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The Next Jean Harlow?

Mom had no time for psychology.

The author with his mother. She and Donald Smith, her favorite teacher, would paint landscapes in the Berkeley Hills or Niles Canyon.
The author with his mother. She and Donald Smith, her favorite teacher, would paint landscapes in the Berkeley Hills or Niles Canyon.

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."

In the spring of 1997, Mom left the hospital to spend her final days at home. The stretcher that carried her from the ambulance to her door was just a bundle of blankets. When someone said a perennially nosey neighbor was spying through slit curtains, an emaciated hand rose from the bundle and gave a feisty last salute.

Later that day a beloved neighbor, who had agoraphobia and never left her home, walked across the street to say goodbye.

Mom died on May Day 1997. Her ashes joined my father's in Monterey Bay, at the one-mile buoy off Crow's Nest Harbor. When the time comes, you can scatter mine there too.

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The author with his mother. She and Donald Smith, her favorite teacher, would paint landscapes in the Berkeley Hills or Niles Canyon.
The author with his mother. She and Donald Smith, her favorite teacher, would paint landscapes in the Berkeley Hills or Niles Canyon.

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."

In the spring of 1997, Mom left the hospital to spend her final days at home. The stretcher that carried her from the ambulance to her door was just a bundle of blankets. When someone said a perennially nosey neighbor was spying through slit curtains, an emaciated hand rose from the bundle and gave a feisty last salute.

Later that day a beloved neighbor, who had agoraphobia and never left her home, walked across the street to say goodbye.

Mom died on May Day 1997. Her ashes joined my father's in Monterey Bay, at the one-mile buoy off Crow's Nest Harbor. When the time comes, you can scatter mine there too.

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