Betty Jo Bridgforth, whom I called B.J., was one of the most cantankerous, hard-headed, independent, tenacious and loyal individuals I’ve ever known. If a person didn’t possess most of those traits, you didn’t stand a chance of being her friend.
I met B.J. after moving down the street from her on Traway Drive in Chesterfield County. We were close friends for 15 years and shared many experiences, some wonderful, some not.
During one of the more unpleasant visits, we were standing at her front entrance when B.J. slammed the door — with my thumb in it. I screamed and opened the door, while B.J. calmly walked into the kitchen and lit a cigarette. Cupping the blood in my hand, I grabbed a paper towel and said, “Only someone as stubborn as you are could be your friend. I’ll be back tomorrow, for my coffee and an apology.”
Well, I got the coffee. I wondered if that incident inspired her to give me a pound of Godiva chocolate that Christmas.
I’d known B.J. for about a year when I decided to write a column about her in 1998. I told her it was because I admired her tenacity so much. I didn’t ask permission because I figured she would refuse, but she was surprisingly very accommodating. She could only say a few words after a debilitating stroke in 1988, leaving her right arm paralyzed, one leg in a brace and using a cane to walk. She would yell and pull her hair in frustration when she couldn’t make me understand. I finally said, “B.J., I don’t much like being yelled at, so just calm down and tell me what you’re trying to say.” Eventually, through guessing and hand gestures, I’d figure out what she meant.
Although limited verbally, she had a favorite four-letter word that she often used after her stroke, especially when she was agitated. It started with “S” and ended with “T,” and she could pronounce it with one syllable or multiple syllables.
After a second stroke, my beloved B.J. died at age 71 on June 22, 2013. When her children asked me to speak at her memorial service in Lunenburg County, where she was born, I decided that it would give me an opportunity to tell Jimmy Harris publicly that he was the most devoted brother I’ve ever known. I don’t know how he kept going back to help B.J. through all those years (cutting grass, raking leaves, taking her to the doctor, preparing her taxes). B.J. could drive, but couldn’t speak at appointments, and she wasn’t much known for showing appreciation.
At the service, I told B.J.’s children, Kathy, Jody and Harris, and their mates, Kelly and Eddie, that they were even more special to her than they knew. I told her grandchildren, Katharine and Elizabeth, Joseph, Alex, Wells, Tori and Ross, that they were the greatest joy of her life, and she wanted so much to be able to hug them with both arms and say “I love you.” Sometimes when I walked through B.J.’s kitchen door, she’d point to new photos of her grandchildren displayed on the refrigerator. I will never forget how thrilled she was when I took photos of the last two grandbabies to her house — pictures that Jody and Harris faxed to me just a few hours after their children’s births.
We also enjoyed sharing food. Occasionally, I cooked for both of us because her disability limited her mobility, but she could make a mean cup of coffee, which she always served to me in a cup covered with sunflowers — the one sitting on my desk right now.
No one has ever taught me so much about life by saying so little. Except for my late friend Johnny Coffman, who was a quadriplegic for 17 years, B.J. was the fiercest example of perseverance I’ve ever seen. She didn’t live life — she bullied it and wrestled it to the ground every day until she had to give in. But, make no mistake, she loved as hard as she lived. She just couldn’t express it.
We often teased each other about drawing straws to see which one would die first. She was so stubborn, I was convinced she would outlive me. In retrospect, she probably planned to arrive early, to have the coffee waiting.