by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter 11/2001
Betty Friedman first contacted me about three years ago. Betty, a senior resident of the Doolittle Home, wrote saying that she had enjoyed one of my columns. I welcomed Betty’s letter; at that time I hadn’t received much written feedback about my work.
Since then, I’d received more than a few letters from her, and the last one, in June, requested that we meet. The request came at an unusually busy time for me, so I planned to meet with her in a few weeks. But then I received a phone call from someone in town, passing along the message that Betty’s health had taken a turn, and she really wanted to see me.
Although I’ve lived in Foxboro for over ten years, that was my first visit to Doolittle Home. The place reminded me of the rest home where Nana had lived — warm, inviting, friendly, and a place where seniors lived in respect and comfort. I was very impressed.
I found Betty in Doolittle’s hospital area. She was frail, bundled in blankets and an afghan, with a little ribbon in her snow-white hair.
She extended her hand, a big smile on her face. It was like seeing someone I knew all my life. There was a connection right away.
I pulled up a chair and started talking — or rather, listening. In two hours I found that Betty was extremely well read, not just in current events but classical literature and several other subjects. Although her body was growing weak, her mind was razor sharp.
I was also amazed how comfortable I felt with her. It was like we’d been friends for years.
She jumped right into some of her adventures — not meandering thoughts of days gone by, but a rich tapestry of her worldwide travels. Betty was no typical “tourist”, staying in the safety of a bus with some tour guide. In addition to the regular tourist spots like Niagara Falls, Betty had traveled to Vienna, Switzerland, throughout Europe, and South Africa. She’d been on safaris, and traveled across America.
Each stop along the way brought anecdotes: The people she met (she still remembered their names) the food, the sights. She remembered her impressions of the people and their customs and culture.
Her life had been very rich. She was married for twelve years, and had a stepson named Bob, who remains one of her closest friends. She had grandchildren, and many friends. She had sponsored several kids across the world, and even met some of them, inviting them to spend time with her in places like Cape Cod.
She also served this country well during World War II, reaching the rank of first lieutenant, and told me that her not making captain was one of her very few regrets.
Clearly, travel was her passion. She lived very frugally back home in order to afford her journeys, and remarked that she always kept “that tiny apartment on Central Street” and often wondered what her rich traveling companions would have thought of her little apartment.
I was also impressed by how popular (or was it notorious?) that Betty was. She was no wallflower. She wasn’t shy. She saw something in the paper and got an opinion, she wrote a letter. She got on the phone. She knew our town and state officials personally. She’d written many letters to this paper. She wrote to congressmen, Senators Rockefellow, and Bob Kraft. In fact, Mr. Kraft recently visited Betty, and presented her with a check for $1000 to the charity of her choice. She knew Patriots and other locals, and had a steady stream of visitors and well wishers.
By this time, Betty and I had talked for nearly two hours. I promised I’d stop in again.
Then, September 11 happened, and everything that came with it. In early October, I received another letter from Betty. I’d just run my column about visiting Ground Zero in New York, and Betty was expressing her frustration about not being able to get in touch with me. “Are you a secret agent? Are you in the Witness Protection Program?” she demanded. “Do you write your columns and then go back underground?” She continued, “Your visit got my mind so stimulated that it had been swirling ever since, partly with articles for you to write and those I’ve written myself.”
There was no doubt: I had been summoned.
Next, my wife Sue got a call from one of our local officials, saying that when he’d visited Betty she’d asked him to pass along the message that she wanted to see me.
“Saturday!” I said. “I promise!”
The following Saturday morning, Sue woke me up early. “If we don’t get over there I think Betty will send Chief O’Leary to drag you there!”
Realizing this was possible (indeed likely, beginning to appreciate Betty’s influence in this town) Sue and I headed to Doolittle and arrived to find Betty talking to another friend, and pulled up some chairs.
I assured Betty I wasn’t in the Witness Protection Program and we laughed at that.
“I want to talk about a few things,” Betty said. I thought she might.
Betty asked about ground zero, and wondered if I felt I would be in the way. I told her I did feel I’d be in the way, and worried about it, but Sue and I felt like we had to go. I was glad we did.
Soon, the subject switched to traveling, and Betty recounted other adventures she’d had through the years. She talked about how seeing a rhino and how shameful it was that people hunted these unique creatures for their horns.
As she recounted her trips, I felt by Betty’s eyes that there wasn’t much regret — she had literally traveled the Earth, and just seemed eager to share the experiences.
She liked my wife and they chatted. “You’re the hot dog lady,” Betty remarked.
Then Betty went on that she had other things to talk about. “Maybe you’ll write a column about some of them,” she said. Betty explained that she wasn’t writing letters anymore, she would dictate them to others. And other people read the papers to her, now that her eyesight was failing.
“Friendship among women,” she began, talking about how she marveled that some women could maintain a close friendship throughout their lives. She lamented that she had never had that sort of long-lasting friendship with another woman.
Then she moved on to sex in the movies — then and now. “They show everything these days,” she said, rolling her eyes in disgust. “There’s nothing left to the imagination.” She talked about Marlon Brando in the movie “Sayonara,” and how so much passion was conveyed though eyes, holding hands, and subtlety. She continued, “In Gone with the Wind”, Clark Gable carried Vivian Leigh up the stairs and made mad love to her, but you never saw that. You saw the look on [Vivian Leigh’s] face the next morning and knew she was liking it!”
“Betty!” I exclaimed. It seemed a paradox to see this frail-looking person talking about mad passionate lovemaking, but make no mistake — though her body was weak, her mind was razor sharp. There was fire in her eyes, and a little mischief too.
For me, that’s always the hardest part of watching someone age, as the mind stays so alert as the body begins to fail. At 93, Betty wasn’t planning any more safaris, but she talked matter-of-factly about her own death. She’d planned the funeral service, shed told me, including the arrangements, readings, and had even chosen a bagpipe player. Betty said that she felt that if things were to be done right, she’d need to plan them herself.
Betty seemed to have an endless supply of things to talk about, but soon it was time to leave again. I told her I’d stop in again.
Betty died last week. Losing her is a loss for all of us — there was so much wisdom and experience in those eyes. So many stories, so many ideas in her mind.
But I don’t mourn Betty, I celebrate her. Because she was a superb example of a remarkable life, a
life well lived. I am grateful she chose to share some of it with me.
Betty, may you rest in peace in God’s tender mercy, knowing that our world is a better place because of the 93 years you lived in it, and the time we shared with you.
You were a rare gem, Betty, and you will be missed.