"So are you sick, or do you want to come with me?" Tough question. If I said I was sick, I would get her doting attention (as one of the middle children -- number three of four girls -- attention was a commodity I craved). But what a treat it would be to join her!
"I'm feeling okay enough to go," I said, as if she didn't already know this. Oh, my sisters will be jealous, I thought. I get to go to the bowling alley! It seemed that no matter where we lived, Mom always found, and joined, a women's bowling league. My sisters and I had all been before. When we were doing well in school, Mom would cave easily to our requests to let us take a day off and join her. She was particularly easy with me these days, but I never questioned why and couldn't have guessed it was because she suffered as much as I did when she learned what I'd been going through and that she was experiencing -- not for the first time -- how cruel children can be.
By the time we arrived at the bowling alley, there was no hiding my exuberance. With the money she'd handed me as we walked in, I bought myself a soda and snack. I sat above the "pit" (because you couldn't bring food or drinks down by the lanes) and took out a pen and pad of paper so I could write and draw. Mom would peek back to see my crossed fingers when she was about to throw the ball, and she'd sit with me when it wasn't her turn. I relished the hollow-wooden sound of balls knocking over pins and cheered along with the ladies of the league each time one of them bowled a strike. With all of my worries sitting in a classroom across town and my mom having fun just a few steps away, I thought, I could stay here forever.
The Next Jean Harlow?
Betsy was a piece of work.
There's a scene in Amadeus: Mozart scribbles strings of notes. Salieri gasps. Mozart feathers in complex tones. "Genius! Perfection!" shouts Salieri. "Oh no," says Mozart. "Now we put in the fire."
Betsy was the fire. She had two mottoes. One was "If you can't lower heaven, raise hell."
Betsy Faith Herlan was born in Seattle in 1918. Her German father, Peter John Herlan, was a stern-faced, God-fearing salesman. When he was home, which was rare, he allowed no talking at the dinner table and wouldn't let his oldest daughter Sophie ("Sissy") cut her hair until she was 18.
On her way to Franklin High School, Mom always put a flower in her hair. She removed it when the last bell rang.
She showed me a letter her father wrote: "Dear daughter," it began, and then got real formal. That side of the family's in her second motto: "Bessie do-ee," meaning she would never accept help, of any kind, from anyone. And, in my older sister Shirley's words, along with being "unselfish, creative, loyal, and truly one-of-a-kind," Mom had "lotsa rules. You did not cross your mother."
On her mother's side, Smiths (from England and Scotland, who sailed to America from Ipswitch in 1630) and Scovells (French Hugenots who sought religious freedom in Germany's Black Forest) were teachers, ministers, and naval officers. Among the latter, Captain Aaron Smith was "a burly seafaring man." According to London tribunals in 1823 and 1850, he was also a pirate.
Then there's the infamous uncle expelled from Santa Clara University around 1915, either for drinking or -- merciful heavens! -- entertaining an actress in his dorm. From 1951 to 1997, our family lived on Harrison Street in Santa Clara, three blocks from the scene of such ancestral ignominy.
Mom rarely spoke about her past. When she did it had the blur of myth, not biographical fact. In 1938, did she bleach her hair blonde and go to Hollywood to become the next Jean Harlow? Did she stand in audition lines and hang out at Schwabb's? Whenever I asked her, Mom laughed and changed the subject. Did she go? Don't know. But she could have.
We do know she enrolled at the College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland. And that she and Donald Smith, her favorite teacher, would paint landscapes in the Berkeley Hills or Niles Canyon. They married in 1940 and were inseparable until he died, 50 years later. But did he flunk her out of art school, as they sometimes joked? "Highly doubtful," says my younger brother Michael, "given the quality of work she did there."
Dad and Mom loved music and had amazing senses of humor. Both were artists. But while Dad liked to go someplace quiet and make something, Mom preferred large, public canvases: PTAs, church groups, women's clubs, historical societies. When Wilcox High School opened in the early '60s, she became the principal's secretary. She ran that school with lotsa rules but also became a legendary ally for students in trouble or in need.
Mom had no time for psychology. She'd rather do than discuss. People's secrets were nobody's business (she thought the current penchant for open confessions was, a favorite expression, "rum-dum"). You face problems. Swallow hard and move forward. She loved Winston Churchill's saying, "If you're going through hell, keep going."
And she suffered in silence. She had two operations for lung cancer. After the second, for almost ten years she lived a full life with just one lung. She turned Christmas and Thanksgiving into family spectaculars. And, since no one else would, she always ate the drumstick.
She was so vital on Christmas 1996, we had no clue it was her last. Before the traditional feast, my brother-in-law Ed Burke saw her clinging to a wall on the back porch and gasping for air, the right side of her face beet red. The cancer was spreading. She told him, "Please don't say anything."