things that matter most, her legacy shines on.
Happy birthday, Mommy! (Even WAY into adulthood, we’ve called her “Mommy.”)
You are fabulous, loved…and the FLUFFIest of them all.