My mother was a high school graduate, no mean task for a woman born the year the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Finishing high school was something less than one in four Americans did in 1938, and Betty Jean was one of them.
Betty was an office version of Rosie the Riveter. Mom turned twenty-one the day before the Japanese made December seventh a date that shall live in infamy and most of Mom’s school years coincided with the Great Depression, the USA’s worst economic downfall. (At its trough, US production of goods was at about half of what it had been at its peak, prices dropped by a third, but wages, if one could find a job, fell even faster.)
Betty entered high school at the beginning of the economic recovery, which again staggered and slipped during her high school years, and she graduated four years before slow growth, and a demand for hard goods brought about by World War II, returned us to our pre-economic-fall production and employment levels.
Mom had a hard life. Her father, a WW I veteran, was a laborer and the Markey’s fate fell and rose with Phil’s employment. Evicted from their homes several times during her youth, hard-times left scars on Mom. Fear of loss was a huge motivator in her life and she continued her extreme penny-pinching ways long into a happy and prosperous marriage with Dad.
Betty’s fear of loss was amplified exponentially by the strange living arrangements her father was forced to find for Mom and my uncle when Grandma Ruth became ill and had to live in a sanitarium. Phil, a working man with no wife to care for Mom and her brother, sent them to an orphanage.
To an orphanage.
How’s that for giving a kid a sense of security and wellbeing?
(My mother and uncle were not offered for adoption, the orphanage was simply the least expensive, most inclusive way to house and supervise two minor children while Grandpa worked. Frightening? You bet! Inhumane? We all make choices based on the resources at hand.)
Mom became a bit of a hoarder, someone who found the idea of letting possessions go abhorrent, and she was highly disinclined to “buy on credit,” the now ubiquitous US and international template for purchasing groceries!
Betty had a hard life, Betty had a narrow, parochial upbringing, Betty was not exposed to the finer things in life as a child, but Betty was a wondrous barometer for dealing with people, for following the Golden Rule, for keeping Jesus’ Commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves. In fact, the question, “What would Betty do?/What would Betty say?” are two questions I ask myself frequently when faced with questions about morality, ethics and courtesy.
My mom did not have very many advantages growing up, she didn’t have a fancy education, a stable environment or opportunities to see the world, but she had love in her heart and the knowledge that everyone, regardless of skin color, economic level, age, size, or nation of origin was every bit as human, every bit as worthy of receiving loving, humane treatment as are the rich and the powerful. I thank Mom for living that standard and for trying to instill it in me.
I’m trying to live up to the standard Betty set, and when in doubt, I just ask myself, “What would Betty do?”
The answer is usually spot on.