My Cousin Tiny

I always looked forward to summer when I was young. Not only because school was out, but because my cousin Tiny would come up from South Carolina to spend a few weeks with us. She was three years older, the sister I never had, and everything I wanted to be. She had great masses of auburn hair, unusual in our family. That hair, the way she sashayed down the street, and that Carolina drawl mesmerized the Philadelphia boys. And the girls. But what I admired more than anything else about Tiny was her confidence. She never waffled on anything. She was strong. Sassy. She is all those things today, and more. Her real name is Bernard, and she’s always worn it with pride. Never apologized for it. The family called her Tiny because of her size at birth, and it stuck. But there was nothing tiny about her. She was a presence wherever she was. She had an energy that was vital and vibrant. Everybody liked her, and I suspect, wanted to be like her. As I did.

Tiny is my cousin on my father’s side. Her mother was my father’s sister, a gorgeous woman with Native American blood who looked like Lena Horne. Tiny’s red hair came from her father’s side. My father’s family were the Butlers, the best, most interesting, joyous clan there ever was. They could see the bright side of anything. And they believed in ghosts. They could see them. Including Tiny. But that’s another story.

Tiny was in college, staying with us for the summer in Philadelphia as usual, when Duke, an older college football coach, proposed to her. I remember it so clearly. We were in my bedroom on the second floor with the door closed. I was privy to her fabulous secret before anybody else was. We giggled and giggled, and I could tell how happy she was. True, he was older, but he had won her heart over her many younger beaus.

Tiny and Duke lived together in love forever after that. He loved her youth and her energy. She loved his protection and steadiness. Most of their lives were lived as teachers in New Jersey, and when they retired, they returned to live in her beloved South Carolina. In his later years, Duke distinguished himself working with charities and serving on university boards. But he was never stuffy. He and my Bill got along famously. I’ve forgotten exactly how long he and Tiny were married, but I’m sure it has been over fifty years. It always seemed to me that they were partners in a conspiracy to have as much fun as they could for as long as they could. And they did, until Duke was badly injured in an automobile accident a few years ago. He never fully recovered and developed Alzheimer’s disease shortly after. But they were still partners, and Tiny was with him every day in the beautiful house they built, lending him her legendary strength and optimism.

Duke passed away yesterday morning. When Tiny called me to tell me, she was her old strong, steady self. We talked for a long time. Some of that time was devoted to Bill, my husband who passed away almost seven years ago. When we talked yesterday, it seemed as if we were still those two girls in that upstairs bedroom so many years ago. This time, though, our conversation was about how to live when the love of your life leaves this earthly plane. And we talked about her beloved sister who died, and Eddie, my son. She stood by my side when Eddie died, but this time, I could lend her my strength.

I will probably go down to South Carolina within the next few days, to attend the funeral. If we get a moment alone in her room, we’ll talk more about them, Duke, whose real name was Robert, and Bill. And we will be grateful for the good men who loved us so dearly. And then, we will go downstairs to greet her guests.


Read The Messenger: The Improbable Story of a Grieving Mother and a Spirit Guide by Helen Delaney. Find it at

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