Leila Fern Beyers became a part of my family when I was about seven. Lelia had gone to nursing school at St. Alfonsus Hospital in Boise, Idaho. She was a classmate of my cousin Sharon, and somehow, I don’t remember the whole story, Lelia was introduced to Sharon’s brother Wally. My mother once said that when Lelia met Wally she set her sights on him, nothing was going to stop her having him.
What I will remember most about Lelia was her smile and laugh. Her smile split her face wide and her laugh came from down deep. I loved the way she would throw her head back and cackle. She was smart with a quick and wicked sense of humor. She loved a dirty joke and swore like a sailor. I thought she was beautiful. I followed her around, emulating everything she did. I wanted to be just like her.
I was scheduled to be the flower girl at Wally and Lelia’s wedding, but an unfortunate case of mumps felled not only me but my other cousins Reggie and Lark. We were relegated to the sofas while the rest of our extended family went off to the wedding. There was a rush to replace Reggie, who was to be an usher, and me, but Lelia took it all in stride.
I saw Wally and Lelia frequently when I was growing up. They would come to Twin Falls to visit Aunt Mary and Uncle Walt or we would go to the big city of Boise to visit them. I remember staying with them for the Idaho Centennial. We were all decked out in our pioneer clothes. There was a houseful of people to feed but Lelia held center stage and got everyone fed and where they needed to be and on time.
When I was eight Lelia and Wally’s first son was born. Brad was a noisy bundle who everyone was enamored with. I was so jealous of him. He was quickly followed by Brent. They were like little brothers to me, beloved but bothersome. Lelia was a strict but loving parent. She rounded off the sharp corners of my cousin Wally.
Our families continued to spend family holidays and hunting trips together. I remember being stranded in an unexpected snowfall in the Idaho South Hills. My mother was frantic and I was scared we would turn into the Donner party, but once again Lelia was cool, calm and collected and we got home without any incidents of human cannibalism.
Time goes on in rushes. I was newly married when my dad developed cancer. Lelia provided my mother with a home away from home while my dad underwent his cancer treatments in Boise. My husband and I had just arrived from Seattle for my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary at Mary and Walt’s. We had barely made it through the door when Lelia came running up the stairs to meet me. “I have to talk to you,” she said, grabbing my arm.
She took me back outside and we walked the backyard as she filled me in on my dad’s condition. She let me know the truth because she knew my mother had been sugar coating everything. She said, “I needed you to know before you see him. It is bad,” she said. I will forever appreciate her candor and honesty in a difficult time.
We stayed with her one weekend when my husband and I came down to see my dad. Again she and I went for a walk. I told her about the difficulties I was having with my life and my marriage. She listened and while I don’t remember her giving me advice, she didn’t criticize me or downplay my feelings. She was just there when I needed someone to talk to.
After my dad passed, Wally and Lelia divorced. I sent her Christmas cards for a few years and then we lost touch, but I never stopped thinking about her. I was so happy when I saw her at Wally’s funeral a few years back. She looked frail but her bigger than life personality was still in place, punctuated by her infectious laugh. She gave me her address but my Christmas card when unanswered.
I was surprised when Brad called me last fall to let me know Lelia was ill. His call gave me a sense of foreboding. I went to visit her at Swedish Hospital not knowing what I would find. Even though she was thin and her hair was grey, but the smile and the laughing eyes told me Lelia was still in there and fighting. We spent an hour catching up on life, discussing medicine, and enjoying a laugh. She told me that she thought about me often and I told her how much she had meant to me when I was growing up. She was a big sister, confidant, and surrogate mother rolled into one.
Lelia passed away on February 27th. I found out though Brad’s Facebook post. It was accompanied by a picture of Lelia in her hospital bed, smiling that big smile and waving to the camera. I was shocked to see her there. I broke down weeping at my desk. The world is a little emptier without Lelia’s infectious laughter and her big heart. I am glad I got to visit with her a few times while she was here in Seattle. I feel a sense of closure but deep sadness for the loss of another tie to my past.